Mélange du Mercredi/ the Law of Armed Conflict: An Operational Approach

Welcome to Mélange du Mercredi (Wednesday Mix). Each week, we highlight one of the latest and greatest in reading, film and other scholarly resources, focusing on a variety of issues pertaining to international humanitarian law. As always, if you have suggestions, or would like to submit a post on something you feel our readers will also enjoy, we're happy to include them. Just email Editor Niki Clark


The Law of Armed Conflict: An Operational Approach by Geoffrey S. Corn, Victor Hansen, M. Christopher Jenks, Richard Jackson, Eric Talbot Jensen, and James A. Schoettler

Reviewed by ICRC Legal Advisor Jamie A. Williamson and originally published in the International Review of the Red Cross

Any author who decides to embark on writing a textbook will be confronted by many considerations in terms of materials as well as demands from students and academics. The materials presented must be coherent, relevant and sound. Professors will scrutinize these as they look for ‘the’ book that will help them successfully teach and structure a course. A textbook must obviously also be of interest to students, digestible and ideally stimulating, even if the subject matter cannot always be so. Indeed, a bored student is one of the least wanted audiences for professors. Beyond the lecture halls and seminar rooms, textbooks can also serve as useful references for other academics and practitioners in the field. Their needs will be more pointed, and, even if they are not seen as the prime audience for the book, their endorsement can do no harm.

The recently published textbook, entitled ‘The Law of Armed Conflict: An Operational Approach’, succeeds in meeting most, if not all, of these goals. It is a timely addition to the teaching of the law of armed conflict (LOAC), also known as international humanitarian law (IHL). Written from an ‘operational’ perspective and very much influenced by United States practice and policy, it provides important insight into the thinking of military lawyers in applying the laws of war. The textbook is well written, substantive and thought-provoking; and takes a practical approach by submersing students in the world of operational lawyers.

Until the mid-1990’s, the laws of war were given relatively scant attention by universities and law schools, in particular in the United States. Those most familiar with the laws of war, compared to today, were few, and traditionally limited to members either of the armed forces or of international humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Experts from these groups could speak eloquently and at length on such fundamental principles as distinction, proportionality and precaution, balancing military necessity with humanitarian considerations and debating such concepts as unnecessary suffering.

However, with the experiences in Somalia, Rwanda, Darfur and the former Yugoslavia, recurring hostilities in Gaza and Israel, the advent of international criminal tribunals, 9/11, the subsequent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and detention in Guantanamo, all amplified by 24/7 media coverage, this body of law has become of interest to a growing number of policy makers, judges, lawyers, students and academics. Indeed, debates about the applicability of Common Article 3 to detainees made front-page news, the Geneva Conventions appeared in Vanity Fair Magazine, drones stretched the battlefield for everyone to see, and cyber warfare left the confines of Silicon Valley to become actuality. These days, everyone can have an opinion on the laws of war, their relevance and meaning in modern-day armed conflicts. In many ways, as a consequence of the shifting of the debate from the battlefield to the mainstream, the laws of war have now become a subject of particular interest in Universities and many Law Schools.

Thus, the first challenge with any new textbook on the laws of war is to bring to the fore all of these issues whilst not omitting the fundamentals. This book does not fail in this regard. 

Download the full review here