Mélange du Mercredi/International Law and the Classification of Conflicts

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International Law and the Classification of Conflicts, edited by Elizabeth Wilmshurst

This review was written by Dr. Roberta Arnold, Fellow, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, and Professor of International Law, University College London and was originally published in the International Review of the Red Cross: Business Violence and Conflict


Edited by Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who has also authored the introductory and final chapters, this book deals with one of the most complex contemporary issues of the laws of war: the classification of (armed) conflicts. Depending on the outcome, different legal regimes may apply: the situation may be subject to international humanitarian law (IHL) as opposed to international human rights law and domestic law. The book does not discuss the problems related to the lowest threshold of application of IHL, which excludes situations of international disturbances and sporadic acts of violence. 

The book is divided into three parts and fifteen chapters. Part I introduces the subject: in chapter 1 (‘Introduction’), the editor explains the aims and objectives of the publication. She highlights the fact that each of the authors was asked to adopt the same format – that is, to outline the views of the various actors in the armed violence and of outside parties as to the classification of the situation, and then to undertake his or her own analysis of the classification. In chapter 2 (‘The nature of war and the character of contemporary armed conflict’), Steven Haines illustrates the evolution undergone by armed conflicts, while in chapter 3 (‘Classification of armed conflicts: relevant legal concepts), Dapo Akande discusses the legal concepts that are relevant for classification. Part II, which is divided into ten chapters, is dedicated to different case studies: Northern Ireland (chapter 5, by Steven Haines); the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (chapter 6, by Louise Arimatsu); Colombia and Ecuador (chapter 7, by Felicity Szenat and Annie Bird); Afghanistan from 2001 onwards (chapter 8, by Francoise Hampson); Gaza (chapter 9, by Iain Scobbie); South Ossetia (chapter 10, by Philip Leach); Iraq from 2003 onwards (chapter 11, by Mike Schmitt); Southern Lebanon from 2006 (chapter 12, by Iain Scobbie); and ‘The war (?) against Al-Qaeda’ (chapter 13, by Noam Lubell). In chapter 14, Mike Schmitt addresses the challenges raised by classification in future conflicts. In Part III, the editor sets out the volume’s conclusions.

In the nine case studies, the contributors consider modern methods of warfare (including cyber warfare) and give the historical background and context of armed violence over different periods of time. They examine how contemporary forms of armed violence are classified in practice and assess the consequences of such classification. The main outcome of their analysis is that, notwithstanding the tendency to expand IHL rules applicable to international armed conflicts (IACs) to non-international ones (NIACs), the distinction between the two still remains relevant (and troublesome).

Download the full review here