Asymmetrical Warfare and International Law in the 21st Century

With the rise of non-state actors on the battlefield, conventional militaries are struggling to engage with new asymmetric threats. The current laws of warfare, based on traditional international law, are difficult to apply to non-state actors. As states wrestle with these challenges, the relevance and effectiveness of traditional international law are called into question. The international community should review the rules of warfare to adequately address the complex issues that arise from asymmetrical warfare, some of which include:

  • Is current international law adequate to address the complex issues and threats of today’s asymmetrical warfare?
  • How can new laws be formulated to achieve a balance between law and strategic objectives?
  • How can states and non-state actors be compelled to adhere to international laws of warfare?
  • What would be the markers of success to ensure the effectiveness of international law?

To successfully engage in today’s non-state actors, comprehensive international laws must be clearly established and implemented. These rules must strike a balance between guarding individual human rights and achieving states’ strategic objectives. However, putting this balance into practice has proven to be a challenge, particularly in military field operations where the true effectiveness of international laws is often tested. Asymmetric warfare will have important political, legal, diplomatic, and military implications and will continue to demand a significant shift in the expectations, assumptions, and behaviors of all international actors.

In October 2010, the International Human Rights Law Institute of DePaul University co-sponsored a conference with the National Strategy Forum titled, “From the War Room to the Court Room: Asymmetrical Warfare and International Law in the 21st Century.” This recent conference provided a comprehensive overview of the current status of laws and modern warfare; its legal, military, political, and diplomatic implications; and the rather awkward relationship between sovereign states and non-state actors. The conference report describes the challenges of modern warfare and provides a clearer understanding of the factors involved. At the end of the report is a list of recommendations on restructuring current military, political, and international legal systems to make international law more effective in the modern world of asymmetric warfare.

The conference report, From the War Room to the Court Room: Asymmetrical Warfare and International Law in the 21st Century, is available for download at the link here.

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