Individualisation and Contemporary War

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It is often said that generals and state leaders too often fight the last war. Military strategies designed for one context applied to the next one, without enough reflection on, or adjustment to, new realities. So when George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” in the spring of 2003, after the U.S.-led coalition quickly overran Iraq’s armed forces, he was overlooking the fact that the real war had only just begun. We are still living with the tragic consequences.

Arguably, this tendency to fight the last war extends to some commentators and scholars as well. Our research project, recently launched on this website, seeks to draw greater academic and policy attention to the ways in which contemporary armed conflict has been radically transformed, challenging traditional paradigms organized around nation-states and placing the rights and responsibilities of the individual at the centre.

There are a variety of drivers behind the process we call “individualisation”, but two stand out as particularly relevant. The first are the powerful normative developments related to the promotion and protection of human rights, which have spawned new kinds of wars and peacekeeping missions designed to protect civilians. These normative changes have also helped to create a new class of international (as opposed to transnational) crimes – genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes – which, when committed, legitimize international interference in a key prerogative of sovereignty: the right to decide whether and when a state criminally punishes one of its own citizens.

The second are the dramatic technological and strategic developments that have both empowered individuals as military actors, and enabled the targeting of particular individuals. This technology has also made the protection of individuals a more precise “science” – at least theoretically. Military strategies can be designed to inoculate certain populations from harm, as they arguably did in the early phase of the 2011 NATO-led campaign in Libya.

While our project will touch on these drivers of individualisation, it is more focused on the effects. More specifically, we believe the individualisation of war forces us to confront the status of individuals in three different capacities, which serve as the organising streams of our research: 1) as subject to violence but deserving of protection; 2) as liable to attack because of their status as combatants or their responsibility for attacks on others; and 3) as agents who can be held accountable for the perpetration of crimes committed in the course of conflict. We begin from the assumption that while the human rights norms underpinning individualisation are normatively desirable in themselves and enjoy relatively broad support, efforts to operationalise protection, liability, and accountability are placing enormous strain on the actors and institutions most actively engaged in contemporary armed conflict: the governments and armed forces of states; international and regional security organisations; and humanitarian agencies.

We can see this tension through a number of concrete dilemmas that are confounding today’s policy makers. First, in the realm of protection, the UN Security Council is caught between its state-centric constitution which has traditionally demanded the even-handed treatment of parties to a conflict, and its increasing recognition of its responsibility to protect individuals. This can be illustrated through the UN’s involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where peacekeepers have faced strategic and operational dilemmas over how to fulfil their civilian protection mandate (which requires addressing atrocity crimes perpetrated by either state or non-state actors) while at the same time avoiding criticism that would alienate the host government, whose consent is critical to their continued presence. It can also be seen in the acknowledgement of humanitarian actors of the continued need to respect the principle of host-state consent when delivering assistance in wartime, but their simultaneous desire to challenge the arbitrary denial of that consent – particularly when it imperils populations (as it has in situations such as the ongoing conflict in Syria).

With respect to our second stream, liability, we see how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or “drones”) seemingly offer state leaders a golden opportunity to target lethal force more precisely against a specific individual who poses a grave threat (thereby minimizing the loss of their own military personnel), but also have the potential to weaken traditional notions of the use of force as a “last resort” and of non-combatant immunity. On the other hand, we also see how attempts to apply the tenets of individual liability, and the broader human rights framework that underpins it, has led some to question whether war can continue to be regulated by its own distinct form of morality and law. Recent legal challenges by individuals against military establishments (for example, the Al-Jedda case in the UK) have shown tat the law of armed conflict is no longer purely a body of reciprocal legal rules agreed to by sovereign states to limit their conduct during war in order to minimize suffering. Instead, those who become embroiled in armed conflict are still seen to possess their core human rights, regardless of what the warring parties believe they need to do out of “military necessity”.

Finally, in the case of accountability, diplomatic actors face a dilemma between pursuing criminal action against individual perpetrators, which can close off options for negotiation that might bring a more rapid end to conflict and civilian suffering, or privileging conflict resolution strategies that offer amnesty and thus deny justice to some victims of international crimes. New legal practices associated with accountability have also created dilemmas for humanitarian agencies, who are often in closer proximity to the commission of crimes of war than other institutions and thus in a position to provide evidence in criminal proceedings, but who also need to negotiate access with local parties in order to continue to protect civilians on the ground.

So how do we privilege the moral and legal claims of individuals, even in the most difficult context of armed conflict, while continuing to respect national sovereignty? This is one of the key questions animating our research. It will also serve as the backdrop for many of the blog-posts you will read on protection, liability and accountability on this website in the months to come. Our overriding goal is to develop both theoretical and practical solutions to the dilemmas of individualisation for key actors and institutions engaged in armed conflict. We invite you to comment and contribute, to help us all understand what trajectory the individualisation of war might take in the decades to come, and how policy-makers might shape its direction.