Laws of War: Bending the Rules

The American resort to the warpath since September 11 2001 has made the laws governing warfare a subject of intense scrutiny and debate. Will the ‘war’ against terror and the doctrine of preemption change those rules – and to whose advantage?

The World Today Updated 21 October 2020 Published 1 May 2003 4 minute READ

Dinah Pokempner

General counsel, Human Rights Watch

The laws on the conduct of war, a topic usually confined to arcane military journals, have marched into the public spotlight.

This prominence is because of US military intervention in response to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. In the early days of the Iraq war, Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental monitor of adherence to these laws, was swamped with hundreds of press calls; many focused on allied compliance. This was all the more remarkable given Iraq’s well-known record of deploying chemical weapons, torturing prisoners of war, and ruthlessly slaughtering civilians.

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