Research project

IoW - The Individualisation of War: Reconfiguring the Ethics, Law, and Politics of Armed Conflict

We analyse the status of individuals in war: 1) as subject to violence but deserving of protection; 2) as liable to harm because of their responsibility for attacks on/threats to others; and 3) as agents who can be held accountable for the perpetration of crimes committed in the course of conflict.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC)

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement n. [340956]

The rights and responsibilities of the individual are at the centre of today’s armed conflicts in ways that they have never been before. This process of ‘individualisation’, which challenges the previous primacy of the sovereign state, has two main drivers. The first are powerful normative developments related to human rights, which have spawned new kinds of wars and peacekeeping missions aimed at protecting individuals; required adaptation of the relevant legal frameworks for regulating conduct in war; and created a new class of international crimes placing specific obligations on individuals. The second are dramatic technological and strategic developments in warfare that empower individuals as military actors, and that enable either the targeting or protection of particular individuals.

The IoW research project conceptualised and analysed the status of individuals in war in three different capacities: 1) as subject to violence but deserving of protection; 2) as liable to harm because of their responsibility for attacks on or threats to others; and 3) as agents who can be held accountable for the perpetration of crimes committed in the course of conflict. Our interdisciplinary team of international lawyers, political scientists and moral philosophers examined not only the various ways individualisation is manifest in contemporary armed conflict – in theory and in practice - but also what ethical, legal and political challenges it poses for the actors and institutions most actively engaged in war: the governments and armed forces of states; international security organisations; and humanitarian agencies. Some of these challenges involve seemingly irreconcilable clashes of values – such as peace vs. justice – while others arise out of the evolution of institutional mandates – such as the recent imperative for UN peacekeeping forces to protect civilians and punish those who infringe upon human rights while at the same time retaining impartiality vis-a-vis conflict parties. We also found tensions arising between different manifestations of individualisation: for example, the dilemma facing humanitarian agencies in providing assistance to mechanisms established to bring accountability for international crimes, while at the same time ensuring continued access to individual civilians in need.

Our iterative methodology combined deep conceptual and theoretical analysis with case studies and extensive fieldwork, creative legal interpretation, and direct and frequent engagement with practitioners. This epistemological approach incorporated several workshops and events with representatives from governments, military forces, international organisations and humanitarian agencies in order to 'test' and refine early findings; to adjust our hypotheses about individualisation; and to engage in joint knowledge production and exchange. As a result of our mixed methods, we created a spectrum of ways in which the tensions associated with individualisation could be and are being resolved. At one end is reconceptualisation, which entails a principled attempt to overcome a tension between two values, as illustrated by the efforts of ‘Revisionist Just War Theory’ to build an ethics of war on the foundation of human rights. At the other end of the spectrum are more ad hoc strategies that respond with a particular, context-specific solution to tensions emanating from individualisation, such as the sequenced ‘peace first, justice later’ approach to conflict resolution. In between these two extremes sit forms of what we call reconciliation - common in strategies of legal interpretation where two bodies of law claim jurisdiction - and institutional adaptation, whereby actors such as the United Nations try to mitigate the challenges arising from individualisation through new doctrine or operational guidance.

While the IoW project conceived individualisation as a powerful challenge to collective entities and values that have been central to the study and practice of armed conflict, researchers did not assume a linear process. Our critical stance required analysis of the central ways that individualisation is being contested, whether directly through opposition to normative developments such as the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’, or indirectly through critiques of particular institutions such as the International Criminal Court. In addition, the IoW project explained why and how individualisation is being instrumentalised by states and other actors to enhance their own authority or prerogatives. In the realm of counter-terrorism policy, for example, state authorities are leveraging some of the permissive effects of erosions to traditional categories like ‘non-combatant’ to extend enmity to individuals only loosely affiliated to terrorist organisations and located outside areas of active hostilities.

More generally, the IoW team encountered a series of trends during the lifecycle of the project that are both undermining some of the human rights norms that helped to fuel individualisation, and threatening to reverse key advances reached over past decades in both protection and accountability. Warring parties, in the name of security and military necessity, frequently and openly contest even long-standing obligations enshrined in international humanitarian law. These developments are part of broader systemic shifts towards a resurgent sovereignty and a renewed emphasis on collective rather than individual values. As a consequence, the trajectory of individualisation remains uncertain.

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