Book review: The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict, by Yoram Dinstein

Mathieu Deflem

Published in Law & Politics Book Review 16(3):195-197, 2006.

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2006. Book review of The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict, by Yoram Dinstein. Law & Politics Book Review 16(3):195-197.

This book by Yoran Dinstein is a companion volume to the author’s textbook, WAR, AGGRESSION AND SELF-DEFENCE (2005), which is now in its fourth edition. The latter book provides a guide on legal issues related to warfare from an historical and contemporary perspective, reviewing the conditions of international law under which warfare between states can be legal, which exceptions might apply, and how the notions of self-defense and collective security can be invoked to justify war. The present volume deals with the laws that govern various aspects of international armed conflict, as a branch of international law. As with all international law, the laws of armed conflict are based on treaties and customary international law. These laws are designed to regulate armed conflicts between states in an attempt to reconcile the need for humanitarian considerations, on the one hand, and military necessities, on the other.

With this scope in mind, Dinstein’s book reviews a number of important aspects of war from the viewpoint of international law. The reader ought to be aware of what this book seeks to do and what it cannot do. There is no discussion of a social-scientific nature, nor are there normative arguments for or against any aspect of war. Dinstein’s goals are strictly to present the international legal framework regulating international armed conflict. The book, in this sense, has a primarily technical quality.

The themes that Dinstein discusses are of great importance to the legality of warfare, especially in the light of the 20th-century history of world warfare and the post-9/11 global turbulence surrounding the war-like fight against international terrorism and the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a first substantive chapter, Dinstein considers the difference between lawful and unlawful combatants and, relatedly, entitlements to prisoner of war status. These matters are of obvious contemporary relevance given the difficulties surrounding the status of combatants in Afghanistan and Iraq, members of terrorist groups, and related forms of armed struggle, such as in the Palestinian-Israeli case. Dinstein next discusses the weapons that are legally prohibited in war, such as those that cannot differentiate between civilian and military targets. Other prohibitions pertain to weapons that involve unnecessary suffering and restrictions on the use of certain arms, such as biological weapons and weapons of mass destruction.

Also discussed is the legal status of the identification of military objectives, and regulations aimed to protect civilians and civilian objects from military attack. The now rather infamous notion of ‘collateral damage’ fits into this discussion. Other civilian objects enjoy special status from the viewpoint of international law, such as cultural properties, places of worship, and medical facilities. Environmental concerns are also part of the laws on international armed conflict, the relevance of which was shown, for instance, when oil wells were set on fire during the Gulf War. The final sections of Dinstein’s book deal with important matters of war crimes, command responsibilities, and defense strategies.

Though the aims of Dinstein’s book are largely technical within the legal context of warfare, the legal codex that that he presents is far from trivial, not only in the light of the inherent tragedy of war, but specifically in the contemporary context of the proliferation of the means, strategies and discussions on various aspects of war, such as the distinction between lawful and unlawful combatants, the use of civilians as human shields, the often invoked notion of collateral damage, and the likewise ubiquitous “weapons of mass destruction.”

This book is designed by the author primarily for international lawyers and military officers. It will also be useful, more broadly, for teachers and students specialized in war and its legality, especially in conjunction with WAR, AGGRESSION AND SELF-DEFENCE or a similar book. In the teaching of a social-scientific analysis of law and legal phenomena, however, this book will be of limited value as no analyses are provided besides a broad legal overview. Knowledge of such regulations, of course, is necessary to the social-science scholar on war, but it would be far from sufficient to rely on this book to analyze the relevant societal contexts of war and international law.

On a final note I wish to point out that the technical nature of this book may make it appear as somewhat legalistic and, consequently, amoral, yet that would not do justice to Dinstein’s ambitions and the scope of his intellectual activities. Presently Professor Emeritus of International Law at Tel Aviv University, Dinstein formerly held the position of Professor of Human Rights at Tel Aviv and also occupied professorships in international law at New York University, the University of Toronto, the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, and the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. THE CONDUCT OF HOSTILITIES UNDER THE LAW OF INTERNATIONAL ARMED CONFLICT was in fact conceived by the author during two semesters of teaching at the Naval War College in 1999 and 2002. Very well established in the field of international law, Dinstein remarkably crosses the worlds of academic law, human rights policy, and military training. Traversing into the world of politics, moreover, Dinstein began his career in Israel’s Foreign Service and also served as Consul of Israel in New York. The founding editor of the ISRAEL YEARBOOK ON HUMAN RIGHTS, Dinstein also chaired the Israeli branch of Amnesty International. In the light of such a varied and multi-dimensional career, it becomes more understandable that a technical book on the legalities of international warfare can be useful, not in order to replace, but instead to supplement analyses of war from the viewpoint of social science and our moral commitments to the human condition.