The War on Terrorism and International Humanitarian Law

Steven R. Ratner, University of Michigan School of Law


My focus today is on the broad question of the so-called "war on terrorism" and how it fits within the framework of the rules of international humanitarian law. Are these laws applicable? There have been a variety of claims since September 11th that humanitarian law needs some kind of revision. Some making this claim assert that the current legal regime is too generous to terrorists, while others insist that it is too generous to governments. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has even convened various groups of experts to discuss this issue and the assumption among many has been that the law is inadequate.

My thesis today, however, is that international humanitarian law as currently developed does provide an adequate framework and that major revisions for it are premised on a variety of misconceptions about that law. I want to suggest four misconceptions about international humanitarian law and why understanding those will, I hope, convince you that the overall framework does not require major revision.