What are the Limits on Lawfare?

(Published on Opinio Juris, May 5, 2019)

Questions regarding the meaning, importance, and operation of “lawfare” were recently discussed at a great conference on Legal Resilience in an Era of Hybrid Threatsat the University of Exeter. Several speakers explained how lawfare is being used by adversaries of Western states, and urgently argued that “we” must ourselves engage in lawfare as part of a comprehensive response to such hybrid threats. Yet I was left thinking that not nearly enough attention is being paid to the importance of developing principled limits on the conduct of lawfare, and that it is dangerous to urge the practice of lawfare in the absence of such limits.

The Meaning and Scope of Lawfare

It was interesting to note that there is not even a clear consensus on the meaning of the term “lawfare.” Generally speaking, it is understood to mean the use of law, or exploitation of aspects of a legal system, to achieve tactical or strategic advantages in the context of conflict. As the sub-title of Orde Kittrie’s book on the subjectsuggests, lawfare is the use of “law as a weapon of war.”

Kittrie, speaking at the conference, cited human shields as a prime example. On the one hand, adversaries such as ISIS use human shields to deter attacks by exploiting Western compliance with principles IHL, and to reap public relations benefits in the event civilians are killed. On the other hand, in response there have been recent efforts by Western states to pass domestic legislation and pass resolutions within UN institutions to facilitate the prosecution of those who use human shields. Both of these are characterized as lawfare—the use of law as a means to further strategic ends in armed conflict. While the enemy’s use of it is nefarious, ours is benign. This all sounds well and good, but as I will return to below, that distinction can be blurred.

Read more…