Law in War: Targeting, Legal Reasoning and the Use of Force in Armed Conflict

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Law


The objective of the PhD thesis is to examine the changing character of law in war, focussing specifically on the role that legal considerations play in decisions surrounding targeting and the use of force in situations of armed conflict. Exactly how legal considerations should shape decisions in armed conflict is a matter of fierce debate. At the same time, however, the role that the law actually does play in situations of war remains under-explored. With a focus on 'legal ethnomethods' in armed conflict, i.e. the practical forms of legal reasoning that military operatives collaboratively engage in as part of the decisions about when and how to employ the use of force, the thesis will seek to address that gap empirically, casting light on the role of the law on the battlefield. More specifically it will approach these issues by examining the cases where those who force was used against were wrongly viewed and categorised as 'legal' targets based on public domain audio, video and transcript data. It will focus on one case in particular, a drone-led airstrike against Afghan civilians who had been mistaken for enemy combatants. The analysis of the incident transcript will provide an empirical anchor for a wider examination of the work of the 'military viewer', i.e. the military personnel actively engaged in identifying 'threats', and the part legal reasoning plays in their targeting decisions. Contemporary targeting practices do result in unintended, unnecessary and unacceptable harms and the results of the thesis will examine exactly how legal reasoning is implicated in that.


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Holder A (2018) Targeting Legality: The Armed Drone as a Socio-technical and Socio-Legal System in Journal of the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000665/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
1949392 Studentship ES/P000665/1 25/09/2017 30/09/2021 Alexander Holder
Description This project is in the process of seeking to demonstrate that the 'legality' of military activities is ill-conceived as being the product of retrospective assessments of the legal status of any given military operation. Instead, this project is seeking to demonstrate that legality is the product of the situated activities of those individuals who are actually involved in military operations. It is my hope that this distinction between legality as 'internal achievement' rather than 'external assessment' will have ramifications upon the status of state's claims to 'compliance' with international law during the negotiations that take place in international institutions like the UN.
Exploitation Route My project is funded as a CASE studentship in collaboration with Article-36, a specialist non-profit organisation that focuses on reducing the harm caused by certain weapons through advocacy at both an international and domestic level. Their work is oriented towards the development of new policies and legal standards to prevent civilian harm caused by existing and emerging weapons, and we believe that the work produced in this collaboration may play a role in the ways in which Article 36 can challenge the rhetoric of compliance with international law that is often used by states to stifle the development of regulatory frameworks.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Security and Diplomacy