Year in Review – 2022
2022 has been an unprecedented year for the law of armed conflict (LOAC) and for Articles of War. The full-scale international armed conflict that Russia has been waging against Ukraine since 24 February has spawned multiple LOAC issues. Meanwhile, Russia’s flagrant and continuing LOAC violations pose challenging questions regarding enforcement and accountability. This is clearly a pivotal moment for international peace and security that tests the boundaries, understanding, and the role of law in armed conflict.
Symposium on the Ukraine-Russia Armed Conflict
Articles of War covered the international armed conflict through our Ukraine-Russia Symposium. Over the course of 2022, the Symposium brought together dozens of scholars from all over the world to reflect, in 115 posts, on events as they unfolded. Our experts considered issues ranging from the classification of the “special military operation” and the conflict(s) on the ground, to the forcible transfer of children, crimes against civilians, as well as targeting issues (including dams, ships, bridges and oil tankers). Notably, the Symposium also included posts from Ukrainian colleagues, who provided an overview of war crimes committed against children.
This conflict has revealed not only the ugly side of power and inhumanity, but also how such events challenge prevailing understandings of LOAC. Attacks on critical nuclear infrastructure that raise the danger of radioactive fallout, threats of using nuclear weapons, and accusations of developing biological warfare and dirty bombs have escalated not only the rhetoric of the war, but also the legal stakes. While attacks on power infrastructure, for example, do not always violate LOAC, the scope and scale of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s power infrastructure change the analysis, leading to the conclusion that the attacks are not only indiscriminate but also cause harm to objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.
Many LOAC rules aim to protect those who are the most vulnerable – civilians. In the current conflict, as with so many others, civilians have often suffered the worst effects of the hostilities. Civilians have been used as human shields and subjected to widespread deportation to Russia, including children. Questions also arise whether Russia is committing genocide in Ukraine. Additionally, the self-declared republics and occupied territories mock the rule of law, as witnessed by reports of forced civilian labor and forced conscription in these areas.
Civilians have not only suffered as victims of the conflict but also played an active part in the hostilities. Russian aggression in Ukraine has inspired and empowered civilian resistance. In the early stages of the hostilities, civilians made and used improvised weapons such as Molotov cocktails. More recently, they have used their cellphones to inform Ukrainian forces about Russian drones and missiles through the ePPO app. The use of this and other apps could mean that the civilians involved temporarily forfeit essential protections from attack that LOAC provides.
In addition to civilians, foreign fighters and other actors, sometimes described as mercenaries, have played a prominent role in the conflict. This reality raises concerns regarding the prosecution of foreign fighters and their entitlement to combatant status. It also raises questions regarding potential State responsibility for such actors’ conduct when they act in a manner that violates LOAC.
A further unprecedented aspect of the conflict is the extensive foreign assistance in terms of weapons, military aid,and other humanitarian necessities that States have provided to Ukraine. This implicates the law of neutrality, and how it should be understood in modern times (see here, here and here). Allied nations’ assistance to Ukraine has interestingly also provoked new strategies for the innovation race, such as offering a cash reward for the capture of cutting-edge enemy technology from the field.
It is clear that the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict will change our understanding of LOAC in multiple respects. Calls for accountability regarding the many LOAC violations and war crimes committed in Ukraine have been constant (see here, here, and here). These involve not only Russia but also other States that are supporting Moscow’s continued aggression, such as Iran. Claims relating to the conflict have already been brought before the ICJ and the European Court of Human Rights and more may follow before the conflict concludes.
If the beginning of an international armed conflict may be triggered by a single event, its end often depends on the fulfilment of a range of factors. That will likely be the case in Ukraine, as experiences in Syria indicate that a simple ceasefire agreement will not bring a lasting peace. Negotiating an end to the fighting may continue to prove an uphill battle but this, as well as the issue of reparations, may receive a greater degree of attention in 2023.
Future of the Battlefield
Although Articles of War focused heavily on the Ukraine conflict in 2022, we complemented that coverage with a balanced look at other conflict areas as well as a more general review of novel LOAC questions.
From a conflict perspective, Articles of War authors covered issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, detained foreign fighters in northeast Syria, Türkiye’s threats against Greece, the U.S. al-Zawahiri strike, as well as different aspects of the conflict in Afghanistan (such as U.K. war crimes, Dutch LOAC compliance, and the law of occupation).
Technology and the future of armed conflict was a recurring theme in 2022. Articles of War authors discussed a potential “digital emblem” for protected entities as a response to the digitalization of warfare, as well as the issue of LOAC compliance when targeting commercial satellites (Starlink, ICEYE). As the use of advanced technologies (such as drones, cyber capabilities, AI, AWS, augmented reality) will alter the battlefield, our authors also delved into questions whether LOAC ought to be coded into the technology.
Articles of War additionally hosted several symposia focusing on technology and international law. The Cyber Symposium evaluated the evolving face of cyber conflict and the jus ad bellum. The Responsible AI Symposium, organized with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, explored the nexus between international law and the responsible development, deployment, and use of AI for defense and military purposes. It considered questions of holistic decision-making on the battlefield, biases, responsibility, as well as emergent behavior.
More generally, Articles of War authors provided multiple novel takes on a range of LOAC issues. These include a plea to animalize LOAC, an overview of weaponizing sexual violence in war, and a queer eye on LOAC. These posts highlighted emerging perspectives on the law, which are likely to gain increased prominence in the years to come.
The ending of one year and the approach of the next allows the opportunity for reflections on the past as well as the future. Through its attempts to change Ukraine’s post-Soviet borders by force, Russia is continuing to challenge not only the territorial integrity of Ukraine but also the wider international legal system. As the war in Ukraine carries over into 2023 and moves toward its one-year mark, Articles of War will continue to offer reflections on the international legal aspects of the conflict in its Ukraine-Russia Symposium. At the same time, the new year will likely bring new LOAC challenges in many different settings. Articles of War will cover these through our timely analysis, debate, and commentary. The specific challenges that the international community and LOAC are likely to face in the year to come will be reflected by our Board of Advisors and Senior Fellows in their new year’s predictions, which we will publish early in January 2023.
Liisi Adamson is a Law Researcher at the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence and Project Manager of the Tallinn Manual 3.0 process. She is also Senior Editor of Articles of War.
Photo credit: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Foster