Photo courtesy of Etsy. The perfect lawfare key chain!

Over at the Lawfare blog, Jack Goldsmith recently offered up a “mea culpa” on his changing views of the concept and practice of lawfare. I don’t want to address the specifics of that post, but this and the Libya situation got me thinking again that a non-pejorative conceptualization of lawfare needs to be put forward. Particularly in the context of the International Criminal Court. Stay tuned. But for now…

Charles Dunlap defends that his original conception of lawfare was meant to be a neutral one. But it has since been co-opted by various scholars and political actors as a pejorative accusation – meant to delegitimize those who abuse law for strategic purposes. There’s an important distinction to be made though between the understanding of lawfare as a strategic weapon of war versus a coercive alternative to war. Specifically, there is a normative gap between the pejorative conceptualization of lawfare in the realm of U.S. national security and as a “weapon of the weak” to constrain U.S. military power, and the multilateral realm of international criminal law where the lawfare of the ICC and other tribunals is viewed as a a benchmark of moral progress.

Certainly, this latter form of lawfare is both coercive and strategic, whether it’s arresting war criminals or threatening judicial intervention if human rights abuses are not curbed. Therefore, this use of lawfare is meant to prevent and end conflict, not provoke it, entrench it or restrain legitimate uses of military force. The combined use of judicial and military intervention, in the Former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Libya, and Cote d’Ivoire, etc., underscores this trend.

Among the few that have addressed this understanding of lawfare are those that participated on the international tribunals panel at a conference on lawfare at Case Western University School of Law a year ago. (I posted a brief summary of this conference here.) Discussion of the ICC was scant and the selected quotes below, from the subsequent special journal issue, demonstrate there’s little consensus on lawfare in this realm so far.

Justice Ogoola on the peace vs. justice nexus in Uganda:

“In many senses, lawfare is the opposite, indeed the very antithesis of warfare. Warfare is the ancient, primitive, and largely discredited mode of dispute resolution between nations and among peoples. Lawfare, on the other hand, has all the civilized undertones of letting the law fare well in the struggle to achieve peaceful resolution of disputes. If has the ring of due process, of the doctrine of the rule of law, and rule of reason – of the principles of fairness, equity, and justice in bringing a peaceful end to a  violent conflict.”

Robert Petit on political interference by the Cambodian government in the ECCC:

“If, however, we intend lawfare to equate to what is more traditionally viewed as political interference in the application of justice, then yes, lawfare is practiced in International Criminal Law.”

David Crane on the “take down” of elite perpetrators and Charles Taylor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

“The law is a powerful tool. Some say it can be used as a weapon. That power was used to bring down the most disruptive and evil warlord in Africa and his co-defendants not just by the stroke of a pen on March 3, 2003, but in the execution of two operations, Operation Justice and its follow-on Operation Rope.”
“The term – lawfare – has been viewed somewhat negatively and at best as a clever turn of a phrase. Used in the appropriate context it can be a force for good and positive change.”

David Scheffer on accusations against the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court:

“I plead guilty to being a major perpetrator of lawfare, on behalf of the U.S. Government, during the 1990s. My mission…was to use the power of the United States to build international and hybrid criminal tribunals that would subject the leaders of other nations and rebel movements engaged in warfare, including internal armed conflicts, to international criminal justice. I used the law aggressively and continuously and sometimes such actions served as at least a partial rationale for avoiding the use of American armed might or more political negotiations.”

“The commentariat believe that the ICC may be used by weak nations or by a rogue prosecutor to isolate and shame the United States. They fear that lawfare will prevent Washington from using its military power for just cause through the threat of investigation and prosecution of its often controversial policies and actions.”

There’s clearly room to interpret the ICC’s, or any international tribunals’, intervention in escalating conflict as a legitimate form of lawfare. Understandably, advocates of international justice will not want to associate such institutions with coercion, violence, and political strategy. But saving the concept as an alternative, not means, to war opens the door to a better understanding of the ICC’s potential role in conflict resolution.

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