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  3. International Law and the Use of Force

International Law and the Use of Force (LAWS70078)

Graduate coursework level 7Points: 12.5On Campus (Parkville)

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Year of offer2019
Subject levelGraduate coursework Level 7
Subject codeLAWS70078
Availability(Quotas apply)
FeesSubject EFTSL, Level, Discipline & Census Date

The question of the use of force is one of the most controversial both in international law and international relations. Different states, civil society and international lawyers have held over time (wildly) diverse opinions about the legality and the legitimacy of events such as the bombing of Syria by the US/UK/France in early 2018, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the exercise of the international community’s ‘responsibility to protect’ in Libya in 2011 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as debates over the possibility of a ‘pre-emptive strike’ against North Korea or Iran. This subject provides a doctrinal, theoretical, and historical account of the relationship between international law and war that is centered on a wide range of case studies. On the one hand, we will focus on major contemporary debates about the regime established since 1945 and the promulgation of the UN Charter. Namely, we will examine the specific arguments states and international organisations (such as the UN, NATO or the African Union) have used in order to justify their resort to violence and the way other states, international organisations, courts or other groups (especially those at the receiving end of this violence) have responded to these arguments. For example, this module is structured around questions such as the legality of ‘humanitarian intervention’, the possibility of lawfully launching ‘preemptive strikes’ against a perceived threat, the question of whether a state can invoke its right to self-defence against non-state actors, the use of nuclear weapons, targeted killing and the authority of the UN Security Council to authorise violence. On the other hand, this subject invites students to think contextually, historically and critically about these legal debates. We will discuss both earlier legal regimes pertaining to war (for example, that of the League of Nations) as well as arguments about the radical transformation of the relevant law since 9/11. We will also ask broader questions about the ways in which legitimate violence is allocated between different actors by international law and how this allocation shapes international and domestic politics.

Principal topics will include:

  • The contemporary legal regime pertaining to the use of force;
  • The co-existence of the relevant provisions in the UN Charter with principoesl of customary international law, domestic law, other systems of legality;
  • Historical approaches to the legal regulation of the use of force;
  • The meaning of the term ‘force’ in international law, and its relationship with ‘intervention’, ‘armed attack’ or economic, political and other forms of coercion;
  • The UN Charter framework for collective security and the changing role of the UN Security Council;
  • The scope of the right of self-defence, including anticipatory and collective self-defence;
  • A range of case studies covering a wide range of historical, contemporary and regional contexts.

Intended learning outcomes

A student who has successfully completed this subject should:

  • Be conversant with the scope of the various exceptions to the legal prohibition on the resort to military force;
  • Be able to critically evaluate justifications for resort to military force and understand arguments for and against the legal validity of such claims;
  • Be familiar with the approach of the United Nations Charter framework for the international legal regulation of resort to force and understand the relationship between this principal treaty regime and customary international law;
  • Understand the historical evolution of relationship between international law and war and the different visions of the state, the economy and the international order that are linked to these historical changes.

Last updated: 20 July 2019