Human Rights and War through Civilian Eyes

Human Rights and War through Civilian Eyes

Thomas W. Smith

University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016, 272 pages

Book Review published on: August 11, 2017

Given the daily news reports and images of human suffering in ongoing conflicts throughout the world, Thomas Smith’s Human Rights and War through Civilian Eyes is both timely and useful. Directly targeting civilians in war is prohibited and is one of the most accepted “norms” in international relations; however, in spite of these protections, civilian devastation remains a constant in today’s conflict environments. Although the laws and customs of war have changed over the centuries, the nature and character of modern warfare are no longer the sole purview of states. The contemporary set of circumstances demands that more attention be paid to the protection of individuals (civilians) caught in the path of conflict that goes beyond existing international humanitarian law (IHL). Smith, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Southern Florida, combines the skills of an historian and a political scientist to clearly examine war from the perspective of its collateral victims—civilians who are terrorized, killed, and fight every day for survival during and after war.

Smith challenges the prevailing approach where international humanitarian law is the law of war and human rights is the law for peace based on the changing character of today’s conflicts in which the blurring of human rights violations and war-related atrocities and breaches have made this separation problematic. He posits that the existing limitations of international humanitarian law are too narrow and must incorporate human rights perspectives: “Human rights lend a bracing realism to our grasp of war. While humanitarian law provides a list of principles to guide decision making (discrimination, proportionality), human rights provide a list of ends to be attained (right to life, free speech, free movement). Rights increasingly give form and definition to general concepts in IHL.” A rights framework conveys the impact of war on innocent and vulnerable people more than humanitarian law does. By examining war with civilians treated as ends not means, Smith seeks to raise expectations for civilian protections and recommends a more systematic account of human rights as an independent body of war norms.

The book is divided into three major sections with multiple chapters providing historical and legal background on various aspects of international humanitarian law and human rights law, contemporary case studies on the Iraq War (2003-2015) and the Gaza Wars (2008-2014), justice and accountability, and human rights and humanitarian intervention. Each chapter is organized chronologically and incorporates relevant discussions on IHL and human rights law as it relates to the protection of civilians. This approach enables the reader to easily understand and link the strategic, legal, and moral implications and consequences for civilians in conflict environments even with “protections.”

Of particular interest for policy makers and military officers is Smith’s analysis and discussion of the conduct and consequences of the United States-led Iraq War, Israeli operations in Gaza, and humanitarian interventions where the cumulative effects of war on the civilian population still exists today. He clearly shows how combatants who profess to abide by the laws of war often engage in appalling violence and brutality, cutting short lives and ruining social, economic, and public infrastructure. These cases also illustrate the delicate relationship between strategy and tactical action; a strategy that calls for maximizing civilian protections and limiting collateral damage to infrastructure can be undermined by tactical decisions made in the heat of battle. Overall, Smith does a creditable job of supporting his argument using specific challenges and changes in international jurisprudence, societal expectations of warfare, and excerpts from select court cases involving the International Criminal Court, European Court for Human Rights, and military court martials and inquiries.

I highly recommend this engaging and thought-provoking book to anyone interested in ethics and military ethics. The subject matter is relevant today, and it provides military and civilian leaders alike with an easy to understand examination of many issues and ethical dilemmas faced in the current operational environment when conducting operations among the people. Whether you agree with Smith’s conclusions and recommendations or not, this book will achieve the author’s goal of spurring debate and enabling dialogue regarding the legal and moral obligation to protect civilians before, during, and after armed conflict.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Edward D. Jennings, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas