Defining War

In Michael Gross & Tamar Meisels (eds.), Soft War: The Ethics of Unarmed Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. pp. 16-32 (2017)
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In international law and just war theory, war is treated as normatively and legally unique. In the context of international law, war’s special status gives rise to a specific set of belligerent rights and duties, as well as a complex set of laws related to, among other things, the status of civilians, prisoners of war, trade and economic relationships, and humanitarian aid. In particular, belligerents are permitted to derogate from certain human rights obligations and to use lethal force in a far more permissive manner than is the case in other kinds of conflicts and in domestic law enforcement operations. Given war’s unique status, the task of defining war requires not just identifying the empirical features that are characteristic of war but explaining and justifying war’s special legal and moral status. In this chapter, I propose a definition of war that captures war’s unique features and can offer insights into when and how some forms of unarmed conflict could count as wars.
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