Combatants, Unprivileged Belligerents and Conflicts in the 21st Century

Colonel K.W. Watkin
Jun 2004

At the dawn of the 21st century international humanitarian law2 is facing a number of significant challenges. The events since 11 September 2001 in particular have focused a bright spotlight on issues such as: the law governing conflict between states and nonstate actors; the criteria to be applied for qualification as a combatant; the identification and targeting of the enemy; and the status and treatment to be afforded to captured “noncombatants” who participate in hostilities. The campaign on terrorism is in many ways a reflection of a broader transformation of modern conflict. The conduct of asymmetric warfare, which has been defined as “acting, organizing and thinking differently than opponents in order to maximize one’s own advantages, exploit an opponent’s weaknesses, attain the initiative, or gain greater freedom of action”3 is challenging traditional notions of armed conflict. 

The transnational reach of information warfare, the growth of global terrorism, the blending of domestic and international criminal acts and easier access to weapons of mass destruction have raised the stakes in terms of the types of threats posed to states and their citizens. The ability of both states and non-state actors to act asymmetrically has been enhanced by the technological leap into the information age and the so-called revolution in military affairs. The capacity of international humanitarian law to adequately address conflict in its modern form is being grappled with by government officials and legal practitioners, undergoing judicial review, carefully being analyzed by legal scholars and receiving close scrutiny by the media. In meeting its goal of limiting the effects and suffering of armed conflict international humanitarian law shares many of the same principles and concepts as human rights. However, international humanitarian law differs from human rights law in its requirement to interface with “military necessity”. At the heart of military necessity is the goal of the submission of the enemy at the earliest possible moment with the least possible expenditure of personnel and resources. It justifies the application of force not prohibited by international law. The balancing of military necessity and humanity is often the most challenging aspect of finding agreement on the norms of international humanitarian law.4 In balancing these two concepts the requirement to distinguish between those who can participate in armed conflict and those who are to be protected from its dangers is perhaps its most fundamental tenet.5 A careful analysis shows that much of the discussion about the adequacy of international humanitarian law is centered on the principle of distinction.