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close this bookLaw in Humanitarian Crises Volume I : How Can International Humanitarian Law Be Made Effective in Armed Conflicts? (European Commission Humanitarian Office)
close this folderThe Laws of War: Problems of Implementation in Contemporary Conflicts
close this folderIV. General Issues
View the document1. Woodrow Wilson's Dilemma in 1914
View the document2. Successors' Responses to illegal Acts of Previous Regimes
View the document3. One Alternative Vision

3. One Alternative Vision

There are some grounds for scepticism about the idea that international bodies can apply a criminal law analogy to major violations of international norms. The idea that acts deemed to be crimes can and should be tried and punished in courts is a feature of all national legal systems, but its application on the international plane, as a means of enforcing the laws of war, is problematic. This is not to say that such efforts should not be made, but rather than they should not be seen as the sole or even principal means of implementation. Events in some major conflicts of the past two decades confirm the difficulties of the criminal law approach.

One might well therefore ask: What is the point in international norms, including the laws of war, if there cannot be a vigorous and consistent effort at international enforcement? Alfred Rubin has expressed one alternative vision of what the law is and how it may be implemented:

"International law is not a criminal law system; it is more akin to constitutional law, where enforcement rests on political counterpressures and foreseeable middle- and long-term reactions. A militarily organized movement that commits atrocities is likely to lose allies, unify its enemies, waste its energy in daring strikes of dubious military or political value, and ultimately turn on itself".

While this view of law may itself be tinged with too much optimism, it does highlight the truth that the means by which international norms are upheld are far more complex and wide-ranging than what is provided for in the conventions.