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Professor Sir Adam Roberts’s research brings theory and practice together to inform states’ acts before, during and after wars.

The changing faces of war

Image credit: Czechoslovakian Army Entering Vladivostok, Siberia, in 1918, George Benjamin Luks,

Since 1945, armed conflict is less likely to take the form of major wars between developed states, and is now more frequently seen in developing countries and post-colonial situations. New states have been encountering the inherent difficulties of establishing legitimate borders, political systems, and relations between different ethnic and religious communities. When a country is fighting itself, when uses of force often take the clandestine form of terrorism, and when outside observers and internal experts can’t rely on standard labels such as ‘combatants’ and ‘civilians’, should our international legal structures change to reflect this new reality? Or do existing legal structures, largely formed in the aftermath of the Second World War, encompass the principles and rules needed to maintain their relevance in armed conflicts, seven decades on?

Professor Roberts states that the existing body of international law does not need fundamental change, but that the changed character of war needs renewed understanding of existing rules, including on such basic matters as the prohibition of torture. The structure created by states in the post-War period recognizes the importance of certain non-state armed forces, and is flexible enough to adapt to change. What is needed is authoritative and commonsensical interpretation of these rules to fit the new facts of international life. Such a process is already happening – albeit in fits and starts – thanks to decisions of national and international courts, commissions of inquiry, and the actions of some governments, armed forces and international institutions.

Roberts’s work has contributed to changes in doctrine and practice. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the body that seeks to ensure humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence, drew on Roberts’s work in its 2012 report on Occupation and Other Forms of Administration of Foreign Territory. This report strongly supported the view that what is needed is not a re-writing of the law, but rather interpretations made in the spirit of the law that ensure that the needs of the occupied population are met and the security interests of the occupying power are preserved. UN thinking about peacekeeping forces has drawn on his research on the laws of war. In the USA Roberts’s research has informed ongoing revisions of the Department of Defense's manuals on the law of armed conflict.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan personally praised Roberts's work and contribution to the debate.

It’s not just in the international sphere that Roberts’s work is influential. His research has fed into changes in training in the UK. He was a retained expert for the Baha Mousa Public Inquiry into the death of an Iraqi civilian held in the custody of British soldiers, at which he evaluated recent developments in UK training guidelines for detainee custody and interrogation, and recommended changes to future detention policy, practice and training. His key points were referred to in the final report, which was accepted by the government in 2011. Professor Roberts has frequently given evidence to UK parliamentary committees; and, as a member of the UK Defence Academy Advisory Board from 2003 to 2015, he has played a part in improving the coverage of the law on armed conflict at all levels of the training of the armed forces.

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Department of Politics and International Relations

Professor Adam Roberts