Semiotic Definition of 'Lawfare'

26 Pages Posted: 20 Jun 2011

Date Written: June 17, 2011


"Lawfare" is a weapon designed to destroy the enemy by using, misusing, and abusing the legal system and the media in order to raise a public outcry against that enemy. The term "lawfare" is also a clever play on words, a pun, and a neologism that needs to be deconstructed in order to explain the linguistic and political power of the term. Semiotic theory can help unpack this play on words which creates an interesting and shocking equivalence between law and war. Semiotics is the science of signs and involves the exchange between two or more speakers through the medium of coded language and convention. Semiotics is the scientific study of communication, meaning, and interpretation.

This essay applies semiotic theory to expose the meanings of the term "lawfare" and to try to interpret it. It will focus on the definition of the word and the concepts of "law" as well as their denotations and connotations. Then it will look at the different definitions of "war" in order to better understand the identity of law and war created by the term "lawfare." The linkage of law to war is most clearly manifested in the expression of a "just war" and the elaboration of the "laws of war." Both law and war enjoy power, and it is precisely this shared power that constitutes the basis of the use of lawfare as a weapon of modern asymmetrical warfare.

Finally, the essay will look at the different uses of the term "lawfare" and the serious impact of this usage on politics and on the integrity of the legal system. The abuse of the legal system, of human rights laws, and of humanitarian laws by lawfare undermines the overarching goal of world peace by eroding the integrity of the legal system and by weakening the global establishment and enforcement of the rule of law. The manipulation of Western court systems, and the misuse of European and Canadian hate speech laws and libel law procedures, can destroy the very principles of free speech that democracies hold most precious. Lawfare has limited public discussion of radical Islam and created unfair negative publicity against freedom-loving countries. The weapon used is the rule of law itself, which was originally created not to quiet the speech of the innocent but more to subdue dictators and tyrants. Ironically, it is this very same rule of law that is being abused in order to empower tyrants and to thwart free speech.

Keywords: lawfare, semiotics, semiotic theory, sign theory, linguistics, neologism, law and media, coded language, public opinion, laws of war, just war

JEL Classification: K10, K33

Suggested Citation

Tiefenbrun, Susan, Semiotic Definition of 'Lawfare' (June 17, 2011). Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 43, 2011, Thomas Jefferson School of Law Research Paper No. 1866448, Available at SSRN:

Susan Tiefenbrun (Contact Author)

Thomas Jefferson School of Law ( email )

701 B Street
Suite 110
San Diego, CA 92101
United States
619-961-4318 (Phone)

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