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Recapturing the Concept of Necessity

Jens David Ohlin

Cornell University - School of Law

March 8, 2013

Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-90

In a recent essay, Ryan Goodman offers a vigorous defense of the duty to capture under the law of war and concludes that attacking soldiers have a duty to use the least-restrictive means of accomplishing their objective. In particular, Goodman contends in his new intervention that the scholarly debate has relied on an impoverished reading of the legislative history of the key international protocols drafted in 1973 and 1974. Having unearthed a wealth of documents regarding those negotiations, he argues that: (i) the law of war already severely restricts the use of force in various contexts by virtue of specific prohibitions on methods of warfare; (ii) the law of war already prohibits killing enemy combatants who are rendered hors de combat; and (iii) the drafters of the Additional Protocols supported a “least-restrictive-means” interpretation of the concept of necessity, meaning that killing is only lawful when soldiers have no other way of neutralizing the enemy (e.g. capture is not feasible).

For reasons that I articulate in the present commentary, I believe that none of these arguments provides definitive support for a duty to capture under the laws of war. First, with regard to Goodman's first two arguments, one cannot move from a list of specific jus in bello prohibitions to a generalized principle regarding the nature of military necessity that then swallows and expands the specific rules. Second, the arguments ignore the Lieber Code's definition of military necessity as "all direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies" and "those measures which are indispensable for securing the ends of the war, and which are lawful according to the modern law and usages of war." Although the law of war has advanced considerably since Lieber, its general structure remains relatively unchanged. Third, the drafters of the Additional Protocol did not codify the least-restrictive means test; its provision on unnecessary suffering cannot be read to include it since unnecessary suffering and unnecessary killing are conceptually distinct.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 34

Keywords: Necessity, Law of Armed Conflict, International Humanitarian Law, LOAC, IHL, Francis Lieber, Lieber Code, capture, Geneva Conventions

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Date posted: March 10, 2013 ; Last revised: July 1, 2014

Suggested Citation

Ohlin, Jens David, Recapturing the Concept of Necessity (March 8, 2013). Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-90. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2230486 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2230486

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Jens David Ohlin (Contact Author)
Cornell University - School of Law ( email )
218 Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
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