The Future of the Law of Armed Conflict: Ostriches, Butterflies, and Nanobots

66 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2013 Last revised: 9 Jun 2015

See all articles by Eric Talbot Jensen

Eric Talbot Jensen

Brigham Young University School of Law

Date Written: 2014


The law has consistently lagged behind technological developments. This is particularly true in armed conflict, where the 1907 Hague Conventions and the 1949 Geneva Conventions form the basis for regulating emerging technologies in the 21st century. However, the law of armed conflict, or LOAC, serves an important signaling function to states about the development of new weapons. As advancing technology opens the possibility of not only new developments in weapons, but also new genres of weapons, nations will look to the LOAC for guidance on how to manage these new technological advances.

Because many of these technologies are in the very early stages of development or conception, the international community is at a point in time where we can see into the future of armed conflict and discern some obvious points where future technologies and developments are going to stress the current LOAC. While the current LOAC will be sufficient to regulate the majority of future conflicts, we must respond to these discernible issues by anticipating how to evolve the LOAC in an effort to bring these future weapons under control of the law, rather than have them used with devastating effect before the lagging law can react.

This paper analyzes potential future advances in weapons and tactics and highlights the LOAC principles that will struggle to apply as currently understood. The paper will then suggest potential evolutions of the LOAC to ensure it continuing efficacy in future armed conflicts.

Keywords: law of armed conflict, law of war, armed conflict, future, international humanitarian law, robots, nanotechnology, weapons, drones, technology, cyber, directed energy, biological agents, genomics, attack, distinction, proportionality, means and methods, autonomous, private military companies, hacker

JEL Classification: K10, K33, N40, O33

Suggested Citation

Jensen, Eric Talbot, The Future of the Law of Armed Conflict: Ostriches, Butterflies, and Nanobots (2014). 35 Michigan Journal of International Law 253 (2014), Available at SSRN:

Eric Talbot Jensen (Contact Author)

Brigham Young University School of Law ( email )

504 JRCB
Provo, UT 84602
United States

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