- Violence and Restraint in Civil War: Civilian Targeting in the Shadow of International Law by Jessica A. Stanton
Jessica Stanton adds an impressively panoramic study to the scholarly literature on the plight of civilians mired in war. Her Stakhanovite data collection and coding have produced a dataset tracking 115 post-Cold War civil wars across a spectrum of violence against civilians.1 It's clear that belligerents frequently target non-combatants; of the 103 rebel groups Stanton researched, 30 percent massacred civilians, 27 percent burned civilian homes and crops, 29 percent exploded bombs in populated public areas, and 11 percent forcibly expelled civilians from territory. Among the state militaries Stanton studied, 24 percent carried out civilian massacres, 47 percent torched homes and crops, 22 percent bombed civilians, and 13 percent cleansed civilians from territory.
But 40 percent of governments and rebel groups did none of these things. Why the restraint? Stanton theorizes that belligerents who rely on international or domestic support—diplomatic, economic, or political—to sustain their cause are more susceptible to legal suasion than those who are able to go it alone. For these "vulnerable" fighters, the specter of economic sanctions, war crimes investigations, or condemnation in international bodies acts as a powerful disincentive to attacking civilians. Such groups will go to great lengths to spare civilians even as the existential threat rises and the targeting of non-combatants might conceivably help the military campaign. Stanton's argument is particularly notable given her focus on civil wars. Civil conflicts have traditionally been considered an internal matter, beyond the legal reproach of outside actors. When state governments codified limits to the conduct of hostilities, not surprisingly they accorded themselves greater leeway than rebel groups seeking to overthrow or dismember sovereign states. Not until the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions were the laws of war explicitly extended to domestic as well as [End Page 716] international conflicts, to state militaries as well as sub-state militias.
Stanton pursues a rational-choice explanation for compliance with international law. She focuses on the strategic costs and benefits of using violence against civilian targets. The approach is closer to Hannah Arendt's instrumental use of violence than it is to the idea of expressive violence. Ethicists may be disturbed by the cool strategic calculations underpinning belligerents' humanitarian choices, but the utility of violence is limited by today's normative environment. Even the anarchist's propaganda of the deed will prove counterproductive if it targets civilians. The implications are profound and fly in the face of much of military strategic thought. The fate of civilians hinges more on the political and material context of war than on some inexorable military logic. This emphasis on third-party pressure meshes with a large body of human rights research on the effects of naming and shaming perpetrators. Stanton's findings also cast doubt on traditional justifications for collateral damage based on military necessity or military advantage. While modern warriors trot out ritualistic apologies for collateral damage, it's clear that much of the violence is strategic rather than accidental.
The book is less clear about the link between these calculations and the mechanics of international law. Stanton argues that the law shapes behavior indirectly. Compliance flows from exogenous material and moral pressures, not from the socialization of norms or the inherent appeal of law. Belligerents follow the rules because the audience costs of not doing so are too high. However calculated this ethic may be, the law does provide a fairly unambiguous benchmark for restraint. The question of moral agency is also intriguing. The normative arbiters are not the belligerents themselves, but are the outside supporters who threaten to defect when the violence gets to be too much. Readers interested in sociological or constitutive understandings of the role of norms will have other questions. If the actors follow international law for instrumental reasons, then does complying end up changing their identities and preferences as well? Do they internalize norms, or...