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University of Iowa News Release


July 7, 2008

New appointment helps law professor adapt war and human rights law

War is not what it used to be, and most legal experts agree existing laws that dictate proper behavior during war are of little use in modern fighting.

"Most international agreements relating to law during armed conflict were written in response to wars between national states and their armies," said Mark Osiel, a University of Iowa law professor and expert in international and human rights law. "Now, we see conflicts that are different-civil wars, ethnic conflicts, terrorism-and the law is responding."

Osiel will play a major role in shaping that response during the next two years. Starting in August, Osiel will serve as director of International Humanitarian Law at the T.M.C. Asser Institute in The Hague, Netherlands. There, he will help lawyers and scholars from around the world develop international and human rights law in a way that makes it relevant to today's issues.

His primary task will be organizing and directing training sessions to educate judges from around the world about developments in international criminal law. Osiel will also consult with the defense ministries of several countries regarding their rules of engagement for military operations and bringing their national laws into compliance with international law.

He said the changing nature of warfare and violence is confusing a legal picture that was murky to begin with-how do you regulate the players involved in combat? Despite the daunting challenge-not to mention logical inconsistencies-of the task, diplomats in the past have hammered out treaties that, for instance, defined how armies must treat captured enemy soldiers (Geneva Conventions), prohibited the use of some weapons (poison gas) while limiting others (land mines), and attempted to protect civilian non-combatants from military attack.

But warfare today rarely involves combat between two armies representing nations, with a well-defined difference between a combatant and a civilian. The United States wrestles with this question everyday in Iraq and Afghanistan-what constitutes torture? What are the rights of those held in Guantanamo Bay? How can you defend yourself against an enemy combatant when you don't know it's an enemy combatant until after he's blown himself up, along with a group of American soldiers and whatever civilians happen to be standing too close?

The issue goes beyond terrorism, though. Civil wars and ethnic conflicts, which are often one and the same thing, have been blurring legal lines in recent years. For instance, how should international law have treated the Serbs and Albanians in their fight over Kosovo, or minority Tamil rebels fighting the government in Sri Lanka? He said one frequent issues is what happens when a suspected war criminal is found living in a third country, what is that country's legal obligation to hand the suspect over for a war crimes trial? What rights does a country have in extracting a war crimes suspect found in another country?

Osiel said those are the questions that modern international law must now take into consideration. He hopes his consultations with European defense ministries help in one way, by encouraging those countries to update their own laws and military rules of engagement so they are in agreement with international law and synchronized across the continent.

Osiel will also coordinate training soldiers in those countries' militaries on international law.

"We'll be teaching soldiers direct applications of general rules and principles found in various international treaties, such as the Geneva Conventions or treaties prohibiting torture," Osiel said. "They have to know, at what point can you shoot, or use other force?"

Osiel will also coordinate a series of lectures, seminars and other academic gatherings of scholars, lawyers and lawmakers to discuss the future of international law as it relates to contemporary warfare.

"The law is beginning to adapt and will adapt, as the law always does," Osiel said.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Mark Osiel, 319-335-6553,; Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell),