Monday, September 4, 2006

Conflicts conflicting meanings

Israel’s refusal to end its blockade of Lebanon highlights a perhaps growing phenomenon in which states enter into conflicts with non-state actors. In the case of the current crisis, although Lebanon has received the brunt of the harm, they are not at war against Israel since the Lebanese government has not actively declared war. This conflict pits Israel against the political party Hezbollah.

This is an interesting case since typically political parties do not support active militias. This would be like the Democrats or Republicans taking up arms against one another whenever they disagree. Although there is plenty of talk about the vehement atmosphere in Congress, this really is nothing compared to what goes on elsewhere. Traditionally, the only actors that posses the legitimate use of force are states, in other words, sovereign, geographic entities with a government that acts for its population. Much of this power to use force comes from the recognition of legitimacy by other states or the international community.

War in the traditional sense pits states against other states, so the entry of more diverse actors into international warfare causes some problems in how we approach conflict. This issue can be generalized beyond the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. The U.S. war on terror is a primary example. Although we are defining our struggle against terrorism as a war in this sense, in other instances, Iraq for example, we claim that we are fighting an insurgency. The problem with nomenclature can produce some serious legal hang-ups. We had laws of war, but how do these apply when we fight non-traditional actors?

By nature, the development of legal language will proceed slowly as events continue to challenge how we define war. Yet in the mean time, it is pertinent to reflect on the specific meanings of the conflicts in which we engage.

Lydia Pfaff

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