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Where war meets the law

Spring 2023 course examines the laws governing armed conflicts


Photo illustration of a soldier in a war zone, surrounded by reddish-orange fog.

CEL 394 Law of Armed Conflict will examine the blurry line between lawful war tactics and war crimes.

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October 24, 2022

Almost eight months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, news headlines have exposed the war’s tragic consequences for the civilian population.

According to the United Nations, Putin’s armed forces commit daily war crimes, including deliberate attacks against civilian targets, human rights abuses and the targeted destruction of critical infrastructure. The Kremlin rejects these allegations and discredits the images as fabricated. How do international law principles determine what is a lawful war tactic and what qualifies as a war crime?

In spring 2023, Arizona State University undergraduate students will participate in a seminar-style course to examine the law of armed conflict, a branch of international law governing the conduct of hostilities between states, territories and sovereign nations.

In CEL 394 Class #34776 — held during Session C, from 9 to 10:15 a.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays, on the Tempe campus — undergraduates will discuss some of the most challenging war situations and their legal implications according to the law of armed conflict.

For Bruce Pagel, professor of practice at the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, the discussions will empower students from all areas of study to further their understanding of armed conflict and geopolitics and advance their critical thinking skills.

Col. Pagel, who served 28 years as a judge advocate in the U.S. Army, both active and reserve, has a wealth of knowledge on this topic. He has served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and as the senior lawyer in U.S. Central Command. He also served as the deputy chief prosecutor at the U.S. military commissions.

Students interested in national security, foreign service, human rights, history and the law should consider enrolling in this course to broaden their understanding of armed conflict and the role law plays in managing the use of military force. Aspiring law students, ROTC students and future diplomats will benefit from this practical survey of the many legal challenges warfighters face in modern armed conflict.

ASU News spoke with Pagel about this complex and multifaceted topic.

Question: How will this course help students understand the legal implications of warfare on one hand while considering the reality faced by fighters on the other hand?

Answer: The war in Ukraine has vividly highlighted the legal complexities warfighters face on the modern battlefield. Civilian casualties are reported almost daily and raise the specter of war crimes and war crime trials. Is the Russian military targeting civilians or attacking cities indiscriminately — both of which are war crimes — or are these civilian targets actually participating in the fight, making them lawful targets? Is it possible that some civilian casualties are more accurately described as lawful collateral damage based on a tactical proportionality analysis?

Sadly, it is also possible that some Ukrainian civilian casualties are the victims of Russian blunders, which Gen. Carl Von Clausewitz would describe as the “friction of war”. Equipment failure, mistaken coordinates or bad intelligence — the “fog of war,” in Clausewitzian terms — are, unfortunately, not uncommon and all too often produce civilian casualties. What about “dual-use” targets, facilities and infrastructure used by both civilians and the military? Are dual-use facilities targetable? And do some Ukrainian civilian casualties fall into that category? Finally, given how accurate precision-guided munitions (PGMs) can be, should all air-delivered attacks be limited to PGMs? This course will examine these questions, and more, in the context of the law of armed conflict.

Q: Which texts will students read throughout this course?

A: We will read a collection of current articles drawn from professional journals, national security sources, selected book chapters and government publications.

Q: How are classes taught and what is the learning environment like?

A:  This course will be conducted in a seminar-styled format that will rely on class discussion and lectures. The syllabus will be supplemented by guest speakers and other outside resources. 

Q: What are the main elements of this course?

A:  The syllabus is designed to highlight the context in which the law of armed conflict is applied, review its history, survey the relevant sources of law, examine the key principles and concepts found in "jus ad bellum" — the law that regulates state-level use of military force — and "jus in bello" — the law governing the ways and means of operational and tactical warfare — and explore why the law of armed conflict matters in the 21st century. Where practical, we will use current events to illustrate important concepts.

Q: Which intellectual, academic or professional skills will students develop through the course?

A: This class will help students cultivate their critical thinking, analytic and practical reasoning skills, along with developing effective written and oral communication habits, emphasizing both clarity and substance. It will also challenge their ability to fairly examine often unsupported assumptions regarding armed conflict and the broad geopolitical and legal context in which it occurs.

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