Wanted: Best-Selling Novelist Who Needs Advice on International Law

Wanted: Best-Selling Novelist Who Needs Advice on International Law

Long-time readers may recall that I have a standing offer to employ my services as a technical consultant for any Hollywood producer or New York Times best-selling novelist looking for accuracy in popular portrayals of international law.  And we here at Opinio Juris regularly like to make hay of how popular culture interprets international law and international relations.   For our latest installment, consider Brad Thor’s recent novel, Full Black.  On the whole, it’s a well-written, fast-paced thriller (sufficiently engaging that I read the entire book during a cross-country flight yesterday).  The tone though is pretty preachy at times, with the various heroes being libertarian, vigilante former US military types versus a George Soros-type globalist villain who wants world government and will use an al Qaeda-type network to get there.  I was fine with all that, even mildly amused by some of the political dialogue among the characters.  But there was one passage that gave me pause:

Torture was something he had used only as an absolute last resort.  He loved to hear TV pundits and others cite the Geneva and Hague conventions.  Putting aside the fact that most of them had never read any of those treaties, the key fact that they all missed was that America’s Islamist enemies were not a party to these agreements.  What’s more, the conventions strictly forbade combatants from hiding and attacking from within civilian populations.  Lawful combatants were also required to appear on the battlefield wearing something, whether a uniform or even just an armband, identifying them as combatants — overgrown bears and high-water pants didn’t count.

The long and short of it was that if one party refused to sign on and follow the rules, it couldn’t expect any sort of protection from those rules.  And as far as Harvath was concerned, those who championed the extension of Geneva and Hague to Islamic terrorists were uninformed at best and apologists at worst.  Believing his country to be made up of good, reasonable people, he preferred to put the terrorist protectors in the former category.

Three things struck me on reading this.

First: once, just once, can’t a best-selling novelist do as much consulting and research on international law as they do on covert tactics and operations?  To be clear, I like talking to my ex-Navy SEALS friends as much as the next guy, but I don’t know that they have to be the exclusive repository of all knowledge for these sorts of projects.

Second, will I ever encounter a blockbuster, whether in book or movie form, that portrays international law as something patriots can believe in, as opposed to a barrier to some protagonist’s against-all-odds quest for justice and the American way?  Seriously, where’s the book on international law as a vehicle for American interests or even one where the plot depends on preserving the gains of some international compromise from which Americans and others all benefit?  I’m not asking that we lose the bang-bang shoot-em up that makes for good reading, but couldn’t international law be used to help move the plot along rather than as a target for snarky asides?

Third, there’s the claims about international law itself in the text.  Now, I have read and cited to Geneva and Hague law pretty regularly in my scholarship.  I’m also pretty familiar with the international legal system and how treaty law works.  And I certainly am no apologist for terrorism having served in the US State Department for some years.  But . . . well, let’s just say there’s an impressive mix of the accurate with the inaccurate in Thor’s text when it comes to when international law applies, to whom it applies, and how it applies.

So, here’s my summer pop-quiz for interested readers.  Identify what Thor’s protagonist gets wrong about international law, including the “Geneva and Hague Conventions”.  Feel free to chime in on what he does get right as well. And, for those of you best-selling novelists needing advice on international law for some new project, call me.  We should talk.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Notify of
Martin Holterman

Re: Positive depiction: When I was a kid I used to read everything in my father’s book collection, including some of Alistair McLean’s UNACO novels: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UNACO


This Wesley Snipes movie might just make your head explode: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_War_(film)

John Smith
John Smith

I’ll have a shot at this. A shot – I make no guarantees as to whether I am right!

First – the Hague Conventions don’t discuss torture.

Second – Protected persons can’t be used as shields per Art 28 GC4, and as that relates to States, Thor is right. But human shields are also prohibited under CIHL (Rule 97) – applying to NIACs and IACs.

Third – The part concerning uniforms presumably relates to Art 4A GC3. That article again relates to IACs to which terrorists can’t be a signatory to to begin with. Moreover, uniforms only permit POW status to be granted. They aren’t needed to make someone a ‘lawful combatant’. Further high water pants probably do count – they are pretty distinctive from a distance. And further still you can get POW status if you carry your arms openly – Art 4A GC3.

Fourth – CIHL applies regardless of whether you sign the Conventions. I’m not sure though whether non-States are bound by CIL – my PIL knowledge is rusty.

Fifth – The Geneva and Hague Conventions don’t apply to non-State actors… I think AP2 does, but I’m not sure about whether CIHL relating to NIACs applies to non-State actors.

Am I close?


Sorry if this seems frivolous, but what is the relevance of ‘overgrown bears’ to the laws of war?