Jus Post Bellum Symposium: A Normative Critique of Jus Post Bellum in International Law

by Eric de Brabandere

[Eric De Brabandere is Associate Professor of International Law at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies and a Member of the Brussels Bar.]

My contribution to Jus Post Bellum: Mapping the Normative Foundations, edited by my colleagues Carsten Stahn, Jennifer Easterday and Jens Iverson critically examines the usefulness and accuracy of jus post bellum (JPB) as a legal concept and argues that the concept presents either a challenge to the objectivity of the post-conflict phase or simply brings together already existing obligations. It also questions the oft-heard underlying assertions and assumptions of JPB theories, namely that there is a legal void to which the concept would (need to) respond by filling the ‘blind spots’, and that post-conflict reconstruction does not function because of a lack of effective implementation of existing law applicable in such situations which requires recourse to a ‘new’ concept. Indeed, and although this is not always clear in JPB discussions, the concept has an important normative agenda – namely that the current regulation of post-conflict situations is inadequate and should as a consequence be modified. This –often latent and also vague in terms of which norms should be added- normative agenda of course is necessary for JPB scholars, since the absence of normative propositions restricts JPB to a pure umbrella concept which in turn makes the whole idea legally useless. I have expressed my criticism in this respect previously (in the Vand. J. Transnat’l L. and the Belgian Review of International Law). I will therefore focus in this post primarily on the recent idea of seeing JPB as an interpretative framework.

JPB as an interpretative framework is developed in detail by James Gallen in this contribution to the volume, but also is present in the chapters by Dieter Fleck and Christine Bell. The main idea behind this theory is to view JPB as a normative set of principles rather than substantive rules which would give guidance in the application of the existing rules governing post-conflict reconstruction. This understanding of JPB is considered to be important because of the need to interpret uniformly the various norms, rules and practices applicable in post-conflict reconstruction. Under such an understanding of JPB, the alleged ‘legal void’ somewhat becomes irrelevant, since the objective is not to add new rules, but rather to use existing principles and where possible interpret these rules in function of the identified overarching principles. It essentially functions to ‘solve’ the second main ‘problem’ of post-conflict reconstruction namely the lack of effective implementation of international law in such situations.

Even if one perceives JPB as an interpretative framework, grouping principles that are already of application in post-conflict situations –which undoubtedly is the case for the principles discussed- under a new notion, makes the question of the usefulness of jus post bellum persist. At the same time, this may be the only viable avenue for JPB. Roughly three principles are usually considered to part of this ‘interpretative legal framework’: the principle of proportionality, the accountability of foreign actors, and the principle that post-conflict reconstruction efforts should be for the benefit of the population (trusteeship, fiduciary type of authority, or stewardship). These principles are discussed in total or in part in the contributions of Gallen, Bell and Fleck in the JPB volume, but also elsewhere. Although these principles have been used in the context of the substantive content of JPB as well (when it is used a normative framework) the difference in their use here is the fact that the objective is not necessarily to ‘create’ new substantive rules applicable to post-conflict reconstruction -e.g. by ‘imposing’ trusteeship in all aspects of post-conflict situations-, but rather to use these principles to interpret the existing legal norms applicable in post-conflict reconstruction. They would then function as overarching principles which may guide foreign actors involved in post-conflict reconstruction to interpret their mandate, either under the laws of occupation or under Security Council resolutions, and the general obligations they have under, for example, human rights law, the laws of armed conflict and refugee law.

The main problem here again is that the identified principles (proportionality; trusteeship, and accountability) in fact are already very much present in general international law. This is without doubt the case for proportionality –a general principle of international law-, but also for the trusteeship principle -that post-conflict reconstruction efforts should be for the benefit of the population which is inherent in the laws of occupation, and in case of action taken by the Security Council-. The principle of ‘accountability’ also is already very much present in general international law and in the areas of law which are of specific relevance in post-conflict settings.

Secondly, these ‘principles’ vary substantially in nature and legal force. ‘Proportionality’ is a general principle of international law, applicable in various situations including in jus ad bellum, jus in bello and certain aspects of JPB. ‘Accountability’ on the other hand constitutes an ‘objective’ within a legal system. It has no or little legal force. ‘Trusteeship’ also is very different in nature in that it applies to situations of occupation, and implicitly to Security Council mandated missions, but the relevance of the concept outside these situations is almost inexistent. These principles, admittedly, indeed may serve to guide foreign actors involved in post-conflict reconstruction, for instance, in terms of setting up adequate mechanisms to challenge acts taken by these actors or in interpreting their mandate. The question very much is whether this is not already the case. Proportionality, fiduciary authority and accountability are either directly or indirectly already part of the applicable norms in post-conflict settings. The question thus remains whether, even in such a minimalist conception of JPB, it really is useful to group existing principles in the new concept. If, on the contrary the objective is more normative, e.g., to impose these existing principles on situations not already covered by these –which is not entirely clear and would in any event have a very limited effect-, the question remains how this would operate.


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