Research Handbook on International Conflict and Security Law

Research Handbook on International Conflict and Security Law

Jus ad Bellum, Jus in Bello and Jus post Bellum

Research Handbooks in International Law series

Edited by Nigel White and Christian Henderson

This innovative Research Handbook brings together leading international law scholars from around the world to discuss and highlight the contemporary debate regarding issues of conflict prevention and the legality of resorting to the use of armed force through to those arising during an armed conflict and in the phase between conflict and peace.

Chapter 4: The prohibition of the use of force

Mary Ellen O’Connell

Subjects: law - academic, human rights, public international law, terrorism and security law, politics and public policy, human rights, international politics, terrorism and security


H.L.A. Hart, the renowned Oxford scholar of jurisprudence, described legal rules that ‘restrict the free use of violence’ as ‘obviously essential … to the maintenance of social life’. Some may believe that the international legal system lacks such essential rules, and, therefore, fails to qualify as a true legal system. In fact, principles for the control of violence have been a feature of international law at all stages of the system’s development. This observation will likely not satisfy critics of international law who believe that while international legal rules on the control of violence may exist in theory, they have no impact in the real world. These critics would conclude that international law in reality has no rules to restrict violence. A similar charge could, however, be levelled at domestic law. Murder, rape, robbery and assault are common in every city of the world and are even rampant in places where, nevertheless, no one doubts that a legal system is in place. Still, the charge against international law should be taken seriously. While it is not the case that international law has no rules against violence or that the rules work any better or worse than domestic anti-violence rules, it is the case that failures to control violence at the international level impose far greater suffering than analogous failures at the national level. Humanity can and should demand more effective and extensive legal controls of international violence. This chapter concerns the central international legal rule against violence:

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