The Changing Character of Conflict and the Laws of War

Professor Sir Adam Roberts' work analyses how the nature of conflict has changed in important ways since the end of the Second World War, focussing on non-violent forms of resistance, increases in the multilateral use of armed forces for peacekeeping and other purposes, the rise of civil wars, and the decline in the incidence of major wars between developed states.

Roberts' research indicates that international normative principles, courts and institutions have played a significant part in shaping and constraining new forms of conflict. Despite the many reverses faced in contemporary wars, experience demonstrates that existing international law remains relevant even in new contexts – whether peacekeeping, environmental despoliation in war, or armed responses to terrorism. For example, in a 2009 article – 'Transformative Military Occupation: Applying the Laws of War and Human Rights' – Professor Roberts asks whether contemporary international law allows an occupying power to change the basic features of an occupied state, including its constitutional framework and economic system.

Professor Roberts draws on his research to provide expertise in a number of areas. He contributed to the restructuring of training in the law of armed conflict in the British Army, and has been involved in reviewing a new version of its Operational Law Training Directive. In the US, his research was used in revisions of the Department of Defense's Law of War Manual. In 2008, Professor Roberts was invited to join a group of experts convened by the International Committee of the Red Cross to consider the legal issues arising from contemporary forms of occupation. The final report, – Occupation and other forms of administration of foreign territories, – draws on aspects of his research.

In 2009, Professor Roberts gave evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry into Global Security: Afghanistan. He argued that an understanding of the specific context of contemporary conflicts – including different national perspectives, histories, political systems, religions, cultures and languages – is essential for an accurate analysis of such conflicts and for formulating effective policy responses. Professor Roberts' evidence on matters relating to terrorism, guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency is referenced in the Committee's final report.

 In 2010, Professor Roberts was a retained expert for the Baha Mousa Public Inquiry into the death of an Iraqi civilian held in the custody of British soldiers, at which he evaluated recent developments in UK training guidelines for detainee custody and interrogation, and recommended changes to future detention policy, practice and training.

Further reading:

Adam Roberts, The Laws of War: Problems of Implementation in Contemporary Conflicts, 6 Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law 11-78 (1995)

Adam Roberts, 'What Is a Military Occupation?' British Yearbook of International Law (1984) 55 (1):249-305


This Impact Case Study was submitted to the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014)



Adam Roberts