By Ken Fox
This book review was originally published in Canadian Law Library Review, vol. 44, no. 2 (2019).
The Right to Life in Armed Conflict. By Ian Park. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Great Clarendon Street), 2018. xxvi, 239p. Includes bibliographic references and index. ISBN 978-0-19-882138-0 (hardcover) $105.00.
Thou Shalt Not Kill has now been turned into a positive right. The idea of the modern right to life extending into the historically lawless field of war forms a striking paradox, and there is now a considerable body of case law examining that paradox. Ian Park’s new book is a survey of major court decisions concerning the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. While written from a U.K. perspective, the book is by nature international in scope, and clearly has global implications.
Park thoroughly and capably examines the interaction between the aforementioned rights-based legal machinery (the book’s primary topic) and international humanitarian law, the body of law that encompasses international treaties defining war crimes. While the two areas of law diverge widely in application, substance and procedure, Park arrives at the conclusion that they can be made to work in concert.
The lawsuits examined, for the most part, involve individual plaintiffs and state defendants. Park summarizes many rulings, speculating on how states can best meet their right to life obligations to combatants and civilians. He also has ideas about how states can meet their strategic or military objectives while complying with the two bodies of law.
Maybe it’s unfair that I single out Park’s book for a fault that is endemic to the world of academia. But even among that esteemed group, the excessive use of passive voice, qualifiers, euphemisms, and awkward sentence structures makes this dissertation-cum-book almost unreadable. Traditional, emotive terms like “enemy” and “war” are repressed in favour of less economical, but more legally-apt phrasing, viz. “international armed conflict.” I generally assume that all of the above rhetorical tendencies are intended to give non-scientific academic and legal texts the appearance of scientific rigor.
And Park is indeed rigorous. He defines his field with precision and covers it with care. The difficulty of writing may be inherent in the task, the legalities of mass death calling for a sanitization of language. If sterile detachment has become the accepted norm of academic and professional writing, maybe the law of armed conflict can be justified as the apotheosis of that tendency, a bloodless language for the bloodiest of legal topics.
Adding to the boredom factor is the lack of politics or any kind of subjective engagement. Park proves himself a strong and independent voice on his subject – he has many well-informed opinions about judgments. But they are exclusively from a legal perspective, limited to passive endorsements or moderate criticisms of judgments, and modestly expressed (“it is submitted that …”). The law is ghettoized & cut off from the world that spawned it, the philosophical subject expelled, and the legal mind left to pick at the dry bones of its own accustomed discourse. I’m not saying that Park does not care about his topic, but if a competent but completely uninterested legal writer attempted to cover the same ground, the result would likely be similar.
What role do these lawsuits play in international politics? Do they change the behaviour of states? Does the right to life have teeth? Political analysis of armed conflict is out of scope for this work, so these questions remain frustratingly unanswered. Rather, the author generally assumes that states will duly consider these laws in contemplation of military engagements, and dutifully aim for compliance. Today’s political climate makes such an assumption seem suspect, and Park’s detailed accounts of policy considerations, academic.
I confess I did not read every word of this text – its lifeless prose defeated me – so I might have missed some things. But suffice it to say the book is not a useful introduction to its own topic. It can only be endured by those who are already conversant in the basic framework of its subject and are motivated to read a fuller account of the details, or indeed, Park’s occasional independent analysis. Of course, for those directly involved in this developing field of law, the text is indispensable. It should find its way into large academic law libraries, government libraries with National Defense users, and any law firm library with a significant international human rights practice group.