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Disputation: Fighters as Victims in International Criminal Law

Joanna Nicholson at the Norwegian Centre of Human Rights will defend her thesis: Fighters as Victims in International Criminal Law

Trial lecture - time and place

Adjudication committee

  • Professor Kjetil M. Larsen, University of Oslo
  • Professor Robert Cryer, University of Birmingham (1. opponent)
  • Professor Paola Gaeta, University of Genève (2. opponent)

Chair of defence

Prodekan Alf Petter Høgberg



Last year marked the centenary of the First World War. In the intervening century, the nature of warfare has changed significantly. During World War One, the majority of casualties were fighters, whereas today it is often civilians who bear the brunt of the violence. When atrocities occur during armed conflicts, it is the civilian victims whose maltreatment tends to attract the greatest attention and condemnation from the world community. Those who fight, on the other hand, are often perceived as being the bad guys- as the perpetrators of the atrocities. This concern is reflected when these cases come before international criminal courts or tribunals. With the important exceptions of crimes committed against child soldiers and peacekeepers, international criminal cases overwhelmingly focus on the civilian victims of atrocities. This too has changed over the last hundred years, for fighters featured heavily as victims in criminal cases in the wake of both the First and Second World Wars.

The overriding aim of this PhD thesis is to highlight once more that fighters can be victims of international crimes. The thesis’ central research question is what difference it makes in law if the alleged victim of an international crime was a fighter rather than a civilian: can fighters be victims of the same international crimes as civilians?

Other issues which the thesis addresses include: what crimes can be committed against those who fight while battle is raging? What weapons are prohibited for use against fighters? Once a fighter is captured, what crimes can be committed against them?  What difference does it make if the fighter has prisoner of war status?  Indeed, does prisoner of war status give any added value in international criminal law? Can those who fight be victims of crimes against humanity? Can a fighter be the victim of genocide?  It also examines case law surrounding the two special categories of child soldiers and peacekeepers.

The thesis concludes that there are indeed differences in international criminal law depending on whether the alleged victim of a crime is a fighter or a civilian. Furthermore, these differences have not always been fully appreciated by international criminal courts and tribunals. It cautions that, while it may be true that fighters are not as other men in the context of international criminal law, they are men nonetheless and can also be victims of atrocities, a fact which should not be forgotten.

Published Feb. 11, 2015 12:02 PM - Last modified Nov. 9, 2018 1:20 PM