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The principle of distinction and women in conflicts in Africa

Stern, Orly (2015) The principle of distinction and women in conflicts in Africa. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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The ‘principle of distinction’ is core to international humanitarian law, regulating who can and cannot be targeted in armed conflict. It states that combatants and those civilians ‘directly participating’ in hostilities may be targeted in attack, while non-combatants may not be. The law defines what it means to be a combatant and a civilian, and sets out what behaviour constitutes direct participation. The principle of distinction purports to be gender-neutral. However, closer examination reveals that international humanitarian law was based on a gendered view of conflict that envisaged men and women playing particular roles; men as fighters and women as victims of war. Problematically, this view often does not accord with the reality in ‘new wars’ today. Across the African continent women participate in armed groups. While sometimes women fight on the front lines, frequently, women contribute to armed movements in gender specific ways. Serving as fighters, cooks, porters and armed group ‘wives’, women often form the backbone of fighting groups, performing functions on which armed groups are highly reliant. The narrow framing of the principle of distinction means that many of the roles that women typically play in conflict are not recognised as ‘combatancy’ or ‘direct participation’ – even where women are actively engaged in armed movements. While this does provide more women with legal protection from attack, there are indirect negative consequences that flow from this. Using women’s participation in new wars in Africa as a study, this thesis critically examines the principle of distinction through a gendered lens, questioning the extent to which the principle serves to protect women in modern conflicts and how it fails them. By so doing, the thesis questions whether the principle of distinction is suitable to effectively regulate the conduct of hostilities in new wars.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2015 Orly Maya Stern
Library of Congress subject classification: K Law > K Law (General)
Sets: Departments > Law
Supervisor: Chinkin, Christine and Beyani, Chaloka

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