TIP SHEET: Nations Won’t Declare Iraq Conflict a "Civil War," Contends U.Va. Visiting Law Professor Linda Malone

December 07, 2006
December 7, 2006 — Whether or not media outlets choose to label the Iraq conflict a “civil war” as some have begun to do, the United States and other nations have no incentive to adopt that language, according to Linda Malone, visiting professor of law at the University of Virginia.

“As a practical matter it is not going to be formally recognized by anyone as a civil war,” said Malone, who has led the U.Va. Law School’s Iraqi Tribunals Clinic this semester and directs the Human Rights and National Security Law Program at the College of William & Mary School of Law.

Malone said civil wars are traditionally recognized by states outside of the conflict area, although the U.N. Security Council could declare a civil war and specify how states must react to that determination. When there is such recognition, both sides in the war become characterized as belligerents.

“There’s not much incentive, if any, for the states to declare there’s a civil war going on,” Malone said. “Once there’s a civil war, other countries have to remain neutral.”

If countries do not remain neutral, then their support for one side could become an act of war that must be justified under international law, Malone said.

“The besieged government does not want a civil war to be recognized so it can be supported,” she said. In the case of Iraq, “it would become very complicated as to whether the United States can support the Iraqi government as opposed to remaining neutral. It would put the U.S. in a very difficult situation — even more difficult than it already is.”

If the U.N. Security Council sought to curtail outside involvement in the war by resolution, it could attempt to do so, but the issue would be subject to a U.S. veto.

Malone is an internationally recognized expert on international law and human rights issues and is intimately familiar with legal issues pertaining to Iraq due to her assistance in the trials of Saddam Hussein and other war criminals. In addition, she served as co-counsel to Bosnia-Herzegovina in its genocide case against Serbia and Montenegro before the World Court and as co-counsel to Paraguay in its challenge to the death penalty in Paraguay v. Virginia. She has written or co-written 12 books on international law,  human rights and environmental law.

To discuss the issue of using “civil war” terminology on the Iraq conflict with Malone, call (757) 876-2292 or e-mail her at lindamalon@aol.com.