Superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering: National liberation and the laws of war

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During the four years of preliminary meetings that led to the 1977 Protocols Additional I and II governing internal armed conflict, the prohibitions against superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering - two concepts that gird the regulation and moderation of war and limit the use of certain means and methods of warfare - were invoked as a means of calling into account the actions of imperial states. These meetings took place in the context of the conflicts in Southeast Asia, following the wars of decolonization and national liberation in the 1950s and 1960s. The participants in these meetings were freedom fighters and liberation movements who used this forum, which was open to them for the first time, to push for a wider understanding of the concepts of superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering. Their intention was to hold imperialism and imperial states accountable for suffering and injury beyond that of physical death or wounding and to recognize the violence of colonization and the social and cultural devastation it brought. These interventions were a critical attempt to broaden and deepen the meaning of the laws of war, to make them responsive to more than established sovereign state violence, and to ensure that they reflected the experience of colonization/decolonization. This episode matters because the prohibitions against unnecessary suffering and superfluous injury are two elements that detail the general prohibition first codified in 1907 Hague Convention IV, Article 22, namely that the "the right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited." However, the history and formulation of these two concepts has yet to be fully explored, the meaning of each is debated, and taken together the two are among "the most unclear and controversial rules of warfare."

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)205-231
Number of pages27
JournalPolitical Power and Social Theory
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017


  • Imperialism
  • Laws of war
  • National liberation
  • Ranciere
  • Self-determination
  • Superfluous injury


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