War and Punitivity under Anarchy

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

257 Downloads (Pure)


The individualization of punishment is a key element in liberal narratives about international law and international relations. By now, this narrative has become integral part of positive international law, especially the regimes governing the use of force and the prosecution of international crimes. Rather than punishing states or entire societies, liberals claim, punishment has become restricted to those who incurred individual guilt. To liberals, the individualization of punishment is part of a larger process of enlightenment and civilizations that has helped to fence atavisms like revenge. In this paper, we do not question the emergence of an ever more sophisticated system of individual punishment in international law. However, we argue that punitivity has been more difficult to fully channel towards individuals and away from collectives than claimed. To be sure, punitive language has by and large been banned from the laws of armed conflict. We argue, however, that the absence of a punitive vocabulary does not equal the absence of punitivity. In contrast, current state practices of using armed force are still imbued with punitivity, however silenced in the current legal framework and thus pushed underground. Realizing the presence of a punitive undercurrent, we argue, adds to a more comprehensive understanding of contemporary state practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)310-325
Number of pages16
JournalEuropean Journal of International Security
Issue number3
Early online date12 Sep 2018
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2018


  • Syrian civil war
  • War
  • humanitarian intervention
  • punishment
  • self-defence
  • use of force

VU Research Profile

  • Governance for Society


Dive into the research topics of 'War and Punitivity under Anarchy'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this