The Deadly Serious Causes of Legitimate Rebellion: Between the Wrongs of Terrorism and the Crimes of War

Christopher Finlay

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This article challenges the tendency exhibited in arguments by Michael Ignatieff, Jeremy Wal-dron, and others to treat Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) as the only valid moral frame of reference for guiding (and judging) armed rebels with just cause. To succeed, normative lan-guage and principles must reflect not only the wrongs of ‘terrorism’ and war crimes, but also the rights of legitimate rebels. However, these do not always correspond to the legal privileges of combatants. Rebels are often unlikely to gain belligerent recognition and might sometimes have strong moral reasons to exceed the rights of regular combatants. Where this gives rise to tensions between morality and the LOAC, a decision is needed to determine which to follow. Setting aside the idea of (a) suppressing just war theory altogether in favour of a more purely regulatory approach to war and (b) reforming law in the direct light of moral theory, I question the attempt by Waldron (among others) (c) to argue that moral weight of the legal conventions at the heart of the LOAC trump any moral reasons there might be for breaching them. Even if non-combatant immunity (NCI) is, as Waldron suggests, a deadly serious convention, I argue that war is justified only if pursued for the sake of deadly serious causes which may even be serious enough to oblige agents to break the law. A political theory of the ethics of war is needed (d) to mediate between the moral and legal in such cases where they cannot be reconciled directly.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-17
JournalCriminal Law and Philosophy
Early online date11 Jul 2017
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 11 Jul 2017


  • rebellion
  • terrorism
  • deadly serious conventions
  • non-combatant immunity
  • war crimes
  • just war theory
  • Michael Ignatieff
  • Jeremy Waldron


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