Publication Date

April 2016


J. Donald Moon


College of Letters


English (United States)


Though humans have always fought, we have made significant strides with just war theory and human rights norms. Contrary to the general trend of progress, though, the use of tactics such as terrorism and torture in modern warfare represent a leap backward into barbarity. This thesis explores moral questions created by the evolution of armed conflict from conventional state warfare to asymmetric conflict between state and non-state groups: Are the principles developed to limit violence in interstate warfare still applicable in modern conflicts? Revisionist accounts of how conflicts should be conducted seek to change the principles of just war theory and human rights conventions, arguing that the current conditions of armed conflict necessitate new rules. Some revisionists find tactics such as torture excusable (if not justifiable) for state actors but would not allow non-state actors to violate long-held prohibitions against killing civilians. Others argue that the rules must change for both sides so that weak non-state groups have a method through which they can advance potentially just claims that does not criminalize them as unjust combatants as do traditional versions of just war theory; these revisionists see terrorism as being potentially justifiable since just non-state groups may have no other options for making themselves heard. In both cases, the revisionist accounts call for the reexamination of previously denounced tactics. But are these accounts persuasive? This thesis examines the accounts from both sides. First, it considers the perspective of the non-state actor, using terrorism as a case study for the claim that a revisionist model of just war theory is required in modern, asymmetric conflicts. Then, I examine torture as a case study in parallel to terrorism in which state actors have a reason for deviating from just war principles in response to deviation by non-state actors. Finally I consider whether tactics deemed unjustifiable for general use in asymmetric conflict are permissible in moral disasters.



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