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The American Lieber Code in Occupied Iraq: Anachronism and the Turn to History in International Law and Practice

Conference contribution
Authors Matilda Arvidsson
Published in Invited research talk: Laureate Program in International Law Seminar Series, Melbourne Law School, Australia
Publication year 2017
Published at Department of Law
Language en
Keywords Lieber Code, laws of war, international humanitarian law, the turn to history in international law, anachronism
Subject categories International law


This seminar revisits the occupation of Iraq in 2003–2004 to ask about the use of the 19th century Lieber Code during this time. Why did an antiquated American Civil War code resurface in the wake of the international armed conflict in Iraq, and to what effect? Often referred to as a historical predecessor to contemporary international humanitarian law, the Lieber Code has received little attention as a prevailing source of the laws and practices of international armed conflicts of today. However, in this seminar, the Lieber Code is read as the legal framework through which the occupying powers in Iraq sought to frame the legality of the oscillation between exercising sovereign authority and acting as a non-sovereign authority of occupied territory in Iraq. Moreover, the Lieber Code’s prevalence in American military handbooks and literature, as both the origins of the international laws of armed conflict and as a source of the contemporary law and practice of warfare, indicates that the Lieber Code is far from an antiquated code primarily interesting for historical purposes. Drawing on recent debates on the ‘turn to history’ in international law, the seminar puts Anne Orford’s argument on international law’s anachronism to use — an argument well received for its potential as we revisit international law and its histories for critical ends. Few scholars, however, have examined how anachronism appears in contemporary international legal practice: this, by contrast, is a task for this seminar. This seminar foregrounds how the normative force of international law’s many pasts continues to operate in our present times and conditions

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