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A matter of life and death: non-state actors and the Right to Wage War

Claire Vergerio, political scientist at Leiden University, has been awarded a Veni grant by Dutch research organisation NWO. This will allow her to conduct an in-depth analysis of the legal rights and duties of non-state actors involved in warfare. The aim is to tackle some persistent blindspots in legal history and, perhaps, contribute to the present-day regulation of wars involving non-state actors.

History matters

It is generally assumed that only sovereign states have a legal right to wage war. Since 1648, the year of the Peace of Westphalia, both politicians and scholars have claimed that this monopoly has brought international stability. This assumption has had its consequences. ‘History matters’, according to Vergerio. ‘It shapes our view of the world and influences policymaking everywhere. One of the main reasons why we are so bad at regulating war with non-state actors today is because we have a completely skewed understanding of how this was done in the past.’

Contrary to main stream international law, Vergerio does not believe that there is no place for non-state actors in the laws of war. Through jurispraxis, closely looking at actual practical texts like treaties, she hopes to uncover two persistent blindspots in legal-historical research: legal conflict regulation in the Holy Roman Empire (usually dismissed by scholars as an ‘odd case’) and treaties between European and non-European actors. ‘I want to know who had the legal right to wage war at various points in time, and what concepts of sovereignty were actually being used. Also, I am going to try to establish when this right was actually restricted to states.’

Questioning present-day international law

Vergerio expects to help further deconstruct the ‘myth of Westphalia’. Through a qualitative and quantitative analysis of a large set of global peace treaties she hopes to be able to demonstrate that the right to wage war has in fact been allocated to a multiplicity of political entities, well into the modern period. This, in turn, may lead us to question present-day international law. As far as Vergerio is concerned, it is time to ‘consider whether we wouldn’t be better off including non-state actors under the laws of war. To put it bluntly, when it comes to regulating non-state violence, taking history seriously may actually be a matter of life and death.’

Highly promising young scientists

Veni is part of NWO’s Incentives Scheme and is targeted at highly promising young scientists. With the help of a Veni grant, researchers who have recently obtained their PhD can conduct independent research and develop their ideas for a period of three years. In the 2019 Veni round, there were 1.151 admissible submissions. 166 of those were awarded a grant up to 250,000 euros.

Profile page Claire Vergerio

Veni grants for 25 Leiden researchers

NWO: Innovational Research Incentives Scheme Veni

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