The laws of war

Written by Mark Briggs on . Posted in Profiles

Boyd van DijkBoyd van Dijk is a first year researcher in the Department of History and Civilization. His work centres on the Fourth Geneva Convention, exploring how the unique events occurring in the aftermath of the Second World War affected how we think about the laws of war.

In 1949 the world was still coming to term with the revelations of the Nuremberg Trials, Harry Truman – the only person to launch a nuclear attack – was inaugurated for the second time, Communist Forces entered Beijing and a ceasefire was arranged in the Indo-Pakistan War. In the midst of these global events the Fourth Geneva Convention sought to establish rules for the protection of civilians in times of war.

“I’m interested in how the laws of war were affected not only by the Second World War, but also all the other processes that were going on; decolonisation, the start of the cold war, reconstruction, intellectual movements booming at that time, existentialism among others.”

According to Van Dijk the Fourth Geneva Convention deals with questions that remain salient for today’s conflicts. “The discussion then was ‘who is a combatant?’ and ‘who was an unlawful combatant?’ This applies to today’s ‘War on Terror’”

Before arriving at the EUI, Van Dijk published a book based on his graduate theses. The book, Leven naast het kamp : Kamp Vught en de Vughtenaren 1942-1944, explores the relationship between the Dutch village of Vught and the concentration camp built there in 1942, the only SS Concentration Camp in occupied Western Europe.

“I was interested in bystander history, how people living next to the camp dealt with its presence, both practically and psychologically.”

The potentially apocryphal quote attributed to Joseph Stalin ‘One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic’ plays on the assumption that humans can feel no emotion to even the most brutal uses of violence, which presents a unique challenge to those studying such events. “You realise that you are an historian and you have to step back. [However] You will be reading something and you can be hit by one particular detail, it can be a victim’s story, or a particular family tragedy.”

So why does he do it?  “Part of what I think is so interesting about history, and in particular the study of war and violence, is that you study dilemma. It is interesting to see how politicians, legal scholars, generals, diplomats tried to deal with these dilemmas.”

“As a historian you are always reluctant to answer questions on morality or ‘what would we do today’ and you try to understand the circumstances in which people came to their decisions, but as a civilian you can’t not think about it.”

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