Prof. Michael Newton

speaker Prof. Michael Newton

Always ask the question, what else is going on contextually? What are we not seeing? What radio transmissions are we not hearing?

Michael Newton is a professor at Vanderbilt Law School and is an expert on terrorism, transnational justice, and conduct of hostilities issues. An authority on the law of armed conflict, Newton served as the senior adviser to the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department from January 1999 to August 2002, during which he implemented a wide range of policy positions. He negotiated the “Elements of Crimes” for the International Criminal Court. He has been involved in coordinating U.S. support to accountability mechanisms worldwide, both at the international and domestic levels. For example, he is currently assisting judges and legislators addressing atrocity crimes committed in Ukraine under a USAID led project. He led the team teaching international law to the first group of Iraqis who began to think about accountability mechanisms and a constitutional structure. He later shuttled back and forth to Baghdad assisting international and Iraqi lawyers prosecuting cases before the Iraqi High Tribunal  while serving as the International Law Adviser to the Judicial Chambers from 2006 to 2008. He began assisting Iraqi officials, victims and civil society groups on legal issues associated with documentation and investigation of crimes committed by Da’esh on Iraqi soil days after Yazidi victims fled towards Mount Sinjar. Newton remains active in providing assistance to the Iraqi judiciary in Da’esh related prosecutions. He served as the U.S. representative on the U.N. Planning Mission for the Sierra Leone Special Court and was a founding member of its academic consortium. Newton is the editor of The United States Department of Defense Law of War Manual: Commentary and Critique (Cambridge University Press).

Talks by Prof. Michael Newton

related talk War Crimes – Israel & Gaza
War Crimes – Israel & Gaza

In the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the line between legitimate military action and war crime is not always clear. Professor Michael Newton, an expert on the laws of war, gives his analysis on events ranging from bombings, to kidnapping, to human shields in order to better distinguish war crimes in the context of Israel and Palestine. 

According to the laws of war, the conflict in Gaza is not a traditional battle between nations. Newton explains that Israeli soldiers and Hamas fighters are in some ways treated differently under international law. Hamas fighters, for example, are not soldiers based on the standard legal definition because they do not fight on behalf of an internationally recognized sovereign state. Rather, under the laws of war, they are “civilians engaged in armed conflict.”  This is relevant as it means that Hamas members do not have combatant immunity protections guaranteed to soldiers at war.  Additionally, this distinction also presents unique challenges to Israel in targeting Hamas since civilians engaged in armed conflict must be classified based on their actions rather than their status as soldiers. 

Professor Newton goes on to analyze various aspects of the Hamas attacks in Israel and the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza under the laws of war.  Through the lens of war crime definitions, Newton discusses kidnapping, the targeting of civilians, sexual violence, the use of human shields, starvation as a tool of war, targeting hospitals and places of worship, and the use of disproportionate force and other war crime definitions. He walks through his analysis of how they line up with actions on the ground in Israel and Gaza and explains the judgement calls involved in making such determinations.  In war, Newton explains, mistakes can happen and difficult choices are required with imperfect information. The rules of war were drafted in such a way to allow commanders to exercise discretion and to achieve legitimate military objectives. War crime laws provide important yet pragmatic guardrails during such periods of often tragic violence. 

Michael Newton is a professor at Vanderbilt Law School and is an authority on the law of armed conflict.