Iraq Conflict Won't Be Officially Declared Civil War, Says Malone
Despite an increasing number of reports in the media calling the conflict in Iraq a civil war, the United States and other nations have no incentive to follow suit, said visiting law professor Linda Malone. "As a practical matter it is not going to be formally recognized by anyone as a civil war," said Malone, who leads the Law School's Iraqi Tribunals Clinic this semester and directs the Human Rights and National Security Law Program at the College of William & Mary School of Law.
The situation in Iraq could fit the legal definition of a civil war "as there gets to be more organized military activity in the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, as opposed to just outbursts of violence."
Malone said civil wars are traditionally recognized by states outside of the conflict area, although the U.N. Security Council could declare a civil war and specify how states must react to that determination. When there is such recognition, both sides in the war become characterized as belligerents. "There's not much incentive, if any, for the states to declare there's a civil war going on," Malone said. "Once there's a civil war, other countries have to remain neutral."
If they don't, their support for one side could become an act of war that must be justified under international law. "The besieged government doesn't want a civil war to be recognized so it can be supported," she said. In the case of Iraq, "it would become very complicated as to whether we can support the Iraqi government, as opposed to remaining neutral. It would put the United States in a very difficult situation-even more difficult than it already is."
If the U.N. Security Council sought to curtail outside involvement in the war by resolution, it could attempt to do so, but the issue would be subject to a U.S. veto.