The Dirty Little Wars of the 21st Century Commentary
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The Dirty Little Wars of the 21st Century

As the armed forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the Caucasus, slug it out over a decades-long dispute about a piece of ground, one is reminded that conflict, once again, has become dirty and lawless at many levels. Civilians have become targets, protective symbols of the Geneva Conventions, such as the Red Cross or the Red Crescent have been ignored, and prisoners of war have been tortured, killed, or used as human shields…war crimes all. This is troublesome and flies in the face of the United Nations paradigm of the international rule of law. Syria, Yemen, Georgia, Ukraine/Crimea, South Sudan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka, among others, are examples of lawless conflict. 

John Keegan, the eminent military historian, declared soberly, “the history of mankind is the history of war, the history of war is the history of mankind.” Over the centuries, a body of international norms, regimes, and the law has evolved to control war and protect those found on the battlefield. During the “bloody 20th century” the horrific conflicts that destroyed tens of millions of human beings in the two world wars, followed by the Cold War, caused mankind to further codify those centuries of work to control conflict. Various Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Charter, the Nuremberg Principles, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Genocide Convention became a cornerstone of holding those who destroy their own citizens accountable and in protecting those found on a battlefield.

For centuries, tyrants, thugs, dictators, heads of state, and monarchs have governed with impunity. There was no accountability for their actions. In the 20th century, the beast of impunity fed ravenously on the edges of civilization. After the Second World War, the United Nations Charter established a regime of law and order that proclaimed that we settle our disputes peaceably and resort to the use of force only as a last resort. Though weakened by the four decades of the Cold War, the ideals of the United Nations Charter held up to the whipsaw challenges of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

In the 1990s, we saw the beginning of an age of accountability that began to draw on those international laws and norms to hold those who violated them accountable under the law. Tribunals and courts flourished for two decades, holding tyrants accountable for war crimes and other violations of international law. In Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia the international community came together to show the world the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun.  

Yet despite this movement forward, there was a concerning and subtle trend that began in the conflicts perpetrated during the Cold War in Southeast Asia, South and Central America—lawless conflicts. The clear guidance of the law, to protect civilians and respect prisoners, the wounded and sick, as well as protected places, to include hospitals, undefended towns, and the civilian property was ignored. This trend towards dirty and lawless conflict continues to this day.

Once again, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the world is watching a potentially dirty little war play out. Allegations of war crimes echo along the mountain valleys of that unsettled area. Despite statements of concern by various states in an age of strongmen, little is being done by international and regional organizations to manage the conflict. A deadlocked United Nations Security Council will hamper an already faltering United Nations from leading efforts to stop the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and negotiate a ceasefire. The two strongmen who led Turkey and Russia maneuvered in the background to influence an outcome in their favor. Iran is moving troops north along its border. We have three tyrants moving toward each other, the olive branch of peace seems to be missing. No one is talking, but the “chest-thumping” can be heard throughout the region.

The one country that shaped the age of accountability and led the world in upholding the rule of law, has left the international stage. Racked by division and the manic policies of a President who is unfit for the job, the United States appears to care little about these dirty little wars. That the President admires the very strongmen who are heading into a possible confrontation with the Caucuses. We are in a “perfect storm” of tyrants, thugs, dictators with little moral leadership from the United States. This can only weaken the legal structure that governs armed conflict. Dirty little wars will continue to flourish such as between Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Lawless conflict – dirty and unmanageable – takes civilization back to the Dark Ages. Despite a robust legal regime, this trend can only lead to an international community that is unsettled, insecure, and unstable causing more unaccountable atrocity that damages the moral principles laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The world needs to ask the question, should we choose the law or the gun? Though the answer seems obvious, we are at a moment in history where, however we answer the question, it could set the tone for the rest of the century. It all augers poorly indeed.

We need to use the law to avoid conflict, settle our disputes peacefully, and manage any conflict in ways that limit the effects of conflict and protect those involved. The history of mankind does not have to be the history of war. Note the words of Nelson Mandela—“Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”


Professor David M. Crane is a long-time contributor to JURIST.  He was the founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the founder of the Global Accountability Network. He helped develop the US Department of Defense Law of War Program.


Suggested Citation: David M. Crane, The Dirty Little Wars of the 21st Century, JURIST – Professional Commentary, October 13, 2020,

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