On November 8, 2017, the Mortara Center for International Studies awarded Dr. Jessica Stanton, Associate Professor at University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, with the Georgetown University Lepgold Book Prize. Established in the memory of Joseph S. Lepgold, a Georgetown University Government and School of Foreign Service professor, the award honors exceptional contributions to the study of international relations with an emphasis on the resolution of critical policy challenges.
Stanton’s book Violence and Restraint in Civil War: Civilian Targeting in the Shadow of International Law explores the strategic use of violence and restraint from governments and rebel groups, using original data on violence against civilians during civil wars between 1989 and 2010. The book expatiates on conflicts in Azerbaijan, El Salvador, Indonesia, Sudan, Turkey, and Uganda showing restraint being used as a strategic choice dependent on the need for diplomatic support. According to Stanton, governments and rebel groups understand that if they violate international human rights and humanitarian laws, there are going to be some costs.
During her talk, Stanton used Syria as example of what happens when international support disregards violence against civilians: “When I’m talking about international audiences here I want to be clear, I don’t mean that all international actors care about how belligerents behave during wartime. Again, Syria is a great example where we see Russia backing the Assad regime, doesn’t seem to care all that much about whether the Assad regime is attacking civilians.”.
Stanton concludes that the international community has the most leverage with vulnerable governments and rebel groups rather than those that only have to appeal to a narrow constituency:
If that constituency either domestically or internationally is narrow, so again with Assad, if he only has to please Russia, then the costs of violence are low and the incentives for restraint are low, the likelihood of violence is high.
Later in the Q&A session that followed the talk, a student in the audience asked: “What changes we can make to international humanitarian law or to how we approach these groups that can push these groups or pressure them toward restraint?” Stanton responded, “I think there are things that the international community can do. As I said, there are cases where there are governments and rebel groups that are more susceptible or vulnerable to that pressure but I think probably the best chance is to try to create positive inducements that the international community could then take away. The cases where we see the most effective influence of the international community are cases where the government or the rebel group really felt it had something to lose if it stopped behaving in accordance with these standards.”