Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What's in a name?

The Washington Post published an article today entitled, "Global War on Terror Is Given New Name," stating that the Obama Administration intends to replace the phrase "global war on terror" with "overseas contingency operations."  The move apparently is designed to distance the Obama Administration from the rhetoric of the Bush Administration and better reflect the fact that there are different militant groups fighting the U.S. that should not be grouped together in a way that overstates their strength.  The Obama Administration also may be responding in part to the urging of the International Commission on Jurists to drop the phrase "war on terror" because it was used to justify human rights and humanitarian law violations.

As law professors, we often teach our students that words matter and that it is important to select the correct word or phrase to convey the exact meaning and intent.  When the Bush Administration used the phrase "war on terror," there was much discussion in the media and among academics as to whether it meant a war in the traditional sense that would invoke international law governing the use of force and what affect that would have on the ability of states engaged in the "war on terror" to derogate from certain international human rights obligations.  While the Obama Administration appears to be backing away from the use of the word "war", it is not at all clear what is meant by "overseas contingency operations."  The new phrase is broad enough and vague enough to cover all sorts of situations, from responses to actual armed hostilities to delivery of aid in the face of a natural disaster.  Thus, I suspect many persons will still not be certain as to the meaning and intent of the new phraseology.


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