Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy



Collaborative Specialization

Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction


Oosterveld, Valerie


This thesis advances the claim that there is a gap between the regulation of behaviour for the protection of individuals in peace and the regulations needed to protect civilians from combatant violence during war. Social psychology and criminology theories can help to develop the necessary conflict-specific behavioural regulations. This is because social psychology and criminology theories can explain how combatant deviance is adversely affected by psychological processes that reframe combatants’ conceptions of right and wrong and, in so doing, fundamentally alter the way in which combatants view the IHL rules intended to protect civilians. This thesis uses legal doctrinal methodology to establish the current status of IHL application to armed groups and existing IHL protections for civilians, which are based largely on peacetime protections for individuals (e.g., prohibitions on assault, murder, rape, etc.). It demonstrates the need and utility of turning to academic disciplines beyond law, specifically social psychology and criminology, to understand combatant violence toward civilians. Through the use of case studies focusing on the Sierra Leone civil war and the numerous ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this thesis identifies two common combatant behaviours that contribute to the perpetration of IHL violations against civilians, but are currently unregulated by IHL: (1) combatant use of demeaning, degrading, or dehumanizing language toward civilians and (2) combatant use of nicknames, particularly violent or heroic nicknames. The thesis proposes two new IHL regulations to address these behaviours and to inhibit the ability of these behaviours to contribute to violence toward civilians during armed conflict. Ultimately, the thesis demonstrates how combatant psychology can be used to develop the substantive content of IHL for the protection of civilians.

Summary for Lay Audience

This thesis argues that there is a need for new laws regulating the behaviour of members of armed groups in order to improve protection for civilians during war. Current protections for civilians are largely based on the same protections for individuals in peacetime (e.g., no murder, no stealing, no rape), but new laws focusing on behaviour which, in the context of war, places civilians in danger. The behaviour in need of regulation can be identified through an improved understanding of the psychology causes of acts of direct violence toward civilians by members of armed groups. This thesis uses social psychology and criminology to understand the psychology of fighters. It then applies this understanding to case studies examining violence toward civilians in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The thesis develops two new legal rules to regulate the use of demeaning, degrading or dehumanizing language by fighters and the use of nicknames by fighters. The dehumanization of civilians leads to violence towards civilians. Nicknames allow fighters to feel anonymous and not responsible for their actions toward civilians. Targeting these behaviours through the law will prevent the patterns of thought that lead to civilian harm.