Military Culture, War Crimes and the Defence of Superior Orders

  • Aziz Mohammed

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Throughout recorded history, we seem to have been plagued with more wars than peace. Everyday more atrocities and gross crimes against humanity are committed. The reality of war has become a constant element in human and national affairs involving great suffering, destruction, and often catastrophic ravaging of entire societies. To mitigate this savagery, reciprocal restraints on the conduct of war and armed conflict became advantageous and common, as means and methods of warfare became more destructive and sophisticated.‘I was only following orders’. This has become a common plea mouthed by the relative innocent junior soldiers and the dubious battlefield murderers. Is there a defence of obedience to superior orders? If so, to what extent can a soldier plead to such a defence? Obedience to orders has taken such an important role in conflicts that soldiers are now left to argue and ponder when not to comply with an order. What is wrong? Why is this happening? Are the current laws inadequate and unclear? Are the current military doctrines and manuals inadequate and of no significant help? Is the defence, obedience to superior orders, raised as merely a smoke screen to camouflage the atrocities and shift blame to avoid punishment? The military culture behind the obedience to orders, its standards and how they can be improved to resolve the impasse of atrocities being committed under the common plea of obedience to superior orders.This thesis seeks to examine the military culture of obedience and the standards that exist relating to the defence of superior orders. It will explore laws and practices for this defence that have been adopted nationally and internationally. It will also propose guidelines for differentiating legal from illegal orders.Finally, this thesis will reference a case study, which should provide a basis for testing the standards advocated. The case study should also serve as a lesson for our soldiers regarding their conduct on the battlefield, especially acts committed whilst obeying superior orders.It is hoped that this thesis will provide some answers to the questions relating to the defence of superior orders and in turn help minimise innocent casualties.
Date of Award14 Feb 2009
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorHwee Cheng Goh (Supervisor)

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