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LUCIR/Grotius Centre roundtable: Preventing ‘repeat mistakes’ in war

Thursday 25 April 2024
Turfmarkt 99
2511 DP The Hague
room 3.48

Inevitable consequences of war?

In 2015, the United States military dropped a bomb on a hospital in Afghanistan run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), killing forty-two staff and patients. Testifying later before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General John F. Campbell explained that “[t]he hospital was mistakenly struck.” In 2019, while providing air support to partner forces under attack by ISIS, the U.S. military killed dozens of women and children. Central Command concluded that any civilian deaths “were accidental.” In August 2021, as the U.S. military executed a rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan, it executed a drone strike in Kabul that killed ten civilians, including an aid worker for a U.S. charity and seven children in his family. The Pentagon later admitted it was a “tragic mistake.” In these cases and others like them, no one set out to kill the civilians who died. Such events are usually chalked up as sad but inevitable consequences of war—as regrettable “mistakes.”

Professor Hathaway will examine the state of the law on “mistakes” in war. Under international humanitarian law, intentionally killing a civilian is a war crime, but is killing a civilian by mistake ever a crime? She will consider whether and when international humanitarian law holds not just individuals, but also states, responsible for “mistakes.” To see the costs of “mistakes” in practice, she will describe the U.S. military’s assessments of civilian casualties. She will focus on the United States, both because of its global military operations and because of the power of its example to shape global practices. She will show that “mistakes” in the U.S. counterterrorism campaign far more common than is generally acknowledged. Some errors are, moreover, the predictable–and avoidable–result of a system that does little to learn from its mistakes. But the United States is far from alone. Professor Hathaway will therefore conclude with proposals for addressing “mistakes” in war through changes in both domestic law and the law of armed conflict.

During this seminar, Professor Oona Hathaway will discuss her latest, topical research, followed by an interdisciplinary panel discussion. Professor Hathaway’s draft paper will be distributed to participants upon registration.


  • Marten Zwanenburg, Professor of Military Law  (Universiteit van Amsterdam and the Netherlands Defence Academy)
  • Floribert Baudet, Professor of Military History (Universiteit van Amsterdam and the Netherlands Defence Academy)


  • Dr. Anna Marhold (Leiden University, Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies)

About Oona A. Hathaway

Oona A. Hathaway is the Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law at Yale Law School, Professor of International Law and Area Studies at the Yale University MacMillan Center, Professor of the Yale University Department of Political Science, and Director of the Yale Law School Center for Global Legal Challenges. She has been a member of the Advisory Committee on International Law for the Legal Adviser at the United States Department of State since 2005. In 2014-15, she took leave to serve as Special Counsel to the General Counsel at the U.S. Department of Defense, where she was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense Award for Excellence. She is the Director of the annual Yale Cyber Leadership Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has published more than forty law review articles, and The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (with Scott Shapiro, 2017). She is also Executive Editor of and regular author at Just Security, and she writes often for popular publications such as The Washington Post, New York Times, The Atlantic, and Foreign Affairs.


Please register via the registrationlink if you wish to attend this event.

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