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The American Lieber Code in Occupied Iraq: Anachronism and the Turn to History in International Law and Practice
Matilda Arvidsson (University of Gothenburg)

  • Room 920, Melbourne Law School 185 Pelham Street Carlton, VIC, 3053 Australia (map)
Paul Klee, Ad Parnassum (1932).

Paul Klee, Ad Parnassum (1932).

In this seminar, Matilda Arvidsson revisited the occupation of Iraq in 2003–2004 to ask about the use of the 19th century Lieber Code during this time. Why did an antiquated American Civil War code resurface in the wake of the international armed conflict in Iraq, and to what effect?

Often referred to as a historical predecessor to contemporary international humanitarian law, the Lieber Code has received little attention as a prevailing source of the laws and practices of international armed conflicts of today. However, in this seminar, the Lieber Code is read as the legal framework through which the occupying powers in Iraq sought to frame the legality of the oscillation between exercising sovereign authority and acting as a non-sovereign authority of occupied territory in Iraq. Moreover, the Lieber Code’s prevalence in American military handbooks and literature, as both the origins of the international laws of armed conflict and as a source of the contemporary law and practice of warfare, indicates that the Lieber Code is far from an antiquated code primarily interesting for historical purposes. Drawing on recent debates on the ‘turn to history’ in international law, the seminar put Anne Orford’s argument on international law’s anachronism to use — an argument well received for its potential as we revisit international law and its histories for critical ends. Few scholars, however, have examined how anachronism appears in contemporary international legal practice: this, by contrast, was the task for this seminar. This seminar explored how the normative force of international law’s many pasts continues to operate in our present times and conditions.


Dr Matilda Arvidsson is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in law at the Department of Law, University of Gothenburg. She researches international law and its histories, international humanitarian law, posthumanism and technology, as well as the embodiment of law in its various forms. She holds an LLM and LLD in international law from Lund University, where she has also served as a lecturer in law. She has a background in legal practice as a junior judge and she continues to practise as a legal counsel. Between October and November 2017, she is a Kathleen Fitzpatrick Visiting Fellow with the Laureate Program in International Law at Melbourne Law School.