[P4925] Violence, Legality, and Law on the Ottoman Periphery

Created by William Smiley
Saturday, 11/18/17 5:30pm


Since 2001, the international law of war—and its violation—has been inextricably bound up with U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Detainees held at Guantanamo Bay are treated as neither prisoners of war nor criminals; U.S. interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Syria are widely seen as violating the U.N. Charter; new legal theories have justified drone warfare in Yemen and Pakistan; and both al-Qaeda and the Islamic state abuse, ransom, or execute captives in violation of international captivity standards. In all these debates about violence and law, it is commonly assumed that the law of war is a product of enlightened western European thought, and that it serves to promote humanitarian objectives and limit violence. Law, in other words, is linked with concepts of restraint, civilization, and Europe.

This panel uses the Ottoman Empire’s engagement with the law of war, on land and at sea, to question those assumptions. Our first paper examines debates over what constituted legal maritime violence and who could define it in the seventeenth-century Mediterranean. Mounting disagreements between the Ottoman central government and the North African provinces over their corsairing led Istanbul to disavow the corsairs, leaving them to the mercy of the European states they had victimized. Our second paper explores the legal consequences of the Russian blockade of the Dardanelles during the 1768-1774 Russo-Ottoman War . Russian policies preventing the passage of foodstuffs clashed with European conventions, forcing admiralty courts to navigate between conflicting legal touchstones. In examining the prisoner-of-war system practiced by the Ottomans and Russians in the second half of the nineteenth century, our third paper examines how changing legal rhetorics might be only loosely tethered to actual practice which, despite Orientalist discourses and claims of incommensurability, was broadly similar across Eurasia. Our final paper traces changing legal opinions on the “civilized” conduct of war issued by the Ottoman Office of Legal Counsel in the early twentieth century. These opinions formed the basis of diplomatic protests regarding the 1911-1912 Italian invasion of Libya and the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars. These protests were ignored in Europe, and the Office’s opinions thus carried less weight in World War One. The papers thus show law “in action,” in state policies and individual experiences, rather than only in scholarly discussions and treatises. They argue for the productive use of law as an analytical category, rather than only a source of normative judgments, in approaching the past.


Hist; Law



Molly Greene

(Princeton University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Chair;

William Smiley

(Reed College)
Panel Participating Role(s): Organizer; Presenter;

Joshua White

(University of Virginia)
Panel Participating Role(s): Organizer; Presenter;

Aimee Genell

(University of California, Berkeley)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;

Julia Leikin

(Institute of Historical Research)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;