GoJIL Vol. 2, No. 3 (2010)
Defending the Emergence of the Superior Orders Defense in the Contemporary Context
The defense of superior orders is one of the most controversial defenses to be pleaded under criminal law. In effect, it condones ignorance of the law and allows a subordinate to escape criminal liability on a basis other than culpability. It may therefore come as a surprise that sixty years after the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, the resort to superior orders has re-emerged as a complete defense for certain types of crimes. I argue that this defense is based on sound policy reasons of military necessity, and should be made available on the condition that the order is not ‘manifestly illegal’. In contrast to blunt absolutist approaches, the manifest illegality doctrine presents the most workable test for distinguishing between the culpability of conduct committed by soldiers in circumstances of exigency. This ‘middle-way’ successfully balances the dichotomous ends of legality and military efficiency and should be the preferred test under international law.
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