Law can’t stop ‘catastrophic violence’ in Israel-Hamas war, Northeastern faculty expert says

Audience members sit in an auditorium, listening to people talking on a stage.
The first talk in the Crisis Conversation Series on the Israel-Hamas war, hosted by Northeastern’s Center for International Affairs and World Cultures. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

It “doesn’t give us all the answers,” but law can provide “accountability” and “advocacy” in relation to conflicts such as the Israel-Hamas war, Northeastern professor of law and international affairs Zinaida Miller said Wednesday afternoon.

“International law can do some things; I think legitimately it does quite a lot of important things in the world,” Miller said during the first talk in the Crisis Conversation Series on the war.  

In terms of stopping the “catastrophic violence” in Israel and Gaza, however, Miller said, law can also be unsatisfying. 

Head shot of Zinaida Miller.
Zinaida Miller, professor of law and international affairs. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“It doesn’t solve this problem,” Miller said. “It rarely gives you the straight answer that you’re looking for.”

The Crisis Conversation Series on the Israel-Hamas war is being hosted by the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures and features multiple moderated discussions with Northeastern faculty experts. It is designed to provide context, foster learning and promote dialogue. The talks in the series are open to Northeastern community members who have preregistered. 

Ronald Sandler, interim dean of the College of Social Sciences, introduced the event and established the framework for the series.  

“We are committed to the worth and dignity of everybody, and we value the human experience of every person,” Sandler said.

“We look forward to learning with you all,” he continued. “Not only here but in fora across the campus.” 

Mai’a Cross, director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures, and Dean’s Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Diplomacy, introduced the panel. 

Miller, an expert in international and human rights law, was the guest for the first talk, titled “Issues of International Law and Human Rights for Palestinians and Israelis.” The discussion was moderated by Gretchen Heefner, chair and associate professor of history and associate director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures. A question and answer session followed the conversation. 

The talk began with Miller acknowledging the suffering reported by human rights observers on the ground: 10,000 people killed in Gaza by Israeli forces, 2,500 people missing, and 1.5 million people displaced by the ensuing violence, causing a humanitarian crisis with food, water and medical supplies in extremely short supply; 1,400 Israelis and foreign citizens killed on Oct. 7, and 242 hostages taken.

“Why am I saying all these facts that way, all in a row? It’s not to equate forms of suffering,” Miller said. “It’s not because I think a recitation of facts can get us to an understanding of the conflict. It is because remembering the lives that are being lost is incredibly important, even when we get into very technical discussions about law.”

Indeed, compiling the facts, Miller said “is in many ways the starting point.”

“Many of these facts come to matter in the sorts of legal assessments that we do,” Miller said. “And so part of the work is figuring out what is happening and understanding how to think about it legally.”

“Thinking about it legally” also means understanding what international law governing war is.

“International humanitarian law is not a body of rules that outlaws war,” Miller explained. “It is something that attempts through a series of principles and rules to avert some of the more horrific atrocities and suffering that happen during war and armed conflict.”

And although Miller noted that law is one of many topics that could help people understand and contextualize the current fighting, law was particularly important because legal terms are part of debates surrounding the conflict.

Yet, Miller said, “the law has limitations.”

For instance, compiling facts is dangerous, labor intensive and time-consuming work that doesn’t happen immediately — meaning that accountability often comes after the fact.

And in terms of stopping suffering, or convincing various actors to change their ways, advocacy doesn’t always dramatically change things — or not in the most visible manner. Asked by a student for historical examples where legal actions had shifted policymakers’ actions and how that instance might influence the current conflict, Miller suggested the answer is complicated.

“We have seen a shift in how legal language is used to protest war,” Miller said, noting that specifically protesting the “illegality” of a war was particularly evident during the Second Iraq War. “I do think as method for demonstrating hypocrisy or using a particular kind of ideas that ‘name and shame’ as we sometimes say in human rights, those things can often move the needle in ways we might not automatically be able to see publicly.”

So, as another student asked, then what’s the point? 

“Human rights do things in the world all the time, not only in situations like this of catastrophic conflict, including offering a language for people to demand political change” Miller said, adding that “at moments of disaster is when it can feel less impactful.”

And while that may sound unsatisfying, international law and human rights workers can document, disseminate information and help people so the law can lead to change.

That being said, “It has limits,” Miller said. “It is not the end-all or be-all.”

The series will continue with a Nov. 16 talk titled “Jewish History, Jewish Responses,” featuring Simon Rabinovitch, Stotsky Associate Professor in Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies, and Lori Lefkovitz, Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Jewish Studies Program.

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on X/Twitter @MoultonCyrus.