Language, linguistics and international law: the semantics and grammar of “military necessity”

A/Prof. Annabelle Lukin
Macquarie University


The history and function of international war law is increasingly contested, with some law scholars rejecting “the standard Western-European-centric view” characterized by the “grand narrative of international law as the purveyor of peace and civilization to the whole world” (Jouannet and Peters, 2014: 4). Critical accounts of international war law argue that this body of law in its various forms does not constrain the use of violence, but rather is a crucial source of its legitimation (e.g. Jochnick and Normand, 1994; Mégret, 2016; Normand and Jochnick, 1994; Lukin in press). Indeed, Mégret argues, that treaties, statutes and customary war law sources “enable, constitute and perpetuate” war and have produced “the basic building blocks of the international grammar of violence” (Mégret, 2016, 773, 777).

The focus of my paper is the legal concept named “military necessity” by German-American legal scholar Francis Leiber. At the request of the general-in-chief of the American Civil War Union armies, Leiber produced the “Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States”, where he formalised the concept and gave its first definition. Promulgated by President Lincoln in 1863, Leiber’s document became the central authority on legal matters during the American Civil War (Labuda 2014). “Military necessity” is now considered one of the “fundamental principles” in the law of armed conflict (Crawford and Pert, 2015: 41).

A legal “principle”, viewed linguistically, is no more and no less than a coherent cluster of wordings, subject to the same semiotic forces as any other act of linguistic meaning, including the two vectors of realization (the natural and the arbitrary – Halliday 2002/1992) which have been a feature of language since the semiotic “big bang”, and which are central to its always ideological character (Lukin 2019). In this paper, I will explore the wordings through which this concept has been articulated, for example by Leiber and by judges in the US Military Tribunal in Nuremberg (United States vs Wilhelm List et al case), and the manner in which it is integrated into key international war law sources, such as the Rome Statute, an international treaty which brought the International Criminal Court into being. My central inquiry will be around the potential of linguistic analysis to provide evidence from semantics and grammar of “military necessity” for the critical interpretations of war law, i.e. that it permits the right to life to be “sacrificed on the altar of inter-group violence” (Mégret, 2016, 776).


Crawford, Emily and Alison Pert. International Humanitarian Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1992/2002. How do you mean? In On Grammar: Volume 1 in the collected works of M.A.K. Halliday, ed. J.J. Webster, 352–68. London: Continuum.

Jouannet, Emmanuelle Tourme and Anne Peters. The journal of the history of international law: A forum for new research. Journal of the History of International Law 16 (2014): 1–8.

Labuda, Patryk. 2014. Leiber code. In Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law. Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law. (

Lukin, Annabelle. War and its ideologies: A social-semiotic theory and description. Singapore: Springer, 2019.

Lukin, Annabelle. In press. How international war law legitimises violence: a case study of the Rome Statute. Language, Context and Text. Vol 3.

Jochnick, Chris af and Roger Normand. The legitimation of violence: A critical history of the laws of war. Harvard International Law Journal 35, no. 1 (1994): 49–95.

Mégret, Frédéric. 2016. Theorizing the laws of war. In Oxford Handbook of the Theory of International Law, ed. Anne Orford and Florian Hoffmann, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Normand, Roger and Chris af Jochnick. The legitimation of violence: A critical history of thelaws of war. Harvard International Law Journal 35, no. 2 (1994): 387–416.

Cases and Treaties

United States v. Wilhelm List et al. (‘the Hostage Case’), US Military Tribunal Nuremberg, IX TWC, 757 (19 February 1948).

Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 17 July 1998, in force 1 uly 2002, 2187 UNTS 90.

Languages, literacies and the school in Aboriginal Australia 

Dr David Rose
Reading to Learn & University of Sydney


Language and literacy are central concerns for Indigenous communities in Australia. Families are deeply concerned for their children to learn both the academic literacies they need to succeed in school and further education, and the spoken languages of their elders and ancestors. In this International Year of Indigenous Languages, the whole nation has reasons for concern. Of the hundreds of languages once spoken across Australia, only 13 are now spoken by Indigenous children at home (Simpson 2019). At current rates of literacy improvement for Indigenous students, it has been estimated that the Indigenous ‘gap’ in school literacy will not close until next century (Gerathy 2019).

This paper focuses on the role of the school in language and literacy learning for Indigenous students. It first asks why Australian schools so often fail to provide Indigenous children with adequate literacy skills, or to support Indigenous communities to maintain and revive their ancestral languages, from the perspectives of policy, pedagogy and teacher education. It then illustrates a set of pedagogic principles and teaching strategies that have been developed with teachers, to enable Indigenous children to succeed with language and literacy learning (Rose 2010). Thirdly, it outlines an approach to knowledge about language and learning that can enable teachers to effectively support both academic literacy and Indigenous languages in the school.

Simpson, J. (2019). The state of Australia’s Indigenous languages – and how we can help people speak them more often. The Conversation, 21 January 2019.

Gerathy, S. (2019). NAPLAN report reveals Indigenous students’ skills improving, but literacy gap remains. ABC News, 8 April 2019.

Rose, D. (2010). Beating educational inequality with an integrated reading pedagogy. In F. Christie and A. Simpson (eds.) Literacy and Social Responsibility: Multiple Perspectives. London: Equinox, 101-115.

Ambient affiliation and lifestyle minimalism: The construction of multimodal point of view in decluttering vlogs on YouTube 

Dr Michele Zappavigna
University of New South Wales


Communicating about accumulated or newly purchased domestic objects is an important semiotic practice through which people share their lived experiences online. This paper explores how people present their relationship to these objects in ‘decluttering’ vlogs on YouTube showing the process of getting rid of undesired items. These videos are associated with discourses of lifestyle minimalism that are currently prevalent on social media platforms. The paper adopts a multimodal social semiotic approach, focusing on how language, gesture, and the visual frame coordinate intermodally to make meanings about objects. The multimodal construction of deixis in coordination with a type of ‘point-of-view shot’, filmed from the visual perspective of the vlogger, is examined. The broader aim is to investigate what these videos reveal about how digital semiotic capitalism is inflecting the lived experience of social media users. What is at stake is how people articulate intersubjective meanings about their experiences and relationships through the way they communicate about their objects. In other words, what does it mean when we bond with others by showing the process of throwing out our stuff?


Social media, Youtube, multimodality, deixis, point of view, social semiotics, minimalism, discourse analysis