“Law of ATLA Conflict”: Introduction

It’s a new year, and I’m between semesters, which means I need a preoccupation (in addition to two part-time jobs and several video games). Of the usual millennial lock-down hobbies, I had chosen TikTok, and one of the TikToks I came across – genuinely, a testament to the algorithm – was a list of war crimes committed in Avatar: the Last Airbender (ATLA). I was immediately disappointed; I mean, TikTok doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a detailed application of the Geneva Conventions but still! I wanted a more robust and nuanced analysis. So, coming off a semester studying international humanitarian law (IHL), I decided: why not make this a project for myself? I gauged some interest using Instagram, talked the idea through with my husband, and drew up a spreadsheet.

This is how you know it’s serious.

Some basics first, in case you’re not familiar with IHL (totally fair!). International humanitarian law is the body of law that governs (or, um, should govern) the conduct of war. The Geneva Conventions (GCs) are a series of four conventions and three additional protocols (APs) that set out rules for various aspects of conflict mostly between but also within states: in order, the protection of wounded and sick members of the armed forces on land; the protection of wounded, sick and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea; the protection of prisoners of war; and the protection of civilians during wartime. The additional protocols fill in gaps – so the first AP (AP/I) adds more rules governing conflict between states, AP/II adds rules governing non-international armed conflicts, and AP/III identifies some distinctive emblems that preclude targeting.

I’m going to try to explain myself as much as possible so as to make this easier to follow. I’m also going to stick to the model that why you’re at war has no bearing on what you do during war (i.e., even if the reason you’re at war is garbage, that doesn’t – legally – sully your otherwise stellar conduct. Think of General Iroh; he fought on behalf of an imperialist agenda, but was otherwise incredibly honorable). I don’t think the latter will come up much, but just in case!

Obviously, there are tons of caveats:

First: I am not a lawyer, nor am I an IHL expert (yet!!). I’m just a nerd who has ideas take up residence in her head rent-free (and I like my tenants, usually). And I really like the idea of applying IHL to a fantasy world. I’m going to cite my sources (see footnotes below!), both for ATLA lore and IHL – but I expect to be wrong a lot and I’m excited to be corrected! I’m also going to make the realm of IHL a little tighter for my own sake, and limit the applicable law to the Geneva Conventions and customary international law. Just to make this easier.

Second: I’m applying IHL to a fantasy world. Obviously, this requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief. The Geneva Conventions do not exist in the ATLA world (nor does any part of international law) – which makes speculation even more fun. What does being a combatant mean in a world where people can bend the elements? Are Team Avatar combatants or civilians or is a revolving door model most helpful? Are Katara, Toph and Aang child soldiers (Sokka and Zuko are 15 and 16, which means they aren’t child soldiers per the Geneva Conventions1)? What is the status of the Avatar?

Third: What is the status of the Avatar? This is probably one of the more fun questions I’m looking forward to answering. I have a vague idea of what I think the Avatar’s status should be – particularly given that the Avatar in question is Aang – but it’s definitely debatable. My approach is that the Avatar is both a combatant and a weapon, specifically when in the Avatar state, in their own right. In Aang’s specific case, the status of the Avatar as a weapon part gets a little complicated – but we’ll get into that!2

Fourth: The history of IHL and international law more broadly is…complicated to say the least, and colonial to be blunt. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that. I wonder if there is some perversity in applying IHL into a fantasy world that intentionally subverts Eurocentricity, and that takes its inspiration from traditions that have their own codes of war that long precede modern international humanitarian law. I don’t seek to uphold IHL as a gold standard; this is an intellectual exercise, not a moral one (if that makes sense).

Fifth: I’m not going to analyze every single episode of ATLA, just because that would be a little too much. I chose each episode based on the Wikipedia summary thereof, keeping an eye out for any themes that might be especially relevant to the law of war. I don’t think this is an airtight methodology. I might be missing other relevant episodes. But since I do want to enjoy my winter break at least a little, 26 episodes’ worth of analysis is more than enough.

In terms of structure, I will probably try to have a single post cover at least half of a season. With Book Three it gets a little trickier because there’s so much to cover. I’d like to be done with this series by the time my semester starts, which gives me ten days to figure this out. Hopefully I can actually deliver. That means, not including this background post, there will be at least six posts covering this series.

I’m excited for this series, and hopefully it won’t disappoint. It will also make me feel better about somewhat neglecting my blog. Wish me luck!


[1] Per Article 77 of Additional Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions, you have to be under 15 to count as a child soldier. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child raises that age to 18; but since we’re limiting analysis to the Geneva Conventions (and customary international law) for ease – though it’s not just the GCs that comprise IHL – we’ll stick to 15.

[2] I’m not an expert on ATLA lore, so I’ll be relying a lot on the ATLA wiki/other sources of lore, as well as speculation. Where I can source the lore, I will!

2 thoughts on ““Law of ATLA Conflict”: Introduction

  1. As a political science and journalism major and ATLA lover, I think this is a really cool idea and can’t wait to read your ideas and analysis. Good luck!

    1. Thank you so much! There’s a lot to dig into…I’m already getting the sense that this could be a dissertation in its own right, which is tempting but also an impossibility right now haha.

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