Some Questions About Unlawful Combatants
[Opinio Juris welcomes Professor Michael Ramsey as a guest respondent. He is a professor of law at San Diego School of Law and an expert in foreign relations law.]
My thanks to Opinio Juris for setting up this fascinating exchange and for inviting me to participate, and to John Bellinger for taking time to provide such thoughtful posts. As somewhat of an outsider to this area (my principal field is the constitutional law of foreign affairs), I find that I have more questions than answers.
Let’s assume there is a category of people who take active part in combat but are not covered by the Third Geneva Convention (because they fail the test of its Article 4) or by Common Article 3 (because the conflict is “of an international character”). It seems fairly inescapable that there is such a category (whether or not Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters are in it). Unless they are covered by the Fourth Geneva Convention, fighters in this category aren’t protected by the text of the Geneva framework. It also seems inescapable that, prior to Geneva, the extensive protections contained in the Fourth Convention did not apply to irregular fighters (that is, those who would fail the Article 4 test). The Fourth Convention’s text seems unclear on whether it covers such persons, since it covers “civilians” (which might or might not include irregular fighters). Do commentators critical of the U.S. position contend that the Fourth Convention’s signatories in 1949 intended to extend its elaborate protections to irregular fighters, contrary to traditional practice? Is that how the Fourth Convention was interpreted immediately after it was ratified? If not, what theory of interpretation allows us to be so certain of today’s meaning? (And for that matter, even if the intent was clear in 1949, are we certain that treaties’ meanings can’t evolve to adapt to new circumstances, as is often said of the Constitution?) These aren’t meant as rhetorical questions, as I haven’t studied the history of Geneva, but I have also not seen much reliance upon it.
On the other hand, for Mr. Bellinger’s side, if the Fourth Convention does not cover persons in this category, doesn’t that create a strange asymmetry: irregular forces in a civil war have the protections of Common Article 3, but (if the U.S. position is right) irregular forces have no protection at all in an international conflict? Is there any evidence that Geneva’s signatories wanted to give more protection to irregulars in civil wars than otherwise? Is it even plausible that they could have had this intent – what could possibly motivate it? Isn’t the asymmetry better explained either by saying that the Fourth Convention applies to irregulars (which you don’t want) or that the Common Article 3 protections were already understood by Geneva’s drafters to apply in international conflicts as a matter of customary law? If the latter explanation is true, though (and I must say, off the top of my head, it seems pretty plausible), then the Taliban and al Qaeda necessarily have at least the Common Article 3 protections, whether or not that Article itself technically applies to them. And if that is right, didn’t the Supreme Court get it basically right in Hamdan, whether or not it was correct on the “not of an international character” characterization of the al Qaeda conflict? Of course, it may matter for U.S. domestic law whether the protections come from the treaty itself or from customary law, but it should not matter to the United States for international purposes. So I guess I’m puzzled as to how the U.S. can maintain that the Taliban lack the protections of the Fourth Convention without acknowledging a customary law amounting to the substance of Common Article 3 for all fighters (including al Qaeda) in international conflicts.
In sum, for both sides: isn’t it plausible that Geneva’s drafters envisioned a middle ground between your claims – all fighters would get the substance of Common Article 3 protections, in international conflicts from pre-Geneva customary law and in non-international conflicts because Common Article 3 extended it to them; and fighters who complied with the requirements of Article 4 of the Third Convention would get that Convention’s additional protections?