Unlawful Enemy Combatants
In this post I would like to take issue with the suggestion that the United States invented the concept of “unlawful enemy combatants” to avoid providing protections under the Geneva Conventions to al Qaida and Taliban detainees. I frequently hear the charge in Europe and elsewhere that this term has no basis in national or international law, and I fear that this has become conventional wisdom among critics of U.S. policy. In fact, the distinction between lawful and unlawful enemy combatants (also referred to as “unprivileged belligerents”) has deep roots in international humanitarian law, preceding even the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The Hague Regulations of 1899 and 1907 contemplated distinctions between lawful and unlawful combatants, and this distinction remains to this day. As Professor Adam Roberts told the Brookings Speakers Forum in March 2002, “There is a long record of certain people coming into the category of unlawful combatants— pirates, spies, saboteurs, and so on. It has been absurd that there should have been a debate about whether or not that category exists.”
I frequently hear the question, “Why not consider all captured belligerents, lawful or unlawful, ‘prisoners of war’?” It is not immediately clear why some advocate such a move. Prisoners of war can be held until the cessation of hostilities, and, ironically, many of those advocating for POW status for Taliban and al Qaida forces object to that basic principle. Moreover, I question whether those who insist that the Taliban and al Qaida be treated as POWs have thought through the practical consequences. Do proponents of POW status for al Qaida detainees expect them to be provided with all the benefits accorded to POWs under the Third Convention, despite their failing to follow the laws and customs of war?
More critically, though, the drafters of the Third Geneva Convention were aware that they were not drafting the treaty in a way that would ensure that everyone who took up weapons on a battlefield would receive POW status. To begin with, Common Article 2 of the Conventions limits the application of the vast majority of provisions, including protections to be provided to POWs, to armed conflicts between two or more High Contracting Parties. Thus, POW status is limited to belligerents engaged in international armed conflict. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that the U.S. conflict with al Qaida is governed by Common Article 3. Because the Court has found that the conflict with al Qaida is not one between nations, but instead a Common Article 3 conflict, al Qaida detainees are not entitled to POW protections under the Third Convention. This point has been recognized by posters earlier this week, such as Marko.
Moreover, Article 4 of the Third Convention affirms the long-standing distinction between lawful and unlawful combatants because it limits “prisoner of war” status to lawful combatants, such as members of the regular armed forces of a Party to the Convention. The underlying concept here is simple –unlawful combatants should not be provided combatant immunity during wartime, and should be held criminally accountable for their acts of war. By contrast, AU Professor Robert Goldman explains that lawful combatants have combatants’ privilege, which “immunizes members of armed forces from criminal prosecution by their captors for violent acts that do not transgress the laws of war, but might otherwise be crimes under domestic law.”
An examination of the nature of al Qaida and its members results in the conclusion that they are not entitled to POW status under Article 4. Al Qaida members are not members of the armed forces of a party to the Geneva Conventions, meaning that they are not entitled to protection under Article 4(A)(1). Al Qaida has also failed to adhere even to the most fundamental tenets of the laws of war—including the critical need to maintain distinction between civilian objects and military objectives—and have blended into the general population, deliberately choosing not to wear fixed distinctive signs or carry arms openly. Under such circumstances, the United States is correct in denying al Qaida fighters the protections owed prisoners of war.
Although most international legal scholars agree that al Qaida detainees are not entitled to POW status, I recognize there is more debate regarding the status of the Taliban detainees. The Taliban did not display the indicia of regular “armed forces of a party” for purposes of Article 4(A)(1). The armed forces of Afghanistan ceased to exist as such with the dissolution of former President Mohammad Najibullah’s armed forces in the mid-nineties, and were replaced by a patchwork of rival armies. Although the Taliban were the most powerful of these rival armies at the time of the U.S. invasion, it is does not appear that they ever rose to the level of the official armed forces of Afghanistan. Nor were they “regular armed forces who profess allegiance to a government or an authority not recognized by the Detaining Power,” entitled to POW protection under Article 4(A)(3). The Taliban do not possess the attributes of regular armed forces, as they do not distinguish themselves from the general population, or conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.
The Taliban is better conceptualized as a militia belonging to a Party to the conflict, which would be eligible for POW protection under Article 4(A)(2) if they used a command hierarchy; wore a uniform or distinctive sign; carried arms openly; and observed the laws and customs of war. The Taliban, however, fail to meet at least two of these conditions: specifically, the Taliban do not distinguish themselves from the general population, nor do they obey the laws and customs of war. Contemporary news reports from the Allied invasion of Afghanistan indicate that the Taliban dressed like civilians, and in fact used this similar dress to blend into the civilian population to evade capture. Worse still, they have targeted and continue to target civilians as such in violation of the laws of war, having adopted suicide bombing techniques similar to those used by al Qaida. These types of transgressions explain why the United States believes that Taliban detainees do not enjoy POW status under the Third Convention.
Assuming that the Taliban were the armed forces of Afghanistan, however, they still do not qualify for POW status because they fail to meet many of the fundamental criteria for POW status under the Third Convention; specifically, the Taliban lacked the command structure, distinctive uniforms, and compliance with the laws and customs of war which characterize regular military forces. Some have argued that these additional factors would not preclude POW status under Article 4(A) (1) because that provision omits the list of requirements found in Article 4(A) (2). This is a difficult question, but as Jean Pictet’s commentary on the Third Convention explains, it seems the drafters of the Convention had an expectation that the armed forces of a party would generally meet the requirements contained in Article 4(A)(2), and it’s unlikely they envisioned granting POW status to groups that openly flout these requirements.
In separating lawful and unlawful combatants, the Third Convention creates a basic bargain for those engaged in an international armed conflict. Engage lawfully in combat and, if captured, you will receive the comprehensive treatment protections of the Convention. Ignore the laws of war, and you cannot seek the status given to lawful combatants. POW status is perhaps best seen then as an incentive to follow the rules in armed conflict. It also is a way to protect civilians more effectively: when combatants masquerade as civilians to mislead the enemy and avoid detection, civilian suffering increases as a tragic consequence of the failure of these combatants to adhere to the fundamental law of war principle of distinction between combatants and the civilian population.
Long before the war against al Qaida began, the United States forcefully insisted that this incentive to follow the rules remain strong by limiting these extensive treatment protections to those who generally follow the rules of warfare. President Reagan decided not to submit Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions to the Senate for ratification in part because he feared that the treaty contained a disincentive to follow the laws of war by extending combatant status in certain cases to those who do not follow the rules. As former Department of State Legal Adviser Abe Sofaer explained, “Inevitably, regular forces would treat civilians more harshly and with less restraint if they believed that their opponents were free to pose as civilians while retaining their right to act as combatants and their POW status if captured.”
I believe that the bargain of the Third Convention works: follow the laws of war to gain their robust protections and privileges. Those who believe in the rules should insist that incentives to follow those rules not be weakened.
I wanted to add a final thought about the recent Israeli Supreme Court decision in Public Committee against Torture in Israel v. Israel, where it has been reported that the Court concluded there was no category of individuals labeled unlawful enemy combatants. That is not quite what the court held. Instead, the Court held that combatants not in regular armies or militias meeting the requirements of Article 4(A)(2) of the Third Convention were in fact civilians, who lost their comprehensive protections against attacks, “for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.”
To begin with, it’s important to stress that the Israeli Court largely agreed with our views regarding treatment of terror groups like al Qaida. We agree with the Court that these types of combatants were not entitled to protection from attack regardless of their categorization, nor were they entitled to prisoner of war status if detained. The Court did conclude that Article 51(3) of Additional Protocol I was customary international law, which limited the circumstances in which a “civilian combatant” could be considered a legitimate military target. While we agree that there is a general principle of international law that civilians lose their immunity from attack when they engage in hostilities, we disagree with the contention that the provision as drafted in AP I is customary international law. In fact, the Israeli Court’s opinion appears to recognize that point inadvertently by highlighting the lack of international consensus regarding the meaning of both “for such time” and “direct part in hostilities.”
More centrally, though, most of the sources cited by the Court support our contention that “unlawful enemy combatant” is a category of combatant, distinct from civilians, recognized under international law. Kenneth Watkin, Richard Baxter, Jason Callen, Robert K. Goldman , and Michael Hoffman, all of whom the Court cites, agree that unlawful combatants exist as a legal category, although they may disagree somewhat with us and each other about who qualifies for membership in such a group, and what the legal consequences are, such as whether unlawful combatants are entitled to protection under the Fourth Convention. My point here is that even those that disagree with us as to the legal framework for detaining al Qaida and Taliban detainees should acknowledge that we are on legally firm ground in using this construct as the basis for our framework.
In closing, my sense is that the insistent opposition to our use of the term “unlawful combatant,” despite its clear lineage in international law, is motivated by a fear that acknowledging this category might place the detainees in a legal black hole. While it certainly could be the subject of a policy debate whether we should grant POW status to detainees not legally entitled to it, saying that the Taliban and al Qaida detainees are not criminals on the one hand, nor POWs or protected persons on the other does not mean they do not have significant legal protections. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Hamdan, all detainees in the conflict against al Qaida and the Taliban must be treated in accordance with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. They are also protected by the blanket prohibitions on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment found in U.S. law. And the Department of Defense recently promulgated a new directive on detention operations and a field manual governing interrogation that provide clear direction to the U.S. Armed Forces regarding compliance with these important norms. Nevertheless, critics prefer to strain to force the detainees to fit into the more traditional legal categories of common criminals or POWs. I am more inclined to agree with the conclusions of the OSCE Rapporteur on Guantanamo, Anne-Marie Lizin, the President of the Belgian Senate, that there is “incontestably some legal haziness” regarding the legal status of individuals captured in the course of military operations against international terrorists and that further legal work needs to be done to clarify the status of these kinds of combatants.