Targeted Killings Symposium: Richard Meyer Comments on Col. Maxwell’s “Rebutting the Civilian Presumption: Playing Whack-A-Mole Without a Mallet?”

Targeted Killings Symposium: Richard Meyer Comments on Col. Maxwell’s “Rebutting the Civilian Presumption: Playing Whack-A-Mole Without a Mallet?”

[Richard Meyer is Director, LLM Program, at the Mississippi College School of Law.]

This post is part of the Targeted Killings Book Symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

In his chapter in Targeted Killings, Col. Mark “Max” Maxwell sets out to solve the gaps left by the ICRC guidance concerning continuous combat function.  His proposal attempts to analogize the terrorist organization to the traditional state and, as a result, find that members of their military arm be treated just like those of the uniformed member of a state’s military.  Maxwell argues that the true message of the ICRC guidance is a return to status based rather than mere conduct based targeting of certain civilians.  Just like the uniformed military, if they are a member of the armed group engaging in hostilities, they can be targeted based on their membership in that group without ever having engaged in hostilities personally.  His three pronged test can be summed up as:  1) determine if a armed group that is engaging in hostilities exists; 2) Using a “totality of the circumstances” analysis, determine if the intended target is a member of this group; 3) Attacks must minimize civilian casualties.  This is certainly a more workable and pragmatic paradigm for the uniformed military than Melzer’s argument that only after an individual has engaged in hostilities (on multiple occasions?) can his continuous targetability be determined.  Further, Maxwell’s chapter serves as an excellent primer on the current confusing paradigm of targeted killing caused by the conflation of human rights law and international humanitarian law.  His desire to evolve IHL is certainly a step in the right direction.  I have one objection to his proposal.

Following the bad example of the AUMF, Maxwell’s proposal conflates the entirely segregable legal realms of jus ad bellum and jus in bello.  During WWII, the US declared war on Germany, Japan & Italy.  Thus the armed forces of those three countries, and only those three countries, were targetable on sight by American military forces.  Hypothetically, even if Spanish uniformed military forces were actively providing combat support services to the German military or were proven to have actually sent planes and participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American Soldier, from Private Smith to General Eisenhower did not have legal authority to engage those forces except in self-defense.  Thus, only after the state’s jus ad bellum decision identifies the macro enemy can the combatant’s jus in bello determination identify the individual target.  This is a corollary to the long held principle of the law of war that the merits of a jus ad bellum decision do not alter the legal culpability of a jus in bello act in compliance with that decision.  Said another way, the otherwise eviscerated “following orders” defense is alive and well as it relates to the decision to go to war.  This is necessary, lest the members of a state’s military individually bear the legal culpability for a collective political decision.

In an effort to facilitate a conflict with a nontraditional opponent, the AUMF did not identify a status based macro enemy, (e.g. the State of Germany) but instead identified a conduct based “…nations, organizations or persons the President determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11,2001.”  This declaration delegates to the President, in his role as the Commander-in-Chief and (by potential further delegation) the military commander the power and responsibility to make both the jus ad bellum and jus in bello decisions.  Constitutional separation of powers issues aside, if the soldier has any role (other than as a voter or advisor) in the jus ad bellum decision, this severely undercuts the legal and moral justification that soldiers should not be held accountable for collective jus ad bellum decisions.  The soldier is protected from liability because the choice to go to war was not his to make… until now.  Paralleling this error, Maxwell creates a three-pronged analysis that also intermixes jus ad bellum and jus in bello decisions.  The first prong of Maxwell’s analysis requires the finding that there is an organized armed group engaging in combat with the state.  At first blush, it appears that Maxwell presupposes the existence of an armed conflict.  Armed conflicts however, currently require two competing macro entities (be they states or non state groups).  Thus, if the first prong is answered in the negative and there is no such armed and organized group “combating the state,” then there is no armed conflict; IHL does not apply and we are locked into the law enforcement paradigm.  Conversely, if there is such a group, the state might have the option of engaging that group under IHL.  Thus, prong one appears to be within the legal realm of jus ad bellum.  Prongs two and three, however, are both the jus in bello determinations of verification of status (for a status-based attack) and minimizing collateral damage/deaths.  Maxwell could argue that this is parallel to the traditional paradigm.  As noted, in that, the state makes the jus ad bellum decision and individuals make the jus in bello decisions, providing the latter with protection from legal responsibility for the former.  However, Maxwell assigns all three decisions to the collective state and none to the individual combatant.  In theory, this would place the legal culpability for all three decisions on the collective state and none on the individual, which would be a return to a near full-fledged following orders defense.

At first blush, this appears to be semantics… Perhaps Maxwell used the term “state” to refer to both the collective and to the individual determinations of its military.  This does not actually solve the conflation issue however, because the first prong also involves currently simultaneous jus ad bellum and  jus in bello determinations.  To illustrate this point, I will divide his first prong into what I believe are the appropriate four steps contained within it.

Step one:  The state must find that they are authorized to conduct military attacks in response to an armed attack or threatened armed attack.  .

Step two:  The state must identify the macro enemy or enemies behind that attack.  For example this could be Germany, Japan and Italy; or Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Step three:  the state must decide to use armed conflict to engage these identified enemies.  This is the true collective jus ad bellum decision and it is purely political.

Step four:  Identify the armed forces of the macro enemy(s).  This would include the uniformed military or militia, but also the militant wing of a group like Al Qaeda.  This fourth step is entirely jus in bello and responsibility for it falls on the individual combatants and their commanders.

Step five:  Maxwell’s current step two.

Step six:  Maxwell’s current step three, though I would change this step to be that the combatant must engage the enemy in a manner compliant with the principles of the law of war:  Military Necessity, Proportionality, Unnecessary Suffering & Distinction and other applicable portions of IHL.

Once the state identifies the group/organization/state and the intent to engage that group/organization/state, the combatant steps in and decides which elements of that organization are legal, status based targets.  By placing the identification of the enemy organization/group in the same step as identifying the armed forces within that organization/group, Maxwell unnecessarily conflates jus ad bellum and jus in bello decisions.  As noted above, I believe it is critical to separate these two determinations to preserve the combatant’s immunity for flawed jus ad bellum determinations.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Notify of

If the law of war paradigm does not apply, one is not locked into a law enforcement paradigm because there might also be a right of self-defense under UN art. 51 == the self-defense paradigm. Since the U.S. cannot be in an armed conflict with al Qaeda as such, this is an important point.  My article on self-defense targetings made these points.
Further, there have been influences of jus ad and jus in vis a vis each other and since similar general principles pertain (reasonable necessity, distinction, proportionality), it is logical and policy-serving to use jus in developments by analogy or as interpretive aids with respect to uses of force in the self-defense paradigm. There are not two completely separate boxes and one should realize that that lids of both have been opened.