18 Feb Guest Post: Bartels–Temporal Scope of Application of IHL: When do Non-International Armed Conflicts End? Part 1
[Rogier Bartels is a Legal Officer (Chambers) at the International Criminal Court and a research-fellow at the Netherlands Defence Academy. The below post discusses an argument made at a conference organised by the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies in June 2012, that is expanded on in a chapter in the forthcoming book Jus Post Bellum (edited by Carsten Stahn et al.). The views below are the author’s alone.]
Over the past weeks, several ceasefire and peace agreements were concluded in a number of non-international armed conflict (NIAC) situations: in South-Sudan, the Philippines and Myanmar. The Syrian negotiations in Geneva have only yielded minor success, but those between the Colombian government and its longstanding enemy, the FARC, appear to have been more constructive. Nonetheless, all too often when there are peace talks or even peace agreements in a country, the fighting between the opposing sides does not (immediately) cease (see, e.g., here and here). In this post, I will address the end of temporal scope of the law applicable to the fighting in NIAC, i.e. international humanitarian law (IHL) and when such NIACs can be considered as ended.
Although certain provision of international humanitarian law (IHL), or laws of armed conflict, apply in peace time (e.g., Arts 47 and 53 of GC I) or continue to apply for a certain period after the end of the armed conflict (like Art. 5 of AP II), the application of the vast majority of IHL rules is dependent on the existence of an (international or non-international) armed conflict. Whilst the scope of application included in Common Articles 2 and 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 initially, of course, pertained only to these treaties, it has become accepted over time that said scope governs the application of the whole body of IHL; thus also for the rules contained in, e.g., the weapon treaties and customary IHL. Yet, one of the glaring gaps in IHL concerns its very foundation, namely the question of the definition of ‘armed conflict’. IHL does not provide a clear definition for either type of armed conflict: international armed conflict (IAC) or NIAC. A definition for NIACs was purposely left out of the 1949 Conventions and their Protocols, and it is true that a single definition may not be able to encompass all varieties of contemporary armed conflict. However, without a clear definition, determining when conflicts start is problematic; and it is similarly problematic to determine when they end.
Ever since IHL became applicable to conflicts that are “not of an international character” (i.e. with the inclusion of Common Article 3 in the 1949 Geneva Conventions), there has been much debate on what is to be considered a NIAC, and when the threshold of violence has surpassed a situation of mere internal disturbances, civil unrest or riots. The existence of an armed conflict allows States to take more forceful action, such as the use of lethal force against ‘fighters’ and/or against those directly participating in hostilities. In addition, when called upon to determine whether (war) crimes were committed, courts and tribunals must assess whether in the situations before them, an armed conflict existed – either to satisfy their jurisdictional requirements or to identify the applicable body of law. It is therefore of no surprise there has been extensive legal and academic debate, as well as voluminous case law on what qualifies as a NIAC, and on when the so-called lower threshold for NIAC has been crossed. The debate has almost solely focused on the start of these armed conflicts. In contrast, very little has been written on the temporal application of IHL, or indeed, on the end of these armed conflicts.
Common Article 3 does not refer to an end of its application. Similarly, Additional Protocol II refers to the “end of the armed conflict” (Articles 2(2) and 25 AP II), but does not clarify when this may be. The first, and almost only, authoritative statement hereon was made by the Appeals Chamber of the ICTY in its seminal decision on jurisdiction in Tadić:
that an armed conflict exists whenever there is […] protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organized armed groups or between such groups within a State. International humanitarian law applies from the initiation of such armed conflicts and extends beyond the cessation of hostilities […], in the case of internal conflicts, [until] a peaceful settlement is achieved. (Tadić Jurisdiction Decision, para. 70)
So what is a peaceful settlement? The term is not very specific but suggests that IHL will cease to apply when the parties reach a peace agreement with each other. It is my view that the existence of a peace agreement is too rigid a standard to judge whether a NIAC can be considered to have ended. Moreover, it is submitted here that this approach and is not supported by the IHL.
For both IACs and NIACs, the test whether there is an armed conflict depends on the factual situation, and not on political statements. Political refusal to recognise the existence of a conflict is especially prevalent in cases of NIACs. It is argued therefore that political acts should be equally non-determinative in the test of whether peace has been achieved. As a result, the political act (statement) of agreeing to a peace deal should not be the determinative factor in whether a conflict has ceased. In Sierra Leone, for example, two “Lomé Peace Accords” were signed before the RUF was finally defeated and dissolved a few years later. Consider also the conflict between the Singhalese government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE: a peace agreement was signed between the warring parties in 2002, but the fighting did not cease. It was not until the full-scale military defeat in May 2009 of the LTTE by the government forces, that the armed conflict actually ended. Such a non-international version of debellatio is rare, however. On occasion, NIACs just taper out until they have withered away and no warring parties exist anymore. Often, however, as was the case with the Shining Path in Peru, armed groups continue to exist, but on a smaller scale with less fighting power, thereby forming less of a threat. On the other hand, it is also possible that only part of an armed group becomes a party to the agreement, as was the case with the Interahamwe in Rwanda.
Furthermore, the need for an “effective and final cessation of hostilities” for IACs comports with the fact that such a conflict starts with the first hostile act (involving two States), which initiates the protection given by IHL, namely – as Pictet put it – when the first (protected) person is affected by an attack. However, the threshold for the existence of a NIAC is significantly higher and not all violence reaches this threshold. Equally, at the end of a NIAC, certain violence should be considered to be below the armed conflict level. If a NIAC only starts when organised groups are engaged in fighting of certain intensity, then logically, the armed conflict ends when these two criteria are no longer both present. This would also make clear that the United States’ so-called NIAC against Al-Qaeda cannot be a “perpetual war”.