Second Thoughts on First Strikes: A Reply to Heller

by Adil Ahmad Haque

[Adil Ahmad Haque (@AdHaque110) is a Professor of Law and Judge Jon O. Newman Scholar at Rutgers Law School.  His first book, Law and Morality at War, will be published by Oxford University Press in January.]

My sincere thanks to Kevin Heller for thoughtfully engaging with my view that the law of non-international armed conflict (NIAC) applies to first strikes between State armed forces and organized armed groups. Kevin’s post raises a number of important issues, and I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss them. At the outset, I should note that my original post mostly discussed common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and the customary law of NIAC. However, since Kevin primarily discusses Additional Protocol II, so will I.

Kevin writes that

the Tadic test, which requires both organization on the part of the armed group and adequately intense hostilities . . . is based squarely on Art. 1(2) of Additional Protocol II, … which provides that the “Protocol shall not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature, as not being armed conflicts.”

Kevin goes on to write that

[t]he text of Art. 1(2) of AP II clearly contemplates actual hostilities, not a single act by government forces. What could be a more “sporadic act of violence” than a single act that does not meet with a response from the targeted group and may never be repeated by the government?

In my view, a military operation by State armed forces that meets with no armed response and may never be repeated is not a “sporadic act of violence” within the meaning of APII 1(2). On this point, I follow the ICRC Commentrary to APII, which negatively defines “isolated and sporadic acts of violence, as opposed to military operations carried out by armed forces or armed groups.” APII 1(2) describes disturbances and tensions created by disorganized or unarmed groups, criminal gangs, and individuals. APII 1(2) does not describe “acts of violence against the adversary in offence or defence” (that is, attacks as defined by API).

Unfortunately, the ICRC Commentary goes astray when it suggests that APII only applies to “sustained and concerted” military operations. According to the Commentary,

[a]t the beginning of a conflict military operations rarely have such a character; thus it is likely that only common Article 3 will apply to the first stage of hostilities.

Indeed, common article 3 applies to the first stage of hostilities. So does APII. The ICRC’s contrary view is hard to square with the text of APII 1(1), which refers to

organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol.

APII 1(1) requires that a group has the ability to carry out sustained and concerted military operations, not that the group has already carried out such operations. In other words, this clause bears on the organization criterion, not on the intensity criterion.

The only term in APII 1(1) that bears on the intensity criterion is “armed conflict.” On the prevailing view, an “armed conflict” between States begins with the first use of military force by one against the other. In my view, an “armed conflict” between a State and an organized armed group begins with the first military operation by one against the other. Nothing in the text of APII 1(1) or APII 1(2) precludes this symmetrical approach.

As Kevin notes, I believe that we should interpret the term “armed conflict” in light of the object and purpose of IHL, namely to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations. In general, we interpret all the terms of a treaty in light of the object and purpose of the treaty as a whole. If protecting human beings from military operations is the primary purpose of APII as a whole, then we should interpret every term of APII in light of that purpose. The term “armed conflict” should be no exception.

In contrast, Kevin argues that while IHL’s protective purpose should inform our interpretation of IHL’s substantive rules, it should not inform our interpretation of IHL’s field of application. I find this argument hard to accept. After all, there is no easier way to subvert the object and purpose of a legal rule than to deny its application. Indeed, according to the ICRC, “Common Article 3 . . . gave rise to a great variety of interpretations and in practice its applicability was often denied.” APII 1(1) was drafted in order “[t]o improve the protection of the victims on non-international armed conflicts” by ensuring that “the authorities concerned could no longer deny the existence of a conflict” and, with it, all the protections of IHL. Whether it succeeded in that aim is another matter.

Now, Kevin also suggests that we don’t need to look to the object and purpose of APII to interpret the term “armed conflict” because, in the language of the Vienna Convention, subsequent practice in the application of the treaty establishes the agreement of the parties that it does not apply to first strikes. It’s an empirical question, and Kevin may be right. We would have to look at State practice and see what we find. If Kevin is right, then I would indeed make the normative argument that States should change their view. As Kevin knows, I am quite fond of normative arguments.

However, I suspect that States haven’t thought this question through. If they did, I suspect that they would insist that IHL requires humane treatment of a single soldier captured by an armed group, and that IHL constrains the initial advance of a group like Daesh. Or so I argued in my initial post.

Finally, Kevin argues that my purposive approach entails that IHL should apply to military operations by State armed forces against unorganized armed groups. As Kevin puts the point, “[a]ll of Adil’s arguments against the intensity requirement apply equally to the organization requirement.”

Of course, APII 1(1) expressly states that APII applies only to armed conflicts between State armed forces and organized armed groups that possess responsible command, territorial control, and the ability to carry out sustained and concerted military operations as well as to implement APII. While the terms of APII’s organization requirement should be interpreted in light of APII’s object and purpose, they cannot be ignored.

For their part, common article 3 and the customary law of NIAC apply to all organized armed groups, irrespective of territorial control. Importantly, it is a structural principle of IHL that IHL applies equally to opposing parties and their armed forces. The legal obligations that IHL imposes on armed groups presuppose that such groups are sufficiently organized that they are capable of conforming to those obligations. Where such organization is absent, individuals must seek legal protection in human rights law, the law of genocide and crimes against humanity, and domestic criminal law. IHL is designed to protect human beings from one source of danger. Unfortunately, there are others.

2 Responses

  1. As you know, Adil, I generally agree with your perspective here. Two minor things, though:

    1. What counts as a “military” operation? One that involves a certain sort of force? Action by particular actors and not others (e.g., police/intelligence agencies)? Why not all use of force, or at least force that is designed to kill or incapacitate?

    2. “It is a structural principle of IHL that IHL applies equally to opposing parties and their armed forces.” Yes as to IHL’s restrictions, of course. But not as to its immunity from criminal culpability, which does not extend to most NSAs.

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