Contextualizing the Debate on First Strikes

by Charles Kels

[Charles Kels is a major in the U.S. Air Force. His views do not reflect those of the Air Force or Department of Defense.]

The fascinating and edifying debate between Adil Haque (see here, here, here, and here) and, respectively, Deborah Pearlstein (see here), Jonathan Horowitz (see here and here), and Kevin Heller (see here and here) over the criteria for non-international armed conflict (NIAC) risks overlooking the proverbial elephant in the room: what to do about the phenomenon of states, notably the United States, invoking jus ad bellum principles to both justify and regulate the use of force?

One way of looking at Adil’s “first strike” proposal is as a solution to the problem of so-called “self-defense targeting” or “naked”/“robust” self-defense: it preserves the distinction between the jus belli branches by ensuring, in Daniel Bethlehem’s formulation, that “any use of force in self-defense [is] subject to applicable jus in bello principles governing the conduct of military operations.” Adil’s framework would, at least presumably, complicate the current White House’s efforts to distinguish between “the use of force in armed conflict or in the exercise of the nation’s inherent right of self-defense,” since the very fact of a military strike against certain non-state actors would automatically trigger a NIAC.

Of course, solving one problem can engender others. As Kevin notes, the lex lata is clearly on the side of Adil’s critics in insisting upon a substantive organization and intensity test for NIACs. Perhaps more to the point, the traditional critique of post-9/11 U.S. counterterrorism operations—particularly of the targeted killing variety—has been that a geographically unbounded conflict, whether framed as a war on terrorism or against specific terrorist groups, is essentially asserting the right to render the entire world a warzone. There is at least some (and maybe more than some) validity to this concern, as evidenced by the malleability of extralegal terms such as “areas of active hostilities” that the president can apparently turn on or off depending upon policy preferences.

This is the problem that Jonathan highlights with his Trojan horse analogy: lowering the NIAC threshold triggers humanitarian protections, but also invites wartime rules for targeting and detention. In this view, Adil’s proposal threatens to undo the hard work of those in academia and elsewhere who have persistently rejected the notion of a transnational NIAC without territorial limitations, or what they perceive as powerful states playing fast and loose with the concept of armed conflict in order to inflict lethal force with relative impunity.

Adil’s response to this critique is as brilliant as it is unsettling. Essentially (and to oversimplify), he maintains that the only real consequence of applying international humanitarian law (IHL) to first strikes is to create war crimes accountability for flagrant violations. Otherwise, the co-application of human rights law (IHRL) operates to negate deadly force as a first resort except where states have formally derogated from applicable treaties and such derogating conduct proves necessary (necessity here can only be understood in the IHRL, rather than IHL, sense). Central to Adil’s argument is the notion that IHL does not authorize conduct which it fails to prohibit: comportment with IHL is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of lawful killing in armed conflict.

It probably comes as no surprise that as a military practitioner, I have deep misgivings about Adil’s cramped reading of IHL (or put another way, his rendering of IHL-IHRL co-application in a manner that appears to swallow IHL in seemingly every case but pitched battle on Napoleonic terrain). His conception of IHL as solely constraining, and never enabling, seems to cut against the way law in general works. To borrow Adil’s driving analogy, is a speed limit of 75 miles per hour not, at least in some way, permission to drive 70?

More specifically, while Adil astutely emphasizes that IHL does not confer “affirmative” legal authorities on states, it does privilege and immunize certain conduct that would otherwise be illegal. This is the point that Deborah made in her colloquy with Adil: IHL provides the legal framework for status-based targeting in armed conflict, not necessarily because it grants the power to kill, but because it removes the presumption that killing is unlawful in virtually all cases besides self-defense. “War,” as Telford Taylor famously wrote, “consists largely of acts that would be criminal if performed in time of peace.” (To Adil’s point that combatant immunity is inapplicable in NIACs anyway, I would only proffer that the convergence of IAC/NIAC norms may increasingly cut against this, and that better minds than mine—notably Ian Henderson and Jen Ohlin—have taken this issue head-on.)

Indeed, what Adil terms the “mistaken view” of states is, in my estimation, the very key to IHL’s cogency and moral force as a self-contained system of licenses and limitations regulating armed conflict and “alleviating as much as possible the calamities of war.” In my own limited experience and understanding, it is hard to overstate the significance of IHL as not just a set of restrictions overlapping and complementing IHRL, but as a moral lodestar critical to defining what it means to be an honorable warrior. Military lawyers tend to perceive IHL less as a barrier or obstacle telling the client what it cannot do—although it serves this function as well—and more “as a prerequisite to the meaningful exercise of power” in the first place. As Geoffrey Corn recently reminded us, IHL “serves to mitigate the potential moral corrosion that is often produced by mortal combat,” in large part by “providing the warrior with a rational and morally grounded framework” undergirding their actions.

It is notable in this regard that many of the pivotal developments in IHL have “owed less to professors, statesmen, or humanitarians, than to soldiers” themselves, resulting in a set of rules both by and for warriors that reflects the accrued wisdom of history and hardship. Armed conflict denotes a specially-defined space wherein soldiers can act effectively, decisively, justly, and—yes—violently pursuant to a unique code of conduct.

This is why it was important to rebut Ryan Goodman when he admirably, but erroneously, argued for a duty to capture under IHL by offering novel conceptions of military necessity and humanity. Under Adil’s proposal, it is worth noting, whether or not IHL imposes a least-restrictive-means requirement wouldn’t terribly matter, since IHRL would sweep in to impose such a requirement in nearly all cases. The difference between Ryan and Adil’s contentions is mostly the locus of the duty to capture—IHL for Ryan and IHRL operating in parallel with IHL for Adil—but the practical effect of undermining clarity in status-based targeting would be similar.

Adil has done us a great service with his erudite discussion shaking up the sometimes stale debate over NIAC definitions. Personally, I find his proposal to lower the NIAC threshold preferable to any suggestion of raising or complicating the categorical IAC threshold, as erring on the side of some realistically effective regulation of violence seems preferable to the prospect of an enforcement vacuum. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that IHL matters, and not just because it puts war crimes culpability on the table. Armed conflict brings into play both the aspects of IHL that human rights lawyers tend to like, and also those that they don’t. Eroding the boundaries between war and peace can’t help but yield this result.

http://opiniojuris.org/2016/12/02/32907/

3 Responses

  1. Hi Charles,

    Sincere thanks for this elegant and generous intervention. I’ll have some thoughts for you early next week.

    Best wishes,

    Adil

  2. Hi Charles,

    My reply grew longer than I anticipated. I’ve posted it over at Just Security:

    https://www.justsecurity.org/35386/laws-war-nature-moral-function/

    Happy to discuss further, here in the Comments or offline.

    Very best,

    Adil

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