Why Art. 4(h) of the AU’s Constitutive Act Does Not Support UHI

by Kevin Jon Heller

I like much of what Jennifer Trahan says in her recent post about the permanent veto. But I would take issue — unsurprisingly — with her claim that “there is in fact more past precedent for reliance on the doctrine of humanitarian intervention than is often recognized, including not only NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, but also African and Arab practice.” There is no need to belabour the Kosovo argument, which I have already criticised in my response to Harold Koh. Instead, I want to focus in this post on the idea that African practice provides support for a customary right to unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI). That idea seems to be popping up with more regularity these days, as those who believe UHI should be legal cast about for a plausible argument to that effect. Marc Weller, for example, recently made a similar claim in his intemperate response to Marko Milanovic’s recent post at EJIL: Talk! on the illegality of the Syria attack:

Moreover, the African Union has in fact formally committed itself to the doctrine in its own constitutive treaties–an act that destroys the presumption that the use of force for humanitarian purposes would necessarily violate the prohibition of the use of force.

Weller is referring to Art. 4(h) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union, which has been ratified by all 53 African states have signed the Act. Art. 4(h) permits the AU’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Union to authorise the use of force against a Member State that is responsible for the commission of international crimes:

The Union shall function in accordance with the following principles… (h) the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

Properly understood, however, Art. 4(h) of the Constitutive Act provides no support whatsoever for the legality of UHI. To see why, it is useful to begin by explaining why the case for a customary rule permitting UHI is not supported by humanitarian uses of force authorised by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The reason is straightforward: the essence of UHI is that the state being attacked does not consent to force being used on its territory, and all states consent to the possibility of the Security Council authorising the use of force on their territory when they ratify the Charter. The relevant provisions are Art. 24(1) and Art. 25:

Article 24

  1. In order to ensure prompt and effective action by the United Nations, its Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf.

Article 25

The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.

Because of Art. 24(1) and Art. 25, humanitarian intervention authorised by the Security Council under Chapter VII is by definition legally consensual — even if the state being attacked is politically opposed to the use of force on its territory.

For similar reasons, humanitarian intervention authorised by the AU’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Union pursuant to Art. 4(h) of the Constitutive Act cannot be non-consensual. By ratifying the Constitutive Act, all AU members have empowered the Assembly to authorise the use force on their territory to stop the commission of international crimes. They may not like that use of force, but they have consented to it.

Humanitarian intervention authorised by the AU, therefore, no more supports the customary legality of UHI than humanitarian intervention authorised by the Security Council. In each case, the use of force in question is authorised by a supranational organisation acting on the basis of the consent of the parties that have ratified its founding treaty. That is the antithesis of the nonconsensual use of force — the constitutive feature of UHI.


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