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Human Rights

The ACLU Endorses Blanket Amnesty for Torture

by Kevin Jon Heller

I am very rarely shocked, but that was my response to yesterday’s editorial in the New York Times by Anthony Romero — the Executive Director of the ACLU — arguing that Obama should pre-emptively pardon all of the high-ranking officials responsible for the Bush administration’s systematic torture regime at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, various Eastern European black sites, etc. Here is a painful snippet:

Mr. Obama could pardon George J. Tenet for authorizing torture at the C.I.A.’s black sites overseas, Donald H. Rumsfeld for authorizing the use of torture at the Guantánamo Bay prison, David S. Addington, John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee for crafting the legal cover for torture, and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for overseeing it all.

[snip]

The spectacle of the president’s granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn. But doing so may be the only way to ensure that the American government never tortures again. Pardons would make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals; and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware. Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s box of torture once and for all.

I struggle to discern even the basic logic of this argument. I guess the key is that “[p]ardons would make clear that crimes were committed,” the idea being that you can’t pardon someone for doing something legal. But Romero’s argument has an obvious fatal flaw: “pre-emptive pardons” might make clear that Obama believes Bush administration officials committed torture, but they would say nothing about whether the Bush administration officials themselves believe they did. Romero is not calling for a South-African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would condition amnesty on confession of wrongdoing; he wants to skip the confession part and go right to the amnesty. And the Bush administration’s torturers continue to believe that they did nothing wrong. To the contrary, they still cling to their puerile belief that they were the true patriots, Ubermenschen willing to do what lesser men and women wouldn’t to save the US from the existential threat of terrorism. No amount of evidence will pierce the veil of their self-delusion — and no pardon will have any effect whatsoever on their own perceived righteousness.

That Romero fails to see this is baffling enough. But I’m flabbergasted by his assertion that a blanket amnesty for torture — the correct description of his proposal — is necessary to make clear “that future architects and perpetrators should beware.” Beware what? Not prosecution, unless we are naive enough to believe that there is deterrent value in saying to the Bush administration’s torturers, “okay, we’re giving you a free pass for your international and domestic crimes this time — but next time will be a different story.” I’m sure future Bushes, Cheneys, Rices, Rumsfelds, Yoos, and Bybees will be positively quaking in their boots.

It’s also important to note something that Romero completely fails to address in his editorial — the message blanket amnesty for torture would send to the rest of the world. It’s bad enough that the US portrays itself as a champion of human rights abroad while it simply ignores its obligations under the Torture Convention. But there is a significant difference between lacking the political will to prosecute the Bush administration’s torturers and having the political will to offer them a blanket amnesty. If Obama “pre-emptively pardons” those who committed torture, how could the US ever criticise another government that decides to choose “peace” over justice? Some states in the world can at least plausibly argue that amnestying the previous regime’s crimes is necessary to avoid political destabilisation and future conflict. But the US is not one of them. Republicans and Democrats will not start killing each other if Obama does not pardon the Bush administration’s torturers. Ted Cruz will not lead a convoy of tanks emblazoned with the Texas flag on Washington.

But if Obama does issue Romero’s pardons, you can guarantee that future government officials will turn once again to torture the first time it seems “necessary” to counter a serious threat to the Republic. (Such as ISIS, which will no doubt be exploding Ebola-ridden suicide bombs in downtown Chicago any day now.) That’s the logic of criminality, at least when the crimes are perpetrated by the powerful — impunity simply emboldens them further. Give them an inch, they will take Iraq.

The bottom line is this: you want to make clear that torture is wrong, that torturers are criminals, and that future torturers should beware? You don’t offer blanket amnesty to the Bush administration officials who systematically tortured.

You prosecute them.

Guest Post: The Courts’ Misunderstanding of IHL is Deeper than You Think – A Response to Kevin Jon Heller

by Eric Sigmund

[Eric C. Sigmund is a legal advisor for the international humanitarian law program at the American Red Cross.  He is a 2012 graduate of Syracuse University College of Law and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.  All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to the American Red Cross.]

Recently, Kevin Jon Heller published a short piece on Opinion Juris entitled Why Can’t US Courts Understand IHL?  The piece, which addresses Al Warafi v. Obama, suggests that the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, as well as the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals misunderstood and misapplied international humanitarian law as it denied Al Warafi’s habeas petition.  Heller, who seems both exasperated by the misapplication of the law but also sobered by the inevitability of this fact, posits that the Courts ignore clear language governing whether Al Warafi’s was required to carry or wear official identification demonstrating that he was protected as “medical personnel exclusively engaged in the search for, or the collection, or treatment of the wounded or sick, or in the prevention of disease…” as provided in Article 24 of the First Geneva Convention of 1949 (GC I).  While noteworthy, it is Michael Schmitt’s short comment to the post which raises a bigger question about the misapplication of the law and suggests that the Courts weren’t looking in the right place to begin with.

A more comprehensive description of the facts of the case can be found elsewhere but I’ll recap a few to provide context.  Mukhtar Yahia Naji Al Warafi was detained shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. and Coalition forces in October 2001.  The U.S. government claimed that Al Warafi was a member of the Taliban who served on the frontlines against the Northern Alliance.  Al Warafi denied this claim, contending that he only provided medical assistance to wounded fighters.  Citing Article 24 and other supporting articles of GC I, petitioner Al Warafi argued that his prolonged detention was unlawful since he was exclusively engaged in the provision of medical care at the time of the invasion and therefore should have been repatriated upon capture.

At first glance, Al Warafi’s reliance on Article 24 seems misplaced as this provision is only applicable in situations of international armed conflict.  Common Article 2, which governs the application of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, states that the treaties are applicable to conflicts between High Contracting Parties or to situations of occupation.  While Afghanistan was a High Contracting Party to the Conventions at the time of the US invasion, the Taliban had not been recognized as the legitimate governing authority of the country.  As a result, the coalition invasion of Afghanistan did not amount to an international armed conflict since force was being directed against a non-state actor even though al-Qaeda and the Taliban were located in a foreign territory and the Taliban exerted control over much of the country.  Accordingly, the status and protections afforded to members of a nation’s armed forces during international armed conflict were not available to members of the Taliban regime.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the legitimacy of the Taliban’s rule was in question, Article 13 of GC I may come into play.  Specifically, Article 13(3) establishes protective status for “[m]embers of regular armed forces who profess allegiance to a Government or an authority not recognized by the Detaining Power.” This article mirrors the language in Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 (GC III) which is an authoritative list of persons who receive combatant immunity and/or prisoner of war status once captured.

While an analysis of this rule would not be used as a basis to classify the conflict, the Commentary to this provision reveals that the framers of the Conventions declined to extend combatant status to groups like the Taliban.  The Conference of Government Experts sought to limit the scope of this clause to prevent “any abusive interpretation which might have led to the formation of armed bands such as the “Great Companies””. The Commentary further notes that the “provision must be interpreted, in the first place, in the light of the actual case which motivated its drafting — that of the forces of General de Gaulle which were under the authority of the French National Liberation Committee”.  It concludes that only those forces which resemble the armed forces of a state Party to the conflict, which are recognized by third party states, and which assume obligations of the government subject to the Conventions may gain belligerent rights and protections afforded to members of the national armed forces.  None of these conditions were met by the Taliban.

The appeal of Al Warafi’s argument is easy to see.  Those who fall into one of the categories enumerated in Article 24 are provided a unique status of “retained personnel”.  Upon capture, such persons should be repatriated unless they are needed to provide medical care to prisoners of war and only for such time as their services are necessary.   With regards to those falling within the purview of Article 24 “repatriation is the rule; retention the exception [p.53]”.

Unfortunately for Al Warafi, the Commentary to Article 24, as well as Army Regulation 190-8 §3-15, specifies that only medical personnel of the armed forces of a nation are entitled to this protection.  Therefore, while the lack of proper identification is not dispositive as to whether Al Warafi was exclusively engaged in the provision of medical aid, the issue becomes moot as the Taliban lacked the proper authority to issue the credentials necessary for Al Warafi to obtain protection under Article 24.  (more…)

The OTP’s Afghanistan Investigation: A Response to Vogel

by Kevin Jon Heller

As a number of commentators have recently noted, the latest report on the OTP’s preliminary-examination activities indicates that the OTP is specifically considering whether US forces are responsible for war crimes relating to detainee treatment in Afghanistan — something it only hinted at in its 2013 report. Here are the relevant statements (pp. 22-23):

94. The Office has been assessing available information relating to the alleged abuse of detainees by international forces within the temporal jurisdiction of the Court. In particular, the alleged torture or ill-treatment of conflict-related detainees by US armed forces in Afghanistan in the period 2003-2008 forms another potential case identified by the Office. In accordance with the Presidential Directive of 7 February 2002, Taliban detainees were denied the status of prisoner of war under article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention but were required to be treated humanely. In this context, the information available suggests that between May 2003 and June 2004, members of the US military in Afghanistan used so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” against conflict-related detainees in an effort to improve the level of actionable intelligence obtained from interrogations. The development and implementation of such techniques is documented inter alia in declassified US Government documents released to the public, including Department of Defense reports as well as the US Senate Armed Services Committee’s inquiry. These reports describe interrogation techniques approved for use as including food deprivation, deprivation of clothing, environmental manipulation, sleep adjustment, use of individual fears, use of stress positions, sensory deprivation (deprivation of light and sound), and sensory overstimulation.

95. Certain of the enhanced interrogation techniques apparently approved by US senior commanders in Afghanistan in the period from February 2003 through June 2004, could, depending on the severity and duration of their use, amount to cruel treatment, torture or outrages upon personal dignity as defined under international jurisprudence.

I highly recommend the posts by David Bosco at Multilateralist and Ryan Goodman at Just Security on the OTP’s report. But I have reservations about Ryan Vogel’s post at Lawfare. Although Vogel makes some good points about the political implications of the OTP’s decision to investigate US actions, his legal criticisms of the OTP are based on a problematic understanding of how gravity and complementarity function in the Rome Statute.

First, there is this claim:

Whatever one’s views regarding U.S. detention policy in Afghanistan from 2003-2008, the alleged U.S. conduct is surely not what the world had in mind when it established the ICC to address “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole.”  The ICC was designed to end impunity for the most egregious and shocking breaches of the law, and it is hard to see how alleged detainee abuse by U.S. forces meets that standard.

It is not completely clear what Vogel’s objection is, but it’s likely one of two things: (1) he does not believe US actions in Afghanistan qualify as torture; or (2) he does not believe any acts of torture the US did commit are collectively serious enough to justify a formal OTP investigation.The first objection is irrelevant: whether acts qualify as torture is for the ICC to decide, not the US. The second objection is more serious, but is based on a misunderstanding of the difference between situational gravity and case gravity…

Eric Posner’s Not Completely Wrong Critique of International Human Rights Law Clinics

by Julian Ku

[I posted this last week, or I thought I did, but somehow it ended up staying hidden in the bowels of OJ’s archives. So although it is a little late, I am posting this again today.  -Julian]

As is his wont, U. Chicago law professor Eric Posner has hit a nerve with his recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay criticizing the value of international human rights law clinics at many law schools.  As part of his larger critique of international human rights law in general, Posner argues that most international human rights law school clinics “engage in a bewildering array of programs and strategies that have little in common but a left-wing orientation.”   Many (maybe most) of these clinics, Posner argues, engage in wide-ranging left-wing political advocacy with no particular focus on training students with legal skills. Crucial to his argument is that, unlike regular domestic law clinics, international human rights law is such a fuzzy unsettled and undeveloped area of law that there are few concrete legal skills that are teachable in such clinics.

His essay has drawn a sharp reaction (of course) from those who are involved in these clinics.  Most prominently, Sital Kalantry, the founder of a new international human rights clinics at U. Chicago Law itself, argues that Posner doesn’t understand what such clinics do and, in any event, his attack on clinics rests entirely on his (misguided) attack on international human rights law itself.

As always, I am sympathetic to Posner’s views here and admire his willingness to take on yet another sacred cow.   But even I think his attack on international human rights clinics sweeps a bit too broadly.  Under his view of the role of clinics and legal education, narrowly focused clinics would satisfy his standard.  My law school (Hofstra) has a just such a clinic focused on asylum hearings in deportation proceedings within the US immigration law system. Students learn a great deal about how to handle real clients, draft legal papers, and make arguments, before mostly administrative law judges.  But since asylum claims almost always require invocation of international as well as domestic law standards in order to determine whether asylum should be granted, it is also sort of an international human rights law clinic.

I do agree with Posner that it is possible that some international human rights law clinics, like that at my alma mater Yale, have extremely broad mandates to pretty much do anything from filing briefs in domestic litigation and suing their former alums, to lobbying city councils to adopt human rights standards to issuing reports on international law. And these clinics are very close to pure political advocacy groups. But these more ambitious clinics are probably inspired by freestanding non-governmental organizations like Human Rights First or Human Rights Watch, whose lawyers also engage in  broad range of non-lawyering political advocacy.  And they also are within the orbit of the larger universe of UN-affiliated NGOs and UN human rights institutions.  Should law students really be training to do the same type of stuff? I think this depends on the particular situation of the law school and the goals of its students.  I think a narrower clinic is probably better in most cases, but I am not ready to say that it would never be appropriate to have a broad-based international human rights law clinic, and that there would never be any useful legal education occurring in that clinic.

But I think Posner’s critique reminds us that international human rights law clinics are outside the traditional box of law school clinics, and that they do risk becoming a platform for pure political advocacy (and training students in pure political advocacy).  That is something that I agree is undesirable, and I am glad that his critics don’t dispute that point.  Even international human rights law clinics deserve scrutiny and to be held to the same standards as other law school clinics.

Law schools need to make hard assessments about whether such clinics are worth it for their students, and perhaps demand such clinics ensure that a certain percentage of their work is indeed traditional legal skills training (like a political asylum clinic, etc.).  Posner asks the right questions, even if I think his final answer is not quite right.

Would Paddington Prefer Christmas Island?

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m sure most of us will go see the live-action movie version of PADDINGTON, which recently hit the big screen. And we will do so, of course, because we are interested in what Paddington’s residence status says about the UK’s harsh immigration laws. Fortunately, Colin Yeo has prepared a nice primer for us at the Free Movement blog, run by the excellent Garden Court Chambers. Here’s a snippet:

Paddington stows away and deliberately avoids the immigration authorities on arrival. He is in formal legal terms an illegal entrant and as such commits a criminal offence under section 24 of the Immigration Act 1971. It is an offence punishable by up to six months in prison. If or when detected by the authorities it is more likely he would simply be removed back to Peru than that he would be prosecuted, though. To avoid that fate he would need to make out a legal basis to stay.

Incidentally, for offering a home to Paddington — or harbouring him, as the Home Office would have it — Mr and Mrs Brown could potentially face prosecution under section 25 of the Immigration Act 1971, entitled “Assisting unlawful immigration to member State”.

Yeo goes on to explain why Paddington will have a difficult time justifying his illegal entry into the UK — and will probably end up in a poorly-run private detention centre. (Do I hear sequel? Perhaps it could be entitled PADDINGTON MAKES A NEW FRIEND.)

It could be worse, though. Paddington could’ve tried to sneak into Australia. If he had, he’d likely be sent to the ironically-named Christmas Island, Oz’s very own prison camp.

Why Can’t US Courts Understand IHL?

by Kevin Jon Heller

While researching an essay on the use of analogy in IHL, I had the misfortune of reading Al Warafi v. Obama, a recent habeas case involving an alleged member of the Taliban. Al Warafi argued that even if he was a member of the Taliban — which he denied — he was entitled to be treated in detention as permanent medical personnel under Article 24 of the First Geneva Convention (GC I), which provides that “[m]edical personnel exclusively engaged in the search for, or the collection, transport or treatment of the wounded or sick, or in the prevention of disease… shall be respected and protected in all circumstances.” That protected status is very important, because other provisions in GC I — as well as in the First Additional Protocol (AP I), which extends the rules of GC I — require medics to be given a number of protections and privileges that other detainees do not enjoy.

The District Court rejected Al Warafi’s argument, concluding (p. 17) that he did not qualify as permanent medical personnel under Article 24 because the Taliban had not provided him with “the proof required by the Convention — that is, official identification demonstrating that he is entitled to protected status under Article 24. Absent such identification, petitioner simply cannot prove that he qualifies as Article 24 personnel.” In reaching the conclusion, the District Court specifically relied on paragraph 734 of the Commentary to AP I:

A soldier with medical duties is actually an able-bodied person who might well engage in combat; a medical vehicle could be used to transport ammunition rather than the wounded or medical supplies. Thus it is essential for medical personnel, units, materials and transports to be identified in order to ensure the protection to which they are entitled, which is identical to that accorded the wounded, sick and shipwrecked.

The DC Circuit then rejected Al Warafi’s appeal of the District Court’s decision on the same grounds.

I was puzzled by paragraph 734 when I came across it in the District Court’s decision. It seemed obvious that a medic who was not wearing the identification required by GC I and AP I could be targeted without violating the principle of distinction. It seemed equally obvious that a captured medic without proper identification might have a difficult time convincing his captors of his status. But I found it difficult to believe GC I and AP 1 would actually deprive a medic of his protected status simply because he did not have the proper identification. Doing so would serve no humanitarian purpose whatsoever, assuming the individual could establish his status by other means.

But paragraph 734 said what it said. So surely the District Court’s conclusion was correct. Right?

Wrong. Had the District Court bothered to read the next twelve paragraphs in the Commentary to AP I, it would have realised that, in fact, proper identification is not necessary for a medic to be entitled to protected status. Here is paragraph 746 of the Commentary to AP I:

The basic principle is stated in this first paragraph. The right to respect and protection of medical personnel and medical objects would be meaningless if they could not be clearly recognized. The Parties to the conflict therefore have a great interest in seeing that such personnel and objects can be identified by the enemy. Thus the rule laid down here is in the interests of those who are responsible for observing it. In fact, it would be the medical personnel and medical objects of the Party concerned which would suffer from poor means of identification and which could become the target of an enemy that had not identified them. Yet it must be emphasized that the means of identification do not constitute the right to protection, and from the moment that medical personnel or medical objects have been identified, shortcomings in the means of identification cannot be used as a pretext for failing to respect them.

In other words: the District Court and the DC Circuit should not have dismissed Al Warafi’s habeas petition on the ground the Taliban had not issued him with “official identification demonstrating that he is entitled to protected status.” Neither GC I nor AP I require such identification.

Another day, another misunderstanding of IHL by US courts. Sad, but predictable.

ICC/Palestine Event at Doughty Street Chambers

by Kevin Jon Heller

London-area readers interested in the ICC and Palestine might want to attend the following event, which is co-sponsored by Chatham House and Doughty Street Chambers (where I’m an academic member). It should be good, despite my participation:

Milestones in International Criminal Justice: The ICC and Palestine

Date: Tuesday 02 December 2014

Time: 18.00 – 19.30

Location: 54 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LS

Venue: Doughty Street Chambers

Speakers: Elizabeth Wilmshurst, Professor Kevin Jon Heller, Professor Yaël Ronen, Stephanie Barbour, Head of Amnesty International Centre for International Justice

CPD: 1.5

Fee: Free

Availability: Book a seat

In 2009 Palestine lodged a declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the ICC but only two years later the ICC Prosecutor decided to close its preliminary examination of the situation in Palestine because of uncertainties surrounding Palestine’s statehood.

The meeting will explore the implications of the UN General Assembly’s decision to accord to Palestine the status of non-member observer state in 2012, issues concerning Palestine’s prospective accession to the Rome Statute, and the possibility for Palestine to lodge a retroactive declaration giving the Court jurisdiction over Israeli military operations in Gaza such as ‘Cast Lead’ and ‘Protective Edge’.

Please note this event will be followed by a drinks reception.

This event is held in association with Doughty Street Chambers and is accredited with 1.5 CPD points.

Hope to see (some of) you there!

The Ninth Circuit’s Muddled Comity Analysis in Mujica

by Roger Alford

Last week the Ninth Circuit issued a controversial opinion in Mujica v. Airscan, Inc., that sharply limits the scope of human rights litigation. The claims in Mujica arose in Colombia and allegedly implicate corporate collusion with the Colombian military. Following Kiobel the common consensus was that Alien Tort Statute litigation would be severely curtailed based on the presumption against extraterritoriality. Not surprisingly, the Ninth Circuit rejected the Plaintiffs’ claims, finding that where the only connection to the United States was the Defendants’ nationality, the claims do not “touch and concern” the territory of the United States with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.

What is extremely surprising is that the court dismissed the state law claims. Because the court was not exercising supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims, it could not simply dismiss them without prejudice to be filed in state court. As with almost every other common law tort claim brought in federal district court based on diversity jurisdiction, I fully expected the Ninth Circuit in Mujica to apply California choice of law principles to resolve the claim. (For a detailed analysis of choice of law in the human rights context, see my article here).

As set forth by the California Supreme Court in Kearney, California’s comparative impairment analysis considers whether there is a true conflict between the affected states and applies “the law of the state whose interest would be the more impaired if its law were not applied.” California courts generally favor forum law when (1) the forum has an interest in the dispute and the laws of other affected jurisdictions are not different or (2) when the laws are different and the interests of the forum would be more impaired than the interests of the other jurisdiction. Otherwise they apply foreign law. Applying California choice of law, the Ninth Circuit exercising diversity jurisdiction ordinarily would retain jurisdiction of the state law claims and resolve them under Colombian law (as the government with the greatest interests at stake). The whole purpose of Brainerd Currie’s government interest approach (adopted by the California courts) is to exercise jurisdiction in a manner consistent with the legitimate government interests of the relevant stakeholders.

That is not what the court in Mujica did. Instead it relied on a novel prudential comity analysis to dismiss the claims. It first distinguished between prescriptive and adjudicatory comity, and concluded that Hartford Fire’s “true conflict” approach was inapplicable. Fair enough. But then it applied the comity factors enunciated in Restatement Section 403, which also applies to prescriptive comity. So the “true conflict” approach in Hartford Fire does not apply because that is relevant only for prescriptive jurisdiction, but the limitations on prescriptive jurisdiction in Section 403 do apply in balancing factors under adjudicatory comity. Very strange.

With due credit to my conversations with Trey Childress and Bill Dodge yesterday, if the court was going to invoke adjudicatory comity, it should have relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Colorado River and appellate court decisions such as Royal and Sun Alliance, Ungaro-Benages, and AAR International. Indeed, the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Neuchatel Swiss General specifically addressed adjudicatory comity and held that courts should not dismiss on the basis of adjudicatory comity except in “exceptional circumstances.” Those cases strongly suggest that adjudicatory comity applies only in exceptional circumstances and only when there is a pending foreign proceeding. The Ninth Circuit in Mujica completely ignored binding Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit precedents.

So what the court should have done in a case of diversity jurisdiction with significant foreign contacts is apply California’s choice of law principles to resolve the common law claims. That almost certainly would have resulted in the application of Colombian law, especially Title XXXIV of the Colombian Civil Code. (The Court could not dismiss the case based on forum non conveniens because the district court already determined that there was not an adequate alternative forum, and that question was not on appeal.) With no other avenues for dismissal, the Ninth Circuit dismissed the claims on the basis of a muddled application of adjudicatory comity, leaving the plaintiffs with no obvious means of redress anywhere.

I have written at length about the rise of transnational tort litigation and the application of choice-of-law principles as the logical response to Kiobel. The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Mujica seems to suggest that that approach is perfectly fine for the typical wrongful death claim involving foreign contacts or parties. But if it is a human rights claim dressed up in the guise of a wrongful death claim, then at least two members of the Ninth Circuit will bend over backwards to dismiss it.

I would be quite surprised if this case is not reconsidered by the Ninth Circuit en banc.

Guest Post: The Suspension of the Colombian Peace Talks and the Illegality of the Deprivation of Liberty of Members of State Armed Forces in Non-International Armed Conflicts

by Nicolás Carrillo-Santarelli

[Nicolás Carrillo-Santarelli is a Colombian lawyer, PhD on international law and international relations. He works as a researcher and lecturer of Public International Law at the Autónoma de Madrid University.] 

Introduction

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Monday, November 17,2014, that the negotiations between the Colombian Government and the FARC guerrilla seeking to reach a peace agreement were suspended because of information that the FARC kidnapped a Colombian general, an officer, and a lawyer (see here and here [in Spanish]).

While the reaction of the non-state armed group is yet to be seen, it is interesting to take into account its likely position regarding the type of conduct it is accused of having perpetrated. On Sunday November 9, 2014, the FARC kidnapped two Colombian soldiers, called César Rivera and Jonathan Andrés Díaz, but claimed that, in its opinion, far from breaching international humanitarian law, the group acted in accordance thereof. The FARC considers the soldiers to be captured as ‘prisoners of war’ and claims to have treated them in accordance with humanitarian principles by respecting their rights to life and integrity (Spanish) (it must be noted that, in the past, those deprived of their liberty by the FARC have notoriously been treated in an inhuman fashion and to the detriment of the enjoyment of their human rights [see here and here]).

Illegality of all deprivations of liberty attributable to non-state armed groups during non-international armed conflicts

It is important to examine if the claim of the FARC can be consistent with international law: namely, whether a non-state armed group can deprive individuals of their liberty during non-international armed conflicts under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). If the victims are civilians, the answer is clearly a negative one. Furthermore, in a scenario as the Colombian one, in which many civilians have suffered the deprivation of their liberty and their being placed in harsh conditions and treated cruelly or even killed at the hands of the guerillas, which have also extorted money as a condition to release some of them, it can be said that those deprivations of liberty have been carried out “as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population”, and so that those who perpetrate them commit a crime against humanity, according to article 7.e of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. From the point of view of human rights law, it can also be argued that the conduct in question amounts to a violation of those rights (and if it is accepted that non-state entities have human rights obligations, the armed groups would breach them as well).

When it comes to the legal analysis of the deprivation of liberty of members of the Colombian armed forces by the FARC, it is important to begin by noting that the regulation of international and non-international armed conflicts is not always identical or even similar. In fact, applying the rules of the former to the latter may sometimes be problematic, being this one of those events. In this regard, while treaty and customary norms permit the detention of prisoners of war during international armed conflicts, as Rule 99 of the Customary IHL Database of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) indicates, there is no indication that such a rule is applicable in non-international armed conflicts. In fact, the aforementioned rule, dealing with deprivation of liberty, when discussing non-international armed conflicts, focuses on the human rights standards governing the deprivation of liberty attributed to States, stressing that it must be lawful and non-arbitrary; and so implicitly indicates that there is no legal authorization for non-state armed groups to deprive anyone of his or her liberty or to detain them. In doctrine, this is confirmed by the analysis of conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian one, regarding which it has been said that: (more…)

Thoughts on the Baffling Comoros Declination

by Kevin Jon Heller

As I read – and re-read – the OTP’s decision regarding the attack on the Mavi Marmara, one thought kept going through my mind: what was the OTP thinking? Why would it produce a 61-page document explaining why, despite finding reason to believe the IDF had committed war crimes during the attack, it was not going to open an investigation? After all, the OTP took barely 10 pages to explain why it was not going to open an investigation into British war crimes in Iraq. And it routinely refuses to open investigations with no explanation at all.

There are, I think, two possible explanations for the length of the decision. The first is that the OTP learned its lesson with its 2006 Iraq decision, which no one found convincing and was widely interpreted as Luis Moreno-Ocampo succumbing to Western pressure. This time, the OTP was going to do better, providing a much more detailed discussion of its decision not to investigate.

The second possible explanation is that the OTP felt the need to say more than usual because this was the first time a state had referred crimes committed by another state to the OTP. Nothing in the Rome Statute requires the OTP to treat state referrals differently than “referrals” by individuals or organisations (the scare quotes are necessary because individuals and organisations don’t refer situations; they ask the OTP to use its proprio motu power to open an investigation into a situation), but the OTP is, of course, ultimately dependent upon states to cooperate with it. Hence greater solicitude toward state referrals is warranted.

These two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and I imagine both are at least partially correct. But I still can’t help but think that the OTP made a serious mistake, one that will come back to haunt it in the future, should it ever need to formally address the Israel/Palestine conflict again — which seems likely.

To be clear, I don’t think refusing to investigate the attack on the Mavi Marmara was a mistake. I agree with the OTP that the potential crimes committed during the attack, however troubling, are not grave enough to warrant a formal investigation. My problem is with the OTP’s explanation of why those crimes are not adequately grave – that attacks on peacekeepers (in Darfur) are more serious than an attack on civilians engaged trying to break a blockade that has been widely condemned as illegal because of its devastating consequences for the inhabitants of Gaza. I fully agree with Michael Kearney’s recent guest-post on the Comoros decision, in which he questions the OTP’s characterisation of the flotilla as not really being humanitarian. I’d simply add that I find problematic its insistence that a genuinely humanitarian mission would have worked with Israel to distribute goods in Gaza instead of trying to break the blockade. Doing so would have meant, of course, giving final say over the goods to a state whose officials have admitted they want to keep Palestinians at near-subsistence levels. Complying with the blockade would simply have made the flotilla complicit in Israel’s ongoing collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population.

The OTP’s gravity analysis is also analytically confused…

This War of Mine — A New (and Better) Type of Videogame

by Kevin Jon Heller

Nearly nine years ago, I blogged about the ICRC’s efforts to prevent the use — or, more accurately, the misuse — of the Red Cross symbol in videogames. I imagine it will have less of a problem with the new game This War of Mine, which challenges the player to survive as long as possible as a civilian in a war-torn fictional city. Here is the powerful trailer for the game, which mixes survivor testimony with haunting in-game graphics:

And here is a snippet of a glowing (if that’s the right adjective) review of the game by Matt Peckham in Wired:

I’ve seen some refer to This War of Mine as an antiwar video game. That’s too reductive—like calling pictures of civilian casualties in conflict zones “pacifist propaganda.”

The scenarios This War of Mine engages are less antiwar than they are actual war stories, and that, I think, is the point: This is what unflinching war looks like from the standpoint of those powerless to stop it, the ones caught in the teeth of the machine without catchy operational monikers to rally behind or celebrated by politicians to usher them home as heroes. The ones whose war this isn’t.

It’s what Cormac McCarthy was getting at in The Road: We’re a faint signal cutting through the static of existence, and war, with its reduction of civilian lives to collateral damage, scrambles even that.

The version of war we’re often sold involves abstract military numbers, splashy interactive news maps and easy slogans on bumper stickers. In real war, whatever the reasons and however noble the rhetoric, it comes down to individuals like the ones in This War of Mine: People like you or me trapped in appalling scenarios, their social constructs crumbling, needing basic shelter, food, a bed to sleep in, pills or antibiotics, and perhaps most of all, a reason in all the madness not to check out for good.

Videogames are now a $15 billion industry. Here’s hoping at least some of that money goes to the innovative developers of This War of Mine for showing us the educative and transformative potential that well-designed videogames possess.

November 19: UNWCC Event at SOAS

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call our London-area readers attention to a very interesting event I’ll be chairing on November 19. The event is entitled “Reinforcing International Criminal Justice: Building on the Work of the 1943-48 UN War Crimes Commission”; here is the description:

As part of Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy’s Research Programme on UN War Crimes Commission which was published in the Criminal Law Forum, CISD will be holding a Panel Discussion on recently disclosed archives from the United Nations War Crimes Commission (1943-48), uncovering a critical gap in the historical narrative of World War II and the development of international criminal law, upon which the international community can draw in view of strengthening the effectiveness of the International Criminal Court and sharpening international responses to contemporary war crimes and crimes against humanity.

And here are the participants:

Overview: Shanti Sattler (by skype)

Shanti Sattler is the assistant director of the War Crimes Project at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

Complementary Justice: Dr Mark Ellis

Mark Ellis is Executive Director of the International Bar Association (IBA) and leads the foremost international organisation of bar associations, law firms and individual lawyers in the world.

Torture: Dr Lutz Oette

Dr Lutz Oette is Counsel at REDRESS and a lecturer in law at the School of Law, SOAS, University of London.

Prosecution of Sexual Crimes and of Low Level Officials: Dr Dan Plesch

Dr Dan Plesch is the Director of the Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

Additional information about the event, which is open to the public and does not require registration, is available here. Readers with a particular interest in the UNWCC’s underappreciated work should also check out CISD’s amazing website here.