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International Courts and Dispute Resolution

Comment on Atrocity Speech Law by Gregory Gordon

by Roger S. Clark

[Roger S. Clark is the Board of Governors Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School.]

Several important themes are developed alongside one another in Gregory Gordon’s remarkable book on the activity for which he coins the term “atrocity speech law.”  They are captured largely in his sub-title “Foundation, Fragmentation and Fruition” and in his summary of the “fruition” points at pp. 16-24 of the work.  I cannot do justice to all his exhaustive scholarship and his insights in a short blog post,  so I shall comment on the general picture and then outline, idiosyncratically no doubt, a couple of the points that particularly struck me.

Gordon assays a concrete legal definition of his subject area in the text of a creative proposed “Convention on the Classification and Criminalization of Atrocity Speech Offenses” (pp. 378-81).  Article 1 of the treaty has the Parties confirming that “hate speech, when uttered for purposes of triggering or supporting atrocity crimes, should be accurately categorized in its different penal forms and criminalized and punished according to the actual form it takes.”  “Such speech,” it adds, shall be considered to give rise to what is known as ‘atrocity speech liability’”.  Article 2 states that “[f]or purposes of this Convention, ‘atrocity crimes’ means genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, as defined respectively in Articles 6, 7, and 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.”  Obviously, I admire his boldness in trying his hand at treaty drafting, which is why I mention at the outset his global solution to the problems elucidated in the previous three hundred-odd pages.  I’ll return to the Convention later.

The “foundation” part of the argument expands on his understanding of the “historical record,” namely that “instances of mass atrocity have always been accompanied by communications campaigns designed to demonize the intended victims and inflame the passions of would-be perpetrators.”  (P. 5, and see his excellent typography of the various forms of demonization at pp. 284-91, where he relates them especially to the “direct” requirement in respect of public incitement to genocide.)

The first attempt to deal with such activities through the criminal law was at Nuremberg where Julius Streicher was charged, convicted and executed on the basis of the persecution leg of crimes against humanity.  The confusion about whether an inchoate incitement theory, which Gordon espouses, would be appropriate in such cases begins with Streicher, although the issue was not pressing there, as the evil deeds had occurred at the time of trial and could be attributed to him and persecution filled the bill.

It should be noted, though, that the Nuremberg prosecution also sought to use an inchoate conspiracy theory.  Had it been developed further, that might have been a viable way to deal with situations which are of concern to Gordon, where there is no necessary causal link between what the accused did and the atrocities actually committed.  But the Tribunal held that the inchoate conspiracy provision in the Charter applied only to crimes against peace (aggression).

The London drafters of Nuremberg had grappled in a desultory fashion with conspiracy, an important feature of the enterprise for Justice Jackson that was not well understood by the others drafters, even the British.  Sometimes, as I read his transcript of the proceedings, I wonder if Jackson himself really understood what he was doing.  In particular, he and the British were not always clear whether they were talking about the inchoate conspiracy doctrine that the British and American legal systems share, or the peculiarly American doctrine that a conspirator may become liable for the crimes committed by other conspirators in somewhat peripheral situations where they would not be held liable by virtue of basic complicity principles (the “Pinkerton” doctrine which remains a feature of federal law).  More on this later too.

Streicher’s persecution leg of crimes against humanity, which might not necessarily include violence, was essentially spun off to become the core of genocide, as defined in the Genocide Convention.  Genocide appears almost identically in the later Statutes of the ad hoc Tribunals for Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and of the ICC, although it still finds an overlapping place in definitions of crimes against humanity.

The Nuremberg Charter contains no suggestion that there should be responsibility for attempted crimes under international law; the Tribunal itself was not enthusiastic about conspiracies to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Genocide Convention, however, picks up both attempt and conspiracy responsibility, along with direct and public incitement — three inchoate offenses. It included in its definition not only genocide (as a principal) and complicity in genocide, but also that trio of preparatory offenses. These inchoate offenses travelled, uniquely with reference to genocide, into the Statutes of the ad hoc Tribunals.

If this can be regarded simply as an example of the vagaries of the drafting process, the drafting of the Rome Statute is even more curious.  In Article 25 of the Statute, dealing with “individual criminal responsibility,” attempts (defined essentially in the Model Penal Code language of “a substantial step”) can be prosecuted for all Statute offenses (Article 25 (3) (f)).  This, as I see it, includes not only genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, but also the crime of aggression, whose inclusion within the effective jurisdiction of the Court is on the horizon.  Direct and public incitement of others to commit genocide is also included (Article 25 (3) (e)).

This type of criminality is, however, not extended to the other crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction.  I was involved as a representative of Samoa in the negotiations on Article 25.  As best I understood the argument, in a process that proceeded on the basis of consensus, it was that genocide was unique and the type of incitement involved did not need to be extended to the other offenses.

Gordon disagrees with this result and I am inclined to think that he has a point. Conspiracy was even more puzzling for the negotiators.  This time, no reference to inchoate conspiracy for genocide based on the Genocide Convention was carried forward into the Rome Statute.  My impression here was that many players, like their predecessors in London in 1945, had no clue about the difference between inchoate conspiracy and conspiracy as a form of complicity.  They thought they had solved the problem with Article 25 (3) (d) of the Statute, a kind of residual complicity provision which renders criminally responsible a person who:

“In any other way contributes to the commission or attempted commission of such a crime by a group or persons acting with a common purpose.  Such contribution shall be intentional and shall either: (i) Be made with the aim of furthering the criminal activity or criminal purpose of the group … or (ii) Be made in the knowledge of the intention of the group to commit the crime.”

This is a mode of participation in a crime (or an attempt) when that crime or attempted crime actually occurs, not an inchoate offense for which there is responsibility regardless of what happens afterwards.  If it is a “conspiracy” theory, it is one closer to the Pinkerton doctrine (and its international counterpart Joint Criminal Enterprise) but one which, unlike some versions of those, requires a minimum mens rea of knowledge on the part of the “co-conspirator.”  (Inchoate) conspiracy to commit genocide, from the Genocide Convention, got lost in the shuffle.  Those who worked on defining the crime of aggression, in fulfillment of the expectations of Rome that it would be finalized later, saw no reason to carry forward Nuremberg’s conspiracy to commit aggression, given that it had disappeared in Rome in respect of genocide.  (They did think that Article 25 (3) (d) might apply to aggressors in some cases, as long as they were leaders; see Article 25 (3 bis).)

The “fragmentation” part of the book analyzes, in particular, the relative incoherence of the jurisprudence, especially that of the Rwanda Tribunal.  There are difficulties especially with the ways in which the Tribunals have dealt with the “public” and “direct” aspects of incitement to genocide, and with the definitions of persecution and of the complicity words “ordering” and “instigation.”  There is, moreover, the absence of the crime of incitement to commit war crimes.  Gordon argues for improved definitions and for creating the crime of incitement to commit war crimes.  I think he should probably argue for the sake of consistency for responsibility for inciting crimes against humanity also, but I could not find him doing so explicitly.  He has argued in a separate book chapter for a kind of incitement to commit aggression.  He does not appear to be a fan of conspiracy as an inchoate offense, in spite of its tenuous history in relation to aggression at Nuremberg or in the Genocide Convention.

Incidentally, Professor Gordon notes (p. 357) “Conspiracy, direct incitement, and attempts to commit, as well as complicity in the commission of, crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and war crimes” are defined as criminal in the United States Army Field Manual 27-10.  He also notes the complete absence of application or of expert commentary on this provision.  Note also that the Military Commissions Act of 2009 (echoing the earlier 2006 version) claims jurisdiction in Commissions for attempts, conspiracy and (inchoate) “solicitation” to commit the motley bunch of substantive offenses (not including aggression) outlined in the statute.  I assume that ‘solicitation” here is the same as “direct incitement” in the Field Manual.  The requirement of directness perhaps protects some speech, a legitimate concern for Gordon.  The conspiracy part of the MCA has been the subject of extensive litigation, not least in the Hamdan saga.  The legislative assertion that “[t]he provisions of this subchapter codify offenses that have traditionally been triable by military commission” has to be taken with a large dose of salt.

So, to the “fruition” part of the argument.  I think that his modest proposal is to fix Article 25 (3) of the Rome Statute, at least extending incitement (without the public requirement which the case-law suggests is unnecessary) to cover war crimes (p. 351) and presumably crimes against humanity.  The more radical proposal is the proposed treaty on Atrocity Speech Offenses, noted above, which would replace (or run parallel?) to the present less than coherent assemblage of offenses.  The basic idea is apparent from the definition that I quoted earlier.  Article 5 of the draft includes the gamut of different kinds of conduct involving hate offenses which the parties are required to criminalize: “Incitement,” “speech abetting” (encouragement during ongoing atrocities without proof of causation), “instigation” and “ordering” with freshened definitions in each case.

There is plenty to mull over here and examining the Convention in detail would take up a book of blogs, not a mere 1800 words.

A Set of International Crimes without Coherence or a Proper Name: The Origins of “Atrocity Speech Law”

by Gregory Gordon

[Gregory Gordon is Associate Professor of Law, Associate Dean for Development and External Affairs and Director of the Research Postgraduates Programme at The Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law.  He was formerly a prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Special Investigations.]

I have always felt that great scholarship is born of great frustration. And that’s what inspired me to write Atrocity Speech Law: Foundation, Fragmentation, Fruition (Oxford University Press 2017). Why was I so frustrated? The answer goes back to my salad days as a lawyer with the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, when I was assigned to the “Media” team. We investigated, and eventually indicted, certain newspaper and radio executives/employees responsible for inflammatory rhetoric disseminated in the lead up to and execution of the Rwandan Genocide. But there were few legal precepts, and even less jurisprudence, available to guide us. What little there was emanated from Nuremberg, where rabid Jew-hating journalist Julius Streicher, Nazi Radio Division head Hans Fritzsche and Reich Press Chief Otto Dietrich had been prosecuted. So, from a legal perspective, we had to be resourceful as we constructed our ICTR media cases centering on charges of direct and public incitement to commit genocide and hate speech as the crime against humanity of persecution – only the latter having been charged against the just-mentioned Nazi propagandists (other possible speech-related charges available to us were instigation and ordering). But given that we were venturing onto what was largely legal terra nullius (especially with respect to incitement), we often had to grope in the doctrinal dark. So that was the first stage of frustration.

Still, from a law development perspective, I remained sanguine. The key “Media” defendants were ultimately convicted – Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean Bosco Barayagwiza (founders of the infamous Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines or RTLM, otherwise known as “Radio Machete”), RTLM announcer Georges Ruggiu, and extremist Hutu newspaper editor Hassan Ngeze. The judgments against them, along with that of Mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu for incitement to genocide (the first in history) – offered hope that a decent foundation had been laid for a law that could effectively govern the relationship between speech and atrocity. But that hope turned out to be misplaced.

Over time, for example, it became clear that there were problems with the formulation and application of the incitement crime, comprising the elements of “direct,” public,” “mens rea,” “incitement” and, possibly causation. Issues arose with respect to each of these. I will not deal with each of them here but will provide some brief examples for illustrative purposes. For instance, thanks in large part to the Akayesu judgment’s paying wishy-washy obeisance to both French- and English-language sources, treatment of the “direct” element was schizophrenically situated somewhere between Common Law and Civil Law conceptions. Unfortunately, the French word for “incitement” – inciter – was also the French word for “instigation” – one of whose elements is resultant violence. So that seemed to engender confusion with respect to causation. Incitement, as an inchoate crime, should not require causation. But Akayesu and its progeny were examining causation in the factual portions all the same and the Akayesu judges even went so far as to assert the need to prove “a possible causal link” between the relevant speech and subsequent violence in that case.

As for the “public” element, its inadequacies were exposed in the so-called “roadblock cases” at the ICTR. Even though inflammatory speech uttered at roadblocks was in a “public” place — because on public roads accessible to all citizens — the speech was held not to be “incitement” because “members of the public” were not present. But if enough persons were present at the roadblock, then “members of the public” could be considered in attendance and the speech could be considered “incitement.” This was a distinction without principle and did not seem to be justified from a policy perspective. Moreover, an advocate’s voice in closer proximity to a listener is arguably more compelling than one from a distance. In other words, private incitement can be just as lethal, if not more, than public.

There were problems with crimes against humanity(CAH)-persecution too. That crime consists of (1) knowingly uttering speech as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population; (2) resulting in a severe fundamental group-rights deprivation (motivated by group-status); and (3) considered as being of the same gravity level as the other CAH acts. Unfortunately, the ICTR and ICTY have adopted polar opposite positions regarding the issue of whether hate speech not calling for violence can serve as the actus reus for persecution as a crime against humanity. The ICTR concluded that such rhetoric blatantly deprives the target ethnic group of fundamental rights and thus could be the basis for charging persecution. But the ICTY, in the Kordić judgment, found that hate speech not directly calling for violence did not constitute persecution because it failed to rise to the same level of gravity as the other enumerated crimes against humanity acts (such as imprisonment or deportation, for example). And so doctrinal gridlock ensued.

Instigation, the prompting of another to commit an offense (resulting in commission of the offence) – with a connection between the prompting and the crime (i.e. a “contribution”) has also been plagued with problems. As we have seen, it has been consistently confused with incitement and this has exacerbated the muddled jurisprudence regarding causation in both bodies of law. Moreover, there is no consistent approach to the crime’s “contribution” requirement, leading to a series of disjointed pronouncements regarding the degree of contribution and, reading last year’s horrid Šešelj judgment, arguably importing a “but for” causation requirement into the jurisprudence. Ordering, essentially instigation in the context of a superior-subordinate relationship, has been deficient as it permits the superior to escape liability if the command is not carried out (clearly problematic when juxtaposed with incitement to genocide, where there is no superior-subordinate relationship between speaker and listener but the speech utterance itself – regardless of resultant violence — carries liability).

In addition to such individual offense problems, I was also beginning to realize these modalities did not function well together as an ensemble, thus creating significant liability loopholes. For example, in the law’s current state, liability for “incitement” — an inchoate crime — is limited to genocide. Crimes against humanity and war crimes are also horrific atrocity offenses. Why was there no incitement liability connected to those crimes? Similarly, speech uttered in support of contemporaneous mass violence — and with knowledge that the violence is occurring — is limited to the offense of persecution as a crime against humanity. Why was there no speech-specific liability for rhetoric uttered knowingly in support of ongoing acts of genocide or war crimes? The answer could not lie in generic accomplice liability, as it does not recognize the unique power of speech to provoke mass atrocity in the first place.

Upon deeper reflection, it occurred to me that this problem owed to the piecemeal development of the entire body of the law from its inception. On an ad hoc basis, according to individual exigencies at different times, this doctrinal assemblage had been cobbled together by taking a hodgepodge of legal concepts, such as inchoate or accomplice liability, and willy-nilly fastening them to different speech activities. Thus, it is only by historical chance that incitement, a form of inchoate liability, only applies to genocide and not to crimes against humanity or war crimes. The resulting gaps frustrate prevention efforts and help encourage repressive regimes to take advantage of the ambiguity and suppress legitimate speech.

So, in the full measure of time, the growing body of jurisprudence was clearly not allaying my initial sense of frustration. Perhaps, I began thinking, fellow academics and other experts were also noticing these problems and offering solutions. But a review of the literature also left me disappointed – it was as fragmented as the doctrine. Despite excellent individual pieces by talented scholars such as Susan Benesch, Carol Pauli, Wibke Timmermann, Diane Orentlicher and Richard Wilson, among others (myself included – guilty as charged!), there had been no comprehensive study of this body of law. Some articles and books had dealt with parts of it but no single volume had furnished a comprehensive analysis of the entire jurisprudential output and the relation of each of its parts to one another and to the whole (although Wibke’s monograph Incitement in International Law, published after I started writing my book, came closest). No one had yet bothered to step back, systematically consider what has been produced, and provide holistic, constructive analysis and suggestions for change.

And thus was the Atrocity Speech Law project born. After completing my research, I found the book logically divided into the three components of its subtitle. Part 1, “Foundation,” begins with a brief history of atrocity speech, focusing on the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and mass killing in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. It then looks at the modern treatment of hate speech in international human rights treaties (such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and in domestic jurisdictions. This serves as a bridge to a history of atrocity speech law focusing on its origins at the Nuremberg trials. Flowing from this, the book examines the development of speech crimes as formulated in the Genocide Convention and the statutes of the ICTR, ICTY and ICC. It then analyzes the relevant decisions issued by these courts, including the seminal ICTR Akayesu, Ruggiu, and Media Case judgments as well as the ICTY’s Kordić decision. It concludes by considering the general framework and the elements of the crimes established by these decisions.

Part 2, “Fragmentation,” goes on to identify the discrepancies within that framework, its inconsistent applications and other problems the framework engenders, as discussed above. Finally, Part 3, “Fruition,” recommends how the law should be developed going forward to deal with these issues. It begins by proposing how to fix the various problems within each individual speech offense. Then it suggests a more comprehensive and elegant solution: a “Unified Liability Theory” that would replace the current patchwork of speech offenses surrounding atrocity — e.g., incitement only applying to genocide, speech-specific inchoate liability not applying to crimes against humanity or war crimes, and speech offenses related to war crimes being limited to instigation/ordering — and create four general categories of speech offenses: (1) “incitement” (an inchoate mode of liability applying to all three core crimes — genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes — but eliminating the “public” element from the liability portion of the crime and attaching it to sentencing considerations — while removing “direct” from the title only, not the prima facie elements to help protect free speech); (2) “speech-abetting” (a type of accomplice liability for speech knowingly delivered simultaneously with commission of atrocities, and also applying to all three core crimes); (3) “instigation” (a form of commission liability applying to all speech causally related to subsequent atrocity and thus also linked to the three core crimes); and (4) ordering (criminalizing commands to commit atrocity within a superior-subordinate relationship and incorporating inchoate liability).

And all of these reforms can be operationalized through promulgation of a new treaty, “The Convention on the Classification and Criminalization of Atrocity Speech Offenses,” and/or through amendment of the Rome Statute to include Article 25bis — “Liability Related to Speech.” That new provision, whose equivalent could also be placed in domestic statutes as well as the constituent instruments of existing and/or new ad hoc international tribunals, would contain all four types of speech liability — incitement, speech abetting, instigation and ordering — connected to all three core international offenses — genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The point is that speech’s unique and potent contribution to atrocity should be recognized and criminalized in its own right. It should not become lost in a set of scattered provisions, relegated as a functionally invisible adjunct to other criminal law concepts in the general “modes of responsibility” sections of statutes, charters and codes. And the set of principles it gives rise to should have a name commensurate with its elevated status. That name should capture the entire range of the doctrine and its intimate relationship with mass violence. And this book coins that name: “atrocity speech law.”

Symposium: Gregory Gordon’s “Atrocity Speech Law”

by Chris Borgen

Over the next three days we will have an online discussion concerning Gregory Gordon’s new book Atrocity Speech Law: Foundation, Fragmentation, Fruition (Oxford 2017).

We welcome Professor Gordon (The Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law), as well as Roger Clark (Rutgers Law), Mark Drumbl (Washington and Lee School of Law), and David Simon (Yale Dept. of Political Science), who will comment on themes from the book.

We look forward to the conversation!

ICC Appeals Chamber Says A War Crime Does Not Have to Violate IHL

by Kevin Jon Heller

One of the most basic assumption of ICL is that an act cannot be a war crime unless it violates a rule of international humanitarian law (IHL). Article 6(b) of the London Charter criminalised “War Crimes: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war.” Article 3 of the ICTY Statute provides that “[t]he International Tribunal shall have the power to prosecute persons violating the laws or customs of war,” while Article 4 of the ICTR Statute provides that “[t]he International Tribunal for Rwanda shall have the power to prosecute persons committing or ordering to be committed serious violations of Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 for the Protection of War Victims, and of Additional Protocol II thereto of 8 June 1977.” And Article 8 of the Rome Statute criminalises “[g]rave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949”; “[o]ther serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict”; [i]n the case of an armed conflict not of an international character, serious violations of article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949″; and “[o]ther serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in armed conflicts not of an international character.” In each and every case, war crimes are limited to violations of IHL.

No more. The Appeals Chamber (AC) at the ICC has just unanimously held in Ntaganda that a perpetrator can be convicted of a war crime even if his act does not violate IHL. That decision is not simply “unprecedented,” as the AC openly acknowledges. It is simply incorrect — as this post will demonstrate.

The judgement itself addresses allegations that Ntaganda is criminally responsible for two war crimes — rape and sexual slavery — involving children forcibly recruited into his organised armed group, the UPC/FPLC. Ntaganda challenged that allegation, arguing that “crimes committed by members of armed forces on members of the same armed force do not come within the jurisdiction of international humanitarian law nor within international criminal law.” The Trial Chamber (TC) disagreed, in a judgment ably discussed and critiqued by Yvonne McDermott. Ntaganda appealed, giving rise to this judgment. Here is the AC’s “key finding”:

2. Having regard to the established framework of international law, members of an armed force or group are not categorically excluded from protection against the war crimes of rape and sexual slavery under article 8 (2) (b) (xxii) and (2) (e) (vi) of the Statute when committed by members of the same armed force or group.

Before turning to the logic of the judgment, it is important to be very precise about the terms of my quarrel with the AC. I completely agree with the AC that there are situations in which a member of an armed force can, in fact, commit the war crime of rape or the war crime of sexual slavery against a member of the same armed force. As the AC rightly notes, although the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions do not apply to acts committed by a combatant against someone from the same side of the conflict — whether by virtue of membership in that same armed force (GC III) or by nationality (GC IV) — the First and Second Geneva Conventions contain no such limitation:

59. In contrast, Geneva Conventions I and II, which protect the wounded and sick on land and the wounded, sick and shipwrecked at sea respectively, provide protection “in all circumstances […] without any adverse distinction founded on sex, race, nationality” and prohibit violence against them. Importantly, such protected status is not limited to persons belonging to enemy armed forces, but includes wounded, sick or shipwrecked members of a party’s own armed forces, a rule that corresponds to the understanding of the scope of protection since the first Geneva Convention was adopted in 1864. It follows from the above that the notion of grave breaches under Geneva Conventions I and II includes violations committed against the wounded, sick or shipwrecked committed by members of their own armed force.

Nothing in GC I or GC II suggests, however, that IHL protects all members of the armed forces against member-on-member violence. On the contrary, let’s take a look at the AC’s statement again, with the critical language in bold:

59. In contrast, Geneva Conventions I and II, which protect the wounded and sick on land and the wounded, sick and shipwrecked at sea respectively, provide protection “in all circumstances […] without any adverse distinction founded on sex, race, nationality” and prohibit violence against them. Importantly, such protected status is not limited to persons belonging to enemy armed forces, but includes wounded, sick or shipwrecked members of a party’s own armed forces, a rule that corresponds to the understanding of the scope of protection since the first Geneva Convention was adopted in 1864. It follows from the above that the notion of grave breaches under Geneva Conventions I and II includes violations committed against the wounded, sick or shipwrecked committed by members of their own armed force.

Under GC I and GC II, in other words, member-against-member violence violates IHL only if the victim is wounded, sick, or shipwrecked. If the victim is none of those things — if he or she is not hors de combat — that violence may well violate a state’s domestic criminal law, but it does not violate IHL.

If the AC had limited the scope of its judgment to rape and sexual slavery committed against child soldiers who were hors de combatdefined by the ICRC, in relevant part, as “anyone who is defenceless because of unconsciousness, shipwreck, wounds or sickness” — it would have been on firm ground. But that is not what it has done. On the contrary, the AC goes to great lengths to make clear that member-against-member rape and sexual slavery are war crimes even if the victim is an active combatant –– ie, one who is not hors de combat. Here is the relevant paragraph (emphasis mine):

64. With regard to the second issue – namely whether Status Requirements exist in international humanitarian law specifically for the war crimes of rape and sexual slavery – the Appeals Chamber observes that the prohibitions of rape and sexual slavery in armed conflict are without a doubt well established under international humanitarian law. As noted by the Trial Chamber, protection under international humanitarian law against such conduct generally “appear[s] in contexts protecting civilians and persons hors de combat in the power of a party to the conflict”. In this regard, the question arising before the Appeals Chamber is whether such explicit protection under international humanitarian law suggests any limits on who may be victims of such conduct. In the view of the Appeals Chamber, there is no conceivable reason for reaching such a conclusion.

Notice the bold language, because it’s critical — and wrong. IHL protection does not “generally” apply only to civilians and combatants hors de combat. On the contrary, each and every IHL convention applies only to those two categories of individuals. As we have seen, the AC itself acknowledges that limitation with regard to all four of the Geneva Conventions. It cites no other source of IHL, instead simply noting that the ICRC states in its new commentary to GC I “that Common Article 3 protects members of armed forces against violations committed by the armed force to which they belong.” But that statement is incomplete and misleading, because the ICRC makes unequivocally clear that CA3’s prohibitions apply only to individuals who are hors de combat:

518  Subparagraph (1) covers all ‘[p]ersons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause’. The article does not expand on these notions and this part of the article did not give rise to much discussion at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference. The protection afforded under this subparagraph requires that the person be in the power of a Party to the conflict (see section E.4).
519  The protection of persons not or no longer participating in hostilities is at the heart of humanitarian law. The persons protected by common Article 3 are accordingly described by way of explicit delimitations: ‘persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause’ (emphasis added). Parties to a non-international armed conflict are under the categorical obligation to treat these persons humanely, in all circumstances and without any adverse distinction.

The Trial Chamber’s judgment is no better. The TC rests its conclusion that member-against-member rape is a war crime even when the victim is an active combatant solely on two things: the Martens Clause and Art. 75 of the First Additional Protocol (AP I). Here is paragraph 47:

While most of the express prohibitions of rape and sexual slavery under international humanitarian law appear in contexts protecting civilians and persons hors de combat in the power of a party to the conflict, the Chamber does not consider those explicit protections to exhaustively define, or indeed limit, the scope of the protection against such conduct. In this regard, the Chamber recalls the Martens clause, which mandates that in situations not covered by specific agreements, ‘civilians and combatants remain under the protection and authority of the principles of international law derived from established custom, from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience’. The Chamber additionally notes that the fundamental guarantees provisions [in Art. 75] refer to acts that ‘are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever’ and as such apply to, and protect, all persons in the power of a Party to the conflict.

I don’t have time to get into a detailed discussion of the Martens Clause. Suffice it say here that it is very unlikely that the Clause can ever be relied upon to expand IHL not only beyond conventional law, but even beyond customary IHL — and as the AC itself acknowledges (para. 60), there is literally zero state practice indicating that member-against-member mistreatment is a war crime even when the victim is an active combatant. Even Antonio Cassese, no stranger to judicial activism, dismisses this “norm-creating” reading of the Martens Clause as “radical.” As he says, “[s]urely the Clause does not envisage — nor has it brought about the birth of — two autonomous sources of international law, distinct from the customary process.”

As for Art. 75 of AP I, the Protocol’s “fundamental guarantees” provision, the TC’s position is deeply problematic. Here is n. 111:

Article 75 of Additional Protocol I refers to ‘a Party to the conflict’ (emphasis added) and therefore does not limit the fundamental guarantees to persons in the power of the opposing party.

The TC conveniently fails to note that Art. 75 applies only to international armed conflict — and that Art. 4 of AP II, the “fundamental guarantees” provision in the NIAC Protocol, is specifically limited to “persons who do not take a direct part or who have ceased to take part in hostilities” (ie, civilians and combatants hors de combat).

Given that conventional IHL uniformly requires the victim of member-against-member mistreatment to be hors de combat, on what basis does the AC hold that the status of the victim is irrelevant? The answer comes from this paragraph (emphasis mine):

65. The Appeals Chamber agrees with the Trial Chamber’s finding that “there is never a justification to engage in sexual violence against any person; irrespective of whether or not this person may be liable to be targeted and killed under international humanitarian law”. Accordingly, in the absence of any general rule excluding members of armed forces from protection against violations by members of the same armed force, there is no ground for assuming the existence of such a rule specifically for the crimes of rape or sexual slavery.

This is simply incorrect. To begin with, there is a specific rule excluding active combatants from the war crimes of rape and sexual slavery in member-against-member situations: namely, the rule that says violence in member-against-member situations violates IHL only when the victim is hors de combat. The AC’s judgment suggests that states not only had to specify that rule in the various IHL conventions, they also had to add: “oh, and by the way, this limit means that mistreating active combatants doesn’t violate IHL.” But that’s silly: the former implies the latter. After all, expressio unius est exclusio alterius is a basic rule of treaty interpretation.

But even if that was not the case, there would still be a general rule excluding active combatants from the war crimes of rape and sexual slavery in member-against-member situations: the rule that says a war crime must involve a violation of IHL. As noted at the beginning of this post, that is one of the most basic assumptions of IHL. Not all violations of IHL are war crimes, but all war crimes are violations of IHL. So the burden of proof was not on Ntaganda to show that rape and sexual slavery cannot be war crimes in member-against-member situations if the victim is an active combatant. The burden was on the prosecution to prove that such acts actually violate IHL. Because if they don’t — and they don’t, as we have seen — the Court has no jurisdiction whatsoever over Ntaganda’s acts, at least insofar as they are legally characterised as war crimes.

In the end, the AC’s decision in Ntaganda is little more than the latest iteration of the Court’s willingness to rely on teleological reasoning when the Rome Statute does not protect victims as much as the judges think it should. No one is in favour of raping and sexually enslaving child soldiers. But the solution isn’t to detach the law of war crimes from its moorings in IHL by holding — if only implicitly — that an act can be a war crime even if it does not violate IHL. To do so is not only legally indefensible, it risks delegitimising both the Court and the law of war crimes itself.

Syria War Crimes Accountability Act — Now Revised!

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last month, I blogged about the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017, a bipartisan Senate bill “[t]o require a report on, and to authorize technical assistance for, accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Syria.” I praised the bill, but pointed out that Section 7(a) was drafted in such a way that it permitted the US to provide technical assistance to entities investigating international crimes committed by pro-Assad forces and “violent extremist groups,” but did not permit the US to support entities investigating international crimes committed by rebels.

I am delighted to report that Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), successfully introduced an amendment to the bill at last Thursday’s SFRC’s business meeting that corrects the asymmetry in Section 7(a). The new version reads as follows (emphasis in original):

The Secretary of State (acting through appropriate officials and offices, which may include the Office of Global Criminal Justice), after consultation with the Department of Justice and other appropriate Federal agencies, is authorized to provide appropriate assistance to support entities that, with respect to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, all forces fighting on its behalf, and all non-state armed groups fighting in the country, including violent extremist groups in Syria beginning in March 2011…

This is a welcome change, because — as I pointed out in my original post — there is no reason to treat crimes committed by rebels any differently than crimes committed by Assad’s forces or by ISIS.

Kudos to Sen. Cardin! Let’s hope the revised version of the bill passes the full Senate soon.

Charlie Dunlap’s Defence of Israel’s Attacks on Hezbollah in Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, Asaf Lubin offered a compelling post at Just Security wondering why Israel’s repeated attacks on Hezbollah arms shipments in Syria have not received the same kind of jus ad bellum scrutiny as the US’s recent attack on a Syrian airfield. Today, Charles Dunlap provides his answer on the same blog: the Israeli attacks are clearly legal, so why would anyone scrutinise them? Here are the relevant paragraphs:

[I]t appears to me that the Israeli strike sought to destroy weapons in transit before Hezbollah can burrow them into densely-populated areas.  Of course, some JAB scholar might argue about the imminence of the threat as justifying anticipatory self-defense, but if one carefully reads the Obama administration’s “Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations” on that point (p. 9), it would be hard not to conclude that the strike would fit the criteria.

It is especially telling that the Obama administration concluded – correctly in my view – that it is “now increasingly recognized by the international community, the traditional conception of what constitutes an ‘imminent’ attack must be understood in light of the modern-day capabilities, techniques, and technological innovations of terrorist organizations.”

Along that line, this past January UK Attorney General Jeremy Wright gave a speech which echoed much of the Obama Administration’s approach.  Wright does caution that “remote threats or threats that have not yet materialized” would not fit the necessary criteria, but I don’t think in the case of Hezbollah those exclusions would apply.  Additionally, Wright endorsed – as does the Obama framework – Sir Daniel Bethlehem’s principles laid out in 2012 that included assessing whether there will be another “clear opportunity to act” defensively.

In other words, the analysis of “imminence” in this instance could properly take into account Hezbollah’s history of hostile actions against Israel, as well as its adaption of a “technique” which is “designed to exacerbate civilian risk.”  A strike on the Damascus warehouses makes sense as it could well be the last “clear opportunity to act” before the weapons could be embedded into civilian areas in easy range of Israel where they could be countered only at great risk to noncombatants.

Thus, the lack of JAB discussion about the reported Israeli bombings in Syria may simply reflect that the bulk of the international community finds that the use of force under these circumstances is an acceptable act in anticipatory self-defense.  We can’t ignore the fact that few nations other than Russia or Syria evinced much concern about the legality of the strike.

I don’t find Charlie’s argument convincing. The first problem concerns his claim that the lack of attention to Israel’s attacks “may simply reflect that the bulk of the international community finds that the use of force under these circumstances is an acceptable act in anticipatory self-defense.” He cites only two states in defence of the idea that the “international community” accepts this type of anticipatory self-defence: the US and the UK. Needless to say, two Global North states known for their aggressive interpretation of the jus ad bellum do not an “international community” make. Moreover, Charlie fails to acknowledge the repeated denunciations of anticipatory self-defence by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which represents 120 states. 120>2.

To be fair, Charlie seemingly tries to address this problem by implying that the failure of states (other than Russia and Syria) to specifically condemn the Israeli attacks indicates that they accept the US and UK understanding of imminence. But that clearly isn’t the case. As he acknowledges, Israel itself has not claimed that the attacks are legitimate anticipatory self-defence. Nor has any other state on Israel’s behalf — the US and UK included. The “silence” of the international community can thus hardly be interpreted as acquiescence — particularly in light of NAM’s repeated denunciation of anticipatory self-defence. States are not required to respond to scholarly interpretations of the use of force. When Israel claims its actions are legal because they represent anticipatory self-defence and NAM remains silent, we’ll talk.

It’s also worth noting that Charlie’s account of Israel’s attacks in Syria does not even bring them within the ambit of anticipatory self-defence — or at least not easily. According to him, “the Israeli strike sought to destroy weapons in transit before Hezbollah [could] burrow them into densely-populated areas.” Charlie finds such “burrowing” problematic — justifiably! — because it makes it more difficult for Israel to destroy the weapons caches without causing disproportionate civilian harm. But that is a jus in bello problem, not a jus ad bellum one. The fact that Hezbollah weapons are in a difficult to attack location does not mean that those weapons will be immediately used against Israel. And that is true even in light of Hezbollah’s “history of hostile actions,” which hardly indicates that Hezbollah attacks Israel whenever it has the material means to do so. The mere presence of the weapons in a location near to Israel thus seems to represent precisely the kind of “remote threat[] or threat[] that [has] not yet materialized” that Jeremy Wright, the UK Attorney General whom Charlie cites in defence of his position, says does not give rise to the right of self-defence.

I will say, though, that Charlie’s explanation of the Israeli attacks raises an interesting issue concerning the relationship between the  jus in bello and the jus ad bellum. We are accustomed to the idea that the two legal regimes are independent, and it is beyond doubt that failing to comply with the jus ad bellum does not affect the equal application of the jus in bello. But the converse is not true, as the ICJ specifically affirmed in the Nuclear Weapons case (para. 42):

[A] use of force that is proportionate under the law of self- defence, must, in order to be lawful, also meet the requirements of the law applicable in armed conflict which comprise in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.

The jus ad bellum requirement that self-defence comply with IHL does, in fact, suggest that the imminence of an attack should be assessed in light of the victim state’s ability to defend itself in a way that complies with IHL. So I don’t think we can reject the “last clear opportunity to act” understanding of imminence out of hand. On the contrary, if an attack will only become imminent under the traditional conception at a time when the victim state cannot defend itself in an IHL-compliant way, I think the victim state should be entitled to defend itself at a temporally earlier moment, when IHL compliance is still possible.

Even that “relaxed” idea of imminence, however, presupposes that the defended-against attack is more than merely hypothetical. So it’s difficult to see how Israel’s strikes on Hezbollah’s arms shipments could qualify as legitimate acts of self-defence. On the contrary: they are precisely the kind of anticipatory self-defence that international law prohibits.

My UN Presentation on the Aggression Amendments

by Kevin Jon Heller

I had the great honour last week of giving a presentation to ICC member-states about Art. 15bis and Art. 15ter of the aggression amendments — the conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction. The presentation was sponsored by the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) and organised by Austria, part of a series of presentations designed to prepare delegations to participate in the December meeting of the ASP, where the amendments are likely to be adopted (again).

I had a great time at the UN — the first time I had ever set foot in the building! The presentation itself went very well, but it was the subsequent discussion that was the standout. I found the delegations impressively knowledgeable about the aggression amendments, although it’s clear that they remain deeply divided over a number of critical issues concerning their interpretation. My presentation focused on what is perhaps the most controversial issue of all: which acts of aggression will be within the ICC’s jurisdiction once the crime of aggression is activated. Many delegations believe that member-states have to formally opt-out of the aggression amendments to be completely insulated from the Court’s jurisdiction, while others insist that states need only decline to accept the amendments. I did not take a position on that issue in my presentation — although I did during the discussion afterward. Instead, I simply laid out the stakes in the debate as clearly as possible, following up on two blog posts (here and here) I wrote on the issue a few years ago.

I am posting all of my UN materials here, in case readers are interested. They include the text of my presentation, the accompanying Powerpoint slides, and two tables that lay out the jurisdictional consequences of the so-called “negative” and “positive” understandings of Art. 121(5) of the Rome Statute, the key provision in the dispute.

Thoughts most welcome!

Why Unilateral Humanitarian Intervention Is Illegal and Potentially Criminal

by Kevin Jon Heller

I read Jennifer Trahan’s post yesterday with great interest — but not surprisingly I disagree with it. Before I get to my disagreements, though, I think it’s bizarre that we are all debating the legality of unilateral humanitarian intervention in the context of the recent US missile attack on Syria. It simply beggars belief to think that the attack was in any way motivated by humanitarian concerns. Chemical weapons, which have killed perhaps 2,000 civilians, are not the problem in Syria; conventional weapons, which have killed hundreds of thousands, are the real threat. And the US has done absolutely nothing to protect Syrians from conventional weapons — it has simply funnelled even more into the country to support various rebel groups (including some that are allied with al-Qaeda) in their struggle against Assad. The US cares about protecting its own interests in Syria, such as preventing chemical weapons from being used against Americans. (The real message of the completely ineffectual attack.) It does not care about the lives of ordinary Syrians, as the ever mounting death-toll indicates.

But let’s put aside the context of the missile attack and focus on Trahan’s legal claims. The first is that unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI) — the qualifier, of course, is critical — can be legal in the right circumstances. The post, however, doesn’t even come close to establishing that claim. Just consider what Trahan cites in defence of it:

[1] NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, in which “all NATO members supported the intervention designed to stave off ethnic cleansing.” Trahan openly acknowledges that “many did not defend it as ‘humanitarian intervention’ per se, except Belgium” — but that gives away the ballgame. If the 26 other NATO states did not invoke UHI, the attack does not help establish UHI’s legality. As the ICJ pointed out in the Nicaragua case (para. 207), not even the Court itself has the “authority to ascribe to States legal views which they do not themselves advance.” So it doesn’t matter whether Trahan and other scholars would like to describe Kosovo as an example of UHI. All that matters is that NATO states could have invoked UHI but chose not to.

It is also telling that Trahan fails to point out that the Kosovo intervention met with significant international criticism. Here are Vaughan Lowe and Antonios Tzanakopoulos in the Max Planck Encyclopedia:

33  The response of other, non-NATO, States to arguments that there was a legal basis for the Kosovo bombing campaign and for a right of humanitarian intervention was overwhelmingly negative. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), numbering well over half of the Member States of the UN, unequivocally condemned the use of force against the (then) FRY, as did many other States, some of which are nuclear powers. In these circumstances, no right of unilateral forcible humanitarian intervention can be said to have emerged as a rule of customary international law.

[2] UK and US no-fly zones in Iraq. Once again opinio juris is lacking: the coalition initially provided no legal justification for the no-fly zones, and the US later justified them as self-defence (against threats to coalition aircraft, a wonderfully circular argument).

[3] ECOWAS’s interventions in Liberia in 1990 and Sierra Leone in 1998. Same problem: as Adam Roberts has pointed out, ECOWAS never invoked UHI to justify its actions. It relied instead on provisions in its own founding treaty.

[4] The UK’s endorsement of UHI in Syria, particularly in the context of the 2013 sarin gas attack that killed hundreds if not thousands. Unlike the other examples, this endorsement does, in fact, contribute opinio juris in favour of UHI.

So, there we have it: one state that explicitly and regularly endorses a right of UHI.  And against that, we have the unequivocal rejection of UHI by the 120 states that are part of the Non-Aligned Movement and the 134 states that are part of the Group of 77, which includes major powers like China, India, and South Africa. (The two groups obviously overlap.) How any scholar could conclude that customary international law nevertheless recognises a right of UHI, however limited, is simply beyond me.

For similar reasons, I also reject Trahan’s confident claim that UHI could never be criminal. Here is what she says:

Humanitarian intervention, narrowly construed, then clearly also would not constitute the crime of aggression, which is poised to activate this December 2017 before the International Criminal Court. (Anything in a legal “grey area” is excluded from that definition—and, at minimum, humanitarian intervention (sometimes supported and sometimes invoked) is within that legal grey area. The U.S., a non-State Party to the ICC’s Rome Statute, would be exempt from the crime’s jurisdictional reach, even if it does activate.)

I disagree. To begin with, during the Kampala Review Conference in 2010, states soundly rejected the US’s attempt to specifically exclude UHI from the crime of aggression. Here is the text of the US’s failed Understanding:

It is understood that, for purposes of the Statute, an act cannot be considered to be a manifest violation of the United Nations Charter unless it would be objectively evident to any State conducting itself in the matter in accordance with normal practice and in good faith, and thus an act undertaken in connection with an effort to prevent the commission of any of the crimes contained in Articles 6, 7 or 8 of the Statute would not constitute an act of aggression.

More importantly, the fact that scholars insist UHI can be legal does not make the legality of UHI fall into a “grey area.” On the contrary, it is difficult to imagine any issue that is more black and white given state practice. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter is clear: force is legal only when authorised by the Security Council or in self-defence. UHI does not involve the former by its very definition, and there is no argument de lege lata that UHI can be justified as a form of self-defence, because it does not involve an armed attack on the intervening state. Adil Haque made that point in response to Jens’s recent post, and here are Lowe and Tzanakopoulos again:

23  Humanitarian intervention in order to alleviate the suffering of a local population cannot, without more, be justified as self-defence. Self-defence under Art. 51 UN Charter requires that an armed attack occur against a State. In most cases, widespread violations of human rights will not reach the gravity threshold of an armed attack. Even if the oppression does reach the threshold of an armed attack, however, there will be no armed attack against a State, but at most an armed attack against the population of the State by or with the support or inaction of State authorities. The right to self-defence under international law vests in States and not in sub-State entities such as the local population. Moreover, the oppression will, ex hypothesi, not emanate from another State, but will be by the government upon its own people.

The illegality of UHI under Art. 2(4) is, of course, not set in stone. As Lowe and Tzanakopoulos rightly note, UHI could become legal through subsequent state practice that results in a new interpretation of the provision or (possibly) through the emergence of a supervening customary rule. But that has clearly not happened, given G77 and NAM’s ongoing and unwavering opposition to UHI.

It is unlikely, of course, that the ICC will ever prosecute a government official who is responsible for preparing, planning, initiating, or executing a UHI — and not simply because of the new crime of aggression’s crimped jurisdictional regime. But that does not mean UHI does not manifestly violate the UN Charter. It most certainly does.

An Important Absence in the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017

by Kevin Jon Heller

On Monday, my friend Beth van Schaack posted an excellent analysis at Just Security of the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017, a bipartisan Senate bill “[t]o require a report on, and to authorize technical assistance for, accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Syria.” Beth summarises the most important aspects of the bill; in this post I want to focus on Section 7, which authorises US technical assistance to certain non-US accountability mechanisms. The most important paragraph in Section 7 is this one (emphasis mine):

(a) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary of State (acting through appropriate officials and offices, which may include the Office of Global Criminal Justice), after consultation with the Department of Justice and other appropriate Federal agencies, is authorized to provide appropriate assistance to support entities that, with respect to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, all forces fighting on its behalf, and violent extremist groups in Syria beginning in March 2011—

(1) identify suspected perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; (2) collect, document, and protect evidence of crimes and preserve the chain of custody for such evidence; (3) conduct criminal investigations; (4) build Syria’s investigative and judicial capacities and support prosecutions in the domestic courts of Syria, provided that President Bashar al Assad is no longer in power; (5) support investigations by third-party states, as appropriate; or (6) protect witnesses that may be helpful to prosecutions or other transitional justice mechanisms.

There a very interesting — and potentially very important — absence in Section 7(a). As the bolded text indicates, the paragraph only authorises the US to provide technical assistance to entities that are investigating international crimes committed by pro-Assad forces and “violent extremist groups.” Note what is missing from that construction: Syrian rebel groups. The bill does not permit the US to support any entity investigating war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide committed by rebels.

Lest anyone think I am reading Section 7(a) too narrowly, consider the wording of Section 3(1), which summarises acts that the US “strongly condemns” (emphasis mine):

(A) the ongoing violence, use of chemical weapons, targeting of civilian populations with barrel, incendiary, and cluster bombs and SCUD missiles, and systematic gross human rights violations carried out by the Government of Syria and pro-government forces under the direction of President Bashar al-Assad; and (B) all abuses committed by violent extremist groups and other combatants involved in the civil war in Syria.

It is difficult to see who “other combatants involved in the civil war in Syria” might be if they are not rebels. Indeed, Section 5(a), which requires the Secretary of State to submit a report on international crimes to Congress, explicitly distinguishes between “violent extremist groups” and rebel groups (emphasis mine):

(b) ELEMENTS.—The reports required under subsection (a) shall include— (1) a description of alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated during the civil war in Syria, including— (A) incidents that may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide committed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and all forces fighting on its behalf; (B) incidents that may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide committed by violent extremist groups, anti-government forces, and any other combatants in the conflict.

In light of Section 5(a), it is clear that Section 7(a) does not authorise the US to support an entity that is investigating international crimes committed by rebels.

That said, the bill is unclear in one important respect: whether the US can support an entity that investigates international crimes committed by both pro-Assad forces and rebel groups. On a literal reading of Section 7(a), the answer would seem to be no. But the sponsors of the bill might disagree. Journalists?

I agree with Beth that the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017 is an important step forward for accountability in Syria. Unfortunately, it also reflects the US’s tendency to take international crimes committed by rebel groups much less seriously than those committed by Assad’s forces and by ISIS.

IHL Does Not Authorise Detention in NIAC: A Response to Murray

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the past couple of years, a number of scholars — including me — have debated whether IHL implicitly authorises detention in non-international armed conflict (NIAC.) The latest intervention in the debate comes courtesy of Daragh Murray in the Leiden Journal of International Law. As the article’s abstract makes clear, Murray is firmly in the “IHL authorises” camp:

On the basis of current understandings of international law – and the prohibition of arbitrary detention in particular – it is concluded that international humanitarian law must be interpreted as establishing implicit detention authority, in order to ensure the continued regulation of armed groups.

I disagree that IHL cannot regulate non-state actor (NSA) detention in NIAC unless it authorises that detention, for reasons I will explain in this post. Before we get to Murray’s argument, however, it is important to remind ourselves of what is at stake in the debate. Put simply, if Murray is right and IHL authorises NSAs to detain, two significant consequences follow: (1) states have no right to prosecute NSAs who detain government soldiers, even if such detention would qualify as kidnapping or wrongful imprisonment under domestic criminal law; and (2) NSAs have the right to detain government soldiers for as long as they pose a “security threat” to the NSA — ie, essentially forever. In other words, FARC could detain a Colombian soldier for five decades and Colombia couldn’t prosecute the commander responsible for that detention as long as FARC complied with NIAC’s procedural restrictions on detention.

Now let’s turn to Murray’s argument. Here are the critical paragraphs in the article:

[I]nternational law cannot regulate activity that is subject to an absolute prohibition. For example, instances of torture cannot be regulated as torture is subject to an absolute prohibition. The same is true with respect to armed group detention in non-international armed conflict: the absolute prohibition of arbitrary detention precludes the possibility of regulating arbitrary detention (p. 9)

Two possibilities are open: either international humanitarian law establishes an implicit legal basis for detention, or it does not and the authority to detain must be established elsewhere. If international humanitarian law does not establish an implicit legal basis for detention then all instances of detention by armed groups will necessarily violate the prohibition of arbitrary detention as a legal basis for armed group detention does not exist under domestic law or elsewhere in international law. Yet, to interpret Common Article 3 and Article 5 Additional Protocol II in this way is to conclude that states have developed international treaty law to regulate detention operations by armed groups, despite the fact that all instances of armed group detention are illegal. This interpretation is incapable of giving effect to states’ intentions, and to the object and purpose of the provisions themselves. As discussed above, states cannot regulate that which is absolutely prohibited, and so the only means by which Common Article 3 and Article 5 Additional Protocol II can regulate detention by armed groups is if these provisions establish an implicit legal basis for that detention  (p. 14)

The first thing to note is that the torture analogy is misplaced. International law does indeed absolutely prohibit torture. But it does not absolutely prohibit detention — not even in NIAC. On the contrary, a state is free to detain as long as it adopts the necessary domestic legislation. It is even free to domestically authorise an NSA to detain, as well. (Which is not absurd. A state may well conclude that an NSA is more likely to treat captured government soldiers humanely if it does not prohibit the very act of detention.) So what Murray is actually arguing is that because most states choose not to authorise NSAs to detain, international humanitarian law (IHL) necessarily authorises it for them so they can regulate that detention. That’s a very puzzling claim, given that states are the authors of IHL.

The fundamental problem with Murray’s position, however, is that it is simply not the case that IHL can’t regulate a practice that international law absolutely prohibits. I will discuss in a minute the situation regarding detention in NIAC, in which the regulation and the prohibition come from different legal regimes — regulation from IHL, prohibition from international human rights law (IHRL). But before doing so, it is worth noting that Murray’s argument does not work even when the regulation and the prohibition come from the same legal regime — a situation in which you would think Murray’s argument would be even stronger…

ICC Communication About Australia’s Mistreatment of Refugees

by Kevin Jon Heller

As has been widely reported, 17 international-law scholars — including yours truly — recently submitted a 105-page communication to the Office of the Prosecutor alleging that Australia’s treatment of refugees involves the commission of multiple crimes against humanity, including imprisonment, torture, deportation, and persecution. The communication is a tremendous piece of work, prepared in large part by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic.

Peter Dutton, Australia’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, has described our efforts as a “wacky cause.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The communication is serious, sober, analytic, and comprehensive. I think it establishes far more than a “reasonable basis” to believe that Australian government officials and officials of the corporations that run the prison camps on Manus Island and Nauru have committed crimes against humanity. Here is (most of) the executive summary…

Dear Mr President: 40% of Zero is Zero

by Kevin Jon Heller

Kill me:

Funding will be taken away from any organisation that is “controlled or substantially influenced by any state that sponsors terrorism” or is behind the persecution of marginalised groups or systematic violation of human rights.

The order has singled out peacekeeping, the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Population Fund. The UNPFA targets violence against women, fights to keeps childbirth and abortion, where it is legal, safe, and was a key presence in safeguarding women in Haiti following Hurricane Matthew.

The order demands decreasing US funding towards international organisations by at least 40 per cent. Mr Trump has included the International Criminal Court here, yet the US currently pays nothing to the ICC.

When asked why he wants to reduce funding to an organisation the US doesn’t fund, President Trump reportedly responded, “the Prosecutor, Frederick Douglass, is a rabble-rouser.”