Ryan has kindly responded to my post commenting on his claim that “arguments have been inconsistent with regard to one fundamental legal question: whether the US is, as a matter of law, in an armed conflict.” Unfortunately, our conversation has something of a Pinteresque quality: in claiming that I mischaracterized one of his central claims, he mischaracterizes my central claim. Ryan’s reply is predicated on the idea that I’m defending specific scholars against the idea that they have flip-flopped opportunistically regarding whether the US is involved in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda. I don’t know why he thinks that: he provided no examples of specific scholars flip-flopping in his post, and I did not defend any specific scholars against the claim of flip-flopping in mine. My primary point was simply this: because the existence of armed conflict, particularly non-international armed conflict, is fact-specific, context-dependent, and fluid, it is problematic to assume — as Ryan does, and as the USG alway has — that (in Ryan’s words) it would have been ”a better path over the past twelve years” to take “a consistent position that one legal situation (war) or the other (not a war) exists” between the US and AQ than to take different positions on different aspects of that supposed “armed conflict” at different points of time. My secondary point, which built on the primary one, was that Ryan’s commitment to a unitary view of the supposed “armed conflict” between the US and AQ blinded him to the fact that it was impossible to infer anything untoward or opportunistic — “flip-flops” is obviously a word with negative connotations — from the fact that different scholars have taken different positions at different points in time on different aspects of that conflict. I stand by both points, and unfortunately, because of the misunderstanding between us, Ryan’s post addresses neither of them.
I also want to briefly address Ryan’s dismissal of my claim that, with regard to 9/11, “[o]ne attack, no matter how horrible, does not a (non-international) armed conflict make.” He disagrees, citing a 2003 article by Derek Jinks in which Jinks claims (1) that “the laws of war apply to all acts committed in an armed conflict even if committed prior to the point at which the ‘protracted’ threshold was crossed,” and (2) that NIAC exists even if the hostilities are not adequately organized and intense as long as “the state party to the hostilities interprets them as an ‘armed conflict (a subjective standard).” I have great respect for Derek’s work, but both points are well outside of the IHL mainstream. (And note that Derek repeated the second point today.)
I will try to write in more depth about Derek’s points soon. Suffice it for now to say that the only cite he provides for his first point does not actually support his argument. Here is what he says in the footnote, citing paras. 619-27 of the Trial Chamber’s judgment in Akayesu:
The jurisprudence of the ICTR is instructive on this point. The relevant “armed conflict” in Rwanda lasted a total of six months. Applying the ICTY definition, the tribunal held Common Article 3 applicable to the conflict, finding that the “armed conflict” existed from the initiation of the hostilities even if the existence of an armed conflict could only be discerned after the violence had become “protracted.”
That is not what the Trial Chamber held. It held only that “[i]n the present case, evidence has been presented to the Chamber which showed there was at the least a conflict not of a international character in Rwanda at the time of the events alleged in the Indictment” (para 627; emphasis mine). The events alleged in the indictment with regard to war crimes began on 7 April 1994, one day after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. By that time, the conflict had already begun between the RPF and FAR (see para. 109 of the judgment), justifying the Trial Chamber’s conclusion that a NIAC existed. More importantly, the Trial Chamber neither suggested nor implied that the attack on the plane — the Rwandan genocide equivalent to 9/11 — was itself part of the NIAC that began the next day. That was simply not an issue in the case.
Finally, it’s also worth briefly noting that Akayesu also contradicts Derek’s second point — that a state’s subjective belief a NIAC exists means that a NIAC exists even if the hostilities do not objectively qualify as armed conflict. The Trial Chamber specifically noted (para. 624) with regard to both Common Article 3 conflicts and Second Additional Protocol conflicts that “these criteria have to be applied objectively, irrespective of the subjective conclusions of the parties involved in the conflict.” But I’ll have more to say about that issue later.