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Law of War

A Brief Rejoinder to Haque on the ICRC’s Interpretation of NIAC

by Kevin Jon Heller

My thanks to Adil Haque for his response to my post. Adil and I rarely disagree in any profound way about IHL, so it’s enjoyable to spar with him about whether a first-strike by government forces against an organized armed group automatically creates a NIAC — thus triggering IHL — or whether a certain intensity of hostilities between the two is required.

I will have more to say about Adil’s response soon, but I wanted to quickly address one particular implication in his post: namely, that the ICRC’s Commentary on AP II supports his claim that a single military operation by government forces or by an organized armed group is sufficient to trigger a NIAC because it is more than a “sporadic act of violence.” Here is what he writes:

In my view, a military operation by State armed forces that meets with no armed response and may never be repeated is not a “sporadic act of violence” within the meaning of APII 1(2). On this point, I follow the ICRC Commentrary to APII, which negatively defines “isolated and sporadic acts of violence, as opposed to military operations carried out by armed forces or armed groups.” APII 1(2) describes disturbances and tensions created by disorganized or unarmed groups, criminal gangs, and individuals. APII 1(2) does not describe “acts of violence against the adversary in offence or defence” (that is, attacks as defined by API).

With the exception of ambiguous quotes like the one above, there is little support in the ICRC’s Commentary on AP II or in any of the ICRC’s commentaries for Adil’s position. The ICRC clearly believes that any kind of NIAC — AP II or Common Article 3 — requires adequately intense hostilities.

Let’s start with the AP II Commentary Adil cites. The Commentary opens its discussion of AP II by emphasizing (p. 1343) that CA3 and AP II have the same structure — and that neither applies in the absence of sufficiently intense hostilities (emphasis mine):

The content and scope of all of these articles will be analysed in the respective comments on them. Before doing this it seems useful to have a closer look at the basic pattern of Part I, which reveals the similarity of the ideas which inspired Protocol II and common Article 3. To understand the scope of the Protocol one should indeed always bear in mind the fact that this instrument supplements and develops common Article 3; it is an extension of it, and is based on the same structure.l Their common characteristics find expression, explicitly or implicitly, in Part I. These can be summarized as follows…

The threshold where Protocol II becomes applicable is determined by the criteria expressed in Article 1 (Material field of application), which means that it is intended to apply only to conflicts of a certain degree of intensity.

Later, the Commentary discusses (p. 1355) what AP II means by “internal disturbances,” taking the position that such disturbances include situations in which military operations by government forces — even against an organized armed group — do not lead to sufficiently intense hostilities (emphasis mine):

[T]he ICRC gave the following description of internal disturbances during the first session of the Conference of Government Experts in 1971:

“This involves situations in which there is no non-international armed conflict as such, but there exists a confrontation within the country, which is characterized by a certain seriousness or duration and which involves acts of violence. These latter can assume various forms, all the way from the spontaneous generation of acts of revolt to the struggle between more or less organized groups and the authorities in power. In these situations, which do not necessarily degenerate into open struggle, the authorities in power call upon extensive police forces, or even armed forces, to restore internal order. The high number of victims has made necessary the application of a minimum of humanitarian rules.”

[snip]

In short, as stated above, there are internal disturbances, without being an armed conflict, when the State uses armed force to maintain order; there are internal tensions, without being internal disturbances, when force is used as a preventive measure to maintain respect for law and order.

Finally the Commentaries specifically point out (p. 1356) that such “internal disturbances” do not create a NIAC and do not trigger IHL:

Internal disturbances and tensions are not at present within the field of application of international humanitarian law; the ICRC has carried out activities in this field on an ad hoc basis. However, this does not mean that there is no international legal protection applicable to such situations, as they are covered by universal and regional human rights instruments. 31 It is not within the scope of this commentary, however, to go into that subject.

The ICRC’s position on CA3 and AP II NIACs — as requiring hostilities of a certain intensity, and thus as not being triggered by “first strikes” — is an old one. Here is what Pictet said (p. 49) in the ICRC’s 1952 Commentary on the First Geneva Convention (emphasis mine):

[I]t was suggested that the term “conflict” should be defined or, which would come to the same thing, that a certain number of conditions for the application of the Convention should be enumerated. The idea was finally abandoned — wisely, we think. Nevertheless, these different conditions, although in no way obligatory, constitute convenient criteria, and we therefore think it well to give a list of those contained in the various amendments discussed; they are as follows:

(1) That the Party in revolt against the de jure Government possesses an organized military force, an authority responsible for its acts, acting within a determinate territory and having the means of respecting and ensuring respect for the Convention.

(2) That the legal Government is obliged to have recourse to the regular military forces against insurgents organized as military and in possession of a part of the national territory.

This statement only implicitly endorsed an intensity requirement, so Pictet clarified that the was talking about actual hostilities between government forces and an organized armed group in the ICRC’s 1960 Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention (p. 37):

Speaking generally, it must be recognized that the conflicts referred to in Article 3 are armed conflicts, with armed forces on either side engaged in hostilities –conflicts, in short, which are in many respects similar to an international war, but take place within the confines of a single country.

And just in case that statement remained ambiguous (“both” would have been more precise than “either”), the ICRC clarified in its 2016 Commentary on the First Geneva Convention that of the various indicia of NIAC that Pictet discusses, intensity is one of the two most important ones (emphasis mine):

387  A situation of violence that crosses the threshold of an ‘armed conflict not of an international character’ is a situation in which organized Parties confront one another with violence of a certain degree of intensity. It is a determination made based on the facts.

421  Over time, of the criteria enumerated in the Pictet Commentaries, two are now widely acknowledged as being the most relevant in assessing the existence of a non-international armed conflict: that the violence needs to have reached a certain intensity and that it must be between at least two organized Parties/armed groups. The existence of a non-international armed conflict thus needs to be assessed according to these specific criteria.

422  The wording of common Article 3 gives some rudimentary guidance on its threshold of application: what is required is an ‘armed’ ‘conflict’ not of an international character, in which ‘Part[ies] to the conflict’ are involved. This indicates that for common Article 3 to apply, a situation of violence must have reached a certain level of intensity, characterized by recourse to arms by non-State armed groups that are capable of being Parties to an armed conflict.

According to the ICRC, in short, all NIACs require adequately intense hostilities. The difference between a CA3 NIAC and an AP II NIAC is one of degree rather than kind.

The ICRC Commentaries are only as good as the analysis they contain, so Adil is obviously free to defend an interpretation of Art. 1 of AP II and of Common Article 3 that reads the intensity requirement out of NIAC. In doing so, however, he is clearly breaking with the ICRC.

First Strikes & NIAC: Thoughts on the Haque/Horowitz Debate

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have been following with great interest the debate at Just Security between Adil Haque and Jonathan Horowitz over whether the existence of a non-international conflict (NIAC) exists the moment a state launches a “first strike” at an organized armed group or whether hostilities of a certain intensity between the two are required. Adil takes the former position (see here, here, and here); Jonathan takes the latter one (see here and here).

Though Adil’s posts exhibit his typical brilliance, my sympathies lie with Jonathan. To begin with, as a matter of the lex lata, I don’t think the argument is even close: the Tadic test, which requires both organization on the part of the armed group and adequately intense hostilities, has overwhelming support from states. After all, the test is based squarely on Art. 1(2) of Additional Protocol II, ratified by 168 states, which provides that the “Protocol shall not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature, as not being armed conflicts.” And, of course, as the ICRC notes in its new commentary on the First Geneva Convention, the AP II standard is used by a number of more recent conventions that apply to all NIACs — Common Article 3 or AP II — such as the Rome Statute (1998), the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property (1999), and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (2001).

Adil, it is worth noting, has a different interpretation of AP II, one that does not require intensity:

In my view, if an organized armed group has the capacity to sustain military operations then any military operation by or against that group should be constrained by the law of armed conflict. The organization and capacity of the group is sufficient to distinguish military operations by or against the group from “internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature.”

This is a difficult position to defend. The text of Art. 1(2) of AP II clearly contemplates actual hostilities, not a single act by government forces. What could be a more “sporadic act of violence” than a single act that does not meet with a response from the targeted group and may never be repeated by the government? More importantly, despite some stray practice cited by Michael J. Adams and Ryan Goodman in this post, states have simply never interpreted the AP II standard to require only organization.

Even more problematic, though, is Adil’s argument that the “object and purpose” of IHL counsels against conditioning the application of IHL on adequately intense hostilities:

In my view, we should interpret both the substantive rules of IHL and the conditions for the application of IHL in light of the object and purpose of IHL. The primary object and purpose of IHL is to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations. Accordingly, IHL should apply to all such military operations. To postpone the application of IHL until a first strike triggers an armed response, or until military operations reach a high level of intensity, would be inconsistent with the object and purpose of IHL.

As regular readers know, whenever I see arguments based on the supposed “object and purpose” of a treaty, I reach for my pen. All too often, such arguments simply use object and purpose to justify interpreting a treaty in a manner that specifically contradicts the intention of the states that drafted and concluded it. And unfortunately I think that is what Adil does here. He defends applying IHL to first strikes by claiming that the “object and purpose” of IHL is “to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations” (emphasis mine). But that is misleading: the object and purpose of IHL is to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations in armed conflict. If there is no armed conflict, IHL has nothing to say about the danger of military operations — because IHL doesn’t apply. And as discussed above, states have always insisted that a first-strike military operation is not enough to create an armed conflict — IHL applies only once there are adequately intense hostilities between government forces and the organized armed group.

Adil is free, of course, to normatively argue that IHL should apply to first strikes in NIAC because doing so would better protect human beings. I would disagree, but the claim is coherent and deserving of discussion. What he can’t do is base that claim on the object and purpose of IHL, because that would be to use an object and purpose that only applies within armed conflict to justify changing the definition of armed conflict itself. The definition of when IHL applies cannot be determined by reference to what the goals of IHL are once it applies. That definition has to be sought outside of the IHL system — and again, it is clear that states do not want IHL to apply to first-strike military operations against organized armed groups.

There is, however, an even deeper problem with Adil’s argument that the need to protect human beings from military operations counsels a definition of NIAC that does not require adequately intense hostilities: if that is true, there is also no reason why the application of IHL should require armed groups to be organized. All of Adil’s arguments against the intensity requirement apply equally to the organization requirement. If we need to protect human beings from the dangers of first-strike military operations by states against organized armed groups, surely we also need to protect them from the dangers of first-strike military operations by states against unorganized armed groups. After all, Adil’s central argument is that the inherent danger of military operations means that IHL should apply to a first-strike regardless of whether that military operation leads to any kind of hostilities.

I see no convincing response to this criticism. It is tempting to argue that the organization requirement is important because a first-strike military operation against an organized armed group is much more likely to lead to actual hostilities than a first-strike military operation against an unorganized armed group. But Adil rejects the idea that hostilities are relevant to the application of IHL. He believes IHL should apply even if a first-strike military operation meets with no response whatsoever.

Another potential response would be to argue that first-strike military operations against organized armed groups pose greater dangers for innocent civilians than first-strike military operations against unorganized armed groups. But that would be a difference of degree, not of kind — and thus far from a convincing basis for applying IHL to the former and not the latter. I’m also not sure whether the claim is even empirically sound. It is at least equally plausible to assume that states are more willing to use military force against unorganized individuals whom they can assume will not fight back (or will not fight back effectively) than against an organized armed group with the capacity to respond to a first strike with military operations of its own.

Adil’s desire to protect human beings from the dangers of military operations is laudable, but his claim that IHL should apply to first strikes against organized armed groups cannot be sustained. Not only have states insisted that IHL applies only to hostilities that reach a certain level of intensity, the idea that protecting individuals from the danger of military operations requires eliminating the intensity requirement is underinclusive. Those dangers exist for all military operations, even those against unorganized armed groups. So the only consistent — if still objectionable — position is that IHL applies to any military operation launched by a state, regardless of its object. I’m curious whether Adil would be willing to take that position.

A Quick Reply to Stephen Rapp About the US and the ICC

by Kevin Jon Heller

The inimitable David Bosco dropped quite the bombshell yesterday at FP.com: The Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC intends to open a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan — a situation that includes, as the OTP discussed in its most recent preliminary-examination report, US torture of detainees between 2003 and 2005. I’ll have more to say about the possibility of an investigation in the coming days, when I’m a bit less harried. But I wanted to briefly respond to something Stephen Rapp, the former US War Crimes Ambassador, recently said about that torture — a comment that David reprints in a post today. Rapp contrasted US torture in Afghanistan with the kinds of crimes international criminal justice normally addresses:

[T]he alleged crimes committed during US enhanced interrogations do not reach anything like the scale of these other violations. The Durham review was looking into 101 cases of alleged abuse, including those of two detainees who died in custody. A broader inquiry could increase those number, but even with the widest scope, the numbers of victims pale in comparison to those in the situations that have come before international courts and tribunals.

As is often the case when people discuss crimes potentially within the ICC’s jurisdiction, Rapp’s comment elides the critical difference between situational gravity and case gravity. If the OTP was considering opening an investigation only into US torture in Afghanistan (not “enhanced interrogation”), Rapp would have a point — the situational gravity would almost certainly be insufficient to justify a formal investigation. Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara is a good point of comparison: however unjustifiable Israel’s actions, the numbers simply weren’t large enough to investigate. (And I say that as perhaps the earliest opponent of a quantitative approach to situational gravity.)

But that is not what Bosco says the OTP will do. According to Bosco, and consistent with its previous statements, the OTP will be opening a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan generally — not only crimes committed not by US forces, but also crimes committed by the Taliban, by Afghan government forces, and by other members of the coalition. At most, therefore, US torture will be one case within the overall situation in Afghanistan. That’s critical, because it means that the scale of US torture should be compared to the scale of crimes at issue in other individual cases the OTP has pursued, not to the scale of crimes in other situations as a whole. And there is no question that the OTP has pursued similarly limited cases. To take only the most striking example, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi was charged with and convicted of purely victimless crimes — destroying cultural property. If the Al Mahdi case was grave enough for the OTP, surely US torture in Afghanistan would be.

To be clear, I do not expect the OTP to bring charges against an American anytime soon. But if no such case materialises despite the OTP opening a formal investigation into Afghanistan, it won’t be because US torture there is insufficiently grave enough to prosecute.

NOTE: I am using Rapp’s comment to make a point, not to criticise him. I have great respect for Rapp’s commitment to international criminal justice, and I like him very much as a person.

Don’t Blame IHL for Attacks on “Hospital Shields”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Just Security published a very interesting post yesterday entitled “Military Attacks on ‘Hospital Shields’: The Law Itself is Partly to Blame,” which seeks to explain why deliberate attacks on hospitals are becoming increasingly common — in Syria, in Yemen, and elsewhere. The authors acknowledge that deliberate attacks on hospitals are almost always unlawful under IHL, because they violate the principle of distinction. But they nevertheless insist that “[t]he tragic irony is that international humanitarian law itself offers the legal toolkit for these regimes to justify the bombing of hospitals.”

The argument is provocative, but it is also misguided. And the authors’ solution is, I think, worse than the problem.

Let’s take a look at the how the authors believe IHL itself helps justify the bombing of hospitals. They cite two interrelated rules. Here is the first:

First, the logic of the human shields clauses can, it seems, quite easily be transferred to medical facilities. International law prohibits the use of civilians as human shields to protect military targets, but it also permits the attacking forces to kill human shields as long as they abide by the principle of proportionality. In this instance, then, international law ceases to protect civilians and actually becomes a weapon of the strong, protecting those who kill non-combatants. By extension, if hospitals are used as shields, they too can be bombed provided the principle of proportionality is not breached.

This argument is absolutely correct. Yes, human shields can be killed as long as they are not directly targeted and as long as an attack on the legitimate military objective they are shielding does not kill them disproportionately. And yes, the same goes for civilians objects, including hospitals, that are being used to shield military targets. But it is not clear what is problematic about either of those IHL rules, which are straightforward expressions of distinction and proportionality — unless you think that combatants should be able to render themselves completely immune from attack by hiding in hospitals. (Which is precisely what the authors think, as discussed below.) You don’t have to be soft on the military to suggest that combatants should not be able to use the protection IHL offers hospitals to gain a military advantage over their enemy.

Moreover, the authors fail to note that even though IHL permits “hospital shields” to be attacked, it imposes significant restrictions on such attacks. Most importantly, Art.19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that hospitals being misused lose their protection against attack “only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit and after such warning has remained unheeded.” Assuming that the attacking military complies with Art. 19 (and it is hardly IHL’s fault if it doesn’t), no hospital will be attacked that has not had an opportunity to expel the military objective it is shielding. IHL thus puts so much emphasis on protecting hospitals that it would rather require an attacker to let the enemy escape unharmed rather than apply the normal targeting regime of distinction and proportionality.

A similar problem undermines the authors’ argument concerning the second rule:

Second, international law affirms that the protection to which hospitals are entitled is revoked when they are “used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy.” This extremely vague formulation lends itself to those who target hospitals. Unlike IHL clauses prohibiting torture, which are absolute, applying at all times and in all circumstances, the articles relating to the bombardment of hospitals are conditional. Therefore, in certain “exceptional” situations medical facilities do lose their protected status.

This argument is vastly overstated. Is the “acts harmful to the enemy” formulation “extremely vague”? Sometimes, perhaps. But certainly not always. Art. 19 makes clear, for example, that “[t]he fact that sick or wounded members of the armed forces are nursed in these hospitals, or the presence of small arms and ammunition taken from such combatants and not yet been handed to the proper service, shall not be considered to be acts harmful to the enemy.” IHL can thus hardly be blamed when a military justifies attacking a hospital by claiming that the hospital was treating enemy soldiers. (A claim made by Afghanistan regarding the MSF hospital in Kunduz.)  Any such attack categorically violates IHL.

There is also widespread agreement about what kinds of acts do qualify as “acts harmful to the enemy.”  The ICRC’s commentary to Art. 21 of the First Geneva Convention is typical:

Such harmful acts would, for example, include the use of a hospital as a shelter for able-bodied combatants or fugitives, as an arms or ammunition dump, or as a military observation post; another instance would be the deliberate siting of a medical unit in a position where it would impede an enemy attack.

It is possible to criticise this understanding of harmful acts as being overbroad and in need of revision. I, for one, have a problem with the idea that a hospital can be attacked simply because combatants are using it as “an arms or ammunition dump.” Given the importance IHL puts on protecting medical units, that doesn’t strike me as enough to justify a hospital forfeiting its protected status. I might even be convinced that the mere presence of unwounded combatants in a hospital shouldn’t justify a deliberate attack.

But the authors are not arguing for a tightening of the rules that govern when hospitals can be deliberately attacked. No: because they believe it is too easy for an attacker to claim that a hospital is shielding a military objective (permitting attack after a warning), they want a categorical rule that prohibits attacking hospitals no matter how they are being used:

The only way to overcome this travesty is if IHL clauses pertaining to the protection of hospitals are reformulated in a way that categorically prohibits the use of lethal force against them. Currently, IHL provides the necessary protections for hospitals, and all that is really needed is to erase the clauses stipulating exceptions since these in essence hand out militaries a license to bomb medical facilities.

In other words, the authors believe that a hospital should be immune from attack even when combatants are using it to attack the enemy. What the attacked forces are supposed to do in such a situation, the authors never explain. Apparently, they are simply supposed to either tolerate casualties or somehow avoid coming within the hospital’s field of fire. (Which may well be impossible, depending on the kinds of weapons the holed-up combatants possess.)

That will never happen, of course. Not even the most professional military will tolerate being fired upon from a civilian hospital — or at least it won’t tolerate it indefinitely, which is what the authors expect. IHL recognises this basic reality of combat, which is why it attempts to strike a balance between humanitarian concerns and military necessity by permitting a hospital that is being used as a shield to be deliberately attacked, but requiring a warning and a reasonable time to comply.

As with the definition of “acts harmful to the enemy,” it is possible to quibble with the procedural requirements for attacking a hospital that is being used as a shield. Perhaps IHL should avoid using a mushy “reasonableness” test for the length of the warning a military must give before attacking a hospital, imposing a minimum amount of time instead. I’d be open to that. But again: the authors are not trying to strike an appropriate balance between humanity and necessity. They simply want a categorical ban on attacking hospitals — even those that are genuinely being used to shield military objectives.

I understand (and am sympathetic to) the reasoning behind the authors’ position. They don’t want innocent civilians, especially medical personnel and the wounded, to pay the price for the actions of combatants who have no respect for IHL. Hospitals don’t choose to be misused by combatants, and there will almost certainly be situations where combatants simply refuse to leave a hospital that has been warned of an impending attack. So hospitals may well find themselves in an impossible situation: subject to attack because their premises are being misused, but unable to do anything about it.

The answer, however, is not to categorically prohibit attacking hospitals. As noted, militaries would never comply with such a prohibition. And, of course, such a prohibition would ensure that combatants who don’t respect IHL will use hospitals as a shield as often as possible. The authors begrudgingly acknowledge that possibility, writing that “[s]ome might argue that such norms will produce the perverse incentive among certain belligerents to use hospitals as shields.” But that is a serious understatement. Some might argue? What IHL scholar wouldn’t? Why would a military that doesn’t respect IHL not use a well-placed hospital as a shield if doing so renders its forces absolutely immune from attack?

The authors are correct that anything short of a categorical prohibition on attacking hospitals will leave open the possibility of militaries inventing facts to justify attacks. That is the nature of IHL rules that are not categorical — and a reflection of the fact that IHL is neither purely humanitarian nor purely war-enabling. The authors’ solution, however, is worse than the problem. A categorical prohibition will not prevent IHL from being misused; it will simply ensure that IHL is ignored — resulting in far more “incidental” deaths than under the current IHL rules. The better solution (absent a tightening of the rules as discussed above) is to searchingly examine the legitimacy of each and every attack on a hospital and hold militaries to account when they use the concept of the “hospital shield” to justify an unlawful attack.

And that, of course, is exactly what IHL requires.

Self-Aggrandizement Alert: Two New Publications

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m delighted to announce the publication of two new essays. The first is “The Use and Abuse of Analogy in IHL,” which is a chapter in Jens’s edited book for CUP, “Theoretical Boundaries of Armed Conflict and Human Rights.”

9781107137936

I’m very proud of the essay — and all of the contributions to the book are excellent.

The second publication is my article “Radical Complementarity,” which has just appeared in the Journal of International Criminal Justice. Here is the abstract:

In March 2015, a domestic court in Côte d’Ivoire sentenced Simone Gbagbo to 20 years in prison for disturbing the peace, organizing armed gangs and undermining state security — a sentence considerably longer than any sentence imposed by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and twice as long as the Ivorian prosecutors requested. The Court has nevertheless held that Gbagbo’s case remains admissible, because her domestic prosecution was not based on the same conduct as the conduct underlying the crimes against humanity charges issued by the Office of the Prosecutor. This article argues that the Court’s decision in Simone Gbagbois inconsistent with the principle of complementarity. Section 1 criticizes the Court’s jurisprudence concerning Article 17’s ‘same person’ requirement, arguing that the test the judges use to determine whether a state is investigating a particular suspect is both inconsistent with the ICC Statute and far too restrictive in practice. Section 2 explains why the ‘same conduct’ requirement is antithetical to the goals underlying complementarity and should be rejected as a matter of law. The article thus defends what we might call ‘radical complementarity’: the idea that as long as a state is making a genuine effort to bring a suspect to justice, the ICC should find his or her case inadmissible regardless of the conduct the state investigates or the prosecutorial strategy the state pursues.

The published version differs substantially from the one I posted a while back on SSRN. You can find the article here.

Multi-Blog Series: First Thoughts from Academia on the Updated GCI Commentary

by Kevin Jon Heller

[This is the third episode in the Multi-blog series on the Updated Geneva Conventions Commentaries, jointly hosted by the Humanitarian Law & Policy Blog, Intercross and Opinio Juris. The first, by Jean-Marie Henckaerts, can be found here, and the second, by Sean Murphy, here.]

It is a great pleasure to contribute to this multi-blog series on the ICRC’s newly-released Commentary on the First Geneva Convention (GC I). Sean Murphy is right that GC I might seem “of lesser significance” than the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions (GC III and GC IV) – and there is no question that IHL scholars everywhere will eagerly await the ICRC’s Commentaries on those Conventions. But that does not detract from the importance of this first Commentary, which represents a remarkable achievement in its own right. As the Introduction notes, the authors of this new Commentary had to analyze nearly seven decades of state practice, a massive and unenviable task. Moreover, they had to address some of the most contentious issues in IHL, such as the scope of application of Common Article 3 (CA 3). Indeed, I have little doubt that the Commentary’s overall Common Article 3 discussion – which runs to 907 paragraphs, approximately 800 more than its 1952 predecessor! – will attract considerable scholarly attention (and cause considerable academic controversy) in the coming years.

 

Flyer cover page - GC I launch

For my part, I generally agree with Murphy’s and Jean-Marie Henckaerts’ comments about the ICRC’s methodological approach in the Commentary. But I think Henckaerts actually underplays one of the most encouraging aspects of the ICRC’s methodology: its willingness to make liberal recourse to travaux preparatoires when interpreting provisions of GC I. Here is paragraph 49 in the Introduction:

Indeed, it seems logical for a thorough examination of all the issues to look at the preparatory work even if the general rule of interpretation yields a satisfactory result. It also helps the commentator to understand ‘the terms of the treaty in their context’ which is a requirement under the general rule (see Article 31(1) and (2) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties). Recourse to the preparatory work is particularly important when no recent practice on a topic can be found, such as for Articles 33 and 34 of the First Convention dealing with the fate of buildings and material of medical units of the armed forces and aid societies after they fall into enemy hands.

This is a refreshing deviation from VCLT orthodoxy about travaux preparatoires being unnecessary when the “ordinary meaning” of treaty terms is ostensibly clear. As Julian Mortenson has shown, that orthodox view of the VCLT is impossible to reconcile with the treaty’s own history, becausethe drafters repeatedly reiterated that any serious effort to understand a treaty should rely on a careful and textually grounded resort to travaux, without embarrassment or apology.” Indeed, scholars all too often use a treaty’s supposed “ordinary meanings” as a vehicle to substitute their own political preferences for the will of the states that drafted and concluded it.

I also agree with Henckaerts and Murphy concerning the central role that the ICRC plays in interpreting the Geneva Conventions – the “guardian and promoter of IHL,” in Henckaerts’ words. But that role poses a danger that needs to be openly acknowledged: namely, that those who use the Commentary – soldiers and scholars alike – will be tempted to uncritically accept the ICRC’s interpretation of GC I. There is no question that the authors of the Commentary are among the world’s most expert IHL practitioners and scholars, but they are neither infallible nor objective. On the contrary, both the experts and the ICRC as an institution have political and legal commitments that cannot help but influence how they interpret GC I. That does not mean that their interpretations should be discarded. It does not even mean their interpretations should always be viewed with a skeptical eye. But it does mean that IHL scholars should be willing to challenge the Commentary when they believe that the ICRC is wrong.

To be clear, I am in no way suggesting bias or bad faith on the part of the Commentary’s authors. I am simply pointing out that interpretation is an inherently indeterminate, subjective, and political activity, which means that it matters a great deal who is doing the interpreting. And there is no escaping the fact that the members of the Editorial Committee, the ICRC Project Team, and the Reading Committee come exclusively from states in the Global North – most from states in Western Europe. Again, that does not mean that the Commentary is wrong on any particular point. Moreover, to the ICRC’s credit, the Commentary’s peer-review group, who “reviewed the drafts and provided comments in their personal capacity,” included individuals from dozens of states in the Global South. But it is nevertheless regrettable that the primary authors and reviewers of the Commentary are so geographically homogenous – especially given that the states they represent rarely if ever experience the kind of conflict that is subject to Common Article 3.

Finally, I want to flag a very odd statement in the Commentary, paragraph 10 in the Introduction:

In addition, what sets the updated Commentaries mandated by the ICRC apart from other academic commentaries is that the contributors were able to draw on research in the ICRC archives, while respecting their confidential nature, to assess the application and interpretation of the Conventions and Protocols since their adoption.

I have no doubt this is true – but I find it somewhat troubling to know that the ICRC’s interpretation of GC I is based on evidence that cannot be subjected to scholarly criticism. I hope the ICRC will say more about its reliance on non-public information in future Commentaries, which will deal with even more controversial aspects of IHL.

Multi-Blog Series: The Role of the ICRC Commentaries in Understanding International Humanitarian Law

by Jessica Dorsey

In the second installment of episode 1 in this multi-blog series on the updated Commentaries, Professor Sean Murphy responds to Jean-Marie Henckaerts first post on locating the commentaries in the international legal landscape.

Sean D. Murphy, Professor of International Law at George Washington University and Member of the U.N. International Law Commission, considers the role of the ICRC commentaries as a matter of treaty law, customary international law, and practical lawyering.

Taiz, Yemen - Two men drive through the area, where snipers have been present since the intense hostilities started there. ©Wael Al Absi/ICRC

Taiz, Yemen–Two men drive through the area where snipers have been present since the intense hostilities started there. ©Wael al Absi/ICRC

Read the full post on the Intercross Blog and stay tuned for the third installment, coming soon.

This series is brought to you by ICRC’s Humanitarian Law and Policy Blog, Intercross and Opinio Juris.

Is the Requirement That Crimes Against Humanity Be Committed Against a “Civilian Population” Really Necessary?

by Joanna Nicholson

[Dr. Joanna Nicholson is a Researcher at PluriCourts – Centre for the Study of the Legitimate Roles of the Judiciary in the Global Order at the University of Oslo.]

For a crime to amount to a crime against humanity, it must be shown to have been part of a bigger picture, namely part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population. The requirement that an attack be against a “civilian population” has created some uncertainty as to whether persons who are hors de combat can be victims of the crime.

Case law is peppered with discussion as to whether those who are hors de combat are “civilians” or constitute members of the “civilian population” for the purposes of crimes against humanity. Careful examination of this jurisprudence reveals that international criminal courts and tribunals, particularly the ad hoc tribunals, have taken different approaches to this issue.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia’s (ICTY) case law has taken a meandering path. Some cases have endeavoured to include those who are hors de combat within the notion of “civilian” (see for example, Kordić and Čerkez (.pdf), para. 421), whereas others have sought to include them within the notion of “civilian population” (see, for example, Naletilić and Martinović(.pdf), para. 235). The issue was ultimately resolved by the ICTY Appeals Chamber in two cases: Martić (.pdf) and Mrškić (.pdf). The Trial Chambers in both cases (rightly) held that persons hors de combat are not civilian for the purposes of Article 5 of the ICTY Statute (the provision of the Statute concerning crimes against humanity). This was confirmed on appeal. However, both Appeals Chambers held that the chapeau requirement of Article 5 does not require that the individual criminal acts be committed against civilians, but rather that it serves to emphasise the collective nature of the crime. Thus, providing the chapeau requirement is fulfilled, and that there has been a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population, individual victims who are hors de combat can be victims of the crime (Martić Appeal Judgment paras 303-314; Mrškić Appeal Judgment, para. 33).

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has taken a different approach. In Akayesu (.pdf), the Trial Chamber found that persons hors de combat are members of the civilian population for the purposes of crimes against humanity.  This finding was followed, with zero to minimal discussion, in subsequent cases before the tribunal.

The different approaches of the ad hoc tribunals on this matter can lead to very different outcomes. Adopting the ICTY’s approach means that an attack directed purely against persons hors de combat does not amount to a crime against humanity. Indeed, this was found to have been the case in Mrškić, where the attack had been solely against the persons who were hors de combat and did not form part of a wider attack against a civilian population. The Appeals Chamber held that the attack did not therefore amount to a crime against humanity.

Following the ICTR’s approach, on the other hand, would mean that persons hors de combat are included within the notion of “civilian population” and constitute victims of the crime even if the attack is only against them.  Thus, the persons hors de combat in the Mrškić case would have been eligible victims of the crime.

If one weighs up the two different approaches, the ICTY’s presents itself as being the most logical and thoroughly considered. Nevertheless, it leaves a certain amount of dissatisfaction, and it makes one wonder whether there is a need for a “civilian population” element within the definition of crimes against humanity at all.

As it stands at the moment, following the ICTY approach at least, the civilian population requirement means that attacks that are purely against persons hors de combat cannot amount to crimes against humanity. Certainly, such acts could be prosecuted as war crimes, as indeed happened in the Mrškić case, but this fails to adequately reflect the gravity of the offence, and ignores the symbolic nature that a charge of crimes against humanity has.

The reference to “civilian population” does help to emphasise the collective nature of the crime, but this is arguably adequately reflected in the “widespread or systematic attack” element.  Future definitions of the crime could omit reference to a “civilian” population in the chapeau requirement, replacing it with “population.” Naturally, any court interpreting the chapeau requirement would have to bear IHL in mind and ensure that legitimate attacks against military personnel were not erroneously found to be crimes against humanity.

The “civilian population” requirement should no longer be considered a necessary element to find an act is a crime against humanity. Discarding the civilian population” requirement would mean that attacks that are purely against persons hors de combat can be prosecuted as crimes against humanity and can receive the recognition they deserve.

Multi-Blog Series: Locating the Geneva Conventions Commentaries in the International Legal Landscape

by Jean-Marie Henckaerts

For the first episode in the Multi-blog series on the Updated Geneva Conventions Commentaries, the Humanitarian Law & Policy Blog has published Locating the Geneva Conventions Commentaries in the International Legal Landscape, by Jean-Marie Henckaerts.

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View of destruction in downtown Homs, Syria. © Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos for ICRC

Jean-Marie is the head of the unit in charge of the update of the ICRC Commentaries on the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977.

To kick off the series, Jean-Marie addresses critical questions surrounding the commentaries such as: Where do the ICRC Commentaries fit into the legal landscape? What are the rules governing treaty interpretation and how do they operate in the area of IHL? Where does the ICRC’s legitimacy to interpret the Geneva Conventions stem from?

Read the full post on the ICRC’s Humanitarian Law & Policy Blog.

This series is brought to you by ICRC’s Humanitarian Law and Policy Blog, Intercross and Opinio Juris.

Introducing the First Multi-Blog Series on the Updated Geneva Conventions Commentaries

by Jessica Dorsey

[This post is brought to you by ICRC’s Humanitarian Law and Policy Blog, Intercross and Opinio Juris.]

The updated Commentaries are an interpretive compass emerging from more than 60 years of application and interpretation of the Geneva Conventions. Over the rest of 2016, several academic blogs are hosting a joint series that brings to light the significance of the updated Commentary on the First Geneva Convention.

In March, the ICRC released an updated Commentary on the First Geneva Convention of 1949 (GCI). This is the first instalment of six new Commentaries aimed at bringing the interpretation of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols of 1977, to the 21st century.

This blog series is co-hosted by Intercross, the blog of the ICRC in Washington D.C., the ICRC’s new Humanitarian Law & Policy blog and us here at Opinio Juris.

This multi-blog venture is divided into three episodes, each of which focusing on a GCI provision – or a theme within a set of provisions – whose application and/or interpretation have evolved and give rise to debate among States and commentators. For each phase, the three blogs will invite one author to either initiate the conversation or act as respondent. The three episodes are respectively scheduled for this summer, fall and winter 2016.

The blogs will be regularly updated with past and upcoming posts, along with an evolving publication calendar. To kick off the series, Humanitarian Law & Policy will invite Jean-Marie Henckaerts, Head of the Update Project at ICRC, by locating the GCI Updated Commentary into the legal landscape and applying the rules on treaty interpretation to the Geneva Conventions. Expect the post by the end of this month on this website, or get it directly in your mailbox.

Bringing the Pictet’s Commentary’s Legacy Into the 21st Century

In 2011 the ICRC embarked on a major project intended at updating its original Commentaries, drafted under the general editorship of Jean Pictet in the 1950s (for the Conventions), and of Yves Sandoz and other ICRC lawyers in the 1980s (for the Protocols).

Since their publication, these commentaries have become an authoritative interpretative guide for States, armed forces, national and international courts, academics and civil society. However, in order to remain relevant, they needed to be updated to reflect more than 60 years of subsequent developments in applying and interpreting the Geneva Conventions. With the release of the Commentary on GCI, an important milestone has been reached, with key findings related to GCI-specific articles but also common articles governing the scope of application of the Conventions and their enforcement.

The initial edition of the Commentaries mostly provided historical context for the adoption of the Conventions and their Additional Protocols, drawing on the negotiation process of the treaties, as well as practice prior to their adoption. In this respect, they retain their historic value. The updated Commentary builds on and preserves those elements that are still relevant, while incorporating more than six decades of application and interpretation of the Conventions – 40 years in the case of the 1977 Additional Protocols. Capturing the evolution of warfare and humanitarian challenges, as well as technological and legal developments, led to many additions but also updates.

The multi-faceted nature and complexities of today’s armed conflicts have also resulted in more elaborated interpretations on the scope of application of the law in armed conflict. The new Commentary aims to capture key elements of the ongoing debate about where, when, and to whom IHL applies, setting out the view of the ICRC while also indicating other interpretations.

The Commentary provides important clarifications on key aspects of the legal regime governing the protection of the wounded and sick in armed conflict. On the obligation to respect and protect the wounded and sick, it addresses issues ranging from taking their presence into account in a proportionality assessment when planning attacks, to the general obligation to have medical services in the first place. On the protection owed to medical personnel, it gives details on the conditions under which such protection may be lost. The new GCI Commentary also captures changes in the regulation of offers of services by impartial humanitarian organizations, on the dissemination of IHL, and on criminal repression. It also adds a number of subject matters, such as the prohibition of sexual violence and non-refoulement.

For more on the updated Commentaries project, see the Humanitarian Law and Policy’s post here.

Apple Rejects Game Where You Play a Palestinian

by Kevin Jon Heller

palestinegameThe game in question — from which the screenshot is taken — is entitled Liyla and the Shadows of War. Here is how the gaming magazine Hardcore Gamer describes it:

Liyla and the Shadows of War is a short, dark game about exactly what the title implies. You play as a father running home through a war zone attempting to collect his family and get them to safety as the bombs fall and the drone strikes mow down anything that moves.

[snip]

At the start I navigated a few platforming sections, figured out how to avoid gunfire, made a couple of story choices, and even did a simple auto-run section where I had to control the jumping of two characters simultaneously. Of the 30-ish minutes of using the app, this was about 28 or so. The final two  minutes (and it might have been less, I wasn’t running a timer) were spent reading.

A game, right? Not if you’re Apple, apparently:

CiwVR6mUUAA4j4pThe gaming community is mocking Apple’s decision, and rightfully so. As Hardcore Gamer points out, “Liyla and the Shadow of War is a game. Having a serious message about a real-world conflict doesn’t make it any less so, and it’s insulting not just to the developers but to gaming in general to say otherwise.” Indeed, there is no way Apple actually believes that Liyla and the Shadow of War isn’t a game; it simply doesn’t want to host a game developed by a Palestinian that encourages thinking critically about Israel’s violence toward Palestinians. But rejecting the game on political grounds would itself be seen as political — correctly — so Apple comes up with a ridiculous pretext for rejecting it and hopes nobody notices.

I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t Apple has the right to avoid “political” games? Isn’t it smart business to stay out of the Israel/Palestine conflict?

Fair question. And in response I give you this:

screen568x568 (1)

Meet Israeli Heroes, an Angry Birds rip-off in which — according to Boing Boing — “you hurl cartoon missiles at vaguely Arabic-looking adversaries.” Currently available for free on iTunes.

So much for Apple’s political neutrality.

Liyla and the Shadow of War is still available for Android on Google Play. I haven’t tried it yet, but it has a 4.9 average from 333 reviews, so it’s obviously good. Check it out. Maybe you’ll have fun playing and learn something about life in Palestine in the process.

Which is precisely what Apple doesn’t want you to do.

Thoughts on Jens’s Post about the Kunduz Attack

by Kevin Jon Heller

I read with great interest Jens’s excellent post about whether the US attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz was a war crime. I agree with much of what he says, particularly about the complexity of that seemingly innocuous word “intent.” But I am not completely convinced by his argument that reading intent in the Rome Statute to include mental states other than purpose or dolus directus would necessarily collapse the distinction between the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population and the war crime of launching a disproportionate attack. Here is the crux of Jens’s argument:

In the civilian tradition, the concept of intent is a wider category that in some circumstances might include recklessness. This equation sounds odd to a common-law trained criminal lawyer, because to an American student of criminal law, intent and recklessness are fundamentally different concepts. But just for the sake of argument, what would happen if intent were given this wider meaning? Could the U.S. service members be prosecuted for intentionally directing an attack against the civilian population because “intentionally” includes lower mental states such as dolus eventualis or recklessness?

I worry about this argument. And here’s why. If intent = recklessness, then all cases of legitimate collateral damage would count as violations of the principle of distinction, because in collateral damage cases the attacker kills the civilians with knowledge that the civilians will die. And the rule against disproportionate attacks sanctions this behavior as long as the collateral damage is not disproportionate and the attack is aimed at a legitimate military target. But if intent = recklessness, then I see no reason why the attacking force in that situation couldn’t be prosecuted for the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against civilians, without the court ever addressing or analyzing the question of collateral damage. Because clearly a soldier in that hypothetical situation would “know” that the attack will kill civilians, and knowledge is certainly a higher mental state than recklessness. That result would effectively transform all cases of disproportionate collateral damage into violations of the principle of distinction and relieve the prosecutor of the burden of establishing that the damage was indeed disproportionate, which seems absurd to me.

I don’t want to focus on recklessness, because it isn’t criminalised by the Rome Statute. The lowest default mental element in Art. 30 is knowledge, which applies to consequence and circumstance elements — “awareness that a circumstance exists or a consequence will occur in the ordinary course of events.” So Jens’s real worry, it seems to me, is that reading the “intentionally” in “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” to include knowledge would mean a proportionate attack could be prosecuted as an intentional attack on a civilian population as long as the attacker was aware that civilians would be harmed “in the ordinary course of events” — a state of affairs that will almost always be the case, given that an attacker will engage in a proportionality assessment only when he knows that civilians will be incidentally affected by the planned attack on a military objective.

I’m not sure I agree. As I read it, the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” consists of two material elements: a conduct element and a circumstance element. (There is no consequence element, because the civilians do not need to be harmed.) The conduct element is directing an attack against a specific group of people. The circumstance element is the particular group of people qualifying as a civilian population. So that means, if we apply the default mental element provisions in Art. 30, that the war crime is complete when (1) a defendant “means to engage” in an attack against a specific group of people; (2) that specific group of people objectively qualifies as a civilian population; and (3) the defendant “is aware” that the specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population. Thus understood, the war crime requires not one but two mental elements: (1) intent for the prohibited conduct (understood as purpose, direct intent, or dolus directus); (2) knowledge for the necessary circumstance (understood as oblique intent or dolus indirectus).

Does this mean that an attacker who knows his attack on a military objective will incidentally but proportionately harm a group of civilians commits the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” if he launches the attack? I don’t think so. The problematic element, it seems to me, is not the circumstance element but the conduct element: although the attacker who launches a proportionate attack on a legitimate military objective knows that his attack will harm a civilian population, he is not intentionally attacking that civilian population. The attacker means to attack only the military objective; he does not mean to attack the group of civilians. They are simply incidentally — accidentally — harmed. So although the attacker has the mental element necessary for the circumstance element of the war crime (knowledge that a specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population) he does not have the mental element necessary for its conduct element (intent to attack that specific group of people). He is thus not criminally responsible for either launching a disproportionate attack or intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.

To be sure, this analysis is probably not watertight. But I think it’s based on the best interpretation of the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.” The key, in my view, is that the crime does not contain a consequence element — no harm to civilians is necessary. If the war crime was “intentionally directing attacks that cause harm to a civilian population,” the analysis would be very different: the crime would then consist of three material elements: a conduct element (intentionally directing an attack), a consequence element (harming a group of people), and a circumstance element (the harmed group of people qualifying as a civilian population).The applicable mental elements would then be quite different: the defendant would commit the war crime if he (1) intentionally launched an attack that harmed a civilian population, (2) knowing that the attack would harm a specific group of people, and (3) knowing that the harmed group of people qualified as a civilian population. And in that case, a proportionate attack on a legitimate military objective would qualify as “intentionally directing attacks that harm a civilian population” — a nonsensical outcome, for all the reason Jens mentions.

In the absence of the consequence element, however, this situation does not exist. As long as the defendant whose attack harms a civilian population meant to attack only a legitimate military objective, his knowledge that the attack would incidentally harm a civilian population would not qualify as the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population. He would be guilty of that crime only if he meant to attack the civilian population itself.

Your thoughts, Jens?

NOTE: This post generally takes the same position Adil Haque took in a series of comments on Jens’s post.