Under any view, the privilege of combatancy is key to the basic architecture of the law of war. It stands at the fault line between domestic criminal law and International Humanitarian Law, between impermissible killing and lawful belligerency. Simply put, the privilege of combatancy transforms, almost magically, what would otherwise be an unlawful act of murder into a lawful killing consistent with jus in bello. How does this transformation happen? However it happens, it is a powerful legal mechanism, and one whose exact contours demand definition and clarity.
The privilege has recently taken center stage in debates about targeted killing, and it featured prominently in the background of the debate over the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, and the associated drone memo drafted by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. In particular, that memo examined the foreign murder statute and concluded that the statute incorporated the standard homicide justifications, including the public authority justification, which arguably includes acts of privileged combatancy consistent with the laws of war. At issue here is whether CIA officers—who do not wear uniforms or carry arms openly—are eligible for the privilege of combatancy.
For some, the entire discussion of the privilege of combatancy is misplaced because the privilege only applies in international armed conflicts (IAC), and never in non-international armed conflicts (NIAC). Under this well-known view, the concept of “combatant” is an element of the legal structure of IAC, and has no place in NIAC, which includes government forces and rebels. Allegedly, to talk of privileged or unprivileged combatants in NIAC is to make a category mistake.
In a new draft article I reject this orthodox position, and I conclude that in some situations the privilege of combatancy might apply in NIAC. In particular, the 19th Century view of the subject was far more complex; scholars believed that NIACs that shared the functional characteristics of international conflicts should be treated in the same manner. I argue that this sophisticated view carried over into the 20th Century and was preserved in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, though it got misplaced in overly simplistic textbook definitions of the privilege of combatancy.
What about the right of the government to prosecute rebels in a NIAC? If the privilege applies, such prosecutions would arguably be illegitimate. First, I argue that 19th Century scholars concluded that both sides in such conflicts were moral and legal equivalents, and therefore prosecutions during the war were inadvisable or even impermissible. However, at the conclusion of the conflict, a victorious government was permitted to prosecute defeated rebels for their decision to take up arms against their government. However, the best reading of this rationale is that prosecutions for treason were appropriate because rebels had violated a duty of loyalty to their own government, but prosecutions for murder were inappropriate because they suggested that rebels were not professional soldiers. What was criminal about a rebel was his or her decision to violate a duty of loyalty to the sovereign.
This suggests to me that the literature has over-simplified the relevant law regarding NIAC and the privilege of combatancy. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Therefore, it makes sense to ask whether government forces in the armed conflict against al-Qaeda are privileged or not. Terrorists in general don’t qualify for the privilege because they don’t wear uniforms or carry their arms openly, but in theory one could imagine a non-state actor that meets the functional requirements of belligerency. Whether government personnel qualify for the privilege is another question entirely.
The standard answer is that CIA personnel involved in drone strikes are not eligible for the privilege because they don’t wear uniforms or carry arms openly – I think this is absolutely correct. However, I also think there has been insufficient attention paid to uniformed soldiers deployed during covert actions under Title 10. As most readers of OJ know, covert action isn’t simply the purview of the CIA anymore. Military deployments by JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) remain officially unacknowledged for various complex reasons. In some case the territorial government is unwilling to acknowledge U.S. military presence on their territory and therefore conditions their consent on the covert nature of U.S. conduct. In other cases, a state may wish to proceed covertly, even with uniformed military troops, because they believe their actions might violate jus ad bellum.
I believe that these covert deployments of uniformed military personnel are deeply problematic from the perspective of the privilege of combatancy. Despite what some others have written regarding the Geneva Conventions, I believe that by custom even regular armed forces are required under the law of war to meet the standard criteria for belligerency: a responsible command, uniform or emblem, carrying of open arms, respect for customs of warfare. This point is almost definitional. These criteria define what it means to be a regular armed force, since almost all armies in the world fulfill these requirements. The point of the Geneva Convention was to extend privileged belligerency to other non-standard militias that are functional equivalents to regular armed forces. This doesn’t mean that regular armed forces are exempt from those requirements; it simply means that regular armed forces are assumed to meet the criteria based on universal custom. It would be very odd to say that a fighting group that meets none of the criteria would be entitled to the privilege just because they are called a regular army.
I make two related arguments in my Article. First, the privilege is collective in nature and attaches to a collective unit that meets the functional requirements of belligerency—the group as a whole must carry arms openly, wearing a fixed emblem or uniform, etc. There is no such thing as a purely individual privileged soldier. In short, the privilege of combatancy is a collective privilege that the political entity asserts on behalf of the individual soldier – a process that is logically impossible if the state denies that it used force in the first place. In order to assert the privilege of combatancy, a state must always acknowledge that the forces were operating on its behalf – precisely what covert action denies.
Second, I’m not sure that covert action is consistent with the requirement of carrying arms openly. Generally, the commentaries discuss that requirement in the context of rifles and grenades and the phrase is given a physical description. I think it requires a more conceptual understanding. Carrying arms openly is related to the requirements of distinction, which means more than just separating civilians from combatants. It also requires separating friendly forces from enemy combatants – a process which is totally obscured when a state refuses to acknowledge the use of force. I therefore question whether a covert deployment is a form of “open” warfare consistent with the laws of war and the privilege of combatancy. If this is correct, then for the privilege it doesn’t matter whether drones are deployed by CIA or uniformed personnel – both are unprivileged insofar as the deployment remains unacknowledged.
This departs significantly from the traditional analysis of covert action, and suggests to me that we need more research into how basic principles of jus in bello apply in the covert context.