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