Targeted Killing Away from the Battlefield: A Response to Ken

Targeted Killing Away from the Battlefield: A Response to Ken

I have no idea why Ken posted his thoughts on the Washington Post editorial only at Volokh Conspiracy, but I wanted to respond to his post, because I think it is based on a critical misapprehension of the laws of war.  Here are the relevant paragraphs (my emphasis):

[G]oing to the geographic definition of war as a legal concept.  This idea that armed conflict as a matter of its legal conception is geographically limited in this way has gained currency primarily from the writings of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Nils Melzer, who so argued in an important book, Targeted Killing in International Law.  And also Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, who has argued this proposition (as well as an associated claim that all participation by CIA personnel in the use of force is an international crime).  I cannot say that these claims — although heroically urged by the advocacy groups and their academic allies — have a basis in the law of war as the US (or really, leading war-fighting states) has traditionally understood it.  Certainly the State Department, under Harold Koh, no less, does not even entertain it.  And even military lawyers who are very far from defending the Bush administration’s war on terror do not endorse the “geographical” limitation.  (I have a complicated legal view of all this, related to self-defense and armed conflict, but not one that really matters for this purpose.)

Rather, the customary view of the US — and the traditional view of war-fighting states — has always been that the fight can lawfully go wherever the participants go. It goes where they go. “Battlefield” and “theatre of conflict” are not legal terms in the treaty law of war, not as limitations on the armed conflict itself.  The law of war accepts as a practical reality that the armed conflict is where hostilities happen to take place, which means, of course, that the armed conflict is a reflection of hostilities and hostilities can be undertaken as a matter of jus in bello where the participants are.  The reason for this traditional rule is obvious — if the armed conflict is arbitrarily limited in this way, then it invites combatants to use territory outside of the “armed conflict” as a haven.  Under some circumstances, for diplomatic or other political reasons, a state might choose not to attack even though participants are taking haven, but the reason is not a matter of the law of war jus in bello.

To begin with, this is a caricature of Melzer’s position.  He does not claim that combatants can be lawfully targeted only when they are on the battlefield; his discussion of the extraterritorial reach of non-international armed conflict on pages 257-61 of his book, for example, is replete with situations in which states lawfully targeted insurgents outside of the “theatre of conflict.”  On the contrary, he simply insists — correctly — that the extraterritorial targeting of an individual is governed by the laws of war only if (1) the target does, in fact, qualify as a combatant in the armed conflict in question, or (2) the target is a civilian who is directly participating in that armed conflict.

The distinction is important, because it leads to a conclusion that Ken’s argument ignores: although the laws of war permit the extraterritorial targeting of “participants” in an IAC or an NIAC, not every terrorist qualifies under the laws of war as a “participant” in the IAC in Afghanistan or the NIAC in Pakistan. Al-Aulaqi is a perfect example.  He is not a “member of the armed forces of a Party to the the conflict” in Afghanistan, as that category is defined in IHL, nor is he a member of an “organized armed group” that is involved in the NIAC in Pakistan — there are many al-Qaedas, not just one. The laws of war govern his targeted killing, therefore, only if it can be said that he is directly participating in the hostilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  And that is a very difficult argument to make, given that his terrorist activities appear to have been focused exclusively on Yemen, the US, the UK, and Canada.  To be sure, there is no question that Al-Aulaqi approves of al-Qaeda’s activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It is even possible that his inflammatory speeches incite young Muslims to join al-Qaeda in those countries.  But such incitement does not qualify as direct participation in hostilities (DPH); it is at best indirect participation.  And even if it did qualify as DPH under a more relaxed (and less acceptable) definition, Al-Aulaqi would be targetable only while giving his speeches; he could not killed at other times, because DPH is an action, not a status.

We see, then, the real motivation of conservatives like Ken: not to reaffirm the “traditional” understanding of the laws of war, but to dilute traditional notions of combatancy and DPH so that targeted killings with no connection whatsoever to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be governed by IHL instead of by international human-rights law or — worse — American constitutional law.  And they accuse progressives of misunderstanding the laws of war!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Featured, Foreign Relations Law, International Criminal Law, International Human Rights Law, National Security Law
Notify of

Again, as often before, I wonder what these scholars would say if such diluted notions of DPH and armed conflict were used against the US – if Iran were for instance to designate the CIA as a terrorist organization, would it be ok under international law for Iranian forces to target CIA agents all around the world? What standard would Iran have to show in order to do this? Wouldn’t the US insist on a showing (at the very least) that the targeted individual does qualify as a combatant in the armed conflict in question or is a civilian directly participating in that same armed conflict? Law mostly comes down to this: do you accept that the interpretation you are providing can also be used against you?

Howard Gilbert
Howard Gilbert

For thousands of years the Pashtun tribes have occupied the area now associated with Southern Afghanistan and the Territories of Pakistan. The British may have drawn an imaginary line at the furthest extent of their control, but they do not recognize the border. Some members of the tribe prepare and train in Pakistani territory, then attack NATO forces on the Afghan side. It is one conflict in which they fight their tribal enemies. You, however, have decided that there are two conflicts, an IAC in Afghanistan and a NIAC in Pakistan, not because of any reality on the ground but because the distinction fits your model of international law. So if a Pashtun fighter is standing straddling the Afghan/Pakistan border, that means that one side of him is, by this type of thinking, engaged in an International Armed Conflict while his other half is engaged in a Non-International Armed Conflict. Worse, it appears that his two halves seem to belong to different enemy forces, or at least that appears to be the subtext of the theory. Does this mean that there are different rules for the military targeting of his left and right sides? Suppose he is killed by a… Read more »

John C. Dehn

I must say that I am closer to Kevin than to Ken on this issue as it is here being articulated.   I, like Ken and Howard, understand the laws of war to apply functionally — to the “belligerent intercourse” of contending parties wherever they occur.  However, I agree with Kevin that combatant/belligerent status, or temporally-limited DPH status, is required for targeting.   Otherwise, an individual must pose an imminent threat or potentially, though international human rights law is unclear on this, have the equivalent of “fleeing felon” status. With all of that said, I am uncertain of the full factual basis for targeting al-Aulaqi.  Is the proper analogy to a U.S. service member working at a recruiting station?  It might be, but we don’t have all the facts.  And, because al-Aulaqi is a citizen, the Constitution requires an “adequate” determination of targetable status (see Hamdi).  As I have said here before, though, the adequate evidentiary standard in such determinations is unclear in both U.S. and international law (as the D.C. circuit’s struggles in post-Boumediene habeas cases make clear).  I am quite doubtful of the propriety of judicial review, except maybe if it were so narrowly circumscribed that it would almost never exist.  Even then, I am… Read more »

Howard Gilbert
Howard Gilbert

Al-Aulaqi may or may not be
1) a member of an armed unit in Yemen engaged in continuous combat function
2) that belongs to one of the parties to the armed conflict triggered by 9/11 and the AUMF.

While I would agree that comments by bloggers do not necessarily assert that both questions are answered “yes”, I believe it was implicit in the US announcement of the targeting decision on Al-Aulaqi that they regard both criteria met.

That then raises two procedural questions: What is the level of proof required regarding direct participation to allow lethal targeting (preponderance, clear and convincing, …) and is this military decision subject to judicial challenge.

While judicial challenge to the intelligence that decided these questions of fact is inappropriate, any discomfort one may have that the administration is applying the wrong criteria might be resolved by a clear judicial finding about the application of law to the process itself (rather than the conclusion reached in any individual case). If Kevin can be reassured that the military is asking and answering the right questions (which he clearly does not believe) then we may move closer to consensus.