Last week the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held an oral hearing in what is bound to be a very important case, Hassan v. UK. The case deals with the detention of an Iraqi by British forces in southern Iraq and his subsequent release and death under unclear circumstances. As such it raises both threshold questions on extraterritorial applicability/Article 1 jurisdiction and substantive issues on the relationship between human rights and international humanitarian law. Here is the Court’s press release on the hearings, and here’s the actual webcast of the hearings. Shaheed Fatima also has a good preview of the case over at Just Security.
The jurisdiction issue is made more complicated by uncertainties left after Al-Skeini as to whether and when exactly the UK had effective overall control over southern Iraq for the purpose of spatial model of Article 1 jurisdiction, as well as by the fact that the camp to which Hassan was taken upon arrest was run by the US. The multiplicity of actors can thus render both the jurisdiction and the attribution questions more difficult. But I will not deal with them here. Rather, I want to focus on the interaction between the ECHR and IHL.
In that regard, together with the pending Georgia v. Russia interstate case, Hassan presents an excellent opportunity for the Court to articulate a clear and systematic approach on IHL. Hopefully this is an opportunity that the Court will take up, and the questions posed by the various judges during the oral hearing are an indication that they will do so.
Why is Hassan such a good case? Because at least in part it poses the hard question of potentially unavoidable norm conflict (a topic which I have dealt with extensively here, as well as specifically in the context of IHL and IHRL here). On the one hand, the UK is arguing that Hassan’s arrest and preventive security detention were authorized by IHL in an international armed conflict (the exact theory is for the time being beside the point). On the other hand, Article 5 ECHR categorically prohibits preventive security detention; unlike Article 9 ICCPR, which prohibits arbitrary deprivations of liberty, Article 5 ECHR contains an exhaustive list of permitted grounds for detention, and preventive security detention is not one of them. Hence, when states wanted to use internment in the context of internal disturbances or emergencies which may even have reached the level of non-international armed conflict, they had to derogate from Article 5 pursuant to Article 15 ECHR, as the UK did for Northern Ireland.
In the context of Hassan this raises the preliminary question of whether the UK could have derogated with respect to the situation in Iraq (which in any event it did not do), i.e. whether Article 15 ECHR allows for extraterritorial derogations. Article 15 limits derogations to times of ‘war or other public emergency threating the life of the nation.’ In Al-Jedda Lord Bingham expressed doubts that this formulation could extend to situations outside the derogating state, especially those which it had put itself in willingly, a sentiment later echoed by the UK Supreme Court in Smith. In other words, the UK chose to invade Iraq, and however bad the situation was for Iraqis in Iraq it in no meaningful way threatened the life of the UK. Further support for this position would be found in the fact that no state has ever derogated for an extraterritorial situation.