The Fourth Annual Junior Faculty Forum for International Law, launched by its founding co-convenors (Dino Kritsiotis – Nottingham; Anne Orford – Melbourne; J.H.H. Weiler – Florence), will take place in Florence, Italy, in June 2015. The call for applications is here: www.annualjuniorfacultyforumil.org. Please note: the closing deadline for applications is December 15.
I do not at all want to trivialize the human tragedy that is the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine last week, nor for that matter the parallel unfolding tragedies on the ground in Ukraine and in Israel and Gaza, by engaging in some premature lawyerly analysis. But, in reading on the unfolding story of the aircraft’s demise, I nonetheless couldn’t help but think how that story is very likely to find its epilogue in an international courtroom. The facts of MH17′s destruction are obviously far from clear, and are not going to become much clearer in the near future, but the number of possible scenarios is limited – the aircraft was (most likely) destroyed by Ukrainian rebels with Russian-supplied weapons, or (less likely) by either Ukranian or Russian state agents (who may have acted ultra vires). And not only did the downing of MH17 deepen a major existing international crisis, but it directly affected a number of states other than Ukraine and Russia, such as Malaysia and the Netherlands, not to mention the families of the victims themselves. This raises both the incentives and the opportunities for international litigation, in addition to whatever proceedings may ensue before domestic courts or international fact-finding missions.
Consider, first, the possibility that a case or cases regarding MH17 might end up before the European Court of Human Rights. Both Russia and Ukraine are of course parties to the ECHR, and readers will recall that one of the first acts of the new government in Kiev in response to the Crimea crisis was to lodge an inter-state application against Russia in Strasbourg, on which the Court ordered provisional measures. It is perfectly possible for the downing of MH17 to be an issue in the existing or a new inter-state case, or indeed one brought by a third state, such as the Netherlands, since the majority of the victims had Dutch nationality. And obviously the families of the victims may also bring individual applications against either Russia or Ukraine.
In addition to whatever direct involvement these states may have had in the destruction of the aircraft, they could also be held liable for other internationally wrongful acts. For example, Ukraine could be responsible for failing to secure the right to life of the victims and failing to comply with its substantive positive obligations under Article 2 ECHR by deciding not to close the relevant airspace for civilian traffic. Russia could be held responsible for providing the rebels with anti-aircraft weaponry without sufficient safeguards (e.g. appropriate training of the missile crews), thus creating the risk that this weaponry could be used against civilian targets. Both states could be held responsible for failing to secure an effective investigation into the incident. Obviously the facts could yet develop and some very complex preliminary issues could arise (e.g. the extent of Russia’s control over the Ukrainian rebels and the question of the ECHR’s extraterritorial application), but all these points seem arguable.
In additional to the regular episodes of our EJIL: Live! podcast, which follow each issue of the Journal, we will also publish special episodes which deal with recent events or current issues. The first such episode is now live – a conversation between Guy Sinclair, Dapo Akande and me on the Serdar Mohammed v. Ministry of Defence  EWHC 1369 (QB) judgment, dealing with various issues regarding the lawfulness under the ECHR of the preventive detention of suspected terrorists in Afghanistan. For our previous coverage of that case, see here, here, here and here.
Readers will recall that in its resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age the UN General Assembly had requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report for the next GA session on the various issues raised by mass electronic surveillance and the human right to privacy (see here for our previous coverage). An advance edited version of that report (A/HRC/27/37) is now available here. The report is rich, thoughtful and very much pro-privacy in the surveillance context, albeit not in a blind, fundamentalist way. It reaffirms that the right to privacy, as set out in Article 17 ICCPR or Article 8 ECHR, provides a framework within which the legality of surveillance measures needs to be assessed. While it acknowledges the legitimate governmental interests that surveillance may serve, it finds the existing institutional and legal arrangements in many states wanting and in need of further study and reform. Here are some of the highlights:
- It is important to consider linkages with other possible human rights violations, e.g. the collection of intelligence through surveillance that is later used for an unlawful targeted killing (para. 14).
- Interferences with the privacy of electronic communication cannot be justified by reference to some supposedly voluntary surrender of privacy on the Internet by individual users (para. 18).
- Collection of communications metadata can be just as bad in terms of privacy interference as the collection of the content of the communication (para. 19).
- Because of the chilling effect of surveillance: ‘The very existence of a mass surveillance programme thus creates an interference with privacy.’ (para. 20).
Readers interested in my four scenarios on the relationship between international humanitarian law and international human rights law who want to know how I would decide them, as well as those who’ve read coverage of the Serdar Mohammed v. MoD judgment, might also be interested in two companion articles I recently posted on SSRN. The first is called Extraterritorial Derogations from Human Rights Treaties in Armed Conflict. In a nutshell it argues that states can and should resort to derogations from human rights treaties in extraterritorial situations, for example that the UK could have derogated (but chose not to) from the ECHR with respect to situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second piece is entitled The Lost Origins of Lex Specialis: Rethinking the Relationship between Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law and it mainly deals with the genesis of the lex specialis principle and analyses the three different conceptions thereof. The abstracts are below the fold, and comments are as always welcome.
The issue of the relationship between international humanitarian law and international human rights law is often mixed together with other difficult questions of international law. This is not very conducive to conceptual clarity. One way of advancing that clarity is to construct hypotheticals which isolate as many of the various issues as possible, so that we can through a thought experiment better appreciate both how they operate individually and how they interact with one another, and move through them carefully, step by step, while resisting the temptation of introducing further complicating considerations.
In this post I’ll present four such (not so) hypothetical scenarios. These are the quintessential hard cases: they all deal at least with an apparent conflict between IHRL and IHL with regard to the use of lethal force and preventive security detention without judicial review. This is not to dispute that in the vast majority of other situations IHRL and IHL would be complementary. My reason for focusing on the hard cases is that they allow us to address more clearly conceptual questions such as the nature and utility of the lex specialis principle.
Scenario 1: NIAC
State A is a party to both the ICCPR and the ECHR. A non-international armed conflict is taking place on its territory, between the state’s forces and those of a non-state actor, B, an organized armed group. The constituent elements of the NIAC threshold are met beyond any doubt. In an operation during the dead of night, A’s forces kill a dozen of B’s fighters sleeping in a barracks (e.g. by shelling it from a distance), presumably doing so in complete accordance with the applicable IHL rules on targeting. From the facts on the ground, however, it was clear that A’s forces were perfectly capable of capturing B’s fighters had they wanted to do so, with little or no risk to A’s own soldiers. Indeed, B’s fighters sleeping in an adjacent barracks were captured and detained by A as threats to state security for the duration of the NIAC, without criminal charge, and without any judicial review of the legality of the detention.
1) Do the ICCPR and the ECHR apply in principle to the killing and detention of B’s fighters, i.e. did these individuals have human rights vis-à-vis A? Assuming that the answer to this question is yes:
2) Was the killing of B’s fighters lawful under Article 6 ICCPR? Why or why not?
3) Was the killing of B’s fighters lawful under Article 2 ECHR? Why or why not?
4) Was the detention of B’s fighters lawful under Article 9 ICCPR? Why or why not?
5) Was the detention of B’s fighters lawful under Article 5 ECHR? Why or why not?
6) Would a derogation under either treaty be permissible, and if so would the prior existence of a derogation have any impact on the analysis under questions 2-5?
A quick note about the rather serious technical problems we’ve been experiencing for the past week. The blog is occasionally crashing or behaving very slowly. We are aware of the problems but it has proven difficult to establish their root cause. We’re on it and hopefully we’ll manage to resolve them soon. Obviously we apologize for any inconvenience.
Last week a chamber of the European Court of Human Rights decided Gray v. Germany, no. 49278/09. The applicants were the sons of a British man who died in the UK after a doctor gave him the wrong drugs on a house visit. The doctor was German, and was hired by the UK National Health Service to provide out-of-hours home service to NHS patients. The doctor returned to Germany after the applicants’ father’s death. After a criminal malpractice investigation was conducted in the UK, Germany refused to extradite the doctor on the basis that criminal proceedings would ex officio take place in Germany. Those proceedings were later summarily completed, with the doctor sentenced to a fine, without notifying the applicants that the case would be disposed of summarily. The applicants claimed that this violated the procedural limb of Article 2 ECHR, read jointly with the overarching Article 1 obligation to secure human rights.
For various reasons, the Court rejected the applicants’ claim on the merits. But what makes this case interesting is that neither the German government, nor the Court sua sponte, thought that there was any Article 1 jurisdiction issue in saying that Germany had the positive obligation to investigate an unintentional death that took place in the United Kingdom, and at that at the hands of a private individual. Look at just how broad this position is – broader, indeed, than what I have argued for, since in my view a positive obligation would only apply if the death took place in an area controlled by the state or with state involvement.
Again, neither the Court nor the German government apparently thought that any Article 1 problem arose, presumably because the doctor was on German territory even though the applicant’s father had been in the UK. This well shows how in the small, politically unimportant cases people just tend to follow the universalist impulse and are oblivious to the existence of threshold applicability problems. Note, however, that the Court must ex officio confirm that the Convention applies and accordingly mind that it has subject-matter jurisdiction. If the issue was raised perhaps the Court would have decided it differently, but even so the case stands for the proposition that ECHR states parties have the duty to investigate even accidental deaths that took place outside any area under their control if the alleged perpetrator is located in such an area.
Stated in these terms, the implications of such an expansive approach are I think clear. Remember Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination in London, ostensibly at the hands of Russian agents? His family took a case against Russia to Strasbourg, which (I’ve been told) is on standby while issues around possible inquiry proceedings are being resolved in the UK. Suddenly that case becomes much easier for the applicants – regardless of whether the radioactive poison was administered by a Russian agent, if the alleged perpetrator is in Russia then Russia would have an Article 2 obligation to investigate. Similarly, if say a British tourist killed somebody in Thailand but then managed to escape back to the UK, the family of the deceased person in Thailand would have Article 2 rights vis-à-vis the UK and the UK would have to investigate the death, at least if it refused extradition. And this approach would a fortiori apply to cases where there is state involvement, e.g. when a soldier kills a civilian in an area not under the state’s effective control, but later returns to the state’s own territory.
In short, the Court seems to have actually created a comprehensive aut dedere, aut judicare principle under the ECHR, that applies even to unintentional taking of life, and probably did so unwittingly. Obviously we’ll have to wait and see whether Gray will have such an impact, or whether the Court will somehow manage to reverse course.
We are happy to welcome a new online resource for the discussion of international law – Questions of International Law (QID). Here is how its editors describe the project:
Founded by a group of Italian scholars, QIL will be a new open-access online platform for international law scholarship, aiming to cross the boundaries between a traditional journal and a scholarly blog. The idea is to address a number of specific questions (hence the name) from at least two different, and generally opposing perspectives on a more or less monthly basis. QIL is divided into two sections. The first, “Zoom-in”, will focus on more specific legal issues, which will normally, but not necessarily, be connected with recent judicial and diplomatic practice. The second section, entitled “Zoom-out”, is designed to air wider debates and present symposia on theoretical or other major issues of international law. QIL will be primarily in English, but is open to contributions in French and Italian.
QIL intends to contribute to debate on issues of international law by opening its platform to comments and proposals from the community of international legal scholars at large.
The managing editors
Maurizio Arcari, Paolo Palchetti, Antonello Tancredi
Yesterday the High Court of England and Wales, per Mr Justice Leggatt, delivered a comprehensive judgment in Serdar Mohammed v. Ministry of Defence  EWHC 1369 (QB), holding that the United Kingdom lacks detention authority under international humanitarian law/law of armed conflict with regard to individuals it captures in the course of the non-international armed conflict in Afghanistan, and that any detention of such individuals longer than 96 hours violates Article 5 ECHR, as well as relevant Afghan law. The judgment is on any account a heroic effort, with the single judge grappling with a host of complex, intertwined issues of international law and acquitting himself admirably in the process. Para. 6 contains a summary of the judgment for those who don’t want to read the whole thing.
Here are some of the highlights of the Court’s analysis:
(1) The ECHR applies extraterritorially to any person detained by the UK in Afghanistan.
(2) Derogations under Article 15 ECHR could also be used in an extraterritorial context.
(3) The detention of SM by UK forces in Afghanistan was attributable to the United Kingdom, and not to the UN .
(4) No conflict arose between relevant UNSC resolutions, which did not authorize SM’s continued detention, and Article 5 ECHR, and Article 103 of the Charter was inapplicable.
(5) SM’s detention was not authorized by IHL either, since IHL in NIACs contains no detention authority, and cannot prevail over Article 5 ECHR as lex specialis.
(6) SM’s detention violated Article 5 ECHR. While the detention up to 96 hours was Article 5-compliant, the 110 days that SM spent in UK detention were not.
The Court makes it clear that the position the UK government found itself in is largely its own doing (para. 417 ff). This is exactly right. The government’s own legal advisers informed it of the limited extant legal authority for prolonged detention. The UK government failed to enact its own domestic legislation on detention in Afghanistan, or to come to different arrangements with Afghan authorities. Similarly, the UK government chose not to derogate from the Convention, preferring instead to argue that the Convention does not apply. And now that this strategy has failed (and on several levels), much of what it has been doing is exposed as unlawful.
I imagine that the judgment will be appealed, and we shall we see what happens there. But whatever the appellate courts’ conclusions, I can only hope that their judges will show as much diligence and analytical precision as Mr Justice Leggatt.
Here are the highlights, with some commentary: