Over at Just Security (see for example here, here and here) and also at Opinio Juris (see here and here) there has been a very interesting discussion on whether aspects of the conflict in Syria should be regarded as international armed conflicts (IACs) rather than simply non-international armed conflicts (NIACs). These discussions have followed on from the release of the ICRC’s revised Commentary to the First Geneva Convention (GCI) of 1949 in which the ICRC, in its commentary to Common Article 2 dealing with international armed conflicts (one between the High Contracting Parties to the GCs), states that where a state uses force against a non-state group on the territory of another state without the consent of the territorial state it would amount to an international armed conflict between the intervening state and the territorial state. So as Adil Haque pointed out on EJIL:Talk! in April, the ICRC position would mean that the US (and other states using force in Syria without the consent of the Syrian government) is involved in an IAC in Syria. Adil has explained his support for the ICRC position in posts on this issue on Just Security (see here and here). Others like Terry Gill, Sean Watts and Kenneth Watkin have disagreed (see here, here, here, and here).
I am on record as being a supporter of the position that the ICRC has now come to. I wrote a piece (available here on SSRN) many years ago, which was part of a major study on Classification of Conflicts in which I say precisely what the ICRC has now said (and I’m delighted that the ICRC’s revised commentary cites that work). I am not going to repeat my arguments in this post and they can be found here. In summary, my view is that an international armed conflict is a conflict between states, and a conflict arises between states when one state uses force against another state. What does it mean for a use of force to be against another state? It means simply that the force is used on the territory of the other state without its consent. Note that this says nothing about whether that use of force is lawful or unlawful under the jus ad bellum. Such non-consensual uses of force may or may not be lawful under that body of law, and the application of IHL remains independent of the legality of the use of force under the jus ad bellum. It is also important to remember that saying that there an IAC between the two states says nothing about whether there is a NIAC between the state using force and the non-state group. There will, in many cases, be such a NIAC. This will raise questions about the relationship between the two conflicts: the IAC and the NIAC. However, the notion of mixed conflicts is by no means unusual or confined to this context. In the Nicaragua case the ICJ noted that it was addressing a situation where there was an IAC and a NIAC. The same was also true with regard to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia or before that in Vietnam, which were also mixed.
In this post I wish to concentrate on why it might matter whether a use of force directed at a non-state actor on the territory of a non-consenting state is an IAC or a NIAC. What exactly would turn on this question. Here I provide a general response to that question rather than one directed particularly at answering the question (which has been the subject of some of the commentary on Just Security and Opinio Juris) of what would turn on whether the US is involved in an IAC in Syria. Some of the points below would be relevant for the US in that particular conflict, others might not be.
Here are a few reasons why it might make a difference whether a state using force on the territory of another without the consent of the other is involved in an IAC (in addition to a NIAC, if one already exists). Read the rest of this entry…