The eagerly-awaited Grand Chamber judgment in the case of Hassan v UK has now been released, and its importance for anyone interested in extraterritoriality, detention and the relationship between international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) cannot be overstated. For the first time in its history, the Court has explicitly offered its view on the interaction between IHL and IHRL and the operation of the Convention, particularly the right to liberty, in the context of an international armed conflict.
A good overview of the facts of the case and the Court’s judgment can be found here, and they will not be repeated in this post. Instead, I want to offer some initial thoughts on the Court’s reasoning with regard to Article 5 ECHR and, more specifically, its approach to treaty interpretation.
The question before the Grand Chamber was whether the internment of the applicant’s brother, which appeared to conform with the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, could be considered consistent with Article 5 ECHR, notwithstanding the absence of any derogation by the UK. At a very general level, the Court effectively had two options here. On the one hand, it could have followed the path it appeared to be laying in its previous case-law, particularly in Al-Skeini and Al-Jedda, and hold that, where jurisdiction exists and where no lawful derogation has been made, the State remains bound to honour its obligations under the ECHR as ordinarily interpreted. Had the Court taken this approach, the Contracting States may eventually have conceded defeat and begun derogating in extra-territorial contexts. (Incidentally, the Court continued to avoid explicitly engaging with the permissibility of extra-territorial derogations.) Instead, the Court adopted the alternative approach, interpreting the ECHR so as to leave room for the broader powers that States have under IHL. Thus, it effectively read into Article 5(1) ECHR an extra permissible ground for detention where consistent with the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, and it read down the requirement of habeas corpus in Article 5(4) to allow for the administrative forms of review under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Let’s begin with a few, in my view, positive points about the Court’s approach here. First, and perhaps most importantly, the Court rejected the UK’s principal argument that IHL as the lex specialis precluded jurisdiction arising under Article 1 ECHR (para 77). To have followed this would effectively have been to displace the entire Convention where IHL applies. Instead, the Court adopted a more nuanced, case-by-case approach which looks at the specific right at issue. This enables the Court to retain its oversight function by assessing the legality of the actions of Contracting Parties through the prism of IHL.