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Home Archive for category "International Humanitarian Law"

Compliance with IHL by Non-State Armed Groups: Some Practical Reflections at the 70th Anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions

Published on August 21, 2019        Author: 

That non-State armed groups (NSAGs) engage in hostilities on a frequent basis is not news. Indeed, NSAGs are active in the majority of contemporary armed conflicts (at 19). What seems to have changed in the last few years is the increasing attention that the international community is paying to their behavior, largely due to the impact that they have on civilians. While it is undisputed that international humanitarian law (IHL) binds NSAGs (para 505), finding effective strategies to enhance their level of compliance remains challenging, especially considering that the baseline expectation is generally low (at 69).

Interestingly, while some NSAGs have been responsible for IHL violations, others have also shown a degree of compliance for certain rules during non-international armed conflicts (NIACs). As this year marks the 70th anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, some reflections related to how parties to armed conflicts – in this case, NSAGs – actually behave are in order.

Describing NSAGs’ Variations

Generally, compliance has been defined as “behavioral conformity with existing norms and regulations” (at 65). For NSAGs, this implies the observed match between their behavior and their international obligations.

As parties to armed conflicts, NSAGs should not be seen as entities that either violate or respect international law without exception. Instead, they may follow certain rules while disregarding others. For instance, a NSAG may respect the prohibition of using and recruiting children in hostilities, but may summarily execute detainees or take hostages. Similarly, a group may deliberately attack health care facilities and transports in breach of IHL, while prohibiting the forcible displacement of civilians. At the same time, these non-State entities often modify their behaviors throughout the hostilities, reflecting and increase or decrease in their level of compliance with humanitarian norms. Wood has identified that civilian victimization is “anticipated during moments in which the viability of the groups is threatened or when it faces significant military setbacks” (at 15). Variation is particularly evident during peace processes (here, for an example). When a NSAG looks for political recognition, it might adopt a different attitude than a group whose main purpose is to show its strength or to terrorize the civilian population living in the territory it controls.

Accordingly, compliance with IHL should be conceived as a spectrum, rather than an on/off switch. Read the rest of this entry…

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Hospital Bombings: Empirical and Theoretical Fallacies of Those Rejecting a Ban

Published on August 16, 2019        Author:  and

The argument we advance in our recent EJIL Article, ‘‘Hospital Shields’ and the Limits of International Law’, emerged from analysis of empirical data showing how, during the past several years, hospitals were being bombed on a daily basis. Comparing these attacks with official statements released by actors suspected of bombing hospitals, we discovered that one of the recurrent arguments used to legitimise the strikes was that the facilities had been transformed into ‘hospital shields’ and used to conceal military targets. We then decided to reconstruct the history of hospital bombings and found that since 1911 — the first time medical units were bombed from the air — belligerents have consistently justified aerial strikes by claiming that the medical units were being used to hide combatants or harbour weapons.  

This revelation led us to examine in detail the historical development of the legal clauses dealing with the protection of medical units in armed conflicts. Our analysis revealed that the clauses include a number of exceptions that have allowed belligerents to assert that the bombing was carried out in accordance with IHL. We argue that belligerents can do this since hospitals occupy a spatial and legal threshold during armed conflict, and that IHL, which is informed by the rigid distinction between combatants and noncombatants, does not have the vocabulary to deal with liminal people and objects. This, we maintain, enables belligerents to use the law to justify the attacks.  

Our assumption throughout the paper is that IHL is subject to constant interpretation and reinterpretation, and that the way states interpret the law — even if we disagree with their interpretation — helps to establish the law’s meaning. International law is, after all, shaped by states, and through their practices, manuals and utterances they help determine the interpretation of its clauses. Hence, the fact that for over a century many states, among them the most powerful ones, have justified the bombing of hospitals by claiming that they were used as shields is not something we can dismiss by simply claiming that they are misinterpreting the law. After all, those very states introduced the hospital shields exception.  Read the rest of this entry…

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The Ituri Conundrum: Qualifying Conflicts between an Occupying Power and an Autonomous Non-State Actor

Published on July 15, 2019        Author: 

Last week, Trial Chamber VI of the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued the long-awaited judgment in the Ntaganda case. The judges found the defendant guilty on all 18 counts, including the ICC’s first ever conviction for sexual slavery. Although the Chamber is yet to resolve matters related to sentencing and reparations, the decision marks an important milestone in the proceedings, which began with an arrest warrant issued back in August 2006 (Mr Ntaganda surrendered himself to the ICC in March 2013).

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the case as well as with some of the controversies surrounding its progress. In brief, Bosco Ntaganda was the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), the armed wing of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC). The UPC/FPLC was one of the armed groups involved in the so-called Ituri conflict, which took place between 1999 and 2003 in the Ituri region in the north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Before the ICC, Mr Ntaganda was charged with 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity, all allegedly committed in Ituri between 2002 and 2003.

The judgment, which fills over 500 pages, no doubt deserves careful scrutiny before any general pronouncements can be made as to its overall quality and rigour. Instead of analysing the judgment as a whole, this post focuses on a narrow question related to the Chamber’s legal qualification of the conflict in Ituri at the material time (discussed in paras 699–730 of the judgment). In particular, I am going to look at how international humanitarian law (IHL) qualifies conflicts between an occupying power and an autonomous non-State actor. The analysis builds on my research into complex conflict situations, which was published as part of my recent book on Internationalized Armed Conflicts in International Law (OUP 2018, especially chapter 3).

The situation in Ituri between 2002 and 2003 was notoriously convoluted, Read the rest of this entry…

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The Limits of the Law: Putting Reparations into Practice

Published on July 2, 2019        Author: , , and

Reparations have recently been the hot topic from its invocation at the US Congress, the Khashoggi killing to WWII claims by Poland and Greece against Germany. Reparations have a particular legal meaning that intends to acknowledge wrongdoing and remedy as far as possible victims’ harm. Private law notions of restitution heavily imbue the concept. Indeed, the seminal case of Chorzów Factory by the Permanent Court of Justice laid the foundations for reparation in international law which ‘must, as far, as possible, wipe out all the consequences of the illegal act and re-establish the situation which would, in all probability, have existed if that act had not been committed.’

In the past three decades we have seen an increase in reparation programmes from the German Compensation Scheme for Forced Labour, the UN Claims Commission, domestic reparation programmes such as Peru to jurisprudential strides of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the initial steps by the International Criminal Court. 2020 itself will mark fifteen years since the UN adoption of the Basic Principles for the Right to Remedy and Reparations for Gross Violations of Human Rights and Serious Breaches of International Humanitarian Law that sets the broad international standards for victims and states.

Despite these developments most victims of such violations do not receive reparations. Read the rest of this entry…

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Callamard Report on the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: Part II

Published on June 26, 2019        Author: 

In my second post on the report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, I will discuss some of its most interesting legal findings. The key finding, obviously, is that Saudi Arabia is responsible for committing an extrajudicial execution in violation of Mr Khashoggi’s right to life. The Special Rapporteur notes in that regard, quite correctly, that it is ultimately legally irrelevant whether Khashoggi’s killing was premeditated, ordered at the highest levels of the Saudi state, or was done as part of some ‘rogue’ operation. Saudi Arabia bears responsibility for the conduct of its organs, done in their official capacity, even if it was committed ultra vires (para. 219).

In addition to finding Saudi Arabia responsible for violating Khashoggi’s right to life and for failing to comply with obligations towards Turkey under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the report also finds that Khashoggi’s killing constituted an unlawful use of force by Saudi Arabia against Turkey, contrary to the prohibition in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter (paras. 227-230). The report’s analysis in this regard focuses somewhat excessively on whether the killing of a journalist would be an act contrary to the purposes of the United Nations, but does not really engage with the prior question of whether the furtive assassination of a single individual can constitute ‘force’ in the sense of Article 2(4). This is in effect the question of whether there is any de minimis, lowest limit to the concept of force in Article 2(4), and is a point of some controversy, since a finding that interstate force has been used has a number of important implications. Most recently the same issue was raised with regard to the Salisbury chemical attack, when the UK government formally accused Russia for violating the prohibition on the use of force (which, as far as I’m aware, Turkey did not do here). For detailed discussions in this respect see this post by Tom Ruys on Just Security and Dapo’s post here on EJIL: Talk.

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Callamard Report on the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: Part I

Published on June 25, 2019        Author: 

Last week the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Agnes Callamard, submitted to the Human Rights Council her long-awaited final report on the investigation she conducted on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. In this post I’ll offer a few thoughts on some of the legal and factual findings of this report, which is the result of the only independent inquiry to-date into Khashoggi’s assassination in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October last year. Readers may recall that I’ve recently written extensively on the blog on the international legal aspects of Khashoggi’s murder, based on my forthcoming article in the Human Rights Law Review.

The Callamard report is extensive, detailed and rich in its legal and factual analysis. Indeed it is far too extensive to be summarized and discussed in a blog post, which I will not attempt to do. Rather, this two-part post will focus on a selection of the report’s most novel factual and legal findings; the first part will examine the former, and the second, to be published tomorrow, will look at the report’s legal analysis.

The report itself is comprised of two documents. First, the formal report to the Human Rights Council, submitted for its 41st regular session starting this week – UN Doc. A/HRC/41/36. Second, a one-hundred page annex to that report, which contains the Special Rapporteur’s detailed factual and legal findings with regard to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – UN Doc. A/HRC/41/CRP.1. The former document by and large summarizes the contents of the latter, while emphasizing some important points of principle, e.g. regarding the duty to warn (on which more tomorrow). I will hereinafter thus only refer to the annex, i.e. whenever I cite a paragraph of the report, I mean to refer to the longer document, A/HRC/41/CRP.1.

Again, I will not cover the report exhaustively. The media coverage of the report, including succinct summaries of its main findings, has been extensive (e.g. here and here; see also this VoA interview with Ms Callamard). In a nutshell, the Special Rapporteur found that Saudi Arabia bears state responsibility for the extrajudicial killing of Mr Khashoggi, in violation of his human right to life, and that it has similarly violated its positive obligation to effectively investigate his killing. She has inter alia called on the UN Secretary-General, the Human Rights Council, and the Security Council, to establish an independent international criminal investigation into Khashoggi’s murder, and has specifically found that credible evidence existed for the potential responsibility of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his principal henchman, Saud al-Qahtani.

As one could expect, Saudi Arabia has already rejected the report, alleging that it is biased, contains ‘nothing new,’ repeats allegations already made in the media, and is based on ‘false accusations confirmed as stemming from Callamard’s preconceived ideas and positions towards the kingdom.’ In reality, however, there are quite a few new significant factual findings in the report, which have been made with a commendable degree of care and rigour – all the more commendable in light of the very limited resources that the Special Rapporteur had at her disposal. In fact, the report expressly tries not to rely on media reporting, whenever possible, and acknowledges possible sources of bias when appropriate (see paras. 36-37, 42-47). The Special Rapporteur established as proven or credible only those facts that she herself could independently substantiate. And, of course, she applied in great detail the applicable rules of international law to the facts that she has established. As we will see, most of her legal findings are (at least in my view) unassailable, while others are somewhat more tenuous.

What, then, of the report’s novel factual findings?

Read the rest of this entry…

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The Legal Status and Characterisation of Maritime Militia Vessels

Published on June 18, 2019        Author: 

A recent report has described how Royal Australian Navy helicopter pilots were targeted with lasers during a night flight in the South China Sea. The lasers were allegedly directed from Chinese fishing vessels – the primary cadre from which the so-called Chinese ‘maritime militia’ is drawn. Further, the incident occurred – according to another report – shortly after a US admiral warned that the paramilitary force could be treated as ‘combatants’. 

What is the Chinese maritime militia? As described below it is a hybrid body (or bodies), but in essence it is a civilian reserve force (often of fisherman) capable of being called upon to conduct military or governmental activities. A number of recent official reports (eg, US, and Japan), have specifically commented upon the rise in China’s employment of this force multiplier in the South and East China Sea regions. At a certain level such a force may be benign, called upon to assist in search and rescue efforts. The concern, however, is that militia vessels are also being used to further Chinese strategic claims in disputed waters by – for example – harassing the fishermen of other states – including by sinking their vessels, as is reported to have occurred with a Philippines fishing vessel just a few days ago. In another episode, Chinese fishing vessels formed a cordon around Chinese oil exploration vessels operating off Vietnam.

The concept of a ‘maritime militia’ is relatively recent, but not without historical parallel. There has long been (and remains) well settled law around the practices of privateering, use of merchant vessels as auxiliaries to naval forces, and conversion of merchant vessels into warships. In this post, however, I will briefly outline two status and characterisation challenges ahead – or rather, already with us – presented by the increased use of maritime militia by China in the current geo-political and legal context: The status and characterisation of militia vessels under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the customary law of the sea; and their status under the Law of Naval Warfare (LoNW). Read the rest of this entry…

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More on the Duty to Warn Persons Threatened by Foreign Intelligence Services

Published on June 10, 2019        Author: 

I recently wrote on the blog about the obligation of states, arising from their duty to protect the right to life under human rights law, to warn individuals subject to their jurisdiction of any real and immediate risk to their life, bodily integrity, or liberty and security of person, posed by foreign intelligence services. That duty arises if the state knows, or ought to know, of such a threat, i.e. if the threat is reasonably foreseeable to it. I’ve argued in that regard how it cannot be conclusively established, but may be so established after further factual inqury, that the United States or Turkey had enough relevant information in their possession to trigger their protective obligation with regard to Jamal Khashoggi and the threat posed to his life by agents of Saudi Arabia. If that obligation was triggered, however, the duty to warn Khashoggi arose, whereas no such warning was given to him before his assassination in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

As I have explained in my previous post, and in more detail in my full paper, the duty to warn does not impose unreasonable burdens on states engaged in intelligence-gathering activities. First, it is subject to a jurisdictional threshold, which may be looser, per the Human Rights Committee’s new functional approach to the extraterritorial application of the right to life, or stricter, per the more traditional spatial or personal conceptions of jurisdiction. Opinions will clearly differ in this regard as to which approach should prevail. The key point here, however, is that a state lacking the capacity to fulfil the duty to warn will never be expected to have to do so. Second, the duty will only be engaged if a specific unlawful threat to the life of an individual was reasonably foreseeable to the state. Third, the duty to warn is one of due diligence, and the state can take a number of relevant considerations into account in deciding on how to fulfil it. It might, for example, choose to convey the substance of the threat in a way that will avoid any risk of compromising intelligence-gathering sources and methods. It might choose to do so through an intermediary, such as a relevant agency of a partner state. In the vast majority of conceivable circumstances the state will be able to convey a warning without compromising its essential interests in any meaningful way. Granted, the state will have to devote some resources towards actually complying with the obligation. But such an expectation is not unreasonable, especially bearing in mind that this rather modest burden will usually fall on the wealthiest, most powerful states in possession of an extensive foreign intelligence apparatus, whose ultimate purpose should after all be the safeguarding of human life.

Importantly, in the past month or so, the CIA and partner security services have actually warned three associaties of Khashoggi of a Saudi threat against them, demonstrating that the duty to warn does not, in fact, impose unreasonable burdens on state authorities and that it can effectively be complied with.

First, after obtaining information about a specific threat from the CIA, the Norwegian security services warned a prominent Arab pro-democracy activist and vocal critic of the Saudi crown prince, who has been granted asylum and is living in Norway. As the Guardian reports:

Read the rest of this entry…

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Did ITLOS Just Kill the Military Activities Exemption in Article 298?

Published on May 27, 2019        Author: 

In a May 25, 2019 interlocutory decision, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) prescribed provisional measures in the case brought by Ukraine against Russia, ordering Russia to release three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 Ukrainian service members seized on November 25, 2018 in an incident in the Kerch Strait. During the incident last fall, Russian Coast Guard forces, operating in concert with a Russian naval corvette and a military aircraft, fired on two Ukrainian warships and a naval auxiliary as they attempted to transit the strait against the orders of Russian authorities. The ships and their crews were captured and remain in detention in Russia, charged with violating Russian criminal law.

On April 29, Ukraine filed a case with ITLOS requesting provisional measures to order their immediate release. Such measures are authorized under article 290 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in urgent situations to prevent a real and imminent risk of irreparable prejudice to the rights of a party, in this case Ukraine. Article 290(5) permits such measures before the merits of the case so long as the Tribunal has prima facie jurisdiction in the case. The key question was whether the Russia’s operation constituted a “military activity,” and was therefore exempt from jurisdiction in accordance with a previous Russian declaration under article 298 of UNCLOS. The Tribunal determined that Russia’s operations were not a military activity, but the decision is likely to generate unintended consequences.

The ITLOS order has effectively diminished the military activities exemption which will give pause to the 27 nations that have made such declarations, including China, France, Norway, Denmark, and the United Kingdom – and in the future, most likely the United States, which intends to make such a declaration once it accedes to the Convention. (The states are identified in paragraph 11 of Judge Gao’s separate opinion). In a decision that suggests outcome-based legal reasoning to constrain Russia, ITLOS questions the viability of the military activities exemption based on any rationale.

As part of its analysis for jurisdiction, the Tribunal avoided a determination on whether there was an armed conflict between the two states, as would appear from the application of the Geneva Conventions in article 2 common, and as I suggested in an earlier piece. Instead, the ITLOS order accepts without analysis that Ukraine and Russia are interacting during a time of peace, a dubious assumption. In doing so, the Tribunal vindicates two important rights that will be welcomed by maritime powers: sovereign immunity of warships and other government vessels and the peacetime right of freedom of navigation by Ukrainian military vessels. But in reaching this conclusion, the Tribunal diminished the military activities exemption. In a departure from the broader understanding of military activities evident in the 2016 Philippines v. China arbitration, the Tribunal found that the confrontation over innocent passage was a navigational issue, rather than one concerning a military activity, because innocent passage is a right enjoyed by all ships. The Tribunal also determined that Russia’s temporary suspension of innocent passage declared conveniently to halt the transit of Ukrainian warships was a law enforcement activity rather than a military activity. These factors led the Tribunal to conclude that Russia’s actions were “in the context of a law enforcement operation rather than a military operation.”

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The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: Immunities, Inviolability and the Human Right to Life – Part V: Conclusion

Published on April 18, 2019        Author: 

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is in many respects a truly extraordinary case. But it is by no means unique – authoritarian states assassinate journalists and political dissidents with some frequency. The use of consular premises as the scene of the killing is, of course, one special feature of this affair. And while diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities are abused all the time, this is not normally done in so spectacular a fashion.

What makes Khashoggi’s killing so fascinating from the standpoint of an international legal analysis is the interplay between the human right to life and the rules of diplomatic and consular law. However, as I have explained, most of the possible norm conflicts between immunities and the right to life could have been avoided in Khashoggi’s case. This is primarily because Khashoggi was killed on the premises of a consulate and not those of a diplomatic mission, and because consular privileges and immunities are significantly weaker than diplomatic ones.

It is therefore unclear why Turkey acted as if international law laid such obstacles in front of it, when in doing so it actually exposed itself to legal liability under IHRL for failing to effectively investigate Khashoggi’s death. There are several possible explanations. First, Turkey could have genuinely misunderstood the legal position, failing to appreciate the attenuated nature of consular immunities. The confusion of consular privileges and immunities with the more expansive diplomatic versions has certainly been pervasive in the coverage of the Khashoggi affair. In fact, in a speech in parliament President Erdogan lamented the fact that the ‘Vienna Convention’ – he did not specify which – inhibited the investigation through the ‘diplomatic immunity’ it provided for, commenting that it may need to be reviewed or revised.

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