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The Relationship between International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law in the African Commission’s General Comment on the Right to Life

Published on June 7, 2016        Author: 

In November 2015, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Commission) adopted General Comment (GC) no. 3 on the right to life. The GC deals with a variety of issues surrounding the right to life, inter alia the death penalty, use of force in law enforcement and armed conflict, investigations and accountability, and extraterritoriality. The GC also considers the relationship between the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and international humanitarian law (IHL):

“32. In armed conflict, what constitutes an ‘arbitrary’ deprivation of life during the conduct of hostilities is to be determined by reference to international humanitarian law. This law does not prohibit the use of force in hostilities against lawful targets (for example combatants or civilians directly participating in hostilities) if necessary from a military perspective, provided that, in all circumstances, the rules of distinction, proportionality and precaution in attack are observed. Any violation of international humanitarian law resulting in death, including war crimes, will be an arbitrary deprivation of life.”

This statement is interesting in respect of three elements: the concept of ‘arbitrariness’ with regard to acts of deprivation of life in armed conflict; the interpretive principle employed to connect the ACHPR and IHL; and the legal consequences arising from IHL violations when human rights law also applies. Before taking a closer look at all these points, it should be clarified that the conclusions drawn concern the IHL and human rights obligations of States, and do not necessarily extend to those of non-State actors.

Arbitrary Deprivations of Life in Armed Conflict

In the first place, the African Commission asserted that to determine whether a deprivation of life is arbitrary in armed conflict – and therefore in violation of Article 4 ACHPR – it is necessary to make reference to IHL. Such a stance echoes the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) dictum in the Nuclear Weapons advisory opinion (para 25). The relevant rules the African Commission identified are those concerning the use of force against individuals and the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack, which apply in both international and non-international armed conflicts (Articles 48, 51, 57 AP I; 13 AP II; CIHL Study). That the protection of the right to life in connection to hostilities requires taking IHL rules into account has long been affirmed by human rights treaty bodies, particularly the Inter-American Commission and Court (inter alia IAComHR Abella, para 161; IACtHR Santo Domingo Massacre, paras 211‒236; also HRCtee Draft GC 36, para 63). Thus, the African Commission’s GC 3 consolidated an established interpretive trend, according to which IHL provides the yardstick to evaluate when use of force in the conduct of hostilities amounts to arbitrary deprivation of life in violation of relevant human rights norms.

The Principle of Systemic Integration

The second point worthy of note is that the African Commission refrained from invoking lex specialis to read the interplay between IHL and human rights law. Lex specialis, both an interpretive principle and a conflict-solution technique, indicates that:

“if a matter is being regulated by a general standard as well as a more specific rule, then the latter should take precedence over the former” (ILC Fragmentation Report, para 56).

 The ICJ employed it to contend that either an IHL specific norm (Nuclear Weapons, para 25) or IHL as a legal regime (Wall, para 106) is lex specialis with regard to human rights law. The lex specialis principle has been at times employed by the Inter-American Commission (inter alia Coard, para 42; Gregoria Herminia, para 20), whereas none of the other international bodies have resorted to it. Notably, the ICJ did not invoke it in a successive case where it dealt with the interplay between the two bodies of law (Armed Activities, para 216).

Commentators have extensively analysed, debated and criticised the use of lex specialis in relation to the interaction between IHL and human rights law (inter alia Prud’homme; Hampson, 558‒562; Milanović, Ch 5). Interestingly, some scholars highlighted that in Nuclear Weapons the ICJ did not actually employ lex specialis, but rather another principle of interpretation: systemic integration (d’Aspremont and Tranchez, 238‒241; similarly Gowlland-Debbas, 361). This principle, which is found in Article 31(3)(c) VCLT, provides that in the interpretation of a treaty:

 “[t]here shall be taken into account […] any relevant rules of international law applicable in the relations between the parties”.

 I find this viewpoint particularly convincing. When the ICJ stated that:

 “[t]he test of what is an arbitrary deprivation of life […] falls to be determined by the applicable lex specialis, namely, the law applicable in armed conflict” (Nuclear Weapons, para 25),

 it actually made use of systemic integration under the guise of lex specialis (d’Aspremont and Tranchez, 238). Indeed, it interpreted a human rights provision taking into account IHL rules, which is an application of the principle of systemic integration.

International bodies have constantly employed this principle to connect IHL and human rights law rules. They have done so implicitly (HRCtee GC 31, para 11), or by expressly invoking Article 31(3)(c) VCLT (IAComHR Molina, para 121; ECtHR Hassan, para 102), or on the basis of equivalent provisions included in their constitutive instruments, such as Article 29 ACHR (IACtHR Ituango Massacres, para 179) or Articles 60‒61 ACHPR (AComHPR DRC v Burundi et al, para 70). In GC 3, the African Commission followed the same path:

 “During the conduct of hostilities, the right to life needs to be interpreted with reference to the rules of international humanitarian law.” (para 13).

 It thereby confirmed that systemic integration, not lex specialis, is the appropriate interpretive principle to operationalise the relationship between norms of IHL and human rights law.

Concurrent Violations of IHL and Human Rights Law

The last point concerns the closing sentence of the above-quoted passage, in which the African Commission affirmed that an attack causing death in violation of IHL rules amounts to an arbitrary deprivation of life. This is a remarkable statement. For the first time, a human rights treaty body made it explicit that, when human rights law norms are placed in the background to favour the application of IHL norms, a breach of the latter entails a violation of the former. A similar reasoning may be found in the Human Rights Committee’s Draft GC 36 (para 63), not yet adopted, whereas it could only be inferred from previous case law (IACtHR Santo Domingo Massacre, paras 230, 237; ECtHR Hassan, para 105, with reference to the right to personal liberty). This constitutes the logical conclusion of the interpretive choice according to which the arbitrariness of a deprivation of life in armed conflict is to be determined with reference to IHL. Of course, the presupposition is that an act is simultaneously in breach of IHL and human rights law. The use of dum-dum bullets, for example, violates IHL but not necessarily human rights law.

In my opinion, it is possible to extract a more general principle concerning the relationship between rules of IHL and human rights law. In instances of norms competition, when a prohibitive human rights law norm is placed in the background in favour of a permissive IHL norm, a violation of the prevailing IHL norm entails a corresponding violation of the background human rights law norm. The result is that the latter re-emerges, bringing along relevant normative consequences. I will just consider here the implications this has for the right to a remedy.

Remedies in Armed Conflict

Individual reparations claims for alleged IHL violations often fail when directly brought in a State’s domestic courts (e.g. Varvarin case). This owes to the uncertainty surrounding the right to reparation under IHL. Articles 3 HC IV, 91 AP I, and corresponding customary rules provide that a State must pay compensation for the breaches of IHL it is responsible for. Several scholars contend that these norms grant victims a right to reparation directly enforceable at domestic level (Kalshoven, 835‒836; Zegveld, 512). State practice and case law is inconsistent in that regard, yet most domestic courts tend to deny such an entitlement to individuals (for an account, CIHL Study, 544‒545;  Henn, 617‒623). However, when a breach of IHL also results in a violation of human rights law, victims may seek redress on the basis of the latter.

All major human rights treaties include a provision concerning the right to an effective remedy (e.g. Articles 7(1)(a) ACHPR; 2(3) ICCPR), which translates to a State obligation to provide individuals with both procedural and substantive domestic remedies (AComHPR GC 3, para. 7). Victims may seek redress for human rights violations first in domestic courts and, if that fails and where possible, with the relevant human rights treaty body. The acknowledgment that a breach of the IHL targeting rules resulting in death amounts to an arbitrary deprivation of life opens the way to individuals for obtaining redress for IHL violations via the right to a remedy under human rights law. This may expand even further. The Inter-American Court indeed held that an attack which fails to comply with IHL rules and endangers the civilian population may amount to a breach of the rights to life and personal integrity (Article 4‒5 ACHR), even if nobody is killed or injured (Santo Domingo Massacre, paras 236‒237; similarly HRCtee Draft GC 36, para 63).

Outlook

The impact of the African Commission’s GC is possibly manifold. On the international plane, it may encourage other treaty bodies to make similarly general statements, so to consolidate the interpretation that, in the conduct of hostilities, the right to life is not violated as long as relevant IHL rules are complied with. A similar construal may extend to the right to liberty and security detention of civilians in armed conflict (in this vein ECtHR Hassan, paras 105‒106). At the national level, this perspective may persuade judges to consider whether alleged IHL breaches also amount to human rights violations, which would allow victims to bring claims directly in domestic courts. Overall, the African Commission’s GC may constitute a significant contribution to strengthen the enforcement of victims’ right to reparation for both IHL and human rights violations in armed conflict.

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New Drone Report by UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights

Published on May 10, 2016        Author: 

Following up on yesterday’s post on the Eye in the Sky, today the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights published an important new report on the UK’s resort to drone strikes. Most interestingly, the report contains a number of clarifications of the UK’s policy on drone strikes, on the basis of the evidence obtained by the Committee, especially in situations outside active armed conflict. One of the report’s conclusions is that the UK does, in fact, reserve the right to use drones outside armed conflict, and that such strikes would be governed by human rights law rather than the law of war, but that in limited circumstances such strikes could be lawful. The report also calls on the UK Government to respond with further clarifications. As a general matter the report is written clearly and the legal analysis is reasonably nuanced and rigorous.

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Eye in the Sky

Published on May 9, 2016        Author: 

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing the new movie starring Helen Mirren and the late great Alan Rickman, Eye in the Sky. I was simply floored. Not only is Eye in the Sky an example of film-making at its best, with intelligent pacing and stellar acting throughout, it is also one of the most sophisticated treatments that I have seen of the legal, policy and moral dilemmas that people who make targeting decisions are faced with. It even has words like necessity and proportionality in it, and generally used correctly at that! I could totally envisage a vigorous classroom discussion of the various issues raised after every ten minutes of the movie. I just couldn’t recommend it more for anyone even remotely interested in the legal and moral aspects of targeted killings by drones.  *MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW*

Read the rest of this entry…

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A Comment on Croatia’s Concerns over Serbia’s So-Called “Mini-Hague”

Published on April 22, 2016        Author: 

As recently reported, Croatia has blocked the opening of Chapters 23 and 24 of the accession negotiations between Serbia and the European Union (EU). One of the reasons given relates to Serbia’s law establishing the jurisdiction of Serbian prosecutors and courts over war crimes committed anywhere on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. Justifying their actions, Croatian officials have said that Serbia must follow “European standards”, with some Croatian officials and media reports referring to Serbia’s extension of jurisdiction as the creation of a “mini-Hague” (a media report in Serbo-Croatian is available here). Croatia has asserted that such jurisdiction is incompatible with international law and that it actually constitutes a “hybrid”, rather than universal, jurisdiction (available here in Serbo-Croatian). From the perspective of States whose national legislation provides for universal jurisdiction over international crimes, the issues arising here are quite interesting.

The involvement of the European Commission and its request that the Croatian government cease its opposition has added further complexity to the matter. In a ‘non-paper’, the European Commission has expressed its opinion that the arguments advanced by Croatia are not justified. Commenting on the document, a Croatian official has described it as an old document meant for internal use, and one that the Croatian public should not be bothered with.

Jurisdiction over Croatian Nationals

Croatia’s criticism seems to be aimed at the statutory provisions themselves. In particular, Croatia takes issue with Article 3 of the Serbian Law on Organization and Jurisdiction of State Organs in War Crimes Proceedings, which provides:

The government authorities of the Republic of Serbia set out under this Law shall have jurisdiction in proceedings for criminal offences specified in Article 2 hereof, committed on the territory of the former Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, regardless of the citizenship of the perpetrator or victim. (An older English version of the law is available here; the quoted provision remains unchanged.)

Croatia thus appears concerned with the possibility of Serbia exercising its jurisdiction over Croatian nationals. No accusations of discriminatory or systematic prosecutions by Serbian prosecutors against Croatian nationals have been advanced by Croatia.  To date, universal jurisdiction has not been extensively used to prosecute foreign nationals for war crimes allegedly perpetrated in the Yugoslav conflict; reported cases include both an acquittal and a rejection of a request for extradition (for the reason of an allegedly politically motivated process) of two Bosnians. In 2015, a Croatian national sentenced in Serbia for war crimes was transferred to serve his sentence in Croatia.

Compliance with “European Standards” and International Law

The Croatian government is targeting a particular statutory provision, which in its opinion, marks Serbia’s intention to act as a “regional policeman”. Read the rest of this entry…

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The United States is at War with Syria (according to the ICRC’s New Geneva Convention Commentary)

Published on April 8, 2016        Author: 

The United States is currently engaged in an armed conflict with an organized armed group operating from the territory of two foreign states. Is this armed conflict an international armed conflict (IAC), a non-international armed conflict (NIAC), both, or neither? The question matters because the answer determines which international legal rules apply to the conflict and regulate its conduct.

In his recent speech to the American Society of International Law, U.S. State Department Legal Adviser Brian Egan noted that “some of our foreign partners have asked us how we classify the conflict with ISIL and thus what set of rules applies. Because we are engaged in an armed conflict against a non-State actor, our war against ISIL is a non-international armed conflict, or NIAC.”

So far, so good. Few would deny that the United States is in a NIAC with ISIL. However, Egan continues: “Therefore, the applicable international legal regime governing our military operations is the law of armed conflict covering NIACs.”

Not so fast. In its recently released Commentary on the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross writes that “an international armed conflict arises between the territorial State and the intervening State when force is used on the former’s territory without its consent.” If the territorial state consents to the use of force on its territory—including force directed at an organized armed group—then there is no international armed conflict between the two states. Since Iraq has consented to the United States using force against ISIL on its territory, there is no international armed conflict between the United States and Iraq. It follows that only the law of armed conflict covering NIACs governs U.S. military operations in Iraq.

Again, so far, so good. But what about U.S. military operations in Syria? According to the ICRC, if the territorial state does not consent to the use of force on its territory—even force directed exclusively at an organized armed group—then an international armed conflict arises between the two states. Importantly, “[t]his does not exclude the existence of a parallel non-international armed conflict between the intervening State and the armed group.”

It seems to follow that, according to the ICRC’s approach, the United States is both in a NIAC with ISIL and in an IAC with Syria. Accordingly, both the law of armed conflict covering NIACs and the law of armed conflict covering IACs govern U.S. military operations in Syria. Read the rest of this entry…

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New EJIL:Live! Joseph Weiler and Yishai Beer Discuss the Implications and Risks Involved in Revitalizing the Concept of Military Necessity

Published on March 23, 2016        Author: 

The latest EJIL: Live! episode features the Editor-in-Chief of the EJIL, Professor Joseph Weiler, speaking with Professor Yishai Beer, from the Radzyner School of Law in Israel, about his provocative and controversial article, “Humanity Considerations Cannot Reduce War’s Hazards Alone: Revitalizing the Concept of Military Necessity”, which appears in EJIL, Volume 26, Issue 4. Professor Beer argues that there is an artificial tension between military necessity and humanity in the law of armed conflict. Military professionalism, he maintains, can act as a constraint on the brutal use of force and can better help to achieve the objectives of humanitarian law. The conversation explores the implications and risks involved in Professor Beer’s proposal to revitalize the concept of military necessity.

The EJIL: Talk! blog welcomes comments and reactions to EJIL: Live!

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New ICRC Commentary to the First Geneva Convention

Published on March 22, 2016        Author: 

The International Committee of the Red Cross has launched the first batch of its  new commentary to the Geneva Conventions, following up on the authoritative, but dated, commentaries edited by Jean Pictet. The commentary to GC I is available here; the commentaries are published electronically, side by side with the prior Pictet version, and are comprehensive, accessible and easy to use. An ICRC press release is available here. The commentaries to the other three Conventions will follow in due course, but a lot of the foundational work on the common articles will of course be the same across all of the treaties. All in all this is a major endeavour by the ICRC (which more academic commentary complements nicely), and I hope it will be prove to be as successful as the Pictet commentary and the customary law study.

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ESIL-International Human Rights Law Symposium: ‘Operationalising’ the Relationship Between the Law of Armed Conflict and International Human Rights Law

Published on February 11, 2016        Author: 

Today it is accepted that both the law of armed conflict and international human rights law continue to apply in situations of armed conflict. Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights recently addressed the co-application of these two bodies of law for the first time in Hassan v. The United Kingdom, and the potentially landmark case of Georgia v. Russia (No. 2) is currently pending. However, the precise relationship between the law of armed conflict and international human rights law is subject to significant uncertainty. In particular, the content of the rules applicable on the battlefield remain unclear. Resolving this uncertainty is clearly an essential and pressing issue: States’ armed forces must be able to effectively and foreseeably regulate their activities, particularly if they are to be subject to judicial review before regional human rights bodies.

This post will discuss the role that human rights bodies, and in particular the European Court of Human Rights, may play in resolving uncertainties arising in relation to the co-application of the law of armed conflict and international human rights law. It is suggested that such judicial regulation can provide much needed clarity and assist in our understanding of the law applicable on the battlefield. However, that statement comes with a significant caveat. It is essential that, in applying the law of armed conflict, human rights bodies remain cognisant of the unique nature of this body of law and ensure that the application of international human rights law remains appropriate to the operational needs of the armed forces and the reality of armed conflict itself. Specifically, when interpreting and applying the law of armed conflict, human rights bodies must interpret the rules in the manner usual to that field. Failure to do so risks undermining the effectiveness of the law, thereby undermining the minimum – but essential – protections established in relation to armed conflict. Significantly, it also risks undermining respect for the decisions of human rights bodies. It should be highlighted that violations of both the law of armed conflict and international human rights law are primarily civil in character, and that there can be a violation of either or both of these bodies of law, in situations where no individual liability (say for a war crime) arises.

The development of the law of armed conflict by judicial bodies is not a new phenomenon (see for instance, Shane Darcy, Judges, Law and War: The Judicial Development of International Humanitarian Law (CUP 2014)). The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in particular has played a significant role in the development of the law of armed conflict, with key decisions relating to the definition of armed conflict, the indicators of non-international armed conflict, and the confirmation that the rules on the conduct of hostilities developed for international armed conflict are largely applicable to non-international armed conflict on the basis of customary law. Read the rest of this entry…

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ESIL-International Human Rights Law Symposium: Interactions Between IHRL and Other Sub-branches of International Law – A Research Agenda

Published on February 4, 2016        Author: 

In our first post as co-chairs of the ESIL Interest Group on Human Rights, we suggested that human rights are central organising principles of public international law. We noted that:

International human rights law routinely interacts with other sub-branches of public international law by demanding new interpretations of existing law (cf. the principle of territorial application of treaties as regulated in the Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties); by qualifying existing obligations under other bodies of law (cf. international human rights law and the law of occupation); or imposing procedural and substantive obligations onto other bodies of law (cf. the ICC Statute).

In this symposium, we deepen our inquiry into the relationship of international human rights law (IHRL) with other sub-branches of public international law. We do so by examining in what ways and the extent to which IHRL has shaped and influenced the development of international criminal law, the law of armed conflict, international investment law, cultural heritage law and development. Looking at interactions between IHRL and a number of other sub-branches of public international law (PIL) demonstrates that there are both divergences and convergences in why and how far IHRL influences other bodies of PIL.

The contributions in this symposium indicate that all sub-branches under discussion interact with IHRL. There are, however, significant variations in how far they interact, the terms of interaction and the assessments of the consequences of such interaction. What explains such variation? Our contributors identify push and pull factors.

The purposive affinity between IHRL and other branches of PIL emerges as an important factor supporting IHRL’s influence on other branches. Lixinski on international cultural heritage law, Murray and Hampson on international humanitarian law, and Cryer on international criminal law, all point out that interactions with IHRL are strong because there are overlaps between what these bodies of law are seeking to achieve and IHRL. Van Ho’s post, on the other hand, points to the perceived lack of purposive affinity between IHRL and international investment law accounting for the limited interaction between the two sub-branches. Read the rest of this entry…

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Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court Authorizes Initiation of Investigation in Georgia

Published on February 1, 2016        Author: 

On 27 January 2016, the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber I (PTC) authorized the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open an investigation into the situation in Georgia, specifically focusing on allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity during and in the immediate aftermath of the August 2008 armed conflict. In the absence of a state party or the Security Council referral, the OTP filed the request for authorization in October 2015, seven years after initiating its preliminary examination. The investigation can cover alleged crimes by three groups: South Ossetian forces, armed forces of Georgia and armed forces of the Russian Federation. Georgia is a party to the Rome Statute, while the Russian Federation is not.

This post focuses only on the aspects of the PTC decision and the OTP’s request that raise the most questions, namely selection of crimes and of potential cases and admissibility of those cases, with specific emphasis on complementarity.

Crimes within the Jurisdiction of the ICC

The primary targets for the OTP’s investigation appear to be alleged crimes against ethnic Georgians, including forcible displacement and destruction of property, between 8 August and 10 October 2008 in the Russian occupied South Ossetia and adjacent areas. Read the rest of this entry…

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