A week ago, the Bureau for Investigative Journalism (BIJ), in conjunction with the Sunday Times (of London) published a report into US drone tactics in Pakistan. The report states that since Barak Obama came into office US drone strikes in Pakistan killed between 282 and 535 civilians. The core of the recent report was that some of these civilians were killed in follow-up strikes which delibaretely targeted those who had gone to help victims of previous strikes or were killed in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. In a separate piece, ”A Question of Legality“, the BIJ examines whether this US tactis is lawful under international humanitarian law (and international human rights law). In that piece I am quoted as follows:
Professor Dapo Akande, who heads Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, believes that under LOAC the killing of civilian rescuers is problematic: ‘The question is, can rescuing be regarded as taking part in hostilities, to which for me the answer is clearly “No”. That rescuing is not taking part in hostilities.’
The BIJ piece (and my quote) has generated a keen debate on other international law blogs as to legality of the (alleged) US tactic of attacking rescuers and funeral goers. Bobby Chesney, at Lawfare agrees with what I say on direct participation in hostilities but argues that this only matters ”if we assume that a person must be directly participating in hostilities in order to be targeted lawfully in that context.”. He explains that if one agrees with the position taken by the ICRC in its Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities Under International Humanitarian Law, then a member of an organized armed group who has a continuous combat function is not a civilian and can be targeted at any time (i.e on the basis of his status alone), subject to questions of proportionality. That person does not need to be taking a direct part in hostilities to have no immunity from attack.
I agree with Bobby Chesney’s assessment. He is right that the first question is whether the people who have been targeted are civilians. It is only if the answer to that question is in the affirmative that one gets to the question of direct participation in hostilities. I did make this point to the BIJ in my interview with them but I think the quote they chose to go with was one which they felt made the point about the illegality of killing civilian rescuers most strongly. I have gone over the transcript of my interview with BIJ and this is what I said on this point:
On the one hand, if we’re talking about people who are known to be militants (and this is the big question, whether they are and how the US knows and all of that) then you can say, well, these people under LOAC can be targeted just because they are militants. That would be fine. On the other hand, it can be argued that the law says that if you’re a civilian and you take a direct part in hostilities, then you can also be targeted. So you’re not a militant, you’re just a local, but you take a direct part.
So then the question is, can rescuing be regarded as taking part in hostilities, to which to me the answer is clearly ‘No.’ That rescuing is not taking a direct part in hostilities. And so if a person is not a militant, the fact that they are coming to recue and help, that’s not taking a direct part in hostilities.
The first para above was intended to make, in simple terms, the point that members of organized armed groups can be the object of an attack (even in a funeral or a rescue situation) on the basis of that status alone. However, that would only be stage one of the analysis as all that would have been satisfied is the principle of distinction (which requires those conducting attacks to distinguish between civilians and combatants). If the attack causes civilian casualities or damage to civilian objects, one would then proceed to analyse whether the principle of proportionality is satisfied.
Kevin Jon Heller in a post on Opinio Juris takes a different view and has argued that the principle of distinction does not permit the U.S. to intentionally attack one member of an organized armed group who is attending a funeral along with a number of civilians. In his view such an attack is a clear violation of the principle which states that the civilian population as such shall not be the object of attack (Art. 51(2) Additional Protocol I, 1977). Kevin notes Article 50(3) of API which states that the “[t]he presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.”
I disagree with Kevin that an attack which has as its object the killing of a member of an organised armed group (lets call him “combatant” for short) fails to respect the principle of distinction because the combatant is in the company of civilians. The attack may well be unlawful because of disproportionate civilian casualties or loss but that is a different point. Read the rest of this entry…