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Home International Humanitarian Law Archive for category "Targeted Killings"

What Is An Imminent Armed Attack? A Hopefully Helpful Hypo

Published on January 12, 2017        Author: 

Yesterday we had the privilege to publish the speech by the UK Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC MP, setting out some of the UK Government’s views on the law of self-defence. The speech focused in particular on the criteria for assessing the imminence of an armed attack by a non-state actor, and essentially endorsed some of the principles set out in Daniel Bethlehem’s 2012 AJIL article. Thus, the Attorney stated in particular (following a speech by the US State Department Legal Adviser, Brian Egan, at last year’s ASIL meeting) that:

[Bethlehem’] Principle 8 on imminence, as part of the assessment of necessity, is a helpful encapsulation of the modern law in this area.

Sir Daniel’s proposed list of factors was not exhaustive, but included (at Principle 8), the following:

  • The nature and immediacy of the threat;
  • The probability of an attack;
  • Whether the anticipated attack is part of a concerted pattern of continuing armed activity;
  • The likely scale of the attack and the injury, loss or damage likely to result therefrom in the absence of mitigating action; and
  • The likelihood that there will be other opportunities to undertake effective action in self-defense that may be expected to cause less serious collateral injury, loss or damage.

It is my view, and that of the UK Government, that these are the right factors to consider in asking whether or not an armed attack by non-state actors is imminent and the UK Government follows and endorses that approach.

In each exercise of the use of force in self-defence, the UK asks itself the questions that flow from that articulation. Questions like – how certain is it that an attack will come? How soon do we believe that attack could be? What scale of attack is it likely to be? Could this be our last clear opportunity to take action? And crucially – is there anything else we could credibly do to prevent that attack?

I don’t think the Attorney broke any new ground here, nor do I wish to dispute the accuracy or normative desirability of this analysis. But what struck me most about it is the lack of conceptual clarity, in particular the lack of clear delineation between the concepts of imminence, necessity and proportionality and the legal role that these concepts are playing. (I would highly recommend, in that regard, this piece in the AJIL by Dapo and Thomas Liefländer). For example, what is the work that the idea of imminence does here? Is its main purpose to delineate between permissible anticipatory and prohibited preemptive self-defence, which goes around the Article 51 Charter language ‘if an armed attack occurs‘? Or is imminence an aspect of the broader concept of necessity? And can a word such as imminence encompass non-temporal elements? Conceptual clarity matters because without a common understanding of the words we are using we cannot actually properly debate the soundness or desirability of any given approach. Without it, it is hard to even have a conversation.

So here’s a hypo that I hope might be helpful in this regard. Again, the point of the hypo is not to argue for any particular interpretation of self-defence, whether expansive or restrictive. It is only to help us understand how people use particular words, such as imminence, and for what precise purpose.

Dr. Evil is a very capable terrorist, who has decided to attack the United Kingdom, even though he has never done so before. He manages to get his hands on a mid-range cruise missile with a 150 kt thermonuclear warhead, in perfect working order. He places the missile launching system in a building in a Paris suburb, and uploads a video of himself to YouTube showing him arming a very specific firing mechanism. The missile is aimed at London, and will launch in exactly 30 days; there is no off-switch, code or remote signal that can disarm it. Absent forcible intervention in the causal chain, there is complete certainty that the missile will fire in 30 days and that it will destroy a substantial part of London.

Is this armed attack ‘imminent’ in any legally relevant jus ad bellum sense?

Note that this hypo is specifically designed to eliminate most of the real-world uncertainties about armed attacks – the reliability of the intelligence, the likelihood of the attack, not knowing the exact time, location or scale of the attack. In this hypo, we know everything with absolute certainty. And if you have a problem with the non-state actor nature of the attacker, we can easily turn him into a French state agent. Again, the main point here is that a causal chain has been set in motion which, without some further action, as its certain end has the destruction of London. Does this mean that the attack is ‘imminent’? If so, would it be imminent even if the timer was set to 60 days, 120 days, or 10 years? At what point (if any) is there a switch from an anticipatory to a preemptive scenario? When does imminence end, and necessity begins?

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Taking Stock of the Law on Targeting, Part II

Published on December 15, 2016        Author: 

On Monday, I used the recently released U.S. report on military operations to assess the law on targeting. I argued that the dominant mode for analyzing these operations — asking whether international humanitarian law (IHL), international human rights law (IHRL), or a combination of both regimes governs — is problematic. The targeting rules in each regime are context-dependent, so the rules that have been developed for one context would not necessarily require the same thing if they were extended to a different context. Focusing so heavily on the regime choice is not only unhelpful but can be counterproductive. It reinforces the idea that the regime choice is ultimately what determines the codes of conduct. And so, it makes it harder to develop the law for situations that fit neatly into neither regime. Today, I’ll use U.S. targeting policies to amplify on my argument.

U.S. Position on Targeted Killings

The U.S. position is significant precisely because it pushes past the stale IHL-versus-IHRL debate. The United States does not treat the regime choice as particularly relevant to question of which targeting rules apply.

The U.S. legal claim seems to be that, although IHRL might apply to certain cross-border targeting operations, IHL defines or supersedes what IHRL would require; IHRL does not have independent force. Yet for years now, the United States has made clear that it does not intend to exploit, in all contexts in which it says IHL applies, the expansive authorities that are usually associated with IHL. The United States claims that, outside designated areas of active hostilities, it generally will use force only when someone “poses ‘a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons’” and “only when capture of an individual is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.” (See p. 25 of the U.S. report.) Read the rest of this entry…

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Taking Stock of the Law on Targeting, Part I

Published on December 12, 2016        Author: 

Last week, President Obama released a report that outlines U.S. legal and policy positions on, among other things, operations that target to kill nonstate actors. (See here, here, here, and here for useful summaries of the report.) In October, the U.K. government addressed but largely dodged the targeting-related inquiries of the British Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights. And over the past few months, the blogosphere has been abuzz with yet another round in the seemingly inexhaustible debate on how international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) intersect in this area. So, now seems like a good time for some stocktaking.

One thing that stands out in all of this is that, despite significant developments in the practice over the past 15 years, much of the legal analysis is stuck in a rut. Most legal commentators assess targeting operations by first asking which regime governs — IHL, IHRL, or a combination of the two. For some time now, I’ve argued that that approach obfuscates, rather than clarifies, what’s at stake. It rests on certain intuitions about what each regime would require if its substantive rules applied. But these intuitions are contestable and often wrong. In other words, analysts tend to treat the regime choice as a proxy for the applicable codes of conduct, but it is a bad proxy. At best, then, their approach distracts attention from the questions that really matter — questions about what is or is not permitted. At worst, it gets in the way of meaningful regulation. I will unpack what I mean by this in two blog posts.

Identifying the Legal Framework

The traditional test for a non-international armed conflict — and thus for applying IHL to current operations against non state actors — requires that the violence reach a certain level of intensity. In September, Adil Haque argued against that intensity threshold. He claimed that an armed group’s organization and capacity to sustain military operations should suffice to trigger IHL. The practical effect of his proposal would be to apply IHL to early strikes that occur before any intensity threshold is satisfied. Because such strikes might also be governed by IHRL, Haque’s proposal provoked the most recent round in the IHL-versus-IHRL debate. Read the rest of this entry…

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UK to Derogate from the ECHR in Armed Conflict

Published on October 5, 2016        Author: 

At the Conservative party conference this week, the UK Prime Minister and her defence secretary announced that the UK will derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights in times of armed conflict. I have written before that such derogations – if appropriately used – can be a valuable tool in regulating the relationship between human rights law and international humanitarian law, by providing much needed clarity and flexibility. I hence have no problem with the principle of the idea – indeed, I have argued in particular that the dicta of some of the judges of UK’s highest courts to the effect that the ECHR cannot be derogated from extraterritorially are not to be followed. I do have a problem, however, with how this derogation idea is now being sold to the British public and for what purpose. In that regard, my comments in this post are caveated by the unfortunate fact that the specifics of the derogation plan are yet to be published – we know that there will be a ‘presumed’ derogation, but not from which rights and under what exact circumstances.

Let me first deal with the political salesmanship. To start with, there’s the usual (and forgivable) pandering – Theresa May thus opens her pitch by saying that “Our Armed Forces are the best in the world” and that her government “will ensure that our troops are recognised for the incredible job they do. Those who serve on the frontline will have our support when they come home.” Oh, please. By what metric exactly are the British armed forces “the best in the world”? By their tactical combat effectiveness? By their actual achievement of specific strategic goals (in which they’ve been constantly hampered by the underfunding, underequipping and wishful thinking on the part of their political masters)? By their compliance with the law of armed conflict? The Chilcot inquiry’s findings with respect to the armed forces’ performance in Basra do not exactly support the “best in the world/incredible job” label.

Read the rest of this entry…

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English Court of Appeal Decides Al-Saadoon Case on the ECHR’s Application Extraterritorially and in Armed Conflict

Published on September 14, 2016        Author: 

Last week the Court of Appeal of England and Wales rendered a unanimous judgment in Al-Saadoon & Ors v Secretary of State for Defence [2016] EWCA Civ 811. For extended analysis, see David Hart QC’s post on the UK Human Rights Blog here. Like the judgment of the High Court by Mr Justice Leggatt below, this judgment, written by Lord Justice Lloyd Jones, is exceptionally rigorous and well-argued. In a nutshell, the CoA basically endorsed almost all of the Leggatt J’s reasoning below, with one specific exception: while Leggatt J considered that under the ECtHR’s Al-Skeini judgment the personal conception of Article 1 jurisdiction as authority and control over an individual exercised by a state agent necessarily captures the use of lethal force against that individual, Lloyd Jones LJ held that he did not think that the ECtHR intended the principles articulated in Al-Skeini to go that far, and that it should be for the ECtHR to extended them thusly if it wanted to do so. He nonetheless agreed with Leggatt J in the application of the relevant principles to the facts, with most of the claimants being covered by the ECHR on a different basis.

The key paras of Lloyd Jones LJ’s reasoning are below the fold. In any event, in my view both of the judges have it right: limiting the personal principle so that it does not cover uses of lethal force (e.g. by a drone) would indeed be arbitrary, but in Al-Skeini the Court did in fact try to preserve the result of Bankovic and vaguely create a limitation of precisely this kind (see more here). And I can fully see why an English judge would think that this conceptual mess is one for Strasbourg to sort out – note, in that regard, the impact that cases that do not concern armed conflict (e.g. on extraterritorial surveillance) will inevitably have on this jurisprudence. What will ultimately happen in this regard is unclear, and will depend on the wider political context and the readiness of Strasbourg to find and follow the moral logic of Article 1 ECHR – but it’s clear that this case is headed first to the UK Supreme Court and then on to Strasbourg.

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Missing the Mark: Reprieve, ‘Kill Lists’ and Human Rights Advocacy

Published on September 6, 2016        Author: 

Deception, lies, murder, conspiracy. This is the stuff of crime novels. It is also the story spun in a report published earlier this year by Reprieve, a human rights charity active in the UK and the US. In its report, entitled ‘Britain’s Kill List’, Reprieve claims to reveal shocking proof that exposes the involvement of the British Government in a global assassination project:

On September 7th, 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron came to Parliament and announced a “new departure” for Britain, a policy of killing individuals the Security Services and the military do not like, people placed on a list of individuals who the UK (acting along with the US and others) have identified and systematically plan to kill. The mere admission that there is a Kill List certainly should, indeed, have been a “departure” for a country that prides itself on decency. Unfortunately, it was not a “new departure” at all, as we had been doing it secretly for more than a decade.

Reprieve alleges that the British Government has been complicit in preparing and executing a ‘kill list’ for years, that such a ‘kill list’ is incompatible with the rule of law and that the Prime Minister has deceived the public about Britain’s involvement in this ‘disturbing’ practice. These are serious allegations, which merit a response, even a belated one. All the more so, since on closer inspection they reveal an astonishing appetite for sensationalism and disregard for accuracy.

Who is deceiving Parliament and the public?

On 7 September 2015, former Prime Minister David Cameron announced to the House of Commons that the Royal Air Force carried out a drone strike on 21 August 2015 inside Syria against Reyaad Khan, a British national and member of ISIL. The strike killed Khan and two other members of ISIL. By declaring that the operation was a ‘new departure’ for Britain, Reprieve claims that the Prime Minister has deceived Parliament and the people (pp. 5 and 7), given that this was not the first occasion the UK has acted upon a ‘kill list’. Indeed, much of Reprieve’s report is preoccupied with demonstrating that the UK has contributed to a ‘kill list’ well before the Prime Minister made his announcement to Parliament. Read the rest of this entry…

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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*

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Targeting Child Soldiers

Published on January 12, 2016        Author: 

Despite the numerous volume on child soldiers in legal literature over the last few decades, very little has been said on targeting child soldiers. It seems to be something international lawyers would rather not talk about. The fact that legal literature doesn’t say much about targeting child soldiers doesn’t mean that no such practice exists, or that soldiers haven’t discuss the matter. In 2002, the US Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory organised a ‘Cultural Intelligence Seminar’ on the implication of child soldiering for US forces. One trigger for that discussion was the fact that the very first US soldier killed in Afghanistan reportedly was a Special Forces Sergeant shot by a 14-year-old boy. The year before, in Sierra Leone, a squad from the Royal Irish Regiment was taken prisoner by a group consisting mostly of armed children called the West Side Boys, as the British soldiers were hesitant to open fire. After they had been held hostage for two weeks, an assault was launched by an SAS unit supported by suppression fire from helicopters, leading to between 25 to 150 dead among the West Side Boys. Finally, during the civil war in Sri Lanka, a Government aircraft bombed what was deemed an LTTE training camp, killing a reported 61 minors, mostly girls. Although the LTTE was widely known to use child soldiers, and the specific facts were contested, the Sri Lanka Government was adamant that if a child took up arms, then he or she could be targeted and killed.

The phenomenon of child soldiers remains widespread, and their activities does include direct participation in hostilities. It is imperative that international humanitarian law provide guidance as to what opposing forces can do if they are confronted with that reality. In this piece, I suggest that there are elements in international humanitarian law that support adapting a child-specific approach to targeting. Under this approach, the fact that a potential target is a child should prima facie raise a doubt as to whether he or she is targetable. Although the doubt may be dissipated in light of available facts, overcoming the presumption of civilian status might require more than would be the case for an adult. In addition, even if a child is deemed targetable, the allowable means and methods must nevertheless reflect the protected status of children in international law. Read the rest of this entry…

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Human Rights and the Targeting by Drone

Published on September 18, 2015        Author: 

The UK government has justified its targeting and killing of three people who were engaged in hostilities as part of the ‘Islamic State’ forces by relying on international law. This is to be applauded, as compliance with international law is in the interest of long-term peace and security in the UK and in the international community, and on the rule of law. It does not necessarily mean that their justification of self-defence, or even collective self-defence, is accurate or sustainable once the full facts are known.

However, even if the UK argument of reliance on self-defence is in accordance with a part of international law, that is not sufficient to conclude that the targeted killing is in compliance with all of international law. It only means that the armed force by the drone could be used lawfully by the UK in Syrian territory. There are at least two other areas of international law that are also relevant and should be complied with: international humanitarian law (IHL); and international human rights law (IHRL). The former concerns the lawfulness of force within the armed conflict once it commences, and the latter applies at all times. I will focus here on the application of IHRL, including its interaction with IHL.

IHRL does not allow the targeting of individuals to kill them except in strictly limited circumstances. This was confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary Killings in his 2013 report Read the rest of this entry…

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