As Serdar Mohammed v Ministry of Defence hits the English Court of Appeal, the blogs have lit up with comments, criticisms and predictions. In recent posts published at Just Security and Opinio Juris, Ryan Goodman, Kevin Jon Heller and Jonathan Horowitz (see here, here and here) have joined with Marko Milanovic and Lawrence Cawthorne-Hill and Dapo Akande (see here, here and here) in defending the view that IHL does not provide States with a legal authority to detain persons in a non-international armed conflict (NIAC). In this post, we wish to outline our challenge to this proposition as mistaken in law and undesirable as a matter of policy (for a more detailed version of our argument, see our recent article in International Law Studies here).
The nature of the law of war
In Serdar Mohammed, Mr Justice Leggatt relied on five arguments to deny the existence of a legal authority to detain under IHL in NIACs (paras 228–251). Despite his meticulous analysis, we do not find the reasoning persuasive. None of the five arguments exclude the possibility that a legal basis for detention exists under customary international law. Even if correct, they establish only the absence of an implicit legal basis under Common Article 3 (CA3) of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the relevant provisions of Additional Protocol II of 1977 (AP II). However, Leggatt J’s reading of these provisions is too narrow. In particular, it misconstrues the nature and purpose of IHL as a body of law.
According to Leggatt J, the purely humanitarian purpose pursued by CA3 and AP II is inconsistent with the idea that they were designed to confer a legal power of detention (para. 244). Although humanitarian imperatives have played a central role in the development of modern IHL, they have never been its sole preoccupation. Its other purpose has always been the regulation of hostilities. Focusing on the humanitarian aspects of IHL at the expense of its warfighting dimension ignores its fundamentally dual character. In particular, it fails to appreciate the role played by the principle of military necessity. As Nils Melzer has explained, the ‘aim of military necessity as a principle of law has always been to provide a realistic standard of conduct by permitting those measures of warfare that are reasonably required for the effective conduct of hostilities, while at the same time prohibiting the infliction of unnecessary suffering, injury and destruction’ (Melzer, Targeted Killing in International Law, 279–280). The principle therefore serves both a restrictive and a permissive function. Read the rest of this entry…