An Old Question in a New Context: Do States Have to Comply with Human Rights When Countering the Phenomenon of Foreign Fighters?

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The phenomenon of foreign fighters involves, as described by the OHCHR, “individuals who leave their country of origin or habitual residence, motivated primarily by ideology or religion, and become involved in violence as part of an insurgency or non-State armed group (even though they may also be motivated by payment)”. Preventing and responding to this phenomenon involves a multitude of potential initiatives at international, regional and national levels. A review of the Security Council’s principal resolution on foreign fighters, Resolution 2178 (2014), discloses several binding decisions as well as recommendations in what the Security Council described as a ‘comprehensive’ response to the factors underlying foreign fighters (see preambular para 13). State prevention and responses to foreign fighters have the potential to impact on the international human rights obligations of States and we are already seeing robust State responses, including in the case of the United Kingdom’s recent enactment of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 and earlier amendments to the British Nationality Act 1981 to allow for the deprivation of citizenship.

I want to emphasise here that the question of human rights compliance in countering the phenomenon of foreign fighters does not involve new or untested issues. I draw attention to seven points:

1.  Implementation by States of recommendations and obligations under SC Res 2178 has the potential to impact on a broad range of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights

The main objectives of SC Res 2178 are to inhibit the travel of foreign fighters, stem the recruitment to terrorism, disrupt financial support to or by foreign fighters, prevent radicalisation, counter violent extremism and incitement to terrorism, and facilitate reintegration and rehabilitation (see operative paragraphs 2-19).

Action in response will, or at least may, engage several human rights obligations of States. Concerning measures to inhibit the travel of foreign fighters, this may include: the freedom of movement; the right to return to one’s country of nationality; the freedom of entry into a State, particularly as this may affect refugee and asylum law; the deprivation of citizenship; the rights to family and private life and to employment and culture, as this affects individuals who may be prevented from entering a territory of habitual residence in which their family resides; the right to privacy, including as this affects the collection, storage or use of information in border control activities; the prohibition against discrimination, including as this affects profiling activities of border control officials; detention, as this affects the prohibition against unlawful or arbitrary detention; and rendition to States in which there is a risk of human rights violations being perpetrated against the individual.

Measures to implement the objectives under SC Res 2178 as a whole may impact further rights. Those include rights applicable to the criminalisation of conduct, including as it affects the principles of legality, non-retroactivity of criminal laws and double jeopardy; prosecution, including as this affects the right to a fair trial; the right to freedom of expression; the right to freedom of association; and various rights engaged as a result of financial and UN terrorist listing sanctions, including as these relate to the due process deficiencies within the Security Council’s terrorist sanctions regime.

2.  This is exacerbated by the absence in SC Res 2178 of a comprehensive, concise and human-rights compliant definition of terrorism

Consideration of human rights compliance when combating foreign fighters, especially with regard to action in response to Security Council Resolution 2178, must also take into account the absence in that resolution of a definition of terrorism. The absence of a comprehensive and concise definition of terrorism has drawn much criticism, including from the former Special Rapporteur on human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (see para 26). His solution was to propose a human-rights compatible definition of terrorism (Practice 7 in his report), drawn from Security Council Resolution 1566 (2004), para 3. This lack of definition, which creates the risk of States adopting overly broad or abusive definitions of the term in the context of combating foreign fighters, is a further aspect to be taken into account when considering State responses to the phenomenon of foreign fighters against the backdrop of their international human rights obligations.

3.  Global security and human rights are not to be juxtaposed; they are complementary and mutually reinforcing

In September 2006, the General Assembly adopted the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, as recommended by Kofi Annan in his report entitled Uniting against Terrorism. In his report, the former Secretary-General emphasised that effective counter-terrorism measures and the protection of human rights are not conflicting goals, but complementary and mutually reinforcing ones (para 118).

The principle of complementarity and mutual reinforcement between security and human rights is reflected within the Global Strategy in three ways. First, respect for human rights for all and the rule of law forms one of the four pillars of the Strategy (Pillar IV). Second, it is also identified as “the fundamental basis of the fight against terrorism” (Pillar IV, title), thus applicable to all four pillars of the Strategy. Finally, the Strategy’s recognition of the importance of respect for human rights while countering terrorism is reflected through the express identification that a lack of the rule of law and violations of human rights amount to conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism (Pillar I, preambular paragraph).

4.  The Security Council has itself made repeated reference to the need for human rights compliance when implementing SC Res 2178

A notable feature of Resolution 2178 is its repeated reference to the need for human rights compliance. Its preambular paragraphs recognise, in line with the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, that measures to counter the phenomenon of foreign fighters must comply with the UN Charter and with States’ obligations under international law, in particular international human rights law, international refugee law and international humanitarian law (preambular paras 5 and 7). Resolution 2178 underscores that “respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are complementary and mutually reinforcing with effective counter-terrorism measures, and are an essential part of a successful counter-terrorism effort”; and notes that lack of compliance with obligations under international law (including international human rights law) “is one of the factors contributing to increased radicalization and fosters a sense of impunity” (preambular para 7).

In requiring, or recommending, particular action by UN Member States, the operative provisions of Resolution 2178 follow this pattern. For example, the resolution requires States to “prevent and supress the recruiting, organizing, transportation or equipping of individuals who travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning, or preparation of, or participation in, terrorist acts or the providing or receiving of terrorist training” (operative para 5). But it expressly requires that States do so “consistent with international human rights law, international refugee law, and international humanitarian law”.

5.  The principle of complementarity and mutual reinforcement is also a natural consequence of States’ legal obligations and of the flexibility of human rights law

An obvious point should be recalled: not only are human rights essential to a sustainable strategy for the countering of terrorism, but States are obliged by law to comply with their international human rights obligations. States have human rights obligations under customary international law (applicable to all States) and international treaties (applicable to States parties to such treaties). Compliance with human rights is not something requiring States to do something extra, or something special. In commenting on human rights in the fight against terrorism, former Judge of the European Court of Human Rights, Egbert Myjer, succinctly stated: “Just do what you have promised to do” (Myjer E (2009) Human Rights and the Fight against Terrorism – Case-law of the Strasbourg Court (paper presented at the Round Table Fight against Terrorism: Challenges for the Judiciary, 18-19 September 2009, Fiesole, Italy), p.1).

Furthermore, any argument that respect for human rights prevents States from effectively fighting terrorism not only takes a short-term perspective, it also disregards the nature of international human rights law which, other than in the case of a limited number of rights, incorporates a level of flexibility to accommodate security and public order objectives.

6.  The requirement of human rights compliance is not altered when States implement binding decisions of the Security Council

As discussed, certain aspects of the operative provisions of Security Council Resolution 2178 make express reference to the need for States to comply with their international obligations, including under international human rights law. Other binding decisions do not, prompting the questions: how are such obligations to be interpreted; and what approach is to be taken with respect to future decisions of the Security Council where ambiguity is present?

In cases before the UN Human Rights Committee and the European Court of Human Rights, States have, in simple terms, argued that human rights considerations are not relevant when determining the meaning or implementation of Security Council resolutions under Chapter VII of the Charter. States have pointed to the fact that Chapter VII decisions must be carried out by States, without discretion, by virtue of Articles 25 and 48 of the Charter. They have argued that Article 103 of the Charter requires that human rights obligations must be set aside since that provision holds that: “In the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter [here, obligations to comply with Security Council resolutions] and their obligations under any other international agreement [here, international human rights treaties], their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail”.

In Sayadi and Vinck v Belgium, the majority of the Human Rights Committee avoided the issue by concluding that the Committee was competent to consider the compatibility with human rights of national measures to implement a Security Council resolution (para 10.6). Its focus was on implementation, rather than interpretation. Two diverging positions can nevertheless be seen. On the one hand, Committee member Ivan Shearer took the view that the Committee should have rejected the authors’ case as unsubstantiated. He effectively agreed with Belgium that the combination of Articles 25, 48 and 103 of the Charter meant that the ICCPR was subordinate to the Charter, not on a par with it. In contrast, Sir Nigel Rodley considered Article 24(2) of the Charter (which provides that the Security Council must discharge its duties “in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations”), concluding that it should therefore be presumed that the Security Council does not intend that action taken pursuant to its resolutions should violate human rights, and that Security Council decisions should be interpreted in light of that presumption.

The European Court of Human Rights, in Al-Jeddah v UK, arrived at the same result as Sir Nigel Rodley. It concluded that the purposes and principles of the Charter, when combined with the qualified competence of the Security Council under Article 24(2) and the UN and Member State commitments under Articles 55(c) and 56, called for an interpretation of Security Council resolutions in a way that was most in harmony with the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (para 102). The same approach was later taken by the European Court in Nada v Switzerland in the context of Security Council listing and sanctions resolutions, where it stated:

“[T]he United Nations Charter does not impose on States a particular model for the implementation of the resolutions adopted by the Security Council under Chapter VII. Without prejudice to the binding nature of such resolutions, the Charter in principle leaves to UN member States a free choice among the various possible models for transposition of those resolutions into their domestic legal order. The Charter thus imposes upon States an obligation of result, leaving them to choose the means by which they give effect to the resolutions.”

7.  A human rights compliant approach when implementing binding decisions of the Security Council remains the case even when a State is left with no choice as to the means of implementation

A further question must be addressed: what if a State considers that there are no human rights compatible options in the implementation of a Security Council decision?

The majority approach of the Human Rights Committee in Sayadi and Vinck v Belgium was to disregard any question of the compatibility of Security Council decisions with human rights, instead focussing solely on the question of the compatibility of implementing acts by Belgium with its obligations under the ICCPR. The majority stated (para 7.2):

“While the Committee could not consider alleged violations of other instruments such as the Charter of the United Nations, or allegations that challenged United Nations rules concerning the fight against terrorism, the Committee was competent to admit a communication alleging that a State party had violated rights set forth in the Covenant, regardless of the source of the obligations implemented by the State party.”

In November 2013, the European Court turned its mind to the question under consideration in this section. In Al-Dulimi v Switzerland, the Court agreed with Switzerland (and France and the UK, who joined as third party interveners) that sanctions mandated under operative paragraph 23 of Resolution 1483 (2003) left Switzerland with no discretion as to the means of implementation (para 113). The Court held that States nevertheless remain liable under the ECHR for all acts and omissions of their organs arising from the need to observe international legal obligations. It continued to explain that, if the organisation under which such obligations arise (in this case the UN and its Security Council) has means of protecting human rights that are at least equivalent to the ECHR, the Court can in such cases assume that the State has complied with its obligations under the ECHR (para 114). The Court concluded that no equivalent protection existed and that, accordingly, Switzerland bore full responsibility for any violation of rights under the ECHR in its implementation of Resolution 1483 (paras 118-120).

Two conclusions can be drawn from this jurisprudence. First, wherever a State has a choice as to the means of implementing a decision of the Security Council, including on foreign fighters, it must adopt the means of implementation that are most consistent with its international human rights obligations. Second, even if an irreconcilable conflict arises between a Security Council decision and a State’s human rights obligations (leaving the State with no choice as to the means of implementation), the State nevertheless remains liable for all acts and omissions of their organs arising from the need to implement such a decision, unless the Security Council decision is accompanied by means of protecting human rights that are at least equivalent to the State’s international human rights obligations. Article 103 of the Charter therefore does not provide States with shelter from bearing full responsibility for any violation of rights.

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Jordan says

March 19, 2015

Of course, state members of the UN must comply with human rights guaranteed through the U.N. Charter, arts. 55(c) (indeed, "universal"), 56, which would be customary human rights as well as customary rights jus cogens.

Alex Conte says

March 20, 2015

Yes, indeed. And yet we have seen States like Belgium, France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom unsuccessfully argue that any action implementing Security Council decisions is protected from any examination of conflict with human rights due to Article 103 of the UN Charter. And we see States continuing to take measures, especially now in the context of combating foreign fighters, that interfere with human rights and violate international obligations. The UK’s Immigration Act now allows revocation of the citizenship of a British national who has no other citizenship (a mono-national) if the Home Secretary has reasonable grounds to believe that the person in question might acquire citizenship of another State, even if the immediate effect is to render the person Stateless. This amendment was introduced after the Supreme Court ruled that the revocation of al-Jedda’s citizenship, following his release from detention in Basrah, was unlawful because it had the effect of rendering him stateless (Secretary of State for the Home Department v. al-Jedda [2013] UKSC 62). It undermines the UK’s obligations under the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, to which the UK has been a party since 1966.

Jordan says

March 20, 2015

Without commenting on whether human rights law is violated, a potential problem results from the obligation of members to comply with certain S.C. resolutions, an obligation that also pertains in view of Article 103. It is important, however, that Article 24(2) requires that the S.C. act in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations, Article 25 requires members to carry out only S.C. resolutions that are "in accordance with the present Charter" (or, another possible read, to carry them out only in accordance with the Charter), and Article 55(c) requires the U.N. and its entities to respect and observe human rights. See, e.g.,
Some human rights are derogable and some have built-in limitations that have to be considered in context.

Alex Conte says

March 20, 2015

Agreed. This is precisely the approach in the cases I mention under points 6 and 7 of the blog.

Mary says

March 25, 2015

This is a very interesting discussion. Certainly, it can be asserted that the successful or effective implementation of counter-terrorism laws without breaching the boundaries of human rights is impracticable. And the accountability of states to bear the responsibility does not absolve them of their human rights violation but further emphasizes the interconnection of both obligations to uphold national security while protecting human rights.