Home Articles posted by Antonio Coco

Freeing up the Rules on The Treatment of Detainees from the Debate on the Geographical Scope of International Humanitarian Law

Published on January 3, 2018        Author: 

A few weeks ago, my great friend Elvina Pothelet analysed, on this blog, the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor’s to request authorization to investigate, inter alia, acts of ill-treatment of detainees allegedly committed since 2002 by the CIA in black sites in Poland, Romania and Lithuania, in connection with the armed conflict occurring in Afghanistan. Elvina affirmed that there may be an added value in qualifying these alleged behaviours as war crimes, but she also hinted that such qualification might support the idea that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) applies globally, even outside the borders of the States where active hostilities take place. In this post I will argue that a wide geographical scope of application of the IHL rules on the treatment of detainees — especially those contained in common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions and reflected in customary international law — does not necessarily imply an equally wide applicability of the rules on the conduct of hostilities.

To put my intervention in context, I should recall the obvious: a war crime presupposes a serious violation of an IHL rule. And for a rule of IHL to be applicable, there must be a sufficient link of correlation (so-called ‘nexus’) between the behaviour in question and an armed conflict (see ICTY AC, Kunarac, § 57 ff., referring to acts that are ‘closely related to the armed conflict’; see also Cassese). Although these sources refer to international criminal law (ICL), they build on the principle that IHL only applies to conducts and events which are sufficiently related to an armed conflict, as recognized e.g. in the ICRC Introduction to IHL, at pp. 28 and 59 (see also Practitioners’ Guide to Human Rights Law (HRL) in Armed Conflict, § 4.23). When such behaviour occurs outside the theatre of hostilities — e.g. where acts of torture were allegedly perpetrated in Poland/Romania/Lithuania, but the supposedly related hostilities took place in Afghanistan — one should ask whether such ‘sufficient nexus’ exists and, additionally, whether are there any geographical limitations to its establishment. In other words, is IHL applicable to conduct or an event as soon as it is sufficiently connected to an armed conflict, regardless of the territory where it took place (as contended, e.g., by Lubell-Derejko)? Or should the applicability of IHL be limited only to behaviour occurring in the area where active hostilities are being fought, or in the territory of a State party to the conflict (as deemed preferable by the ICRC in its 2015 report, at p. 15)?

Like ‘global battlefield’ theorists, I am convinced that geographical considerations per se do not necessarily limit the applicability of IHL. But, as also accepted by Lubell and Derejko, I believe that they are a fundamental factor to be taken into account when assessing the existence of the necessary nexus between an event under scrutiny and an armed conflict. Geographical distance from the actual conflict may be an indication that the relevant conduct or event is sufficiently ‘closely related to the hostilities’. And that is where I think the difference between the rules on the treatment of detainees and other IHL rules (especially those on the conduct of hostilities) lies. Read the rest of this entry…


Crocodile Tears: The UK Supreme Court’s Broad Definition of Terrorism in R. v Mohammed Gul

Published on November 18, 2013        Author: 

Antonio Coco - PictureAntonio Coco is a PhD Candidate at the University of Geneva and a Teaching Assistant at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.


On 25 October 2013, in its judgment in the R v Mohammed Gul case, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom tackled two important issues: the definition of terrorism in times of armed conflict and the relationship between domestic legislation and international rules criminalizing certain behaviours. On both issues, the judgment is rather unsatisfying and may be considered a step back from the stand previously taken by the Court of Appeal in the same case (upon which I commented in the Journal of International Criminal Justice, vol. 11(2), 2013, pp. 425-440, some time ago; see also the excellent post by Kimberley Trapp here on EJIL:Talk!). In particular, the Supreme Court found the terrorism definition in UK law to be both unwise and undesirable but then relied on it to confirm the defendant’s conviction.

The defendant, a law student of British nationality, was accused of having disseminated terrorist publications, an offence under Section 2(3) of the UK Terrorism Act 2006. Actually, his conduct consisted in uploading onto the Internet, and particularly on Youtube, videos of attacks against military targets in Chechnya, Iran and Afghanistan. The videos were accompanied by prayers and praises for the attackers. One legal element of the offence is that the publication – in this case the videos – concerns actual terrorist attacks. The bone of contention here, then, is whether attacks against military targets in the context of non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) can be labelled as terrorist attacks.

The definition of terrorism in UK legislation is contained in Section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000. It basically foresees three requirements: (1) an act or threat which involves serious violence or danger to the life of persons, serious damage to property, or serious interference with or disruption of electronic systems; (2) the “purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”; and (3) the fact that the act or threat is “designed to influence the government or an international governmental organization, or to intimidate the public or a section of the public”. The act or threat need not to be designed to influence a government or an international organization or to intimidate the public when it involves the use of firearms or explosives. This means that any threat or use of firearms or explosives motivated by a political or ideological cause is an act of terrorism, as long as it involves serious danger to persons or serious damage to property and regardless of its purpose.

The definition is practically very broad (as recently noted by K.J. Heller). It seems to label as terrorist most acts of warfare in a NIAC, regardless of whether they are lawful or unlawful under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and whether they are carried out by the armed forces of a State or by a non-State armed group. Indeed, most hostile acts in an armed conflict are likely to cause serious violence to persons or serious damage to property, and all of them are motivated by a political or ideological cause. Arguably, any hostile act in an armed conflict is designed to influence a government or involves the use of firearms or explosives. According to this definition, every person embracing weapons in a NIAC is considered a terrorist. The Prosecution in the Gul case argued that such a wide definition is counterbalanced by the requirement that prosecutions for terrorism are authorized by the Director of Public Prosecution if the activity occurred in the UK, or by the Attorney General if it occurred abroad, thus ensuring that criminal charges are formulated only in the appropriate cases (§ 30). This contention, far from solving the problem, seems to raise even more concerns, as I shall explain below. Read the rest of this entry…