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Harmonizing Standards in Armed Conflict

Published on September 8, 2014        Author: 

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the joint series of posts hosted by EJIL:Talk!, Lawfare and Intercross (blog of the International Committee of the Red Cross) and arising out of the Transatlantic Workshop on International Law and Armed Conflict held in Oxford this summer.

One of the consequences of the non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) of recent years has been widespread recognition that the current international humanitarian law (IHL) treaty framework regulating such conflicts is inadequate. One interim solution that some states have pursued has been to apply the rules developed for international armed conflicts (IACs) in conflicts with non-state armed groups.

The United States, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and others, for example, have issued guidance stating that their armed forces will apply IAC rules as a matter of policy in NIACs. And since 2009,the US has taken the position that “[p]rinciples derived from law-of-war rules governing international armed conflicts. . . must inform the interpretation of [its Guantánamo] detention authority.” Yet the extent to which states look to IAC principles as a means of delimiting their authority is unclear.

The Project on Harmonizing Standards for Armed Conflict, which I co-direct with Sir Daniel Bethlehem at the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, seeks to augment such efforts by exploring the extent to which the IAC treaty regime can be practically applied, as a matter of law, in NIACs.  The ultimate goal of the project is to help harmonize the IHL rules applicable in all armed conflicts to the higher standards established for IACs. States would adhere to the regime by registering a unilateral declaration of intent with an appropriate body, possibly the Swiss Federal Council (the depository for ratifications of the Geneva Conventions).  The resulting regime would be legally binding on that state as a matter of international law.

One consequence of the approach would be to substantially reduce the significance of characterizing a conflict as either an IAC or NIAC.  If successful, the project could help significantly raise the level of protection for individuals in non-international armed conflicts while clarifying a participating state’s IHL obligations.  More broadly, it could complement longer-term law reform efforts by demonstrating the feasibility of holding states to the higher standards of protection from IAC, and ultimately catalyse the development of a more harmonized regime of IHL legal standards. Read the rest of this entry…