The recent Serdar Mohammed v. Ministry of Defencecase has prompted a number of interesting and insightful posts addressing the issue of whether international humanitarian law (IHL) provides a legal basis for detention in Non-International Armed Conflicts (NIAC) (see, for example, here, here, here and here). This discussion offers an opportunity to address the issue of non-State armed groups, something not discussed in detail so far, with the notable exception of Aurel Sari’s post. In particular, the existing debate with regard to detention raises, more broadly, the issue of the legal authority extended to non-State armed groups party to a NIAC. In this post, I present an argument in support of one of the most controversial issues in this area: the authority of armed groups to establish courts.
Does IHL regulate armed group courts?
As is well known, IHL does not provide an explicit basis for the establishment of courts in NIAC, but rather regulates their operation in the event they are in fact established. In this regard IHL contains two relevant rules. Common Article 3(1)(d) of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 prohibits ‘the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court’, while Article 6 of Additional Protocol II (AP II) requires that ‘[n]o sentences shall be passed and no penalty shall be executed on a person found guilty of an offence except pursuant to a conviction pronounced by a court offering the essential guarantees of independence and impartiality’. Regarding the common Article 3 requirement that a court be ‘regularly constituted’, sources such as the ICRC Customary IHL Study note that a court may satisfy this requirement ‘if it has been established and organized in accordance with the laws and procedures already in force in a country.’ This would appear to support the argument that IHL does not provide a specific legal basis for the establishment of courts (authority is derived from the municipal law in force). At the same time, this reasoning also appears to preclude the convening of armed group courts since domestic law is (almost certainly) unlikely to establish a legal basis for non-State armed group courts. That said, it should be noted that the Pictet Commentary to the Geneva Conventions does not equate the regularly constituted requirement with a basis in municipal law, but rather focuses on the prohibition of ‘summary justice’.
Article 6(2) AP II – which ‘develops and supplements’ common Article 3 – dispenses with the ‘regularly constituted court’ provision, requiring instead that a court offer ‘the essential guarantees of independence and impartiality.’ The ICRC Commentary notes that this was a deliberate act during drafting, as ‘some experts argued that it was unlikely that a court could be “regularly constituted” under national law by an insurgent party’. Read the rest of this entry…