Security Council Resolution 2178 (2014): The “Foreign Terrorist Fighter” as an International Legal Person, Part II

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This is Part II of a two-part post. Read Part I here.

Res. 2178 is no basis for criminal sanctions

Resolution 2178 is not in itself the basis for criminalising the behaviour it seeks to suppress. On the contrary, it resembles the classic suppression conventions, i.e. international treaties imposing the obligation on contracting parties to prohibit individual forms of conduct in their national law and, where applicable, to criminalise and punish them.

So no foreign fighter-suspect could be tried and sentenced on the legal basis of Res. 2178 alone. But the reason is not, I submit, that a Security Council resolution could never – from the perspective of international law − function as a “lex” in the sense of the principle nulla poena sine lege. The reason is that the “lex” here does not in itself explicitly establish the crime, but on the contrary explicitly asks states to do to, through their domestic criminal law. Res. 2178 makes it amply clear in its wording that it does not intend to establish the criminal offence directly. It may well be that under the domestic law of some countries, the understanding of nulla poena is stricter. However, if we want to uphold a functioning system of global governance, states and scholars must develop an “internationalised” principle of legality that need not consist only in the lowest common denominator but which is informed by values of global constitutionalism.

Previous Security Council resolutions directly addressing individuals

Resolutions combatting terrorism and piracy

Previous Security Council resolutions had not imposed any obligations on terrorists or terror-suspects as such; they addressed only states (for instance, res. 1624 (2005), para. 1(a); res. 1540 (2004) on weapons of mass destruction). The same is true of all UN Security Council resolutions on piracy (e.g., UNSC res. 1838 (2008)).

Sanctions resolutions

The sanctions resolutions (both comprehensive regimes of economic sanctions and targeted sanctions) aim at influencing the conduct of individuals. However, these resolutions again oblige only States to take measures under their national law, especially to prohibit private individuals within their jurisdiction from engaging in trade, to prohibit them from leaving or transiting through the country, and to freeze their accounts (the classic one being UNSC Res. 1267 (1999) against the Taliban). The typical formulation of the Security Council is that it

calls upon all States to take appropriate measures to ensure that individuals and companies in their jurisdiction (…) act in conformity with United Nations embargoes, (…) and, as appropriate, take the necessary judicial and administrative action to end any illegal activities by those individuals and companies; (…). (random example of para. 21 of UNSC res. 1343 (2001) on Sierra Leone).

Technically speaking, the individuals here are still mediated through their states (or, in the case of the EU, through the EU).

Sometimes it looks as if the Security Council had directly imposed financial and travel sanctions on individuals, for example on individuals who recruit child soldiers, or who attack peacekeepers (see the latest sanction resolution concerning the Democratic Republic of the Congo, res. 2136 (2014), para. 4). However, this resolution refers to its “mother-resolution”, res. 1807, whose para. 1 “decides (…) that all States shall take the necessary measures (…).”

The closest to directly obliging individuals to comply with a sanction have been formulas such as in res. 1474 (2003) whose para. 1 “stresses the obligation of all States and other actors” to comply with a previous resolution imposing an arms embargo in respect of Somalia.

Moreover, the sanctions committees (subsidiary organs of the Security Council as referred to in Art. 29 of the UN Charter) make decisions that are binding on individuals. For instance, the Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee designates individuals (Res. 1333 (2000), para. 8(c)). It is mandated to consider requests for the listing and delisting of persons (See, e.g., Guidelines of the 1267 Committee of 7 November 2002, most recently amended on 15 April 2013, para. 4(c)). The committee makes these decisions itself; for instance, it decides to delist a person on the recommendation of the ombudsperson.

Because the powers of the sanctions committees are considered to be delegated powers of the Security Council, the sanctions committees must act within the scope of recognised principles of delegation. A key precondition for delegation is that the Security Council cannot delegate more powers than it may exercise itself. The Security Council itself must therefore be entitled to impose obligations on individuals if the committees are expected to do so with legal effect.

Recommendations to individuals

Other resolutions expressly direct recommendations to individuals and groups. Several times, the Security Council has called upon private persons, NGOs, and companies to support UN sanctions policy. In regard to Sierra Leone, the Security Council “encouraged” the diamond industry to cooperate with the official government (res. 1306 (2000) of 5 July 2000, para. 10). In a resolution on the crisis after the presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire (extension of the UNOCI mandate), the Security Council “calls upon the government and all international partners, including private companies, involved in assisting the Government in the reform of the security sector, to comply with the provisions of resolution 1980 (2011)” (res. 2000 (2011) of 27 July 2011, para. 16).

Resolutions on NIACs

The Security Council has so far imposed unambiguous strict legal obligations on individuals only in NIACs (including conflicts potentially “internationalised” through the involvement of third states or international organisations); this includes the current ISIL situation. In this connection, several resolutions have called upon not only the involved states but also other political groups and individuals to immediately cease hostilities, to comply with previously agreed ceasefire agreements, and the like (on Kosovo Res. 1160 (1998), para. 2; res. 1199 (1998) para. 1; res. 1203 (1998) para. 4). Res. 814 (1993) on Somalia addresses “all Somali parties, including movements and factions” (para. 8). Res. 1010 (1995) paras 1 and 2, demanded that the Bosnian Serb party give access to UN and ICRC personnel and respect their rights, and so on.

The practice sketched out here constitutes “subsequent practice” in the sense of Art. 31(3) lit b.) VCLT, and must therefore be taken into account when interpreting Art. 25 UN Charter with a view to determining the normative power of res. 2178.


Domestic authorities which do not want to apply para. 1 of SC res. 2178 directly would have to justify the non-application of that resolution. They should rely, in their justification, on the mentioned principle of legality which ultimately seeks to protect individual liberty.

Under due respect for the principle of legality, notably in its strict version of nulla poena, resolution 2178 surely cannot deploy any criminalising effects. But the obligations to cease and desist from all terrorist acts directly flow from the Security Council resolution 2178. It could even be argued (although with some difficulty) that the individuals’ obligation not to travel into a region to participate in the financing, planning, preparation, or perpetration of terrorist acts also flows from the resolution itself (paras 1, 6 and 8).

That would mean that a domestic authority, in the absence of a domestic boundary control law, could – from the perspective of international law − rely on res. 2178 to refuse the issuance of a passport, for example. It would have to respect international humans rights law, namely the human right to leave one’s country (12(2) ICCPR), for this. It seems as if the limits spelt out in Art. 12(3) ICCPR are prima facie satisfied, because the travel ban and control is, as argued above, “provided by law”, and seems to be “necessary” to protect national security, public order, and the rights and freedoms of others.

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