It’s a pleasure to be able to contribute to this EJIL:Talk! discussion of the speech this week by the UK Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC MP, on “The Modern Law of Self-Defence”. There are two elements of the speech that strike me as especially notable, and on which I’d like to give my initial thoughts here: the invocation of the so-called ‘unwilling or unable’ test and, particularly, the meaning of ‘imminence’ in relation to anticipatory self-defence.
Unwilling or Unable
The explicit acceptance by the UK of the ‘unwilling or unable’ concept, while brief, is a conspicuous feature of the Attorney General’s speech. The speech roots itself in tradition, with nods to the power and weight of history (stretching right back to the 1795 Jay Treaty, as well as, of course, including the obligatory self-back-patting over Britain’s role in the end of the international slave trade). However, there’s no hiding the novelty of the UK’s acceptance of the hugely controversial notion of responding to armed attacks (actual or imminent) even in cases where there is no ‘host state’ involvement whatsoever, simply on the basis of the unwillingness or inability of the state to prevent a non-state actor attack. The US has espoused the ‘unwilling or unable’ doctrine for years, of course, but the UK has not, at least not explicitly.
Admittedly, the Attorney General’s speech is not the first British invocation of unwilling or unable. In November 2015, David Cameron, then Prime Minister, argued before Parliament that the UK’s action in Syria was justified because “the Assad regime is unwilling and/or unable to take action necessary to prevent ISIL’s continuing attack on Iraq” (as well as making the same assertion, the same week, in a memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee). However, these statements by the Prime Minister were the first clear articulations of the British acceptance of an unwilling or unable test, and were expressed very specifically in relation to action taken against ISIS in Syria. To my knowledge, the Attorney General’s speech acts as the first unequivocal confirmation that the UK has adopted unwilling or unable in genere. This is not a surprising fact, of course, but – to my mind – it is not a positive one either.
Put simply, and leaving aside policy, like Kevin Jon Heller (and many others) I remain unconvinced that state practice supports an unwilling or unable test in relation to self-defence actions taken against non-state actors (and, by unavoidable extension, the state(s) on/from which they are operating). The question of whether the law should allow for military action in such circumstances is a different matter: one that I will unapologetically sidestep. As the law stands, though, for my money, it does not. Read the rest of this entry…