It is always interesting to observe the evolution of the (infrequent) public official positions that the International Committee of the Red Cross adopts on controversial questions of international humanitarian law. The particular position I’d like to flag is the one on a functional approach to the end of belligerent occupation. This position is clearly of particular importance to the question of whether Gaza continues to be occupied by Israel, which I’ve looked at here on the blog a couple of times before (see here and here).
Some years ago the ICRC held a series of expert meetings on various issues arising out of the law of belligerent occupation, including the beginning and end of occupation. The 2012 report on the meetings is available here. The issue of the end of occupation proved to be controversial, especially on the example of Gaza. Some degree of consensus emerged that the legal criteria for ending an occupation should be the same as for establishing the occupation, but that the evidentiary factors to be taken into account may differ. Thus, an occupation would end if the occupant lost effective control of the territory or obtained valid consent from the sovereign of the territory to its presence there.
Also in 2012, the ICRC legal advisor dealing with the occupation issue, Tristan Ferraro, published an academic article on the beginning and end of occupation in the International Review of the Red Cross. Like most pieces written by ICRC legal advisors, the article includes an initial footnote which specifies that the ‘article was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of the ICRC.’ In the article Ferraro argues in favour of a functional approach to occupation, where the end to an occupation should not be seen as an all or nothing switch.
With regard to the Gaza controversy in particular, the ICRC took the position (shared by many humanitarian NGOs) that Gaza remains occupied by Israel. In 2014, writing in the Israel Law Review, the ICRC president noted (p. 179) that ‘In the view of the ICRC, Israel continues to be bound by obligations under occupation law that are commensurate with the degree to which it exercises control.’
Last week, the ICRC published its challenges to IHL report (available on Just Security), written for the forthcoming ICRC conference in December (see also Gabor Rona’s post on the report here). And here, on pp. 11-12, we have an extensive articulation of the ICRC’s official position:
In principle, the effective-control test is equally applicable when establishing the end of occupation, meaning that the criteria to be met should generally mirror those used to determine the beginning of occupation, only in reverse. Thus, if any of the three conditions listed above ceases to exist, an occupation should be considered to have ended.
The ICRC considers, however, that in some specific and rather exceptional cases – in particular when foreign forces withdraw from occupied territory (or parts thereof) but retain key elements of authority or other important governmental functions usually performed by an occupying power – the law of occupation may continue to apply within the territorial and functional limits of such competences. Indeed, despite the lack of the physical presence of foreign forces in the territory concerned, the retained authority may amount to effective control for the purposes of the law of occupation and entail the continued application of the relevant provisions of this body of norms. This is referred to as the “functional approach” to the application of occupation law. This test will apply to the extent that the foreign forces still exercise, within all or part of the territory, governmental functions acquired when the occupation was undoubtedly established and ongoing.
The functional approach described above permits a more precise delineation of the legal framework applicable to situations in which it is difficult to determine, with certainty, whether an occupation has ended or not.
It may be argued that technological and military developments have made it possible to assert effective control over a foreign territory (or parts thereof) without a continuous foreign military presence in the concerned area. In such situations, it is important to take into account the extent of authority retained by the foreign forces rather than to focus exclusively on the means by which it is actually exercised. It should also be recognized that, in these circumstances, the geographical contiguity between belligerent States could facilitate the remote exercise of effective control. For instance, it may permit an occupying power that has relocated its troops outside the territory to reassert its full authority in a reasonably short period of time. The continued application of the relevant provisions of the law of occupation is all the more important in this scenario as these were specifically designed to regulate the sharing of authority – and the resulting assignment of responsibilities – between the belligerent States concerned.
While Gaza is not specifically mentioned, it is clearly the main point of reference for this discussion. My understanding is that the gist of this position was communicated privately to the Israeli government before, but this is the first time I think that the ICRC has made its legal analysis public. What I find so interesting here is that the official ICRC position is an almost verbatim reproduction of the analysis from Tristan Ferraro’s article (at p. 157) – which, remember, was written in his personal capacity, and moreover did not purport to reflect consensus from the participants of the expert meetings on occupation. Tristan’s analysis was condensed somewhat and rephrased in the ICRC’s own voice (‘The ICRC considers…’), but basically this was a copy/paste job. This is not the only example of an academic article ostensibly written by a legal advisor in their personal capacity evolving into the official position of the organization. I also imagine that both the ostensibly personal position and the now official one were extensively vetted inside the ICRC, i.e. that it does not simply reflect the fact that a particular person was in charge of a particular portfolio. But nonetheless this easy progression from academic article to official organizational position is at the very least noteworthy.