Triggers and Thresholds of Non-International Armed Conflict

adhaque_img“Triggers and Thresholds of Non-International Armed Conflict” by Adil Ahmad Haque, originally published on Just Security Blog on September 29, 2016. We are grateful for permission to reprint this as part of our series inspired by gjicl_confposter“Humanity’s Common Heritage,” our recent conference on the 2016 ICRC Commentary on the First Geneva Convention. The author, Rutgers Law Professor Haque, was a conference participant; this post is the 1st of 3 he prepared soon after the conference. He writes:

When and where does the law of non-international armed conflict apply?  Since most contemporary armed conflicts are fought between states and organized armed groups, or between such groups, these are important questions for both international lawyers and policy makers.  The answers may affect the jurisdiction of U.S. military commissions, the detention of Taliban commanders and ISIL members, legal constraints on Saudi-led military operations in Yemen, and accountability for war crimes in Syria.

In this post, I’ll discuss the trigger and threshold of non-international armed conflict (NIAC). My point of departure is the much-discussed 2016 Commentary on the First Geneva Convention recently released by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).  The University of Georgia School of Law recently hosted a fantastic event examining a number of issues raised by the Commentary, including the duty to “ensure respect” for the Convention by other Parties, incidental harm to sick and wounded combatants, and the classification of conflicts.  This post grows out of that rich discussion.

The ICRC’s Commentary clearly states that an international armed conflict (IAC) “can arise when one State unilaterally uses armed force against another State even if the latter does not or cannot respond by military means.”  Accordingly, the law of armed conflict constrains the first use of armed force by one state against another.  Let’s call this a unilateral trigger.

In addition, “there is no requirement that the use of armed force between the Parties reach a certain level of intensity before it can be said that an [international] armed conflict exists.”  Accordingly, minor skirmishes between state armed forces, or the capture of a single soldier, “would spark an international armed conflict and lead to the applicability of humanitarian law.” Let’s call this a nominal threshold.

Unfortunately, the Commentary is not so clear with respect to non-international armed conflict.  The Commentary endorses the view that NIACs “are protracted armed confrontations occurring between governmental armed forces and … one or more armed groups, or between such groups.”  This passage, as well as some cited authority, seem to suggest a bilateral trigger, requiring “armed clashes,” “combat zones,” or, simply, “fighting.”

The Commentary also states that, for the law of NIAC to apply, “[t]he armed confrontation must reach a minimum level of intensity.”  Read alongside the Commentary’s discussion of IAC, it seems that this “minimum level of intensity” would not be met by minor skirmishes or by the capture of a single soldier or fighter.

The Commentary seems to accept a unilateral trigger and nominal threshold for IAC (quadrant 1) but a bilateral trigger and significant threshold for NIAC (quadrant 4).


In my view, we should accept a unilateral trigger and nominal threshold for both IAC and NIAC.

First, if an armed group is sufficiently organized, then a first use of armed force by or against that group should trigger a NIAC.  Consider the following case:

Daesh:  Daesh fighters pour over the Syria-Iraq border, killing Iraqi civilians, capturing Iraqi territory and taking over Iraqi government institutions.  Iraqi forces flee, offering no resistance.

If we accept a bilateral trigger for NIAC, then the law of armed conflict does not apply until Iraqi forces “respond[s] by military means,” resisting Daesh’s advance.  Until that time, Daesh fighters do not violate the law of armed conflict or commit war crimes.  This result seems deeply unattractive.  Although the Daesh fighters violate Iraqi criminal law, it seems hard to accept that they do not violate the law of armed conflict.

Now consider the following scenario:

Consent:  State A attacks organized armed group G on the territory of State T, with the consent of State T.  There is no pre-existing armed conflict between State A and group G.  State A does not take feasible precautions in attack and recklessly kills many civilians.

If we accept a bilateral trigger for NIAC, then the law of NIAC does not apply until group G responds with military force, resulting in “armed clashes.”  Since State T consents, the law of IAC does not apply either.  It follows that State A does not violate the law of armed conflict or commit war crimes.  This result seems intolerable.

Importantly, human rights law may not be sufficient to protect civilians or armed forces in cross-border cases like those described above.  On most views, human rights law does not apply to the conduct of non-state armed groups that do not yet exercise territorial control and fulfill government-like functions.  Moreover, according to some militarily active states, human rights law does not constrain extraterritorial lethal targeting by state armed forces.  Yet, in my view, such conduct should be constrained by international law.

We should also accept only a nominal intensity threshold for NIAC.  Consider the following case:

Capture:  Members of organized armed group G mistakenly cross the unmarked border between State T, in which they normally operate, and State A.  They encounter a unit of State A’s soldiers, and a minor skirmish ensues.  No one is killed, but one group member is captured by the soldiers while one soldier is captured by the group and taken back across the border into State T.

In this case, it seems that both the group member and the soldier should be entitled to humane treatment under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.  Moreover, if there are civilians present when the skirmish occurs, then it seems that the conduct of the skirmish should be constrained by customary rules including distinction, precautions, and proportionality  If those rules are flagrantly violated, then those violations should amount to war crimes.

In my view, if an organized armed group has the capacity to sustain military operations then any military operation by or against that group should be constrained by the law of armed conflict.  The organization and capacity of the group is sufficient to distinguish military operations by or against the group from “internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature.”

Some might worry that applying the law of armed conflict to first uses of low intensity force will displace or reduce the protections of human rights law.  Fortunately, that is not the case.  Even during armed conflict, states may choose not to derogate from their ordinary human rights obligations.  Alternatively, derogation may be strictly required only with respect to certain measures, or only in certain parts of a state’s territory, or only in certain situations, even if the law of armed conflict provides additional constraints on all acts with a sufficient nexus to the conflict.

Most importantly, killings that are not prohibited by the law of NIAC may be prohibited by human rights law.  In particular, “[w]here military necessity does not require parties to an armed conflict to use lethal force …, but allows the target for example to be captured rather than killed, the respect for the right to life can be best ensured by pursuing this option.”  In situations of armed conflict, the law of NIAC may aid the interpretation of human rights law but does not exhaust the content of human rights law.

Finally, the law of armed conflict cannot authorize what human rights law forbids.  As the ICRC observes elsewhere, “[t]he law relating to the conduct of hostilities is primarily a law of prohibition: it does not authorize, but prohibits certain things.”  Human rights law and the law of NIAC do not conflict with each other but instead complement one another, as both impose constraints on violence rather than licenses to commit violence.  As Additional Protocol II makes clear, human rights law “offer[s] a basic protection to the human person” while the law of NIAC aims “to ensure a better protection for the victims of [] armed conflicts.”

Critique of ICRC’s 2016 Commentary to Geneva Convention I: Arming medical personnel, loss of protected status

mullIt’s our pleasure to publish this post as part of our series inspired by “Humanity’s Common Heritage,” our recent conference on the 2016 ICRC Commentary on the First Geneva Convention. The author is Nicholas W. Mull, a Columbia Law LL.M. candidate who served till mid-2016 at the Pentagon, as an International & Operational Law Attorney, Head Operational Law Department, U.S. Marine Corps, Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Navy. Mull, a conference participant, writes:

The protected status of medical personnel and their units, transports, and establishments, when addressed by commentators, is typically focused on affirmative duties of combatants not to target medically protected persons and objects. However, equally important is the affirmative duty of medically protected persons to refrain gjicl_confposterfrom “acts harmful to the enemy” and the extent of the right of self-defense. These are the concerns of medical providers in the field at the tactical level that are typically ignored.

These concerns are directly addressed in the ICRC’s recent updated commentary for the first Geneva Convention (GC I). While there are several opinions in the commentary that are, arguably, in error, for brevity, this post will only touch on one tactical concern. The commentary asserts that medical personnel may only carry “light individual weapons” without losing protected status, which is in error for several reasons:

  1. It purports a limit on the type of weapons to be used in self-defense; and
  2. It opines that protected status can be lost by virtue of an act that only presents a remote hypothetical harm to the enemy that can only come to fruition if the medical personnel purposefully engage in offensive hostilities.

As a preliminary issue, it is vital to interpret Article 21 of GC I, which provides for the sole reason by which protected medical personnel and establishments may lose protected status: commission, “outside their humanitarian duties, [of] acts harmful to the enemy.” The operative condition of “harmful to the enemy” requires a purposeful act that in of itself has caused harm to the enemy’s ability to conduct legitimate military operations. This is not to say that it is a high threshold to meet, but merely that it must actually cause a real definable present harm to the enemy and that it is intended to cause such harm, e.g. utilizing a field hospital to shelter “able-bodied combatants.” This standard should also be understood as more expansive than the direct participation in hostilities (DPH) standard used for determining the loss of protected status of civilians, specifically as it includes both direct and indirect actions. The generally expansive nature of this standard necessitated Article 22 of GC I, which covers actions that may not be considered as “acts harmful to the enemy” such as, inter alia, arming medical personnel.

Turning to the issue of arming medical personnel, the updated commentary concludes that medical personnel are only authorized to carry “light individual weapons” and that to possess crew-served weapons (CSW) results in the “loss of specific protection of the military medical unit.” The qualification of “light” and “individual” is a noticeable addition in the 2016 commentary that is absent from the 1952 Pictet Commentary. This addition presents unnecessary danger to medical personnel in contemporary conflicts of which reciprocity can no longer be presumed.

From a textual analysis, Article 22 makes no condition regarding the quality or quantity of the arms that medical personnel may posses; it only presents a limitation on the employment of the weapons for self-defense. Looking to the 1952 Pictet Commentary, it focuses exclusively on the purpose and permissible use of the arms.

Despite the clear meaning of the text of Article 22, which is free from ambiguity, the 2016 commentary draws an inappropriate analogy to Article 13 of Additional Protocol I (AP I), which states that the equipping of civilian medical personnel with “light individual weapons” would not be considered an act harmful to the enemy. Article 13 of AP I was not an attempt to clarify any ambiguity of Article 22, but was instead pertaining to a completely different class of personnel. Further, it is a highly illogical inferential leap to assume that States would want civilians being armed to the same degree as military medical personnel that are subject to the high standards of discipline of a uniformed service.

States must be able to arm their medical personnel to the degree as they see fit to counter the likely threats to medical personnel in a theatre of operations. Certainly, such arms may only be used in self-defense, but to limit medical personnel to side arms and small assault rifles while the enemy or “marauders” attack them with CSW and other anti-material weapons is unjust. commentary-e1458062747572To paraphrase Pictet in his Commentary, it is not proper to require medical personnel to be the sacrificial lamb to unlawful actions of the enemy or criminals.

It is not hard for a combat experienced individual to envision situations in which medical personnel may have a need to defend themselves with CSW and anti-material weapons. For example, field hospitals may be present in a combat zone in which enemy tactics could include suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs). To personally defend themselves as well as their patients this scenario may require the use of a .50 caliber machine gun—a weapon primarily designed for anti-material purposes—to subdue the imminent threat to life.

Lastly, as previously noted, to lose the protected status medical personnel must purposefully commit an act that in of itself creates a present harm to the enemy. Arming medical personnel with CSW or other heavier weapons as necessary to counter likely threats to save their lives and the lives of their patients does not result in a present harm to the enemy. In fact, the only way it could be a present harm to the enemy is to presume that the medical personnel intend to violate the law by engaging in offensive hostilities. In reality, this only presents a remote hypothetical harm that does not meet the standard of being harmful to the enemy.

armletIt may not be the best policy choice to heavily arm medical personnel for the risk of confusion that can be created as to their protected status, especially if the situation is one in which medical personnel are not displaying Red Cross armlets, as is often the case with U.S. military medical personnel. But, this is ultimately a policy choice that should not be confused with status of law.

Distinguished jurist Pillay discusses state sovereignty, human rights

duo“The biggest violators of human rights are states themselves, by commission or omission.”

This quote by Navi Pillay aptly summarized her talk on “National Sovereignty vs. International Human Rights.” Pillay, whose renowned legal career has included posts as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and as a judge on the International Criminal Court and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, spoke this morning at the University of Georgia School of Law Atlanta campus.

Elaborating on the quote above, Pillay decried national legislation aimed at restricting the activities – and with it the effectiveness – of local nongovernmental organizations. Such anti-NGO laws already have passed in Russia and are pending in Pillay’s home state of South Africa, among other countries. That said, she welcomed new means of speaking law to power; in particular, social media that permit human rights advocates to reach millions. Also welcomed were accountability mechanisms that the United Nations has developed in recent decades, such as Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council, reporting processes of treaty bodies, and reports by special rapporteurs.

amann_pillayI was honored to give welcoming remarks at the breakfast. Georgia Law’s Dean Rusk International Law Center, which I lead, cosponsored this Georgia WILL event with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and Georgia State University’s Global Studies Institute. (We owe special thanks to Judge Dorothy Toth Beasley for her hospitality this week.)

Conversing with Pillay was World Affairs Council President Charles Shapiro. They began by speaking of Pillay’s childhood in Durban, where she grew up the daughter of a bus driver. She spoke of how testifying as a 6-year-old in the trial of a man who’d stolen money from her helped spark her desire to become a lawyer – and how donations from her community helped make that dream a reality.

Shapiro then asked about capital punishment, noting a scheduled execution. Pillay acknowledged the absence of any universal treaty outlawing the death penalty, but found evidence of U.N. opposition both in the decision not to permit the penalty in U.N. ad hoc international criminal tribunals and in the growing support for the oft-repeated U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on capital punishment.

“It started with just 14 states against the death penalty, and is now more than 160,” said Pillay, who currently serves on the International Commission against the Death Penalty.

img_0335On this and other issues, she said, advocates endeavor to encourage states first to obligate themselves to respect and ensure human rights, and then to implement the undertakings they have made in this regard:

“The United Nations was formed by states. It is a club of governments. Look how steadily they have adopted treaties and agreed to be bound by them. That doesn’t mean we are transgressing sovereignty.”

How will current and future conflicts test 2016 ICRC Commentary?

It’s our pleasure today to publish this post by Chanel Chauvet, a member of the Georgia Law Class of 2018 who serves as a Student Ambassador at our Dean Rusk International Law Center. This past summer, Chanel (below left) completed a summer course on international humanitarian law at Leiden Law School’s Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies at The Hague, Netherlands. While there, she accompanied Georgia Law Associate Dean Diane Marie Amann, who serves as the Special Adviser to International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Children in & affected by Armed Conflict, at an NGO consultation on the draft Policy on Children, set for final release this autumn. In today’s post, one in a series on our recent conference on international humanitarian law, Chanel writes:

chanel_dianeicc1I feel honored to be able to attend the University of Georgia School of Law, not only for the premier education, but also for the incredible opportunities that are extended to students.

Most recently, the law school’s Dean Rusk International Law Center and Georgia Journal of International & Comparative Law, in conjunction with the International Committee of the Red Cross, coordinated “Humanity’s Common Heritage,” a conference on the 2016 ICRC Commentary on the First Geneva Convention. Organizers included Associate Dean Diane Marie Amann, Professor Harlan Cohen, and Kathleen Doty, the Center’s Director of Global Practice Preparation. Leading experts visited UGA Law to discuss this new development in the field of international humanitarian law, or IHL.

jean-marie-henckaertsFollowing introductions, the keynote speaker and UGA Law alumnus, Dr. Jean-Marie Henckaerts (right) delivered his lecture. To begin the conference, the Dean of University of Georgia School of Law, Peter “Bo” Rutledge, had given an introductory speech, in which he emphasized that UGA Law is a “home” to students and alumni. Personally, I thought it was great to have a distinguished alumnus working within the field of IHL return to our “home” to enrich the UGA Law community.

Dr. Henckaerts discussed three themes: his background; the foundations of international humanitarian law; and the process and methodology of updating the Commentaries to the four Geneva Conventions. This updating is needed, he said, because of advancements in technology and other forms of warfare that have developed since the Commentaries were last updated more than a half-century ago. The effort is significant because of its influence in enhancing the understanding of contemporary international law.



Aleppo, Syria, 2015 (credit for ICRC photo)

Regarding his background, Dr. Henckaerts serves as the main editor to the Commentaries, and the Legal Adviser at the ICRC. A private organization that was established in 1863, the ICRC consists of 1,500 staff members in 80 different countries. They work to promote and implement IHL, in addition to other initiatives, such as assisting and protecting persons in and affected by armed conflicts. One of the ICRC’s most recent efforts to support this goal involved delivering water in Syria, a country currently plagued with an ongoing non-international armed conflict. Dr. Henckaerts noted that aside from the fact that water is a basic human need, it is also important to prevent the spread of disease.


International humanitarian law essentially governs all aspects of war by regulating hostilities and protecting certain groups of people, including civilians and prisoners of war. It finds its basis in the four Geneva Conventions adopted in 1949, which are among some of the very few treaties that have been universally ratified or acceded to. I have listed below the primary purposes of each of the Geneva Conventions and the first two Additional Protocols:

  • GC 1: Conditions of the sick and wounded, medical personnel, medical units, medical transports, emblems, armed forces, rules on the missing, rules on the dead
  • GC 2: Conditions of the ship-wrecked and armed forces at sea
  • GC 3: Treatment of prisoners of war
  • GC 4: Protection of civilians in times of war

Additional Protocol I, which governs international armed conflicts, or IACs, and Additional Protocol II, which governs non-international armed conflicts, or NIACs, are also primary sources of international humanitarian law. These treaties are somewhat less regarded, though, demonstrated by the fact that they have not been ratified by all states.

According to Dr. Henckaerts, the value of 2016 ICRC Commentary on the First Geneva Convention is that it will serve as a tool and reference source on various topics of international humanitarian law.

Process & methodology

Jean S. Pictet (1914-2002),former ICRC Vice President, President of the Juridical Section and Director of General Affairs (photo credit)

With respect to the process and methodology of revising the Commentaries to the first Geneva Convention, he emphasized that the revision process was collaborative in nature. It was an effort between ICRC representatives and other IHL experts throughout the world to update the “Pictet Commentaries,” the Commentaries created shortly after the 1949 Geneva Conventions were adopted. Interestingly enough, the updated 2016 Commentary reflects diverging views extracted from various consultations between the experts.

Dr. Henckaerts also acknowledged that the Commentary cannot be regarded as the ultimate authority on the Geneva Conventions for a number of reasons:

  • First, states parties have not contributed to the clarification of the Commentaries. By the same token, there has not been a concerted public effort by any state to contribute its input to the updated Commentaries.
  • Second, the quality of the research and writing will determine the 2016 Commentary’s position of authority on the first Geneva Convention.

With regard to the process going forward, Dr. Henckaerts reported that the ICRC working group has both begun the revision process on the second Geneva Convention and implemented a timeline to complete the Commentaries to the remaining two Geneva Conventions.

Following this keynote address was a panel of IHL experts including Oxford Law Professor Dapo Akande, Emory Law Professor Laurie Blank, Major-General Blaise Cathcart, the Judge Advocate General of the Canadian Armed Forces, and New York University Law Professor Ryan Goodman. They offered their critiques on the 2016 Commentary. One question they asked was left unanswered: How did the ICRC determine that the Commentaries needed to be updated?

Other questions, posed by Professor Goodman, related to how the Commentaries would address the concept of transnational NIACS, and what would be the implications of this classification within the cyber realm. To illustrate this ideam he asked how the Commentaries would address people, spread across different states, who organized a coalition in the online realm and used cyber weapons.

There also seemed to be an overarching theme of the discussion. It centered on whether the Geneva Conventions should be interpreted through an originalist or an evolutionist perspective. The 2016 ICRC Commentary has provided enough deference to the original Commentaries, but it has evolved in a sense, in order to properly address the technological advances and military developments since the inception of the original Commentaries.

In any event, it is safe to say that all of the experts are curious to see how the current and future conflicts will test the 2016 ICRC Commentary.

For more information regarding the role of the Commentaries, please click here.

Role of “commentaries” key to significance of ICRC project

The role of “commentaries” in the shaping of contemporary international law proved a recurring question in the just-concluded morning public plenary of today’s conference, “Humanity’s Common Heritage: 2016 Commentary on the First Geneva Convention.”

img_0266First broaching the issue was the keynote, Jean-Marie Henckaerts (right). A Georgia Law alumnus, he’s the Legal Adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross who’s leading the ICRC’s multiyear effort to produce 21st C. commentaries on the meaning of the core instruments of international humanitarian law; that is, the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their subsequent Protocols Additional. Joining him were participants in the panel that followed: speakers Major-General Blaise Cathcart, Judge Advocate General of the Canadian Armed Forces, NYU Law Professor Ryan Goodman, Emory Law Professor Laurie R. Blank, and Oxford Law Professor Dapo Akande, plus the moderator, yours truly, Associate Diane Marie Amann. I’ve the honor of serving as director of the Dean Rusk International Law Center at the University of Georgia School of Law, which is sponsoring the event along with the ICRC and the Georgia Journal of International & Comparative Law.

Soon to appear in print, the 2016 Commentary is available online here. At that website, the 2016 Commentary is situated alongside an earlier version, published in the 1950s by ICRC jurist Jean Pictet – and there’s a rub.

“Commentaries are not unusual,” Henckaerts remarked, adding that tomes exist commenting on nearly all the world’s treaties. Though true, the observation pretermits the sui generis status of the author of the 2016 Commentary – the ICRC, since 1863 a Geneva-based private organization that has led developments related to the shaping and compliance with international humanitarian law.

The earlier volumes “are ‘capital C,’ or maybe all caps,” Blank said. Others agreed, pointing not only to the ICRC’s unique status, but also to the fact that the Pictet commentaries  occurred when the intentions of the negotiating states parties – to quote Goodman, “what the framers had in mind” – were well within memory. Continuing her analogy, Blank said she regarded the 2016 effort as a “small c” commentary –  an extraordinary collection of expert analysis, but not exactly the same thing” as the Pictet effort.

Akande broadened the conversation, examining the ICRC commentaries within the context of public international law and treaty interpretation. Pictet’s work may enjoy “unjustifiable authority,” he said, adding that the constitutive nature of the new effort might outweigh any resulting loss of authoritative status. He then called upon the ICRC consistently to be “upfront” about how and why it arrived at its interpretive conclusions.

The points provoked multiple questions: How are treaties to be interpreted? What individuals or entities have authority to engage in interpretation? What weight do interpretations of states parties deserve – and with regard to universally ratified treaties like these, which states parties? What weight to a private organization like the ICRC? Nongovernmental organizations? And what about the victims of armed conflict – do their voices matter in this interpretive effort, and if so, how can victims be given voice?

The search for answers to these and many other questions continues this afternoon. In 3 consecutive closed sessions, about 2 dozen experts are discussing: (1) the Common Article 1 obligation to “ensure respect” for the Geneva Conventions; (2) protection of the wounded, sick, and other specially protected persons; and (3) classification of armed conflict.

Henckaerts on “Locating the Geneva Conventions Commentaries in the international legal landscape”

Jean-Marie-HenckaertsIt is an honor to publish a post by our distinguished alumnus, Dr. Jean-Marie Henckaerts (LLM 1990). Based in Geneva, he is Legal Adviser in the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Head of the project to update the Commentaries on the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols of 1977. We posted on the launch of the Commentary to the 1st Convention back in March, and are pleased to announce that on September 23, we’ll host an experts’ conference examining that volume. Proceedings to be published in our Georgia Journal of International & Comparative Law, for which Dr. Henckaerts served as Associate Editor while a Georgia Law student. We republish his post today courtesy of 3 blogs cosponsoring a series of posts on the topic, Opinio Juris, Intercross, and Humanitarian Law & Policy. Dr. Henckaerts writes:

Norms of international law develop through the adoption of treaties or through the formation of customary rules based on State practice and opinio juris. The treaty rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) are first and foremost contained in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. In parallel, a body of customary rules govern the conduct of armed conflicts today. In 2005, the ICRC released a Study aimed at identifying customary IHL rules; it formulated 161 rules of IHL which have achieved, according to State practice compiled by the ICRC, customary status.

The ICRC Commentaries, like other commentaries, purport to clarify the meaning of treaty rules in order to facilitate their implementation: they are concerned with norm interpretation as opposed to norm identification. All laws, no matter how detailed they are, have to be interpreted when being applied. International treaties, such as the Geneva Conventions, are no different. A commentary’s purpose is to offer such interpretations and indicate where a question is not entirely settled. By their nature, they cannot amend the law.

Because the 1949 Geneva Conventions were drafted in such a way as to make them easily comprehensible by belligerents, their rules already offer a degree of specificity and practicality – see the detailed rules governing the protection of prisoners of war in the Third Convention. Yet, the scope or meaning of some of their provisions may also require further clarification – see the lack of detail governing the Conventions’ scope of application. Time had come to provide an up-to-date interpretive guide to the Conventions, to better address today’s humanitarian challenges.

Applying the rules on treaty interpretation to the Geneva Conventions

According to the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a treaty must be interpreted

“in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose”

(Art. 31(1)). The ‘object and purpose’ of the Conventions to respect and protect those affected by armed conflict while taking into consideration military necessity, has been a constant and leading compass throughout the research and drafting of the new Commentary on the First Geneva Convention (GCI). The ‘context’ to be considered for treaty interpretation comprises not only the text of the treaty, but also its preamble and annexes. As a supplementary means of interpretation (Art. 32), the preparatory work has been particularly important, when no recent practice on a topic could be found.

The Vienna Convention also reflects and foresees the need to take account the passing of time when interpreting treaties. Art. 31(3) provides that recourse may be had to

“subsequent practice in the application of the treaty which establishes the agreement of the parties regarding its interpretation”.

Other subsequent practice – for example conduct by one or more (but not all) Parties in the application of the treaty after its conclusion – may also be relevant as a supplementary means of interpretation. The weight of such practice may depend on its clarity and specificity, as well as its repetition. In the case of the Geneva Conventions, such practice – identified for example through military manuals, national legislation, case-law, reports of practice and official statements – has proved particularly useful in confirming or determining the meaning of a rule. ICRC experience and scholarly writings have also proved useful in informing the interpretation of the Conventions.

Pursuant to Art. 31(3) of the Vienna Convention, the Commentary also took into account other

“relevant rules of international law applicable in the relations between the parties”.

These include customary IHL and the three Additional Protocols, as well as other relevant branches of international law. In particular, human rights law, international criminal law and refugee law were still in their infancy when the Pictet commentary was being drafted but they have grown significantly in the meantime. In this regard, the development of case-law from international courts and tribunals since the 1990s also had to inform an up-to-date interpretation of IHL treaty rules.

An ICRC Commentary, resulting from a collaborative process

Where does the legitimacy of the ICRC to interpret the Conventions stem from? First, the ICRC benefits from a legal legitimacy as guardian and promoter of IHL, a role it was formally entrusted with by the international community through the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, adopted by all States parties to the Geneva Conventions. Ensuring a coherent interpretation of the law is essential to enhance respect for it, and hence is at the core of the ICRC mandate. Second, the ICRC possesses an operational legitimacy, drawing from more than 150 years of experience in assisting and protecting those affected by armed conflicts, but also in engaging with weapon bearers to promote and disseminate IHL. Third, throughout the years, the ICRC has accumulated knowledge in material form: the ICRC archives have documented the practice of State and non-State actors, as well as its own. This wealth of experience and access to these materials sets the ICRC in a unique position to capture interpretations of IHL treaty rules.

At the same time, the updated Commentaries are far from an exclusively “ICRC” product. While they have been commissioned by the institution and edited by its staff lawyers, and include ICRC interpretations, they also incorporate an unprecedented level of external inputs, both in terms of process and substance. The Commentaries are the result of a collaborative process, involving external contributors as authors and reviewers. This allowed the new Commentary to take into account a wide range of perspectives, from different parts of the world, and to reflect main diverging views.

I am convinced that continuous efforts to interpret the law in a coherent manner is essential to ensure that the humanitarian spirit of the Geneva Conventions is carried forward into today’s conflicts. It is the ICRC’s hope that the new Commentaries will, like the Pictet Commentary, be a leading interpretative compass; but its ultimate authority will depend on its quality and relevance for practitioners and academics. The updated Commentaries should not be seen as the final word on the meaning of IHL treaty provisions, but rather as a picture of how the rules are interpreted today, and a contribution to continuing efforts to refine our understanding of the law and how it can best mitigate the effects of contemporary armed conflicts.


View of destruction in downtown Homs, Syria; photo courtesy of International Committee of the Red Cross. ©Jerome Session/Magnum Photos for ICRC

Emerging security challenges require norm development, State lawyer says

IMG_5540At first blush, today’s security challenges may seem familiar. Yet they are new – emerging, in U.S. State Department parlance – because of the novel ways in which those challenges present themselves.

So explained Mallory Stewart (near right), Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Emerging Security Challenges & Defense Policy, during her fascinating talk Monday at Tillar House, the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the American Society of International Law. We at Georgia Law’s Dean Rusk International Law Center were honored to join ASIL’s Nonproliferation, Arms Control & Disarmament Interest Group in cosponsoring Stewart’s talk, “Common Challenges to Diverse Security Threats.” (For the event video, see here.)

Stewart’s talk followed introductions by Kathleen A. Doty, Interest Group Co-Chair and our Center’s Associate Director for Global Practice Preparation, as well as opening remarks by yours truly (above, at right) respecting Dean Rusk’s arms control legacy.

Stewart pointed to technological change, in outer space and elsewhere, as one of the emerging challenges. Within this category was what is essentially garbage; that is, the debris left in outer space by state actors and, increasingly, nonstate/commercial actors, whose celestial flotsam and jetsam continue to orbit and present hazards to active satellites, space stations, and the like.

Another challenge is dual-use technology. Items as seemingly innocent as chlorine – a chemical essential to everyday cleaning – can become a security threat when deployed as a weapon, as is alleged to have happened during the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Yet another is ubiquity, the reality that technologies, such as cyber capabilities, are, literally, everywhere, and thus not easy to contain.

Containment – regulation – thus is difficult both to design and to effectuate. With regard to dual-use technologies, for instance, Stewart posed questions of intent: How, exactly, does one define and identify the moment that an innocent item is transformed into a weapon? What about attribution – in areas like cyberwarfare, how can the perpetrator be identified? How can attacks waged with such weapons be prohibited in advance?

Stewart gave due respect to the 20th C. arms control treaties that form the core portfolio of State’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification & Compliance, where she practices. Nevertheless, stressing global interdependence, she stressed the need for more nimble forms of international lawmaking. To be precise, she looked to mechanisms of soft law, such as codes of conduct, as ways that states and other essential actors might develop norms for responsible behavior in the short term. In the longer term, if the internalization and implementation of such norms should prove successful, eventually legally binding treaties may result.

(Part 2 of a 2-part series; Part 1 is here.)

At Center event in D.C., reviewing namesake Rusk’s arms control legacy

outerspaceVisitors to Tillar House, the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the American Society of International Law, were treated yesterday to a superb overview of emerging security challenges by the U.S. State Department lawyer who leads that portfolio, Mallory Stewart. I was proud both to have Georgia Law’s Dean Rusk International Law Center cosponsor, and also to serve as discussant for this important event. This post and another tomorrow will outline the proceedings. (For the event video, see here.) Today’s post consists of my opening remarks, which aimed to to reacquaint the audience with to the role that our Center’s namesake, Dean Rusk, played in building the arms control framework within which Stewart and her colleagues work.

. . .

Everyone knows, of course, about Dean Rusk and Vietnam – of his role in championing a foreign conflict that claimed more than a million American and Vietnamese lives between 1965 and 1974. Everyone knows, too, of his pivotal role in averting nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when Rusk famously said,

“We are eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked.”

What may be less well known – or been forgotten – is likewise significant. That is Rusk’s role in the design and implementation of the international arms control regime that has prevailed since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan seven decades ago. An Army officer who served in Asia and then in the War Department in D.C., Rusk, like many of his generation, did not fault the military decision. Yet in his memoir, As I Saw It, he wrote (p.122):

“[W]e made a mistake with the Manhattan Project from its inception. We should have built in a political task force to consider the ramifications of using the bomb.”

That position is consistent with Rusk’s own work, first as a State Department diplomat who championed the United Nations, NATO, and other multilateral postwar efforts, and ultimately as the head of that Cabinet department, for the entirety of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

As Secretary of State, Rusk oversaw the establishment of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, a forerunner of the Bureau for which our principal speaker, Mallory Stewart, now works. Moreover, Rusk was instrumental in the drafting, negotiation, conclusion, or implementation of at least seven major arms control treaties.

ltbtruskOne was the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, about which Rusk wrote (p. 259):

“[A]fter the Cuban missile crisis, it was important to demonstrate that the United States and Soviet Union could coexist. The test ban required careful and extensive negotiations, but we and they did sign a major agreement on the heels of the most horrendous crisis the world has seen. … Such is the legacy of what President Kennedy felt was his proudest achievement.”

The other treaties were the Antarctic Treaty, the Outer Space Treaty, the Treaty of Tlatelolco, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Seabed Arms Control Treaty, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Many of them remain at the core of the U.S. arms control portfolio to this day. Yet with the same modesty that pervades his memoir, Rusk wrote (p. 353):

“On the whole, our record on arms control under Lyndon Johnson was respectable.”

He did allow himself a light pat on the back (p.353):

“In reviewing the accomplishments of the Kennedy-Johnson years, I claim only one for myself: that with the agreements negotiated and our constant talking with the Soviets, my colleagues and I helped add eight years to the time since a nuclear weapon has been fired in anger.”

Rusk’s commitment to extending that time continued long after he left government, in 1969, and joined the faculty at the University of Georgia School of Law. Professor Rusk spoke often about arms control, with students, with the larger community, and with the stream of colleagues who consulted with him at his new home. Indeed, as late as 1985 – less than a decade before his death – Rusk welcomed to Athens, Georgia, former British Prime Minister Edward Heath, former Secretary of Defense McGeorge Bundy, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, and others for a televised discussion entitled “Forty Years Since Hiroshima: What Next for Mankind?”

Rusk’s 1990 memoir returned to that question. In the final chapter, entitled “Dean Rusk’s Message to the Young,” he wrote (p. 630):

“Your generation will discover in the decades ahead whether mankind can organize a durable peace in a world in which thousands of megatons are lying around in the hands of frail human beings. A world in which collective security – what my generation used to try to curb the obscenity of war – is withering away, and we are not even discussing what shall take its place.”

We are here today to put the lie to that last line – that is, to discuss those very issues of global security. I look forward to Ms. Stewart’s remarks.

(Tomorrow: Outline of Mallory Stewart’s remarks. Credit for photo at top, of Rusk signing the Outer Space Treaty; credit for photo above of Rusk, standing just to the left of the portrait as President Kennedy signs the Limited Test Ban Treaty)