Tentative thoughts on International Humanitarian Law, the Marawi Siege and Lagman v. Medialdea

1. IHL prohibits acts of terrorism on the part of parties to an armed conflict.

2. Parties to an armed conflict are those of sufficient organization and structure as to be able to recognize and observe the laws and rules of war.

3. This goes for both international armed conflicts, where  of course, the parties are states so the question of organization is evidently met  (Fourth Geneva Convention) and non-international armed conflicts ( Two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions), where usually, the parties are non-state actors ranged against the state, or non-state actors fighting one another. The Geneva Conventions are part of Philippine law by way of the Constitution’s treaty clause (as we are parties to them) and by way of the incorporation clause, as they also form part of customary international law.

4. In IHL, terrorism is not defined but acts designed to spread terror among the civilian populace in an armed conflict are tagged as “acts of terror” that are illegal and criminal in nature. In other words, there is a distinction made in IHL between status and act. A group may have the status of a party to an armed conflict, whether non-international or international and yet may be prosecuted for war crimes for engaging in  acts of terror.

5. Generally, IHL is not applied to groups that are considered no more than terrorist in nature.  IHL does not apply to the latter, as in the first place, it rejects the rules and laws of war.To date, the ICRC does not consider ISIS/ISL as a rebel group or as a state  fighting a transnational war (despite its claim that it is waging a war to establish a Caliphate in Iraq and Syria). A briefing paper of  the ICRC puts it thus:

With respect to the phenomenon of armed groups that are perceived as having a global reach, such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State group, the ICRC does not share the view that an armed conflict of global dimensions is, or has been, taking place. This would require, in the first place, the existence of a ‘unitary’ non-State party opposing one or more States. Based on available facts, there are not sufficient elements to consider the al-Qaeda ‘core’ and its associated groups in other parts of the world as one and the same party within the meaning of IHL. The same reasoning also applies, for the time being, to the Islamic State group and affiliated groups.

Indeed, the Wall Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice denies recognition to groups organizing a state that wantonly and openly violate IHL and IHRL.

6. In practice, terrorist groups are often prosecuted for common crimes under domestic law in various jurisdictions.

7. In fact, no other state in the world — not even any Islamic one –has recognized ISIS/ISL as a legitimate political group engaged in a non-international armed conflict or a war for national liberation. Yet admittedly, there is vigorous debate on the continuing relevance of the general rule just mentioned, given the many acts tantamount to war crimes being committed by ISIS and its affiliated groups around the world. It remains to be seen whether the status/act distinction can be extended such that terror groups may be prosecuted for war crimes under IHL but remain classified as terror groups. What ‘s at stake is nothing less than the viability of civilizational norms. Taking off from the ICRC paper, a relevant question is whether the ISIS affiliates in the Philippines such as the Abu Sayaff and the Maute Group have at least achieved such an organized status as being able to meet the threshold for waging a non-international armed conflict. It is worth noting that previous to Marawi, the government has treated these two groups as groups merely engaged in criminality.

8. However, in Lagman v. Medialdea, the Philippine Supreme Court elevated the ISIS-allied Maute group to a group engaged in a non-international armed conflict by agreeing with the Executive Department’s contention that they are a group that has launched a rebellion to establish an Islamic state in Marawi City, although the Mautes, like ISIS, do not recognize IHL. Associate Justice Leonen also pointed to this incongruence in his dissent to the majority opinion with these two trenched paragraphs:

Elevating the acts of a lawless criminal group which uses terrorism as tactic to the constitutional concept of rebellion acknowledges them as a political group. Rebellion is a political crime. We have acknowledged that if rebels are able to capture government, their rebellion, no matter how brutal, will be justified. Also, by acknowledging them as rebels, we elevate their inhuman barbarism as an “armed conflict of a non-international character” protected by International Humanitarian Law. We will be known worldwide as the only country that acknowledges them, not as criminals, but as rebels entitled to protection under international law.

9. Go figure.

(This is a slightly different version of a post I made on my Facebook account. Photo credit, Abante Tonite).

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