Recently, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group operating in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, and the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF),the rebel group in the ongoing non-international armed conflict (NIAC) in Tigray, have announced their alliance that is aimed at making military cooperation in the fight against the government of Ethiopia. .
OLA, also known by the government as Shene group, is the breakaway faction of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a political party that had been fighting against the government until it returned to peaceful political struggle in 2018. OLA is formed by a, a faction that broke away from the OLF’s military wing. It has been fighting against the government mainly in the western and southern parts of Oromia region.
In May 2021, the federal government proscribed both TPLF and OLA as terrorist groups.
OLA military activities
Very little is known about the organization and functioning of OLA. The number of fighters it has, its military capabilities, and whether it has control over territories is not clearly known. Also, less is known about its military engagement. Whereas the government accuses OLA of waging heinous attacks against civilians and local administrators. For instance, according to the government, in 2020/21 alone OLA killed 463 people including civilians, police officers, local militia members and local government leaders. The group is also blamed for destroying civilian properties. Although such facts might indicate a certain level of intensity of the violence OLA engaged in, OLA nonetheless vehemently denies those accusations. Overall, despite reportsthat suspect the involvement of members of OLA in the alleged atrocities, the information available remains inconclusive.
Classification of the conflict
Under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) a NIAC exists if the armed group involved has a modicum of organization and the violence is sufficiently intense (ICTY, Prosecutor v. Dusko Tadić, 1995, para.70). These two thresholds – oforganization and intensity of violence – have to be met for IHL to apply to an internal conflict.
The paucity of information on the organization of OLA and the nature of the violence it has engaged in obscures establishing whether the two thresholds are met and determining the existence of a NIAC between OLA and the government forces.
Indeed, as crystallized by the ICTY jurisprudence, the thresholds of organization and intensity of violencecould be discerned from other indicative factors such as control over territory by an armed group or where the government is obliged to use military force against insurgents instead of regular police forces, respectively. Also, declaration of a state of emergency or derogation from human rights obligations could be considered in assessing the thresholds (Sivakumaran, 2012, p.168)
Though the two thresholds ‘must be present cumulatively’, inference can be drawn from one to the other; for instance, the existence of a ‘highly intense hostility’ may indicate the level of organization (Updated Commentary GC III, para.468).
In its fight against OLF, the Ethiopian government deployed the national defence force and the Oromia Special Police Force (a regional paramilitary force). There is also a de facto state of emergency in the western and southern districts of Oromia where OLA actively operates. These facts, along with the casualties and destruction as mentioned above are of some help to discern the intensity of violence andmight also shed some light onthe organization of OLA. Whereas considering the sporadic nature of the violence, OLA’s vehement denial of involving in the casualties, and lack of concrete information that could indicate the ‘highly intense’ nature of the violence so far, it remains difficult to conclude that OLA possesses the requisite level of organization. That, in turn, makes the available facts inconclusive to prove the existence of a NIAC based on the bilateral belligerent relationship between OLA and the government forces.
The effect of the TPLF-OLA alliance
As mentioned at the outset, the conflict in Tigray between TPLF and federal government forces is a NIAC. It is taking place in the northern part of Ethiopia. Whereas OLA is fighting predominantly in the southern and south-western parts. Though the two conflicts are geographically apart and involve two different rebel groups, the armed groups have a common enemy, i.e., the federal government. Now, the rebels have agreed to ally their forces against their ‘common enemy’.
Conventionally, the thresholds of NIAC are assessed in each bilateral belligerent relationship between parties to a conflict. However, recently, the ICRC and some scholars have suggested aggregation of the level of violence where two or more organized armed groups form a coalition (ICRC Report, 2019; Kleffner, 2019). In such circumstances, the threshold of intensity can be assessed on the cumulative violence caused by the armed groups in the coalition provided that the conflict occurs in ‘a geographical and temporal continuum’ (ibid). According to other commentators as well, when organized armed groups join forces for common purposes or against a common enemy in a geographical and temporal continuum, the level of intensity can be assessed on the aggregated violence (Nikolic et al, 2020; and Chiara, 2021). The baseline to these formulations is that each armed group involved in the conflict must individually meet the threshold of organization. It should also be noted that this new approach is more relevant in the context where the existence of a NIAC is not yet established as regards any of the allied groups.
In our case, TPLF and OLA regard the government as their common enemy, and militarily overthrowing the government is their shared goal. Arguably, the temporal and geographical considerations might also be proven; particularly, considering the government’s allegation that OLA fighters are spotted in the conflict in Tigray as well as TPLF military personnel are providing training to the OLA. Then again, since there is no conclusive information on the organization of OLA, it will remain difficult to establish a NIAC following the formulation above. In other words, this entails a conclusion that while IHL applies to the conflict between the federal government forces and TPLF, it will not apply to the conflict with OLA.
In my opinion, such a tricky conclusion will rather lead to a conundrum. For instance, from the perspective of the government, considering the alliance between the belligerent groups, it is infeasible to expect that the government will apply only the law enforcement paradigm with OLA while applying both the law enforcement and conduct of hostility paradigms with TPLF.
Such intricate circumstances require finding a pragmatic solution that reflects reality. To that, one need to reconsider and give weight to the following facts. On the one hand, there is already an ongoing NIAC between TPLF and the government. On the other hand, though sporadic, OLA has already engaged in active hostilities. Now, the TPLF-OLA alliance is struck to support each other and defeat the government. In view of these, it is important to give weight to the support-relationship the alliance brings about and its implications on the nature of the conflict between OLA and the government.
In conclusion, considering the military alliance along with other facts as mentioned hereinbefore, that should now be sufficient to trigger the applicability of IHL to the conflict between OLA and the government.
Marishet M. Hamza is a Ph.D. Student at the International Law Department, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Genéve
Is International Humanitarian Law (IHL) a Western concept? This is a question that causes me, as an African IHL practitioner, great cause for concern, as I am convinced of the universality of this body of law. But I must admit that while my answer to the question would be an adamant “no”, I do not blame those who ask it. I recall the experience of a colleague who, attempting to convince a Chief in the Pacific Ocean Islands to ratify the 1949 Geneva Conventions, was asked by the Chief “but where is Geneva?” and “what is a convention?”. This story has always perturbed me, and as an African, I have wondered about the level of ownership over this important body of law from my own continent.
This lack of ownership could, to a certain extent, be understood. Firstly, the codification of IHL was led by a select few States and centred in the West. Secondly, African States rarely benefited from the application of principles of IHL, both during the wars of colonization and decolonization on the continent. And yet despite this, reasons for increased African ownership of IHL exist. The aim of this contribution to is highlight just one of those reasons – the historical relationship that exists between Africa and the law of war. Indeed, many African cultures have for decades, if not centuries, contained practices that share humanitarian values with modern day IHL provisions.
In mid-2021 the ICRC launched a Tool to highlight the link between African traditions and customs and modern-day IHL – the ‘African Values in War Tool on Traditional Customs and IHL’. The tool is the product of a number of years of research into the values underpinning African customs concerning warfare, and is unique in that it collates practices from across the continent that reflect some of the fundamental principles of IHL. According to one of the legal advisors who worked on the Tool, its purpose is “firstly to contribute to current debates on relevance of IHL to Africa; and secondly to increase understanding and acceptance of IHL rules on the African continent”. Overall, the ICRC hopes that this Tool may contribute to increased awareness of IHL and improved compliance with the body of law, which may then in turn ultimately contribute towards the reduction of suffering during times of armed conflict. To illustrate its value, listed below are four of the collected traditions and customs that are geographically representative of the continent:
The Tallensi tribe in Ghana considered attacking, looting and pillaging of civilian property a violation of their dignity and a dishonourable act to be avoided; and the traditional rule which regulated the behavior of the Kamajors of Sierra Leone in warfare included the prohibition on looting villages. These customs reflect the modern-day principle of IHL which states that pillage is prohibited.
In the Oronn district in Nigeria when one town decided to go to war against another, two men were sent to lay a plantain leaf upon the road entering the town, signaling an official declaration of war and warning civilians of impending hostilities. This practice reflects the modern-day principle of IHL which states that effective advanced warning of attacks which may affect the civilian population shall be given, unless circumstances do not permit.
In Somalia it was strictly forbidden to desecrate the bodies of the enemy dead or take their possessions for personal gain. This tradition reflects the modern-day principles of IHL which state that each party to the armed conflict must take all possible measures to prevent the dead from being despoiled, and that mutilation of dead bodies is to be prohibited.
As a final example, Maasai warriors in Kenya wore distinctive armbands to distinguish themselves from the civilian population. This reflects the modern day principle of IHL which states that in order to promote the protection of the civilian population from the effects of hostilities, combatants are urged to distinguish themselves from the civilian population while they are engaged in an attack or in a military operation preparatory to an attack.
Despite the clear links between the traditional practices mentioned above and contemporary principles of IHL, there is not always a direct correlation between the two. For example, many of the traditional customs collected come from contexts of non-international armed conflicts, whereas some of the IHL principles referenced apply only in international armed conflicts. Yet the value of the Tool lies in the fact that it provides clarity and confirmation that the rules contained in modern IHL are not foreign concepts in Africa.
Does IHL reflect African customs and traditions? To a certain extent, yes. The Tool will need to be extended and updated in order to answer that question clearly, but for now, it certainly points to the existence of African values in war, which are reflective of contemporary principles of IHL. As an African IHL practitioner, this gives me hope.
 Email exchange with Helen Durham, International Law and Policy Director, International Committee of the Red Cross; 17.08.2021.
 This contribution will not focus on the above-mentioned criticisms of IHL in Africa. For more analysis on that topic, see G Waschefort, “Africa and international humanitarian law: The more things change, the more they stay the same”, International Review of the Red Cross, 2016, 98 (2), p. 603.
Sarah J Mabeza, ICRC Regional Legal Advisor, Pretoria Delegation, International Committee of the Red Cross; LLB (UKZN), LLM, Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa (CHR, UP); email@example.com.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the ICRC.
Studying the history of existing laws helps in understanding its relationship with its subjects. When it comes to International Humanitarian Law (hereafter IHL), it is equally important to understand the laws and customs of war of the past to understand the contemporary normative rules of war. In this regard, there is a well-established research in the history of the laws and customs of warfare in Europe where the modern humanitarian laws emerged. Researches on traditional rules of warfare in some African States such as Somalia have also been carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, very little is known about old laws and customs of war in Ethiopia. This blogpost explores the Ethiopian experience to motivate readers to conduct further research on the issue. It does so by first discussing the laws and customs of war that existed in Europe and other civilizations that flourished in various parts of the world such as the Pacific Islands and Africa.
Laws and customs of war in Europe, the Pacific Islands and Africa before the 19th century
Due to the recurrence of war and violence in ancient times, long before the development of modern international legal and institutional framework for IHL, societies had to come up with limitations on the conduct of war which is often called “cultural regulation of violence”. These self-imposed codes of conducts/limitations of war originate from cultures of the war-making societies. When it comes to Europe, these limitations, having their roots from the codes of chivalry and rules of Christendom, were existent since ancient times. For example, Western scholars in European medieval and classical period were concerned with defining what a just war (Jus ad bellum) was and developing the principles of just war which are still applicable to this day.
In general, having a look at the development of the laws and customs of war in Europe point to three principles that contributed to its growth. First, the principle that a belligerent should be justified in applying force which is necessary for the realization of the purpose of war. Second, the principle of humanity at work which says that all such kinds and degrees of violence which go beyond overpowering the opponent should not be permitted to a belligerent person. Third and lastly, the principle of chivalry which arose in the Middle Ages and introduced a certain amount of fairness in offence and defense, protection of non-combatants from pillages, and a certain mutual respect.
The origins of these principles, however, are not confined to Europe but were also evident as the customs of war of other ancient civilizations. Ancient civilizations such as the pacific societies had imposed limitations on the conduct of war that resembled the modern principles of IHL. For example, the Fijian society used weapons as a means of attack only when “this was deemed necessary upon provocation”. Similarly and interestingly, African tribes that lived in the present days of Ghana, Somalia, and the Sahel region had traditional customs of war that were almost similar to the rules of IHL under the Geneva conventions. Were there similar laws and customs of war in Ethiopia?
Laws and customs of war in Ethiopia before the 20th century
Ethiopia is a party to the four Geneva Conventions on the laws and customs of war and the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions. However, very little is known about the rules of war that used to exist in Ethiopia before the ratification of these Conventions in 1969. In order to understand the rules of war that existed in the country before the 20th century, we believe that researchers need to look at the history, governance systems, and laws – both customary and written – of the various civilizations that flourished in Ethiopia. Accordingly, the first document that should be studied to understand these laws and customs of war, we believe, is the Fetha Negest (Law of the Kings) since it served as the law of the courts of the Emperors of Ethiopia who had the final say in all matters including warfare and justice.
The Fetha Negest says little on the rules of warfare. However, it tries to govern some aspects of war in a haphazard manner such as the treatment of captives of war. For example, it states: “At the beginning of creation, all men were free. But war and raids bring them to serve others, since the law of war is that conquest makes the conquered slaves of the conqueror”. This reads as if the rules of war in the courts of Ethiopian emperors were opposed to the laws and customs of war that we have now. But can we reach conclusions about the old laws and customs of war in Ethiopia based on the Fetha Negest? Albeit the fact that the Fetha Negest incorporated such kinds of provisions, research show that customs of war that resembled contemporary normative rules of armed conflict existed in Ethiopia. For instance, Donald N. Levine wrote that during the Gondarine period (1632 – 1769 AD):
[The] Echage Bet [of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church] was reserved for the … monk who served as administrative head of the Church. […] The Echage Bet and the church compounds were considered sanctuaries and thus, in theory at least, were secure from plunderers. The Gondares and wealthy people from the country used these areas as a safety vault for their valuables.
This customary understanding of the rules of war is in line with today’s customary international humanitarian law protection of religious buildings from military attack. In addition, according to Nega Ewnetie, some Emperors of Ethiopia even tried to reform the rule of the Fetha Negest that concerned captives of war in favor of humanitarian concerns. For instance, Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1868 AD) tried to abolish the practice of selling captives of war into slavery. He also mentions that Emperor Tewodros’s court decisions over war related cases considered aspects that we have under normative IHL rules. Moreover, if we turn to Western Ethiopia, we will find that the Nuer of the Gambella region observed a rule of war that protected villages which are “home” to Nuers’ god of war, Wiw, from forceful eviction even if the dwellers of the villages were defeated in battle. As a result, there may have been a mix of modern and old understandings of the laws of warfare, at least in some parts of Ethiopia, before the ratification of the Geneva Conventions. Nevertheless, further research on this issue is needed to bring a clear understanding about the history of laws and customs of war in Ethiopia. In conclusion, various research show that there were laws and customs of war in Ethiopia before the 20th century. Some of these rules might not have been in line with today’s humanitarian law while other customs resembled contemporary armed conflict rules. However, thorough research has to be conducted in order to clearly understand the regulation of hostilities that used to exist in Ethiopia before the 20th century.
 Michael Howard “Constraints on Warfare” in Michael Howard, George J. Andrepoulos, and Mark R. Shulman “The Laws of War; Constraints on Warfare in the Western World”, (1994), p.2.
 Id, p. 227. See also Robert C. Stacy “The Age of Chivalry” in Michael Howard, George J.Andrepoulos, and Mark R. Shulman “The Laws of War; Constraints on Warfare in the Western World”, (1994), pp. 34 – 36.
 International committee of the Red Cross, Under the Protection of the Palm: War of Dignity in the Pacific, (2009), p.9.
On the night of November 4, 2020 Abiy Ahmed (PhD), Prime Minister of Ethiopia reported the news of an attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF). He also stated that the ENDF has been ordered to carry out a military offensive. The same night, all communication services (phone, SMS and Internet) were shut down until the mid-December, in what the government continually referred to as a “law enforcement operation”.
Notwithstanding, the facts on the ground show for the purposes of the application of International Humanitarian law, the intensity of the confrontation between the government of Ethiopia and the TPLF as well as the organization of the latter (through what has been referred to as the Tigray Defence Force/TDF), have met the necessary threshold to deem the situation a non-international armed conflict.
After months of various credible reports of the involvement of Eritrean troops in the war in Tigray on the side of the Ethiopian government but denial from both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, the Prime Minister has acknowledged their involvement on March 23, 2021. However, the involvement of Eritrea does not change the armed conflict from a non-international armed conflict to an international armed conflict, for the purposes of International Humanitarian Law, as the support of Eritrea is to and with the consent of the Ethiopian government.
It is important to have effective investigations into these credible claims of IHL violation and for the proper application of the law (Guidelines on Investigating Violations of International Humanitarian Law: Law, Policy and Good Practice, Geneva Academy and ICRC, p. 2). For international armed conflicts, treaty laws such as the Geneva Conventions (Art. 49, Art. 50, Art. 129 and Art. 146 of Geneva Conventions I-IV) obliges states to investigate violations. Rule 158 of the Customary International Humanitarian Law Database place an obligation of investigation into possible war crimes in non-international armed conflicts. This obligation can also be found for any killing by the State in International Human Rights law treaties, which continue to apply in situations of armed conflict. (Guidelines on Investigating Violations of International Humanitarian Law: Law, Policy and Good Practice, Geneva Academy and ICRC, p. 4)
Many international organizations, such as the United Nations, have been calling for investigations into the violations. Without physical access to the Tigray region, Amnesty International has undertaken a research on the Axum massacre by interviewing refugees and phone interviews with witnesses and which it corroborated with satellite imagery before the investigation was carried out by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. The Bellingcat investigation team and BBC Africa Eye have also used satellite imagery, 3D topographic information and social media to locate the massacre at Mahbere Dego where it was reported that uniformed men led a group of unarmed men to the edge of a cliff, shooting some at point blank range, and pushing dead bodies over the cliff.
However so far, the only organization that has had access to the region for such an investigation is the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (herein after EHRC). Particularly with regards to the war in Tigray, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has only investigated the massacre of civilians in Mai Kadra and Axum, as well as visiting the conditions of suspects detained in connection with the war in Tigray. All other possible violations of IHL have not been investigated. On the 25th of March 2021, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission have agreed to collaborate on the investigation of the human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by all parties to the armed conflict in Tigray.
With ethnic polarization at an all-time high in the country, all sides of the armed conflict have been claiming that the reports that incriminate their side are “fake news” in an effort to discredit them. In different cases, the parties to the armed conflict have also refused to co-operate with these organizations (e.g. Amnesty international has stated the lack of response from Ambassador Redwan Hussien Ethiopia’s State Minister for Foreign Affairs and Spokesperson for the Emergency Taskforce in the Ministry of Foreign) (Amnesty International, p. 5)
Impartiality or at least the lack of the perception of impartiality has been a major criticism of the existing investigations. The EHRC in particular has been criticized for lack of impartiality based on its accountability to the Parliament and the nomination for appointment of the chief commissioner by the Prime Minister. There are claims that other international organizations and media have not been able to investigate the potential violations as the government-imposed lockdown in the Tigray region made access to the region extremely difficult. Local journalists and fixers have also been harassed, detained or killed.
Amid the controversy on the impartiality of the investigations, there are “deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting of public and private property by all parties continue to be shared with us, as well as reports of continued fighting in central Tigray in particular,” as stated by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
It continues to be imperative to have impartial and independent investigation. Not only to score points in public relations but also as a matter of legal duty. Here is where the author believes the International Humanitarian Fact Finding Commission (herein after referred to as IHFFC) can play a great role in investigating the violations of IHL in the Tigray region.
The IHFFC is a commission established on the basis of Art. 90 of the Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions (herein after API), to which Ethiopia is a signatory. This commission consists of 15 expert members with “high moral standing and acknowledged impartiality”. The IHFFC’s main tasks are to investigate alleged violations of the International Humanitarian Law during armed conflicts and facilitate the respect of IHL. It also reports the findings of its investigations to the states and recommends possible solutions that are deemed appropriate. Its role is limited to establishing facts with regards to serious violation of IHL. It does not render judgements on the matter.
Although API applies to situations of international armed conflicts, the IHFFC has clearly expressed its willingness to investigate alleged violations of IHL in non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) so long as the parties consent. This has been the case in Ukraine where the IHFFC investigated the death of a paramedic and the injury of two others who were part of a patrol of the Organization of Security and Co-operation of Europe (OSCE) Special Mission to Ukraine due to an explosion in the Luhansk region where the government was involved in a non-international armed conflict.
For international armed conflicts, the commission can only begin its inquiry when it receives a request from states that have recognized the Commission’s competence. It is important to highlight that the member states that can make the request do not have to be parties to the conflict. A list of the current member states can be found here.
The Commission can only investigate whether there has been a commission of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions (which are only applicable in international armed conflicts) or other serious violations of the Geneva conventions. As an investigative body, it invites the parties to the armed conflict to support it by presenting or challenging evidence.
On December 29, 2020 the IHFFC, offered its services to the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia with regards to the armed conflict in Tigray. The investigations would begin when the parties to the conflict in Tigray consent to it.
The investigations on alleged violations of IHL in the Tigray region by the IHFFC have five main advantages:
First, the members of the commission are persons whose impartiality is acknowledged internationally. This has also been acknowledged by independent and impartial humanitarian organizations. They will not take sides of any party to the conflict during their investigation. The utilization of the IHFFC’s fact finding services helps restore respect for IHL and deter a vicious circle of violations from all parties.
Second, as compared to NGOs who would possibly have to respect the interest of their funder, the IHFFC has no such duty and therefore remains independent (Charles Garraway, p. 815). As it is a treaty based international body, it also won’t have the same type of partiality or perception of partiality that might exist with the EHRC, a body accountable to the highest legislative body of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’s.
Third, the IHFFC brings with it an expertise of the rules of IHL that would determine whether there was a violation of IHL. As it currently stands, there is a conflation of the Human rights and IHL in the war in Tigray. Although both branches of law serve to protect civilians, there are differences in assessing the notions of necessity, distinction and proportionality of each attack/ operation. As the current situation in Tigray is that of an armed conflict, it is important that it is analyzed and investigated by experts that are able to apply rules and principles of IHL as well as other applicable laws.
Fourth, the work of the IHFFC is based on confidentiality (Charles Garraway, p. 815). As mentioned above, the report of the IHFFC remains confidential unless the parties request the commission to make it public. The commission’s goal is to ensure respect of IHL by solving the dispute, not naming and shaming.
Fifth, investigation by the IHFFC would prove the truthfulness or falsity of the allegations that have been made thus far and the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the military operations done by all parties during this conflict. This would ultimately change the narrative that IHL is always violated leading to the risk that they may be repeated or create an environment where such violations become more acceptable. Lack of independent and impartial investigations by a commission such as the IHFFC in these circumstances could also lead to a vicious circle of violations of IHL as retaliation.
In the early 2000’s Ethiopia was a pioneer in accepting the jurisdiction of the Boundary Commission and Claims Commission on the basis of the Algiers Agreement to resolve the disputes following the termination of the military hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It should also now take the pioneering role by accepting the offer of the IHFFC to investigate the violations of IHL in the war in Tigray. The various reports of serious violations of Tigray require an immediate independent and impartial investigation. Especially for reasons of partiality or perceived partiality of other national and international organizations, and the particularly sensitive nature of the conflict, its important to have the only permanent international treaty body set up to investigate violations of IHL, investigate the situation in Tigray.
It is imperative that all violations of IHL committed in the Tigray region in the past six months are investigated independently and impartially to ensure respect for IHL. Such an investigation will also aid in providing remedy for the victims and preventing of future violations of IHL. There is, however, a challenge into accepting the proposal of the IHFFC to investigate the violations of IHL in Tigray, Ethiopia. As stated in Art. 90(7) of API, the parties to the conflict are expected to advance the necessary funds for the expenses of the investigation. This is especially difficult to do in a non-international armed conflict where the other party to the conflict is a non-state armed group. Notwithstanding, this challenge could be solved by the financial support of other states or international organizations that have been calling for investigations into the violations of International Humanitarian Law in Tigray.
Lea Mehari Redae is the founder of the Addis Ababa University International Humanitarian Law Clinic. She is an Assistant Lecturer at Addis Ababa University School of Law. She studies at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
Organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Addis Ababa University, School of Law
March 10, 2021, Addis Ababa
Background and rationale
Armed conflict and internal disturbances – such as violent protests and riots – cause injuries among those directly participating and those who get caught in the way. Serious injuries require medical attention, yet it is precisely at these moments of greatest need that health-care services are most vulnerable to disruption, interference and attack. Violence, both actual and threatened, hugely impacts upon accessibility of health services, at times threatening the lives of those who need the services most. Violence against or in the vicinity of medical facilities may also cause health personnel to flee, leaving a big void in the much-needed health care services- affecting not just those who are wounded in the fighting but also those that suffer from chronic illnesses that require regular care and follow-up. It may damage health facilities or vehicles, as well as hamper vital preventive health care programmes such as vaccination campaigns, resulting in serious health implications in the long-run. The fight to eradicate polio, for example, has faced setbacks in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the safety of vaccination teams is difficult to assure. The health care system shall be respected and protected at all times and shall not be the object of attack.
Against the backdrop of the concerning humanitarian issue of violence against health-care and the urgent need for a continued focus on the matter, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement launched in 2011 the Health Care in Danger (HCiD) Initiative. The initiative aims at addressing the issue of violence against patients, health workers, facilities and vehicles, thus ensuring safe access to and delivery of health care in armed conflict and other emergencies. The initiative also underscores that all reasonable measures should be taken to ensure safe and prompt access to health care for the wounded and sick, in times of armed conflict or other emergencies, in accordance with the applicable legal frameworks, where relevant and appropriate, to adopt and effectively implement the required domestic measures, including legislative, regulatory and practical ones, to ensure respect for their international legal obligations pertaining to the protection of the wounded and sick and health-care personnel, facilities, and medical transports, and the protection and use of the distinctive emblems by authorized medical personnel, facilities and transports.
The participants will be drawn from lecturers of IHL and related fields of law such as human rights, international criminal law, and if feasible, from the medical and public health schools. Senior students who are engaged in the activities of the IHL clinic and the Ethiopian Red Cross Society will also participate in the seminar. The total number of participants is expected to be around 20.
Date/Venue:The seminar will be conducted on the 10th of March 2021 at Addis Ababa University, Law school building, room 8.
Expected Outcomes:After the seminar, it is expected that participants will have a very good grasp of the challenges surrounding respect and protection of health care globally (and, to a limited extent, in Ethiopia). The seminar will also hopefully serve as a stepping-stone for the envisioned collaboration with the IHL clinic of Addis Ababa University, to conduct an HCiD legal and administrative set-up review for Ethiopia. Participants will also be provided with selected resources that can serve as references for those interested in pursuing the topic further.
Resources for the Workshop
Main reference document: “Protecting Health Care: Key Recommendations”, available here.
By: Marishet Mohammed Hamza and Fikire Tinsae Birhane
Ethiopia and Sudan share a long border that stretches over 1,600 Kms. While large part of the border remains un-demarcated, it is mostly undisputed. There are, however, pockets of disputed lands, including ‘Al-Fashqa’, which lies in the northern tip of the shared boundary. According to Sudan, Al-Fashqa was demarcated as part of its territory under the 1902 treaty between Ethiopia and colonial Britain, representing Sudan. For long, it is Ethiopian farmers that reside and farm in Al-Fashqa. Sudan explains the reason for this is the 1978 agreement in which it has agreed to leave the soft border open to Ethiopian farmers who would operate under Sudanese law and pay taxes to it, while Ethiopia recognizes Sudan’s sovereignty over the land. Ethiopia rejects such claims and has been asserting its full sovereignty instead.
Recently, following accusations of attacks in Al-Fashqa against Sudanese civilians by armed militiamen(which Sudan alleged were supported by Ethiopia), Sudan’s military crossed into the disputed territory, attacked the villages and took control of a large part of the territory. The attacks, according to Ethiopia, took place since the first week of November 2020. Besides, there are also reports indicating military confrontations between the defence forces of the two countries.
Sudan has confirmed it has ‘(re)taken control of most of Sudanese territory in the disputed border area which was under the Ethiopian farmers’. However, Ethiopia persistently accuses Sudan of intruding into, and carrying out organized attacks and forcefully taking control of its land. Sudan, on its part, accuses Ethiopia of supporting continued attacks by local militiamen and, also, violation of its airspace by an Ethiopian fighter-jet. Ethiopia rejects these claims too. The tensions have further escalated and, on 15 February 2021, Sudanese foreign ministry has accused Ethiopian forces of trespassing into Sudanese land ‘in an act of aggression’. Similarly, the Ethiopian foreign ministry condemned Sudan for its continued provocative behaviour, violation of boundary agreements, and called upon it to ‘reverse [its] aggression’.
Is the Use of Force by Sudan (un)lawful?
It is an established principle of international law that States shall refrain from the threat or use of force in their international relations ‘against the territorial integrity or political independence’ of other States(UN Charter, Article 2(4)). The only exception for this is the right to self-defence to repel an armed attack(UN Charter, Article 51). Thus, unless justified under the exception, the threat or use of force might constitute an armed attack, and violation of the UN Charter. Despite this proscription, States might still resort to the use of force; in which case a situation of armed conflict occurs and the propriety of resorting to force could become an international law issue.
The prohibition under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter equally applies to disputed territories (C. Yiallourides et al, 2018, p.). The obligation under Article 2(4) supplements Article 2(3) of the Charter, which requires States to settle their disputes through peaceful means. These obligations were reaffirmed in the 1970 UN General Assembly Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, which provides that States have a duty ‘to refrain from the threat or use of force to violate the existing international boundaries of another State or as a means of solving international disputes, including territorial disputes and problems concerning frontiers of States’ (Principle 1). The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has observed that the adoption by the majority of States of the Declaration ‘affords an indication of their opinio juris as to customary international law on the question’ (Nicaragua judgement, para.191). Accordingly, ‘under the UN Charter and customary international law, the resort to force is never an acceptable means of altering an existing territorial status quo, including in situations of disputed territories’ (C. Yiallourides et al: p. 90).
Turning to our case, Sudan has officially acknowledged its attacks in the disputed Al-Fashqa area and forcefully retaking the disputed territory. Manifestly, these acts constitute use of force as contemplated under international law. As the attacks have occurred against a territory which Ethiopia categorically and in strongest terms claims as part of its sovereign territory, arguably, the Sudanese acts could be regarded as attacks directed against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ethiopia.
Sudan has not yet justified its attacks and the forceful control of part of the disputed land under the self-defence exception. This could have invited assessment of whether its armed attack might be in tune with the UN Charter. Though there has not been such a claim, one should examine whether the alleged attacks (against Sudanese civilians and military) within the disputed land by the local (Ethiopian) militiamen could be regarded as an armed attack to which Sudan could invoke the right to self-defence.
The ICJ, in its Nicaragua judgement (para.195) has made it clear that the concept of ‘armed attack’ in the context of the right to self-defence is limited to ‘actions by states’. Regarding an armed attack by a non-state armed group (such as the local militiamen), it will constitute an armed attack if it could be proven that a State has ‘financed, armed and trained the armed group’ and sends it over a border to engage in use of force against another State (ibid). Similarly, International Law Commission’s (ILC) draft articles on responsibility of states for internationally wrongful acts provides for situations where a certain conduct can be attributed to a State, and thereby entail its international responsibility. As described above, Sudan acknowledged waging military attacks against the Ethiopian militiamen in Al-Fashqa and forcefully retaking most of the villages in the disputed territory. Accordingly, there is no question that this conduct is attributable to Sudan (Article 4, ILC Draft Articles).
However, even if Sudan’s claim that the (Ethiopian) militiamen had attacked Sudanese civilians prior to the Sudanese military attacks in the Al-Fashqa area is true, there still is a question whether the militiamen’s conduct can be attributed to Ethiopia. The relevant provision in the ILC draft articles provides that ‘the conduct of a person or group of persons shall be considered an act of a State under international law if the person or group of persons is in fact acting on the instructions of, or under the direction or control of, that State in carrying out the conduct’ (id, Art 8).
In addition, according to the ICJ, not all incidents by armed forces (including non-state armed groups) constitute armed attacks that entitle States to use counter-force in self-defence; rather, it has to be a ‘grave form of the use of force as distinguished from other less grave forms’ (Nicaragua judgement, para.191). Accordingly, even if it were possible to attribute the local militiamen’s attack to Ethiopia, for Sudan to invoke the right to self-defence, it has to be proven that the attacks were a ‘grave form of the use of force’. On top of that, as the incidents happened in a disputed territory, it has to also be established that the alleged militiamen attacks occurred against Sudan’s sovereign territory. The mere allegation that Ethiopian-militiamen had attacked Sudanese civilians may not suffice to consider the events as an armed attack against Sudan as a State.
In sum, ‘forcible means cannot be used to gain control over a disputed territory or to alter in any way the existing factual situation on the ground in the attacking State’s favour. Moreover, force cannot be used to correct retroactively situations of perceived past injustice on grounds of self-defence’ (C. Yiallourides et al: pp. 90-91). A State cannot also legitimately invoke a right of self-defence to gain control over a disputed area which is under the de facto control and administration of another State, on the basis of rectifying a situation of unlawful possession or generally correcting a ‘past injustice’ (C. Yiallourides et al: p. 77).
Is there an International Armed Conflict?
While resorting to war(armed attacks) in violation of the UN Charter prohibition on the use of force is a jus ad bellum question, the issue of whether there actually exists an international armed conflict (IAC) is a jus in bello question, which pertains to the applicable international humanitarian law (IHL) rules.
Both Ethiopia and Sudan are state parties to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949(GCs) and their two additional protocols of 1977. According to Common Article 2 to the GCs, the Conventions apply to ‘all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, … [and] to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance’. Additional Protocol I(API) applies to similar situations(Article 1(3)). Generally, according to IHL, two situations trigger an IAC: an armed conflict between two or more States (a declaration of war may also trigger the applicability (M. Sassòli, 2019, p.169)) and occupation of the territory of another State.
According to Sassòli, the existence of an IAC is a question of fact that exists ‘if someone attributable to a State commits acts of violence against persons or objects representing another State’ (ibid). To distinguish from acts which are unintentional or done mistakenly/in error, it is suggested that the act must be approved by the ‘highest authorities of the State’ (ibid).
Based on the above assessment, the Sudanese military’s organized armed attack in Al-Fashqa could be taken as a sufficient fact to prove the existence of an IAC between the two countries. Reports of military confrontation between the defence forces of the two countries further corroborate this.
Status of Al-Fashqa, is it an Occupied Territory?
While Sudan claims retaking control of a disputed territory, Ethiopia accuses Sudan of ‘occupying’ its land. Under the Hague Regulations (Article 42), ‘a territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army’. Conventionally, there are three fundamental criteria that will be used to establish whether a situation constitutes an occupation: effective control by one State of part or whole of the territory of another State, loss of effective control by the invaded State, and lack of consent by the State that lost control over territory. (M. Sassòli, 2019, pp.303-305).
Thus, control over territory constitutes an occupation, and obligations of an occupying force follows, where a State invades and took control of a territory that belongs to another State. In our case, Sudan claims it has retaken control of its own territory. Indeed, under the law of occupation, if a State ‘liberates its own territory that was previously occupied’ by an adversary and regains control, it would not constitute an occupation (ibid, p.313). Nonetheless, where sovereignty over a territory is disputed, the claim of retaking control over territory (like Sudan’s claim over Al-Fashqa) will not exclude the applicability of the law of occupation (ibid). In other words, though a State controls a territory it considers to be its own, it would still constitute an occupation, if sovereignty is contested by the adversary (E. Benvenisti, 2019, p.59; A. Roberts, 1984, 55 BYBIL 249, p.280).
In light of Ethiopia’s assertion of sovereignty over the territory, one could easily see that sovereignty over Al-Fashqa remains a disputed one, and, in that case, it is reasonable to conclude that Al-Fashqa can be considered an occupied territory to which IHL of occupation would be applicable.
In light of the UN Charter prohibition on the use of force, which equally applies to disputed territories like Al-Fashqa, Sudan’s forceful entry into Al-Fashqa and (re)taking control of territories that were under the de facto control and administration of Ethiopia makes its act unlawful under international law. Also, the undisputed armed attacks in Al-Fashqa and alleged military confrontation between the defence forces of the two countries along with the situation of occupation of Al-Fashqa establish existence of an IAC between Ethiopia and Sudan.
1.Marishet Mohammed Hamza
PhD Student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Genève
Despite its domestication of all the major IHL treaties, South Sudan has, for some time now, been embroiled in conflict. First, it was involved in a Civil War to secede from Sudan and later on, there was the war between the government and different armed groups. These wars have resulted in gross human rights violations committed by the government as well as the armed groups. The warring parties in South Sudan have demonstrated an abrogation of the IHL obligations and thus, there is a pressing need to examine how the legal obligations of State Parties to IHL treaties can be better respected and enforced. CA1 is a distinct mechanism through which Kenya and Uganda can help in ensuring respect for IHL obligations by South Sudan. CA1 imposes positive obligations on State Parties mandating them to take some action to stop the violations of IHL. In this way, it uniquely places a duty, and not simply a right, to take action to ensure respect for IHL.
Kenya, Uganda and the Conflict in South Sudan
Both Kenya and Uganda are State Parties to the IHL treaties, just like South Sudan. They have ratified the Geneva Conventions and are accordingly bound by the obligations therein. The two have also enacted laws to punish certain international crimes; Kenya with its International Crimes Act 2008, and Uganda with its International Crimes Act 2010. The geographical position of Kenya and Uganda has significantly contributed to their successful strong economic relations with South Sudan. Both countries are major import partners for South Sudan.
On its part, Kenya has professed neutrality in the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. Nonetheless, Kenya has built close political and economic ties with the government of South Sudan; an interaction that may give rise to obligations incumbent on Third States, including those under CA1. On the other hand, Uganda has in the past participated as a party to the conflict in South Sudan by providing military support and facilitating the supply of military arms and equipment. The involvement of Uganda in the conflict gives it leverage in terms of the influence it can bring to bear the South Sudan government for purposes of CA1. The unique relationship as a partner to a conflict provides an opportunity for Uganda to encourage respect for IHL by South Sudan.
In line with their obligations under CA1, Kenya and Uganda may explore some of the measures discussed below:
Preventing South Sudanese From Profiting From IHL Violations
Kenya and Uganda have been strategic partners with South Sudan in economic relations owing to their geographical proximity. Consequently, Kenya and Uganda have been conduits of majority of the imports into South Sudan. These imports are mainly commercial goods, including arms and military hardware. Kenya has further been economically relating with South Sudan through its banking system and real estate sector. Since it has the most developed financial sector in the region, Kenya’s banking system serves as a center and conduit for the region’s financial transactions. Most of the South Sudan financial transactions are conducted through Kenyan owned banks. It has been alleged that South Sudan leaders use Kenyan banks for alleged illicit financial transactions. Moreover, the profitable real estate sector in Kenya has become convenient for South Sudan leaders trying to launder their proceeds of illicit wealth acquired during the armed conflict. The intimate socio-economic and political interaction between Kenyan, Ugandan and South Sudanese leaders provide ample leverage for employing forms of punitive trade measures in order to pressure South Sudan to comply with the obligations of IHL.For instance, Kenya can apply such pressure by freezing the funds and property that South Sudanese leaders have invested through Kenya’s banking and real estate industry.
Kenya and Uganda can fulfill their duty under CA1 by exerting meaningful diplomatic pressure upon the government of South Sudan. Given Kenya’s neutrality and past involvement as a mediator and peacebuilder, there is a plausible chance for exerting pressure upon the warring factions in South Sudan in line with their responsibilities to respect IHL. Uganda’s past participation as party to the conflict elevates its position to engage in discreet communication urging the South Sudanese government forces to refrain from IHL violations. The IHL mechanisms adopted by regional bodies like the East Africa Commission (EAC) and international organizations like the International Fact Finding Commission (IFFC) may also be embraced by Kenya and Uganda.
Preventing and Punishing War Crimes
The War Crimes in South Sudan amount to a contravention of jus cogens and thus, they attract concern from all States. Based on the principle of universal jurisdiction, Kenya and Uganda have the right to exercise jurisdiction over violations committed by individuals linked to the South Sudanese government. In as much as the victims are not their nationals, Kenya and Uganda have a legal interest in ensuring the protection of their rights. Pursuant to their duty under CA1, Kenya and Uganda ought to take measures to prevent and punish the war crimes. In doing so, impartiality must be guaranteed. The respective judiciary should be independent while adjudicating over the violations of IHL in South Sudan. Failure to do so would undermine the prerequisite for neutrality embedded in the rule of law and the central premise that international justice is aimed at seeking justice for the whole international community. The punishment of the South Sudanese perpetrators will act as a deterrent to future violations of IHL because it will portray the ideal of law with “teeth”.
Preventing Trade in Arms
Both Kenya and Uganda have served as channels for arms and ammunition flowing into South Sudan. Such support may arguably establish the necessary attributable nexus with IHL violations. Kenya and Uganda may therefore be indirectly responsible for the atrocities committed by the parties and can be construed as rendering aid to a party to a conflict. In this regard, the duty under CA1 is significant because it imposes positive obligations upon States like Kenya and Uganda. The provisions demand that Kenya and Uganda should undertake actions that ensure IHL is respected by the South Sudanese government and warring factions.
From the foregoing, it can be concluded that in as much as there is an adequate legal framework for IHL, there has still been numerous atrocities and violations as evidenced by South Sudan. Therefore, Third States like Kenya and Uganda play a significant role towards encouraging and promoting respect for IHL rules by South Sudan. The political and economic capacity and influence of Kenya and Uganda over South Sudan can help in achieving this. CA1 foresees a responsibility incumbent upon each State to take measures aimed at increasing the respect of IHL by warring parties.
Dr. Mutuma is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi, School of Law. Dr Mutuma holds a PhD and LL.M degree from the University of Cape Town and an LL.B from the University of Liverpool. He is also a partner at law firm in Nairobi and possesses 21 years’ experience in the practice of law.
Characterization of the situation : An ‘armed conflict’?
On 04 November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.) has appeared on national TV and broke the news of an armed attack on the National Defence Force’s (NDF) contingent stationed in Tigray region – called, the Northern Command (NC) by the ruling party in the region- Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) through its military branch, the Special Police Force (SPF). Forthwith, as the commander-in-chief of the NDF Abiy ordered the NDF to launch a military operation against the perpetrators of the armed attack against the NC. In a subsequent statement the PM had explicitly regarded the TPLF’s armed attack, the NDF’s counterattack, and the overall situation as a “situation of war”.
On the same day, a press release by the Office of the Prime Minister accused TPLF of wagingwar and the war has occurred despite the Federal Government’s determination to avoid one. Therefore, “the Federal government is forced into a military confrontation” and the NDF is ordered to carry out the mission. Similarly, the State of Emergency decree adopted by the Council of Ministers on November 04 has made it clear that the situation in Tigray ‘cannot be prevented and controlled through the regular law enforcement mechanisms’. Impliedly, suggesting that the measure resorted to is a military (counter) attack – in other words, war.
The belligerent TPLF’s chairperson and the president of Tigray Region Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD), the next day after the attack on NC, affirmed the existence of war with the Federal Government forces and that the region was well armed to fend-off any armed attack.
Thus, from the get-go, both parties, particularly the Federal Government, have characterized the conflict and their respective military engagement as an armed confrontation involving – thus, an act of war; it was not (initially) regarded as a law enforcement operation.
No, it is a ‘law enforcement’ operation!
Few days after the military confrontation, the Federal Government has switched its characterization of the ongoing hostility and designated the military engagement as a ‘law enforcement’ operation. The PM, in a video statement on November 08 – apparently addressed to the international community – has affirmed and stressed that the Federal Government has engaged in the constitutional order and rule of law maintenance operation. It is a law enforcement operation aimed at ending what the PM called an ‘impunity and criminality by the TPLF ‘clique’; thus, there is no armed confrontation or a situation of war, but a law enforcement operation.
Thenceforth, the new designation has become a mantra and the Federal Government, other regional governments, public media, military personnel, and almost everyone on the central government side call the situation a ‘law enforcement’. There seemed to be a campaign – in all public relation fronts – to call the situation by its new name. Law enforcement! Not a War!
Why would the prescription be relevant?
Naming the hostility either as a war or law enforcement operation may have its own constitutional and legal significance. But from the perspective of international law obligations (particularly, IHL obligations), the implications of such prescription would be less since such obligations are triggered based on the facts, not necessarily based on the characterisation.
From the point of view of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE Constitution), a situation would constitute war (armed conflict) only if it is declared as such by the House of Peoples Representatives (HPR), the lower legislative body, upon a draft declaration the Council of Ministers submits (FDRE Constitution, Art.55(9) and 77). The Constitution does not make it clear when such a declaration could be made. But the one thing clear is that a war (an armed conflict) requires a declaration by the HPR. On the other hand, upon authorization by the House of Federation (HoF), the upper house, the Federal Government may intervene in any part of the country to control a breakdown of law and order (FDRE Constitution, Art.62). It was through this procedure that the Federal Government was authorized to intervene in Tigray. However, constitutionally speaking, such an intervention is different from a state of armed conflict or a declaration of war. From this, it will safely be concluded that the FDRE Constitution does not envisage armed conflict (war) against local forces or forces of regional governments such as the Tigray SPF. In other words, the Federal Government would violate the Constitution if it has continued to describe the military operation as an armed conflict or war.
In light of the international law obligations of the Country, the designation as ‘armed conflict’, ‘law enforcement’ or, maybe, as a ‘war’ would be less relevant. Generally, the meaning of the word ‘war’ today signifies more of an inter-state armed conflict than a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) or also called a civil war (this is also an outdated expression). Thus, in reference to a NIAC, the habitual description is ‘armed attack’, not war. Related to this, States are also generally reluctant, since the inception of the law of NIAC, to characterize a situation as an armed attack and to invite the applicability of international law. They consider it as an unnecessary intrusion into their sovereign discretion on domestic matters.
In the Tigray conflict as well, one could observe this tendency on the Ethiopian Government side. On its November 25 press release, the Prime Minister’s Office has invoked the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs and asserted its “right to uphold and enforce its laws within its own territory”. The press release does not mention international obligations, except a pass mention of ensuring protections for the civilian population. This may indicate, as it was in the past, the continued resistance of states to trigger and enforce IHL in the case of NIACs.
International obligations are triggered irrespective of the government’s description
Ethiopia is a party to international human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL) treaties that are applicable during situations of conflict or armed hostilities. Human rights laws are always applicable, including in situations of armed hostilities to the extent they are not displaced by the rules of IHL. Whereas IHL in this case, IHL of non-international armed conflicts (NIAC), applies to an armed conflict only if the required thresholds, i.e., the intensity of the hostility and organization of the armed group(s), are met. Indeed, the Additional Protocol to Geneva Conventions and related to NIACs (AP II) has further requirements that have to be met to trigger its applicability.
As mentioned above the international obligations of the Federal Government (and, implicitly that of the belligerent TPLF forces) are triggered based on the facts on the ground. Thus, for IHL (of NIAC) obligations, the necessary precondition is the existence of an armed conflict and if that is proved (along with the required thresholds), the obligations kick-off. Fikre Tinsae and Fekade Alemayehu in their respective blogposts (here and here) have addressed the IHL applicability and classification issues and I do agree with their conclusion that IHL is fully applicable to the conflict in Tigray. Thus, despite the legal characterization of the hostility, the Federal Government is bound to respect both its human rights and IHL obligations during the overall situations.
A glimpse at some of the international law obligations
Human rights law
As mentioned above, human rights laws continue to apply in situations of armed conflicts to which IHL also applies subject to interpretation concerning IHL rules in case of conflict of norms.
One of the human rights that is directly implicated due to the hostility is the right to life. The right to life is non-derogable during a state of emergency, including during war (ICCPR, Art.4(2)). The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights does not have an explicit provision on derogation. The African Commission has, however, interpreted this to mean the prohibition of derogation at all times (AComHPR, GC 3, para.1). Inter alia, this right prohibits arbitrary use of lethal force and arbitrary killings. In the context of armed conflicts, deprivation of life will be arbitrary it is inconsistent with international law (Human Rights Committee, GC.36, para.64). Therefore, during the hostility in Tigray, the Government forces (and TPLF) must respect the right to life of civilians in general. Members of the armed forces who laid down arms or hors de combat shall also be protected against arbitrary deprivation of life.
More generally, concerning the State of Emergency declared within Tigray Regional State as well, the Federal Government must ensure that its implementation is consistent with its international human rights obligations. For instance, a blanket State of Emergency declaration that does not enumerate restrictions could open the leeway for human rights violations.
Finally, concerning allegations of crimes against humanity (or, war crimes) such as the civilian massacre in a place called Mai Kadra (here and here) the Federal Government is obliged under international human rights law to make an investigation , prosecute and punish the perpetrators (HRC GC.36, para.64).
International humanitarian law
Under IHL, the parties to the conflict have specific obligations with respect to civilians, civilian properties, and belligerent combatants who are placed hors de combat (GCs, Common Article 3 (CA 3)). The list of obligations during military operations include prohibition: to direct attack against civilians or civilian population (ICRC Customary Law Studies (CIHL), Rule 6) and civilian objects (CIHL, Rule 7); of attacks directed against civilian population or objects by way of reprisal (CIHL, Rule 148); to attack against persons who are hors de combat (CIHL, Rule 47); of indiscriminate attacks (CIHL, Rule 12(a)); of using civilians to shield military objects from attack or to impede military operations (CIHL, Rule 97). Parties to the conflict must take precautionary measures to spare civilians, civilian population, and civilian objects from attack (CIHL, Rule 16 and 17).
Wounded and sick persons owing to the conflict whether military personnel (belligerents) or civilians shall also be respected, protected, and humanely treated (GCs, CA3; CIHL, Rules 111). Similarly, detained belligerents (captured or surrendered during the hostilities) shall be treated humanely and IHL prohibits violence to their life and person, cruel treatment, and torture (GCs, CA3; APII, Arts.4-6). AP II also encourages the parties to the conflict to provide a “widest possible amnesty” to members of the belligerent armed captured or surrendered during the hostility (AP II, Art.6(5)).
Concerning humanitarian assistance, parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need (GCs, CA3; APII, Art.18(2); and CIHL, Rule 55). In addition, it is prohibited to use starvation of civilians as a method of warfare (AP II, Art.14; CIHL, Rule 53).
 Indeed, both the Council of Ministers and the HPR have the power to declare a state of emergency should a breakdown of law and order which cannot be controlled by the regular law enforcement agencies arise. However, such a declaration alone does not entitle the Federal Government to deploy federal forces or the army in a regional state, authorization from the House of Federation is required (FDRE Constitution, Art.93)
 A. Cassese, ‘Current Trends in the Development of the Law of Armed Conflict’, in A. Cassese, The Human Dimension of International Law: Selected Papers, OUP, 2008, pp.3-38.
Marishet Mohammed Hamza is Ph.D. Student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Genève. He can be reached at Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
About a year ago, 18 Amhara students of Dembi Dolo University were fleeing from the unrest in their University. While they were on their way to Gambela, the students were kidnapped in Wollega, Oromia region. One of them managed to escape and gave a testimony of the incident to the news outlet Addis Standard. The rest, most of whom are female, have disappeared without a trace. They have not been heard of since. On the anniversary of their disappearance, Helina discusses if kidnapping of civilian girls and women can be a violation of International Humanitarian Law.
The regulation of NIACs relies on extremely limited legal instruments – Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II (APII) – and a strong Customary International Humanitarian Law contribution. Yet, none have defined kidnapping. Even the jurisprudence of multiple international courts and tribunals have disregarded this. In this blog post, kidnapping is defined as the forcible removal of civilian girls and women from their environment by NSAGs.
IHLs apply once a situation reaches an armed conflict which arises when elements of opposing armed forces are engaged in an attack. Attacks are acts of violence against the adversary whether in offence or defence. It is the use of armed forces to carry out a military operation at the beginning or during the course of armed conflict, a definition applicable in NIACs too. Thus, kidnappings can constitute attacks as long as they are carried out by a party to an armed conflict in furtherance of a military operation or as one by itself, at the beginning or during the course of armed conflicts.
The applicability of IHLs to NSAGs is widely accepted. Hence, they are required to respect the rights of civilians to be protected from being objects of attack. The distinction of civilians and combatants/members of NSAGs is a pillar of IHLs. This protection lasts for as long as civilians refrain from taking direct part in hostilities (DPH). Accordingly, girls are protected by law, from being objects of kidnapping by virtue of their civilian status. School girls from Dapchi in Nigeria, most of whom were later released, were kidnapped by Boko Haram from their secondary school. However, there has not been any indication from any of the parties as to the involvement of any of the girls in the armed conflict nor of the fact that they were taking DPH. Thus, the act is an outright breach of IHLs as it demonstrates the ignorance of such NSAGs towards their responsibility of sparing civilians from targeting.
In addition, act or threat of violence whose primary purpose is spreading terror amongst civilians is prohibited in NIACs. Acts that constitute such violence include assault, rape, abuse and torture of women and children among others. These acts are particularly reprehensible for they are frequent and inflict particularly cruel suffering upon the civilian population. The phrase ‘acts or threats of violence…’ under article 13(2) of AP II was intentionally left to be illustrative. There is no exhaustive list of acts amounting to acts or threats of violence providing a space for kidnapping to be included. Besides, the acts provided as an example under Henckaerts and Doswald-Beck’s Customary International Humanitarian Law share a peculiar feature with kidnapping, i.e. negative long-lasting effect on the lives of victims.
Moreover, women and children are specially protected in armed conflicts. Women benefit from special protection which entitles them protection in the various situations they may find themselves in. Children are also entitled to care and aid they require provision of education, reunification with their families, protection from participating in hostilities and being recruited to armed groups and be taken out of areas of hostility. Furthermore, both girls and women can benefit from the protection against rape and other forms of sexual violence. Kidnapping is contrary to these special protections. Often, it results in outrages upon personal dignity of girls and women manifested through physical and sexual violence, among others. It mostly results in the denial of education to girls who will be kept away from their families and are forced to ´grow´ much faster than they would in their normal environment. There are even times where they are forced to take part in hostilities in different capacities.
Kidnapping is a violation of IHLs. It takes away the multiple opportunities that girls and women can make use of in the real world, making them more susceptible to harm than they already are in an unequal world. Moreover, the subsequent dangers they face while being kidnapped threatens their fundamental and basic rights. In addition, the harmful effect of kidnapping is not only to the girls and their immediate families but also to the broader community and global peace and security in general. It is a threat to the advancement that has been witnessed on the rights of girls and women over the years and undermines the role that IHLs play in the protection of these civilians.
 Jacob Zenn and Elizabeth Pearson, ‘Women, Gender and the evolving tactics of Boko Haram’, (2014) 5(1), Journal of Terrorism Research, 46-57, p.47
Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), 8 June 1977
 A.P.V. Rogers, ‘Law on the Battlefield’, (3rd edn, Manchester University Press, 2012), p.3
 Art. 49(1), Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977
Commentary on the Additional Protocols of 8 June 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, 1987, para.1882 and para.4783
 Daragh Murray, ‘How International Humanitarian Law Treaties Bind Non-State Armed Groups’, (2015) 20(1), Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 101-131, p.101
 The author believes that neither combatants nor members of NSAGs should be subject to kidnapping, as well. But protection for them can be better argued on the ground of limited means and methods of warfare than distinction.
 Hawkar Ibrahim, Verena Ertl, Claudia Catani, Azad Ali Ismail and Frank Neuner, ‘Trauma and perceived social rejection among Yazidi women and girls who survived enslavement and genocide’, (2018) 16(154), BMC Medicine, p.2
id [n.8] Rule 134; Common Article 3(1)(c) provides for prohibition of outrage upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment from which the protection of women can be inferred.
Helina Stiphanos Teka is a research associate at the University of Münster. She has a Master of Laws in International Humanitarian Law from the University of Essex and Bachelor of Laws from Addis Ababa University. She can be reached at email@example.com
Since the attack on the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) northern command base in the capital of Tigray regional state Mekelle, in the early hours of November 4, 2020 by forces loyal to the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation front (TPLF), the Northern region of Ethiopia had been a site of intense military confrontation. On November 23, 2020, the ICRC Ethiopia released a statement denying a claim by the Tigray forces that it has received 858 detainees of Ethiopian National defense force (ENDF) soldiers who were captured in the context of the conflict in Northern Ethiopia.The ICRC reiterated that it is willing to extend its services in returning those detained, should it be asked. This story raises some critical issues from the perspective of IHL like whether armed groups can detain in armed conflicts? If so, on what legal basis? Does IHL provide a sufficient legal base for detentions outside a criminal process (internment) in armed conflicts to be lawful? This short article tries to bring some of the scholarly debates surrounding these issues in the current conflict in Northern Ethiopia. The article will first start by making the case for the application of IHL by classifying the conflict.
Is there an armed conflict for the purpose of IHL and if so, what is the applicable law?
Under IHL, a conflict can either be an international armed conflict(IAC) where it involves use of force by two or more high contracting parties to the conflict or it can be a non-international armed conflict(NIAC)when it involves an armed force of a State and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups or armed conflict between such organized groups themselves. The conflict in Tigray region is between the ENDF, Amhara Special forces and militias on the one hand, and dissident armed forces of the Tigray regional special force loyal to the TPLF, on the other. These rules out the possibility of IAC at least for now. For a NIAC to exist the conflict must reach a certain level of intensity and the groups fighting the state armed forces must be well organized (seehere). Judging by the military engagements reported in the region for the past three weeks the number and caliber of weapons used by both parties, and the number of people fleeing the conflict; it is possible to infer that the conflict is in fact intense. The core of the TPLF forces, even before the conflict, were serving as a regional special force with a clear chain-of-command and territorial control. It is , therefore, possible to decipher they have sufficient level of organization. Hence, the conflict can be classified as NIAC. Since Ethiopia has ratified the Geneva Conventions and its protocols, the second protocol (APII) is also applicable in addition to common Article 3 of the Geneva convention (CA3) and Customary IHL to the current conflict.
Does IHL provide a sufficient legal basis for detentions in NIAC?
Detention is a common occurrence in armed conflicts. Accepting this reality, IHL extensively allows for and regulates detentions in IACs under GCIII and GCIV. When it comes to NIACs, however, there is no such express authorization in both treaty and customary IHL. This has sparked scholarly debates whether IHL provides sufficient legal basis to detain in NIACs. From the perspective of State armed forces, this issue is controversial where the detention took place in a NIAC taking place outside the territory of the state concerned (i.e. extra-territorial NIACs).( See, for example, Mačak pp13-18; Aughey& Sari, for arguments supporting the view that IHL does provide for inherent authority to detain). However, when it comes to territorial NIACs, such legal basis could easily be found in domestic law. The ICRC supports this view, but such legal basis must be informed by the State’s human rights obligations and IHL (CA3 commentary, §763).
Does IHL give Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) sufficient legal basis to detain?
The issue of whether IHL provides sufficient legal basis for detention by NSAGs is a topic of much controversy, even in the case of territorial NIAC. Notable Scholars, agreeing that such inherent authority exists in IHL, argue that it extends to detention by armed groups. (see Clapham pp.6-12; Murray pp. 446-449; Heffes pp. 238-247, and Niyo pp.16-19). Their main argument is based on the principle of equality of belligerents which can be inferred from the wording of CA3 and Art.4, 5, 6 of APII. These obligations include the obligation to treat those detained humanely and judicial guarantees before sentencing which both sides are expected to comply with. Besides the principle of equality of belligerents, proponents also argue that prohibiting detention by NSAGs will create an incentive to kill combatants and fighters rather than detain, going against the very purpose of IHL. If IHL does not recognize and regulate the detention by NSAGs, it would leave a protective gap which will result in abuse of rights of detained persons. (For a summary of these arguments, see Heffes , pp.238-247).
However, this view has been challenged by other group of scholars who argue that there is no explicit provision that provides such inherent authority to detain for both parties in NIAC. They reject the argument that the wording of CA3 and 4, 5 & 6 APII provides implicit authority saying that it does not suggest authorization rather it merely suggests that IHL does not prohibit it. (see for example Laurence Hill-Cawthorne, pp.70-75; Hill-Cawthorne& Akande; Rona, pp.35-37). Hence, they argue the legal basis for detention by NSAGs should be searched for elsewhere like in domestic law or human rights law. In addition to these, scholars in general, oppose the existence of such authority for NSAGs in fear that it would legitimize the latter either legally or politically (See Rona, pp.38-39). The ICRC, in both controversial situations of extra-territorial NIACs and detention authority by NSAGs, seems to agree with the first group of scholars at first sight stating that both treaty and customary IHL provide inherent power to detain which may constitute a legal basis to detain, with the caveat that such legal basis must be bolstered with additional authority regarding grounds and procedures of detention.(CA3 commentary, §765).
The author of this contribution agrees with the ICRC and the first group of scholars in that implicit legal basis for detention by the Tigrayan forces must be derived from IHL. The fact of the matter is IHL do foresee the detention by NSAGs. Recognizing this implicit authority will make it easier also to regulate the detention i.e. calling for humane treatment and judicial guarantees. This is so, as it is difficult to see NSAGs derive legal basis from domestic law of the state they are fighting with. Whether or not these forces are also bound by obligations coming from human rights law is a subject of further interest but that goes beyond the scope of this short piece.
Fekade Alemayhu Abebe is a PhD candidate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
On November 4, 2020, security forces loyal to the TPLF, mainly the regional special forces, made a surprise attack at the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF). Many people are reportedly killed.
Sometime around midnight of the same day, Prime Minister Abiy announced that he had ordered the military to confront the attackers. The TPLF have admitted that the strike at the Northern Command was carried out in “anticipatory self-defense“. Prime Minister Abiy condemned the attack declaring that “the last red line has been crossed” by the TPLF after months of alleged provocations.
As the military confrontations continue between the ENDF on the one hand and forces loyal to the TPLF on the other, there are a number of developments begging reflection from IHL’s perspective.
In this part of the post, based on current developments, I will try to show whether IHL is applicable to the confrontations.
Law Enforcement Operation or Conduct of Hostilities?
The Federal Government describes the ongoing situation as a “law enforcement action” against what it regards as an illegal TPFL junta (clique) responsible for grave human rights violations. The TPLF, however, describes it as a war (conduct of hostilities) aimed at subjugating Tigray. The material scope of IHL, i.e. situations in which it applies, is limited to conduct of hostilities. Thus, leaving aside the claims by each side, characterizing the situation on factual grounds is pivotal to determine whether IHL applies in this particular situation.
Ethiopia is a State party to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977. If the situation is to fall under the scope of IHL, according to these treaties, it should belong to one of the two classifications, international armed conflict (IAC) or non-international armed conflict (NIAC). This classification depends solely on the identity of the parties. Generally, confrontations between sovereign States against each other would be IAC while confrontations between governmental authorities and organized armed groups or between such groups within the territory of a State would be NIAC. As described in the introduction, the confrontation in northern Ethiopia is being conducted within the Ethiopian territory between the ENDF (representing the State and supported by special forces and militia from the Amhara region) and forces loyal to the TPLF, which administers the Tigray region of Ethiopia. This suggests that if the situation is one of a conduct of hostilities, its nature would be a NIAC.
The TPLF alleges that Eritrean forces are involved in the conflict on the side of ENDF. Many people assume that if this allegation is proven, it would internationalize the conflict. However, involvement of a foreign country on the side of the State, under invitation or consent from the later, would not affect classification of the conflict. This means that even if the allegation of involvement of Eritrean forces is true, the situation would still remain a NIAC.
To determine whether IHL of NIACs applies to the ongoing situation in Ethiopia there are two reference points in the law. These are Common Article 3 (CA3) of the Geneva Conventions and Article 1 of Additional Protocol 2 (APII). The latter, which sets more stringent requirements for its application, is meant to supplement the former. Hence, in situations where the conditions for its application are met, both will apply simultaneously. Hence, there would be no need to check the material applicability of IHL in reference to CA3. However, if the conditions for application of APII are not met, one should still go on to check whether IHL applies to the situation based on Common Article 3 (with the exclusion of APII), which provides for a lower threshold for its applicability.
Is APII Applicable to the Ongoing Confrontations?
Article 1 of APII determines the circumstances in which it applies. Starting with a negative definition that its application is limited to situations that are not covered by IHL of IACs as provided under Article 1 of API, it provides that APII applies to armed conflicts “…which take place in the territory of a High Contracting Party between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol.” As soon as the material conditions as defined in this Article are fulfilled, APII automatically applies. By dissecting the criteria laid down in this Article and analyzing the facts on the ground against each, one can determine whether APII (hence the whole body of IHL of NIACs) applies to the ongoing confrontations in Ethiopia. Accordingly, the situation can be determined to be conduct of hostilities rather than law enforcement operation.
The place of confrontations
The definition provides that APII applies to armed conflicts “which take place in the territory of a High Contracting Party”. Ethiopia is a high contracting party to APII, and the confrontation is taking place within its territory.
The parties confronting each other
One of the situations in which APII applies is a situation whereby armed forces of a State confront dissident armed forces. According to the ICRC commentary of the Article, this is a situation “where there is a rebellion by part of the government army or where the government’s armed forces fight against insurgents who are organized in armed groups”. In the ongoing confrontation in Ethiopia, the ENDF (State armed force of Ethiopia) is fighting the armed forces loyal to the TPLF (the dissident force fighting against the Federal government that represents the State).
The responsible command
This criterion implies existence of some degree of organization of the dissident armed forces. According to the commentary on the provision, it means “an organization capable, on the one hand, of planning and carrying out sustained and concerted military operations, and on the other, of imposing discipline in the name of a de facto authority.” The ongoing situation reveals the fulfillment of this criterion as the dissident forces, which are composed of special forces of Tigray and fighters defecting from the northern command of the ENDF, are well organized. The TPLF, establishing command and control structure for the dissident forces, demonstrated a capacity to plan and carry out sustained and concerted military operations against the ENDF and to impose discipline in its name.
Control over a part of the territory
The article provides that the dissident armed forces must be able to exercise “such control over a part of [the High Contracting Party’s] territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol”. It goes without saying that TPLF, as the administrator of the Tigray region, has control over this part of the territory of Ethiopia.
The sustained and concerted character of military operations
Fulfilment of this condition is what effectively determines control over a territory. According to the commentary, “sustained” is to mean that the operations are kept going or kept up continuously while “concerted” refers to military operations conceived and planned by organized armed groups. Since November 4 operations by both sides kept going as conceived and planned by each side.
Ability to implement the Protocol
According to this criterion, being under responsible command and in control of a part of the territory concerned, the dissident group must be in a position to implement the Protocol. This relates to existence of a minimum infrastructure required to apply the rules entrenched under APII at the disposal of the group. As an administrator of one of the ten federating units of Ethiopia for about 30 years now, it would be reasonable to conclude that the TPLF has ability to implement APII.
As facts on the ground suggest that the ongoing confrontation between armed forces of the Federal government and the dissident forces of TPLF fulfill the conditions laid down under APII for its application. Accordingly, it can be concluded that the confrontations qualify as conduct of hostilities.
Fikire Tinsae Birhane Lecturer of Laws and Human Rights, School of Law, Hawassa University. Doctoral Student, Institute of International and Comparative Law in Africa, University of Pretoria. Email address: email@example.comfirstname.lastname@example.org
Have you ever wondered how YouTube videos are recommended for you or how the ads and suggestions relating to your previous activities on the internet like Facebook or any other social media platforms came from? Saving the data and privacy concerns for another time, the immediate answer we get for what’s behind all these is artificial intelligence algorithm. More than we care to admit, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is tremendously affecting our daily lives.
Oxford dictionaries define AI as a theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages. Humankind has a lot of experiences pulling in emerging technologies to military use; AI is no exception. IHL is not opposed to new technologies in warfare. Nonetheless, it requires that any new technology of warfare must be used, and must be capable of being used, in compliance with existing rules of IHL.
One of the fundamental principles of IHL which is the principle of distinction dictates that“the parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians”.
Combatants must also distinguish themselves (i.e., allow their enemies to identify them) from all other persons (civilians), who may not be attacked nor directly participate in the hostilities.
What jeopardizes the principle of distinction is that we do not have an adequate definition of a civilian that we can translate into computer code. The Geneva conventions do not provide a definition that could give a machine with the necessary information. Additional Protocol I defines a civilian in the negative sense as someone who is not a combatant. AI lack components required to ensure compliance with the principle of distinction. First, they do not have adequate sensory or vision processing systems for separating combatants from civilians. Even if the machines had adequate sensing mechanisms to detect the difference between civilians and uniform-wearing military, they would still be missing battlefield awareness or common sense reasoning to assist in discrimination decisions, as like article 44(3) of the Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions acknowledges, “there are situations in armed conflicts where, owing to the nature of the hostilities an armed combatant cannot so distinguish himself.”
SKYNET, uses machine learning algorithm on the cellular network metadata of individuals to try and rate each person`s likelihood of being a terrorist. As most big data businesses, 0.0008% false positive rate seems very low. But, unlike other businesses its failure is not about unwanted YouTube recommendations or displaying an ad to the wrong person; here it is between life and death of a human being. Therefore, if we take 0.0008% of let’s say 60 million population its 48,000 innocent civilians that will be targeted. Accordingly, AI algorithm will consider them as a as threat and certainly they will be a victims of an attack.
IHL states that solely the presence of military or civilians direct participation in hostilities (DPH) among the civilian population does not deprive the population a protection from an attack. This requires the need for military commanders to issue context-based decisions. In addition, identifying hors de combat and combatants or civilians DPH surrendering also require a contextual analysis, and the ability to interpret human intentions. AI inherently lacks both capabilities, which are of a paramount importance according to IHL.
When we come to the feasible measures to achieve the ultimate purpose of IHL which is to limit effects of armed conflict for humanitarian reasons, and particularly to exercise the principle of distinction in warfare we can suggest two recommendations. The first one will be arranging methods to team up human intelligence in interpreting machine languages inputs. Secondly, the international community should closely monitor conflicts that implement the use of AI in warfare so as to further prevent, halt and sanction actions of the perpetrators.
Yoseph Genene is an undergraduate student at the School of Law, College of Law and Governance Studies, Addis Ababa University. He can be reached through the email address email@example.com or twitter @geneneyoseph.
Authors: Dr. Tilman Rodenhauser, Thematic Legal Advisor, ICRC HQ
Raji Gezahegn, Legal Advisor, ICRC Delegation in Ethiopia
Around the world, societies are digitizing. The African continent is no exception. In fact, it is a front runner in certain areas, such as mobile-money services. There are great opportunities in the digital transformation of societies, including for the delivery of health services, mobile banking, communication, educational resources, e-government services and new infrastructure projects. However, there are also risks that these services be disrupted through the malicious use of information and communication technology (ICT) by States and non-State actors. This risk is particularly acute for States with rather weak cyber security systems – according to the ITU 2018 Global Cyber security Index many African states are among them.
‘Cyber Security’ is a flagship project of the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Experts argue that African States should consider a range of measures from coordination and cyber capacity building at national, regional, and global level, to developing a robust international legal framework to protect States and their citizens from digital threats. In this post, we argue that cyber operations are increasingly being used in armed conflicts, African States should embrace the applicability of international humanitarian law in cyberspace as a safeguard against the harmful effects of hostile cyber operations conducted during on-going or future armed conflicts. While African States may not be involved in these conflicts, cyber operations – in particular unlawful indiscriminate attacks – risk spreading beyond the confines of one conflict affect African States incidentally.
“A number of States are developing ICT capabilities that could be used for malicious and offensive military purposes. These technologies easily proliferate to non-state actors. All these developments coincide with increasing tensions at the international levels and a new arms-race. The risk of harmful ICTs attacks against critical infrastructure is both real and indeed very serious.”
International humanitarian law as a protection framework in cyberspace
International humanitarian law (IHL) is the field of international law that applies during armed conflicts. Most IHL rules aim to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure against the effects of hostilities. Of course, in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977 States defined these rules having in mind armed conflicts fought with conventional weapons – but the drafters had sufficient foresight to explicitly include rules making clear that IHL also applies to future weapons, means or methods of warfare (see article 36 Additional Protocol I). While some States have raised questions about the applicability of these rules to cyber operations, In 1996, the International Court of justice stated that the established principles and rules of humanitarian law applicable in armed conflict apply ‘to all forms of warfare and to all kinds of weapons’, including ‘those of the future’. Undoubtedly, this includes cyber operations during armed conflicts. Similarly, the ICRC has long held the view that IHL ‘limits cyber operations during armed conflicts just as it limits the use of any other weapon, means and methods of warfare in an armed conflict, whether new or old’.
In the debate around the applicability of international law in cyberspace, legal experts and policy makers – including in Africa – may wonder whether IHL should be their priority. After all, in many States armed conflicts are fought with guns, not with laptops and malware. Are cyber operations not taking place at a ‘safe distance’ from African States?
IHL prohibits the development and use of malware that targets civilian objects (including what is sometimes called ‘critical civilian infrastructure’) or that spreads automatically and affects military and civilian targets without discrimination. Likewise, parties to conflicts are prohibited from carrying out an attack – including through cyber means – that may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. These are but two examples of the rules that all States have an interest – and an obligation – to see respected.
The way forward: speaking law to power
In 2018, States established two United Nations processes on ICT security (the Open-Ended Working Group and a Group of Governmental Experts). In both processes, States are mandated to study the legal framework governing cyberspace. While States’ views diverge on questions such as whether a new treaty governing cyberspace is needed, especially those States that risk being intentionally targeted or becoming unintentionally affected by cyber operations should have a strong interest and obligation in stressing that existing rules of IHL apply and restrict cyber operations during armed conflicts. In 1977 already, States agreed that IHL cannot ‘be construed as legitimizing or authorizing any act of aggression or any other use of force inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations’. Indeed, IHL must not be regarded as undermining United Nations Charter but as an additional layer of protection for civilians and civilian infrastructure.
“Dr. Tilman Rodenhäuser is a legal adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The views expressed on this blog are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the ICRC. Prior to joining the ICRC in 2016, Tilman has worked with the German Red Cross, the think-tank DCAF, the NGO Geneva Call, and the United Nations, with missions in Africa and the Middle East. Tilman holds a PhD from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and recently published the monograph Organizing Rebellion: Non-state armed groups under international humanitarian law, human rights law, and international criminal law(OUP, 2018). He has also published various articles in renowned international journals and received different awards for his work. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org”
“Raji Gezahegn a legal adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The views expressed on this blog are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the ICRC. Prior to joining ICRC, Raji worked as Lecture of Law for several years. Raji holds two graduate degrees in Public International Law and International Human Rights Law from Addis Ababa University and University of Essex respectively. He can be reached at email@example.com “
The CCM imposes international obligations upon States Parties to refrain from using, developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling, retaining or transferring cluster munitions. It also prohibits assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to undertake prohibited activities. States possessing or affected by cluster munitions must take action in specific areas: destroying stockpiles, clearing remnants of cluster munitions and providing assistance for victims.
Cluster Munitions and South Sudan To Date
In the East and Horn of Africa, Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have signed the CCM, but only two States, Rwanda and Somalia, are party to it. Since its independence in 2011, the Republic of South Sudan has expressed its interest to join the Convention. In 2017, based on a proposal put forward by the Ministry of Justice, the South Sudan Council of Ministers passed the CCM’s accession instrument. In addition to this step the constitution requires approval of the parliament and assent of the President for the country to become party to a treaty. These steps were not completed following the Council of Ministers’ decision so the treaty and its critical provisions do not yet bind South Sudan.
Despite the fact that South Sudan is not yet a party to CCM, it has participated as an observer in meetings of the Convention, most recently in September 2018, when it reaffirmed that it has not used, produced, or stockpiled cluster munitions. In April 2020, South Sudan submitted its first Article 7 Report of the Convention on Cluster Munitions – a voluntarily report on measures taken in respect of cluster munitions. This records the nature and types of munitions in the country, the extent of programs to remove or destroy them, the extent of educational programs to prevent harm and, importantly, measures undertaken to clear areas contaminated by such weapons. Amongst other things, the report noted that South Sudan had made ‘progress in cluster munitions clearance [between] 2011 [and] 2019[:] 18,101,789 square metres of land has been cleared from cluster munitions contamination and 3, 270, 629 square metres of land reduced through non-technical survey methodology’. It explains that ‘12,481-cluster munition and 1,549’ unexploded ordinances were destroyed in the reporting period. Despite these achievements, the report also recognizes the need for further action with ongoing international support, particularly from 2020 to 2027, in several key domains, including clearance, risk reduction and assistance to victims.
Setting the Legal and Policy Framework to Humanitarian Ends
Positive voluntary steps relating to the CCM by South Sudan suggest that the will is there in South Sudan to be bound by this treaty. Decisive action is needed by the executive and legislature to complete the process to bringing the Cluster Munitions Convention into its law, and strengthening international humanitarian law in South Sudan.
Appropriate local legislation and definition of a medium-term policies will definitively transform South Sudan consistent commitment into a tangible framework that can continue to move forward clearance, risk education and assistance to victims. It will enable the State to receive international cooperation and assistance for clearance, stockpile destruction, victim assistance and risk education, as well as economic and social recovery of affected State Parties; and benefit from the experience and expertise of other states and engaged actors’ through participation and contributions to the Meeting of States Parties.
From 23 – 27 November 2020, Switzerland will host the second Review Conference of the CCM. The Conference will adopt a new Action Plan to guide the Convention’s implementation for the next five years, including to increase the number of States Parties. In the lead-up to the Conference, States that have not done so already are encouraged to consider the benefits of expressing their intention to be bound by this fundamentally humanitarian treaty. This is the right time for South Sudan to act and demonstrate its commitment to the Cluster Munitions Convention.
Marco Chol is a South Sudanese lawyer, working as legal advisor at the International Committee of the Red Cross at South Sudan delegation in Juba. He is a holder of a Bachelor of Laws, a specialized Post-Graduate Diploma in Human Rights and IHL from the University of Khartoum, a master’s in international Humanitarian Affairs from the University of York, UK. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Since time immemorial, most of us heard about armed conflicts or been a part of it. It’s undeniable that the effect of armed conflict is often beyond measure. One can easily state that the impact of armed conflict on the environment is so damaging and history is good evidence.
Oftentimes, the causes of soil contamination result from dangerous chemicals that find their way into the soil and disrupt the soil structure. The atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about a massive scale of soil contamination. The radioactive soil has become extremely infertile while the agricultural products that didn’t burn up during the bombing could no longer be consumed due to the massive radiation they contained. Soil contamination often has an immediate and long-lasting effect. A recent short video titled ‘Landmine Girls’ showing the clearing of unexploded bombs left from the Vietnam War, shows the reality of the long lasting effects of soil contamination.
As the survival of human beings relies on food, soil contamination due to armed conflict may result in the lack of food security/or food insecurity. Especially if it’s a country like Ethiopia whereby most of the populations livelihood depends on agriculture the consequences may be drastic. The issue of soil contamination extends well beyond food security. Taking into account what has been stated above, the overall effect can be diminish agricultural product, affect the land system and health of the people leaving at or aside that area.
Evidently, the lands of seventy-eight countries in the world are contaminated by land mines, which kill or maim 15,000- 20,000 people every year. Even the developed world as an example, there are still thousands of tons of unexploded Bombs in Germany, left over from World War II. Since most weapons contain harmful chemicals, the existence of landmines and unexploded bombs on or under the ground for years has a huge impact in soil contamination.
Coming to the protection accorded in international humanitarian law, Article 35(3) of Additional Protocol I prohibits the use of “methods or means of warfare which are intended, or maybe expected to cause, widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment’’. The prohibition has also been included in Article 55(1) of the Additional Protocol I. The prohibition on inflicting widespread, long- term and severe damage to the natural environment is repeated in the Guidelines on the Protection of the Environment in Times of Armed Conflict and the UN Secretary-General’s Bulletin on the Observance by United Nations Forces of International Humanitarian Law.
As stated in the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols, one of the fundamental principles is the principle of distinction and proportionality. In times of armed conflict, civilian and combatants need to be distinguished. Nevertheless, the result soil contamination due to armed conflict through unexploded bombs and buried landmines mostly affects the civilian population during the war and even decades after. The principle of proportionality is another principle affected similarly. Due to armed conflicts, the soil in different parts of the world has been contaminated whereby millions innocent people and generations to come have been affected. These beg the questions, Is taking measures that affect the upcoming generation really proportional? To what extent is the principle of distinction and proportionality being applied in reality?
As the aforementioned questions linger in our minds and so long as armed conflicts continue being frequent, there need to be a serious consideration of the issue and impact of soil contamination. Further evaluation needs to be made before and after armed conflicts to ensure the well being of the soil. The ICRC is also mandated in ensuring that military personnel are aware of their obligation to respect and protect the environment during armed conflict. Even though, armed conflict plays a huge role for soil contamination the issue of soil contamination lacks enough consideration. ICRC’s involvement isn’t enough as this contamination is an environmental issue that concerns all; the international community also needs to play its role. Regarding this issue, especially in Africa, there is no sufficient amount of literature and research.
Clearing leftover landmines and unexploded bombs to solve the issue of soil contamination is a dangerous job. The need for safe and efficient technologies for detecting buried landmines and unexploded ordnance is a humanitarian issue of immense global proportions. Last but not least it’s important to point out what Charles E. Kellogg, a celebrated soil scientist, said “Essentially, all life depends upon the soil…There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.” Indeed, the issue of soil contamination is the issue of life.
 . Susan Pattersin, Master Gardener, Contaminated Soil Treatment- How To Clean ContaminatedSoils. April/5/2018.
 . Guidelines on the Protection of the Environment in Times of Armed Conflict; UN Secretary General’s Bulletin, Section 6.3.
 . ICRC; Environment and international humanitarian law, 29-10- 2010.
. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Glowing bacteria detect buried landmines: Researchers remotely detect buried landmines, using fluorescent bacteria encased in polymeric beads, illuminated by a laser- based scanning system.’’ ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 April 2017.
Rihana Jemal Mohammed is an undergraduate student at the School of Law, College of Law and Governance Studies, Addis Ababa University. She can be reached through the email address email@example.com
Africa is in the process of making modifications on the definition of the crime of aggression, with possible implications on the scope of international humanitarian law (IHL) application. The application of IHL could soon be considered without going through the traditional classification criteria in non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) with regard to the crime of aggression in Africa.
The prospects of modifying the definition to qualify attacks by non-state actors as acts of aggression is a departure from a static and outdated approach to aggression. This is also an attempt to prevent an otherwise conduct of hostilities level of violence going unchecked for a considerable period.
The crime of aggression together with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity can be viewed as core international crimes in the public international law arena. One notable difference in those crimes is that the crime of aggression unlike the others is in the ius ad bellum (the law regarding resort to armed conflict) category. The others are in the ius in bello (the law governing conduct during the armed conflict) category.
At least from the Nuremberg Tribunal, attempts have been made to define and determine the scope of application of the crime of aggression. States have been identified as sole actors in the commission of the crime. Further, the crime is out of the ambit of IHL because ius ad bellum considerations are irrelevant in the interpretation or application of IHL. Therefore, the crime of aggression by itself is not a violation of IHL. It is the conduct after the crime has been committed that may amount to violations of the rules governing the conduct of hostilities. An act of aggression creates room for the commission of the other crimes.
The foregoing shows that an interconnectedness exists between the crime of aggression and other crimes. The connection is visible when an act of aggression results in an international armed conflict (IAC). On the other hand, the chain does not hold in NIACs. The evolution of armed conflicts and the desire of States in Africa, to find sustainable and tailored made solutions indicate that it will be naïve to maintain the traditional approach to the crime of aggression. In fact, Africa’s approach to the crime of aggression may serve as one of the African solutions to African problems.
Should the Protocol on the Amendments to the Protocol of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights (Malabo Protocol) come into force in its present form, or at least on the part on the crime of aggression, a mere invasion or attack by a non-state actor would qualify as an act of aggression. This progressive interpretation and development of international law demands a revisit on the relationship between IHL and the crime of aggression.
Globally, the direct forms of aggression are committed by States and the indirect forms of aggression include inter alia, terrorist attacks and material support such as ideas, money and arms to a State committing an act of aggression. The defect of this view is that it excludes those providing material support as parties to a conflict. The view also fails to address the issue of whether the cross-border element of terrorist and insurgency acts qualify as acts of aggression. From the African perspective, terrorism and material could soon be considered as direct forms of aggression. In this regard, IHL would be activated early.
Material support may precede a violent attack or territorial invasion. Further, an act of aggression may occur within an ongoing armed conflict. This means IHL would once again be called upon to address the complexity caused by additional parties. Hence, IHL cannot afford to detach itself from acts of aggression. IHL should make some adjustments to keep up with the changing battlefield.
This article comes against the backdrop of violent and ῾terrorist᾿ attacks by non-state actors in various parts of Africa. For example, such attacks emerged in Mozambique in October 2017. The government classified them as violence against public order that required a law enforcement dimension response. Words such as ῾terrorism᾿ and ῾insurgency᾿ have been associated with the said situation. These are ῾transnational crimes᾿ which have actual or potential transboundary effects.
The violence in Mozambique has caught the attention of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) governments. On 17 August 2020, the 40th SADC Summit of the Heads of State and Government committed to support the government of Mozambique in combating terrorism and violent attacks. While the classification of the conflict in Mozambique is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth considering whether IHL may in future be applicable earlier than expected in such situations. Reports that the Islamic State of Iraq and other foreign actors are actively involved in Northern Mozambique, ignite debate on whether acts of aggression exist in light of the modifications mentioned earlier.
How IHL responds to these ῾new wars᾿ is of essence. Acts of terrorism have caught the international eye, albeit with no link to the crime of aggression. At present, these acts are prosecutable before an international court if they amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. This demonstrates that at some stage the acts trigger the application of IHL.
The challenge for IHL is that States and other international players are hesitant to activate its application where non-state actors are involved in attacks until the duration and intensity of attacks has reached a certain level. The Malabo Protocol on the other hand, presupposes the existence of an armed conflict from the onset under certain circumstances and a situation in which IHL would be activated automatically like in cases of IACs.
Arguably, an early qualification of a NIAC would be beneficial to non-state actors who would otherwise be deprived of protections accorded by IHL to those who are fighting. Likewise, civilians would enjoy without much delay the protections associated with the status of a civilian during armed conflicts.
Author’s Bio – Emmanuel Maphosa works for the International Committee of the Red Cross Regional Delegation for Southern Africa in Pretoria as a Program Adviser to the Armed and Security Forces Department. He is a holder of a Bachelor of Law Degree (LLB) from the University of Fort Hare and a Masters of Law Degree (LLM) with Specialization in Human Rights and Constitutional Practice from the University of Pretoria.
In today’s armed conflicts, cyber operations are being used as a means or method of warfare. Some States have gone as far as publicly acknowledging their use (for example: France position in 2019), and an increasing number of States are developing military cyber capabilities for offensive or/and defensive purposes.
Despite these developments a comprehensive treaty governing cyber warfare is yet to be tabled. At this juncture it is relevant to recall that international humanitarian law (IHL) treaties have often been accused of being ‘one war behind reality’potentially contributing to the suffering caused by warfare. The aim of this blog post is therefore to shed some light on how States respond to the threats of cyber operations under IHL and unpack stumbling blocks in striking a comprehensive cyber warfare treaty.
Defining Cyber Warfare
Defining cyber warfare is an elusive exercise since any definition has to take into consideration national contexts. For instance: the 2016 United States War Manual defines cyber warfare may be understood to be operations that involve “[t]he employment of cyberspace capabilities where the primary purpose is to achieve objectives in or through cyberspace.” It includes those operations that use computers to disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy information resident in computers and computer networks, or the computers and networks themselves. For example, it may include reconnaissance (e.g., mapping a network), seizure of supporting positions (e.g., securing access to key network systems or nodes), and pre-emplacement of capabilities or weapons (e.g., implanting cyber access tools or malicious code) (See US War Manual p.986). But this definition doesn’t specify the modus operandi whether such operations could be launched during international armed conflicts (IAC) or non-international armed conflicts (NIAC).
For Richard Clarke, cyber warfare refers to “actions bya nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption.” Yet, this definition only embraces cyber wars during IAC not NIACs. A more nuanced sort of definition was provided in the 2019 ICRC Position Paper which reads:
“Cyber operations during armed conflicts is used to describe operations against a computer, a computer system or network, or another connected device, through a data stream, when used as means and methods of warfare in the context of an armed conflict.”
Conundrums in Applying the Existing IHL norms to cyber-warfare
The analogous application of IHL rules applicable to conventional means and methods of warfare to cyber warfare is questioned by some observers. In this regard, Michael Schmitt argues that there is no legal doubt that cyber operations launched during an armed conflict having nexus to that conflict must comply with IHL rules.
The existing IHL norms offer some guidance concerning obligations of States concerning the use of new technologies for warfare. Accordingly, when States study, acquire or adopt new means and methods of war (e.g. cyber operations); they need to assess the legality of their employment under the existing norms of IHL (see Article 36 of Additional Protocol I (AP I) to the 1949 Geneva Conventions). In 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) set a compelling precedent in its advisory opinion on the legality of the threat of use of nuclear weapons (para 86). The Court held:
“…the established principles and rules of IHL applicable in armed conflict apply to all forms of warfare and to all kinds of weapons, including ‘those of the future…”
Likewise, the ICRC’s position paper (2019) further asserted the applicability of the existing IHL norms to cyber warfare. In the ICRC’s view, “there is no question that cyber operations during armed conflicts are regulated by IHL – just like any other weapon or means or methods of warfare used by a belligerent in a conflict, whether new or old.”
Given the unprecedented proliferation of new means and methods of warfare including cyber operations, however, the existing body of IHL should be overhauled to respond to growing concerns seen in cyberspace. This is because the existing body of IHL is not sufficiently crafted to address cyber warfare. In other words, with the exception of handful norms such as Article 36 AP I, there is no comprehensive treaty governing cyber warfare. To fill this normative gap, the International Group of Experts (IGE) proposed a very detailed soft law regarding the application of IHL in cyberspace called the Tallinn Manual 2.0.
Attempts towards a comprehensive treaty governing cyber warfare face numerous challenges. Unilateral declaration of States and international organisations regarding the application of the existing bodies of international(humanitarian) law to cyber operations may be a stumbling block in striking a separate treaty governing cyber warfare. For instance, the United States made its position clear that when a cyber operation constitutes an attack, then the law of war rules on conducting attacks must be applied to those cyber operations, and it must comply with the requirements of IHL such as distinction and proportionality. Simply put, IHL applies to cyber operations in war time, including the principles of precaution, humanity, military necessity, proportionality and distinction. (US War Manual 2016 p.1020). Other countries such as—Australia, France and the United Kingdom have also taken a similar stance.
The use of cyber operations in an armed conflict poses a real risk of harm to civilians. For the protection of the civilian population and civilian infrastructure, it is critical to recognise that such operations do not occur in a legal vacuum. As such, until the international community negotiates and strikes a deal governing cyber operations, States should adhere to the existing bodies of IHL rules. I wish the adage “IHL treaties seen as one war behind reality” would be debunked in cyber context by negotiating and striking a treaty in advance. Finally, instead of making unilateral declarations, States should show a global commitment towards cyber operations—including striking a comprehensive international treaty governing the regime.
Author’s bio: Yohannes Eneyew Ayalew is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Law, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. He can be reached on email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @yeayalew.
Assistant Lecturer, School of Law, Addis Ababa University
The first atomic warhead in the world was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, 75 years ago today, August 6, 1945. An estimated 70,000 people died instantly. The total death toll was around 140,000. The survivors suffered cancer, chronic illnesses, as well as other radiation side effects for decades after. The bomb also damaged 70% of the city’s infrastructure. Three days later, August 9 1945, a second and larger atomic bomb exploded over the city of Nagasaki. The US justified its actions by invoking military necessity. It argued that dropping the bomb shortened the war by forcing the surrender of Japan and saved countless lives that would have been lost by a prolonged warfare. In his first speech after the Hiroshima bombing, U.S. President Harry S. Truman stated that the first atomic bomb was targeted at a military base and precautions were taken to minimize civilian deaths as much as possible. While Hiroshima had some military-related manufacturing plants, an army headquarters, and a military dock, it was disingenuous to characterize a city with more than a quarter-million civilians as just a “military base”. Just fewer than 10% of the civilians killed that day were part of the Japanese military. Besides, no precautions were taken to prevent civilian deaths.
Today, with all the IHL laws and Customary International Humanitarian Law rules, such nuclear weapons should be illegal. Nevertheless, there are many nuclear-weapon states that own nuclear weapons. Many more are currently developing nuclear weapons, a new threat against the restrictions on the means of warfare. Notwithstanding, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a treaty adopted by 122 states in 2017 and will become legally binding after 50 states ratify it (currently only 40 states have ratified it), will require them to reduce the number of nuclear weapons they have.
In 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a landmark advisory opinion on the legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. The ruling confirmed that there is neither customary nor treaty legal authority, which expressly forbids the possession or even use of nuclear weapons. The only prerequisite is that they are used in compliance with the international rules on self-defense and the principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
Considering that the use of nuclear weapons is not explicitly banned by international law, there are concerns on whether the use of nuclear weapons contradict the provisions international conventions, customs or general principles of law that do not even address its use. This issue can be resolved by considering the implications of the use of nuclear weapons based on the fundamental principles of IHL.
The principle of humanity demands soldiers to mitigate the extent of suffering and damage caused by the war. Unnecessary suffering weighs the damage done by the weapon against the military necessity. Nevertheless, the principle of military necessity is not unlimited. It is recognized that IHL imposes limits on military necessity. The mere existence of a military target does not allow limitless damage. The key issue here is not whether a specific weapon breaches international law, but whether the destruction caused or reasonably expected to be caused by a weapon is proportionate to the concrete military objective sought to be achieved by the attack. The principle of proportionality offers a valuable structure to determine the legitimacy of military strategies. It provides that, in using of nuclear weapons, there is no military need justifying the destruction of urban areas, mostly populated by civilians.
A few people argue that nuclear weapons violate the St. Petersburg Declaration and the Hague Convention that provide for the principle of unnecessary suffering. While some agree that it is technically possible for a nuclear weapon to be used short of breaching this law, its real-life applications will cause detrimental extent of damage and suffering. A bomb that explodes amid civilians will cause deaths incidental to the military objectives obtained by its utilization. Even smaller nuclear weapons would be fundamentally unable to prevent such damages. Furthermore, the long-lasting impacts of nuclear weapons radiation on those exposed to it and their descendants is unnecessary for any military advantage. Ultimately, in the case of a nuclear attack, the environment will be a highly toxic area. Sufficient healthcare will also be difficult to find, leading to excessive suffering.
The principle of distinction would also be challenged by the use of nuclear weapons. It is well known in international law that civilians and civilian objects are immune from being directly targeted. Even though, some argue that it is technically feasible to use nuclear weapons in a way that prevents indiscriminate harm to civilians, it is doubtful that such usage would be possible. The use of nuclear weapons will also affect the territories of neutral nations. International law has important principles regarding neutral states. First, that belligerent parties cannot expand the battlefield to the territory of a neutral country, and, second, neutral states even have rights to prevent belligerent parties from entering their jurisdiction. The territory of a neutral State is inviolable; it cannot be absolved by using any of the conventional justifications in international law. The impact of nuclear weapons cannot be limited to the territories of a single country.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons would ban nuclear weapons on the grounds of IHL and prohibits the production, testing, stockpiling, use or threat to the use of nuclear weapons. It aids the victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons and encourages the remediation of contaminated sites. This also establishes mechanisms for a commitment by all States, including nuclear-weapon States, with the aim of the removal of all nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons are cruel and indiscriminate weapons. Their effects are devastating and have catastrophic humanitarian implications over generations. With the adoption of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), many states took a crucial step in building a nuclear-weapon-free future. It is now time to completely ban these weapons. All states that have not yet done so should ratify this treaty, and save generations to come from the horrific consequences of a nuclear warfare.
In the first half of 2020, coronavirus, or COVID-19, has spread across the world, destroying lives and devastating livelihoods. Governments and people are delicately balancing concurrent public health, economic and, in some cases, security considerations. Inevitably, restrictions imposed upon business, movement and human interaction will cause further loss. As elsewhere, African States have taken public health measures to prevent and mitigate the effects of the pandemic, including declaring states of emergency and imposing restrictive measures, such as curfews and border closures. For many people, life is at least partially on hold.
Humanitarian action is also being adapted. In response to the pandemic, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has transformed its activities in the East and Horn of Africa. In Ethiopia, it has supplied infection prevention and control items to vulnerable people and promoted health and hygiene. In Kenya, it has worked – together with the Kenyan Red Cross Society and the Kenyan Prison Service – in 48 men’s, women’s and juvenile prisons, to prevent and mitigate the effects of COVID-19. Similar activities have been organized and implemented with urgency across the region and around the world.
At the same time, persistent humanitarian needs that were identified before COVID-19, or that arise concurrently, must be addressed. In addition to its ongoing protection, health, water, habitat, sanitation and other activities, the ICRC continues to work for the promotion of international humanitarian law (IHL). As the guardian of IHL, mandated by the community of States to work for its ‘faithful application’, the ICRC steadfastly pursues the ratification of, accession to and implementation of IHL-related legal instruments. It continues, in the context of its confidential bilateral dialogue, to persuade the parties to armed conflict to abide by their fundamental obligations for the benefit of the victims of armed conflict.
Importantly, IHL requires respect, protection and care for the sick and facilitates the functioning of medical services. It provides a framework for the protection of those who are particularly vulnerable, such as internally displaced persons, migrants – including asylum seekers and refugees – and persons deprived of their liberty. IHL protects items essential to human survival, such as water, and foresees humanitarian access, creating space for impartial humanitarian actors to provide relief to those in need. In sum, IHL provides crucial safeguards during pandemics.
Despite the challenges of the last year, between August 2019 and July 2020, States of the East and Horn of Africa have continued to express their commitment to IHL through concrete action. Following South Sudan’s accession in June 2019, Somalia and Ethiopia have also become party to the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa. In doing so, these States celebrate ten years since the adoption of this unique, progressive instrument: the first binding international agreement in respect specifically of internally displaced persons, which, amongst many other things, reflects and recalls IHL.
In the same period, Rwanda finalized its ‘Harmonization Study’: an ambitious and comprehensive account of the country’s participation in IHL-related international legal instruments and their domestic implementation. South Sudan made a voluntary report under the Convention on Cluster Munitions, highlighting measures that it had taken to decontaminate unexploded ordinances. Tanzania became the first State in the East and Horn of Africa to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which binds it to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of this critical, fundamentally humanitarian treaty.
In December 2019, States and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies attended the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, adopting a ‘roadmap for better national implementation of IHL’, which provides a ‘blue-print [for] States’ to ensure that the armed forces, civil servants, parliamentarians, judges and / or National IHL Committees can strengthen the national implementation of IHL. It invites States to, amongst other measures, conduct compatibility studies and adopt appropriate law, ratify / accede to relevant international instruments, integrate IHL into military practice, disseminate IHL and share best practice.
In domestic law too, States of the East and Horn of Africa have also progressed on IHL. National law and other implementation measures are being drafted and discussed, including on the use and protection of the red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems. IHL has also been considered and incorporated into counter-terrorism laws, protecting impartial humanitarian actors against the risk of sanction for the conduct of their usual, otherwise-lawful activities (For more information on this topic, see International Humanitarian Law and the Challenges of Contemporary Armed Conflicts, Chapter 5).
In 2019, governments, practitioners and scholars were commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions: the universally ratified cornerstone of contemporary IHL. This year, focus has turned to the law’s role in the context of complex, multifaceted emergencies. This fundamental change mirrors the rapid evolution of the past 12 months and the urgent re-alignment of priorities at both the national and international levels.
The constant, however, is IHL’s enduring relevance in contemporary armed conflicts: protecting persons not or no-longer taking direct part in hostilities and limiting the means and methods of warfare. Perhaps now more than ever, IHL, robustly and comprehensively implemented, is critical in conflict and pandemic-affected contexts.
Esteemed followers of Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic,
The clinic has organized a webinar on the “Role of the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission in Ensuring Respect for International Humanitarian Law”. On this grand event, the President and First Vice-President of the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission will be presenting. All interested are cordially invited to attend the program on the coming Friday afternoon at 4:30 PM Ethiopian time.
In a statement issued regarding the findings of the Office of the Attorney General, Human Rights Watch slammed the findings and questioned how ‘the Ethiopian government distinguishes between combatants and civilians’. The statement further highlighted that the Office of the Attorney General ignored civilians killed and wounded after the fighting had stopped, and reminded the Office and the government that IHL prohibits targeting civilians, even if they had participated in fighting in the past. Amnesty international similarly issued a statement expressing its ‘concerns that the actual purpose of the investigation is to cover up the massacre by claiming that those killed were actually TPLF.’
The concern of the Human Rights Watch and the Amnesty International is legitimate given that the finding of the office of the Attorney General is mainly related or confined to those who were killed during fighting or hostilities. It did not address or cover those who were killed and wounded once the fighting or the hostilities had ended or significantly subsided in that specific incident. Indeed, on 21 May 2021, the Office of the Attorney General issued another statement in which the Office admitted that there have been killings in the city after the fighting had stopped. However, the statement claimed that some of those who have been killed in the city are ‘irregular combatants’.
This triggers a question whether and in what circumstances can the armed forces of a state can legitimately use a lethal force once the fighting had stopped within the context of non-international armed conflict. Can they justify the use lethal force outside of active hostilities by claiming that those individuals against whom force is used are fighters or civilians who participated in hostilities?
The Use of Lethal Force Outside of Actual Hostilities
The legality of the use of lethal force in the context of armed conflict is determined mainly based on the status of a person or the object against which it is used. It is lawful as far as the attack is directed against combatants, fighters and civilians who are directly participating in hostilities. The cardinal obligation of states to non-international armed conflict is to distinguish between civilians and fighters and direct their attacks against fighters. The use of lethal force or directing attack against civilians is prohibited and could constitute war crime unless and to such time they are directly participating in hostilities.
The question, however, is whether the authorization to attack or use lethal force against fighters is limited in the context hostilities or the entire duration of non-international armed conflict. This is important because there is a tendency to use lethal force once the hostility has ended and claim that the person against whom the force is used is a TPLF fighter. The traditional view was that fighters can be targeted anytime in the context of armed conflict. However, currently, there is a growing consensus that once the hostilities have ended or significantly subsided and the armed forces of states controlled the area, lethal force should not be used unless it is absolutely necessary and proportional. Anyone, including fighters, cannot be subjected to lethal force except to respond to an imminent threat to life or bodily integrity.
There are two justifications for this. First, under international humanitarian law, there is no military necessity to use lethal force and kill or wound an individual while he/she can be reasonably apprehended without causing undue danger. General Comment no. 3 of the African Commission, for instance, reminds us that ‘[w]here military necessity does not require parties to an armed conflict to use lethal force in achieving a legitimate military objective against otherwise lawful targets, 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.’ (para. 34)
Second, once the hostilities have ended or significantly subsided, the use of force, even against fighters, will become a law enforcement issue, not a conduct of hostilities issue, and governed by rules derived from international human rights law. International human rights, particularly rules relating to the prohibition of arbitrary killing, requires states to use lethal force as a measure of last resort. They should attempt to make arrest or use less or non-lethal force before resorting to lethal force. Armed forces of a state can resort to a lethal force only when it is necessary to respond to an imminent threat to life. Even in the presence of a serious threat, the force used should not exceed the amount strictly needed for responding to the threat. So, the status of a person as a fighter cannot justify the use of lethal force outside of hostilities.
According to the finding of the Office of the Attorney General, the fighting took place in the mountains area of Axum from 6 A.M to 2 P.M until ENDF’s help had arrived and TPLF forces had backed to the city. The use of force by the Eritrean force in this specific context will be legitimate if it is targeted against fighters and civilians who are directly participating in hostilities. Parties to the conflict can direct their attack or use lethal force against any legitimate military target in the context of hostilities.
However, the Eritrean forces continued using lethal force and killed and wounded many individuals in the city after the fighting had stopped. The use of force in this context cannot be justified by claiming that those individuals against whom force is used are fighters or civilians who participated in hostilities. The legality or otherwise of the use of lethal force in such context does not depend on the status of a person against whom the force is used. Instead, it depends on whether it is absolutely necessary and proportional to respond to serious and imminent threats to life.
Multiple reports, including the detailed report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, indicated that Eritrean forces used lethal force against unarmed individuals, by going house to house, and some after being apprehended. There were no imminent and serious threat posed by these individuals against Eritrean forces or anybody else. Even if these individuals had been suspected of being a TPLF fighter or civilians who directly participated in hostilities, they could have been easily apprehended without causing any danger. The use of lethal force by Eritrean forces against these individuals in Axum was therefore neither necessary nor used as a last resort.
The Extraterritorial Human Rights Obligation of Eritrea
The restriction on the use of lethal force outside of hostilities is derived from the obligation of states to respect the right to life or not to arbitrary kill individuals under international human rights law. This triggers a question whether Eritrea has an obligation under international human rights law to respect the right to life of individuals in Tigray, Ethiopia, where its forces are operating. Indeed, State obligation under international human rights law is mainly territorial with regard to individuals living within their respective borders. However, it could extend extraterritorially whenever they exercise jurisdiction outside of their borders through control over territory or person, regardless of the legality of the control.
Particularly in the context of military operations abroad, General comment no 31 of the Human Rights Committee states that human right obligation ‘applies to those[individuals] within the power or effective control of the forces of a State Party acting outside its territory.’ (para. 10) Similarly, General Comment no 36 noted that states have an obligation to respect the right to life of individuals ‘located outside any territory effectively controlled by the State whose right to life is nonetheless affected by its military or other activities in a direct and reasonably foreseeable manner.’ (para. 63).
Since the start of the military confrontation between the Federal government of Ethiopia and TPLF, Eritrean forces are operating in some parts of Tigray, Ethiopia, under the consent or acquiescence of the Federal government. Accordingly, Eritrea has extraterritorial human rights obligation, including the obligation to respect the right to life, regarding individuals living in territories it controls or individuals over whom it is exercises power and authority as part of its military presence in Tigray, Ethiopia. Eritrea should therefore operate in a manner that respects not only international humanitarian law but also international human rights law.
The Office of the Attorney General should have therefore employed different standards in determining the legality of the lethal force used within and outside of the context of fighting. The use lethal force in the context of hostilities or fighting is legitimate if it is directed against fighters and civilians participating in hostilities. However, the use of lethal force after the fighting had stopped cannot be justified by claiming that the person against whom the force used is a fighter, even in the context of an ongoing non-international armed conflict. Anyone, including fighters and civilians who directly participated in hostilities, cannot be subject to the use of lethal force unless it is absolutely necessary and proportional to respond to serious and imminent threat.
In Ethiopia, the male is the acknowledged master of his family. Marriage is viewed as a means of strengthening the link between families and ethnic groups. Thus, the role of women in this society is that of cementing family ties through bride-wealth and producing children. The cultural perception of women as the property of men has led to a situation where warring factions use rape as a weapon. Researches discussing justice for women impacted by conflicts underline that women who survive rape experience trauma and are usually stigmatized by their own communities. As a result, many women could be reluctant to report rape.
The Tigray Conflict and Violations of Women’s Human Rights
The most authoritative gender-specific treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was ratified by Ethiopia in 1981.CEDAW defines discrimination against women to include gender-based violence; that is, violence directed against a woman because she is a woman, or that affects women excessively. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental, or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion, and other deprivations of liberty. In the context of the definition provided under article 1 of CEDAW, rape during conflict is discrimination against women.
Article 5 of CEDAW calls on state parties to take all measures to fight social and cultural patterns of men and women to eliminate social prejudice and stereotyped roles to protect women from the abuse of any kind that happens within the family, in work, and in the context of armed conflicts including through laws that implement protection from sexual violence and also by facilitating services to those who are subject to sexual violence. In addition to this, CEDAW is very specific, particularly as far as the government’s obligation to provide fully comprehensive services to contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment. These services include medical and psychological treatment, and shelter for those who are subject to sexual violence.
The CEDAW Committee also affirmed that implicit in CEDAW and, in particular, article 2(c), is a right to an effective remedy. It explained that for a remedy to be effective, adjudication of a case involving rape should be dealt with in a fair, impartial, timely, and expeditious manner. In the context of the conflict in Tigrai, although non-state actors cannot become parties to CEDAW, the CEDAW Committee has stressed that under certain circumstances, in particular where an armed group with an identifiable political structure exercises significant control over territory and population, non-state actors are indebted to respect international human rights laws.
According to comments provided by the CEDAW committee what constitutes accountability to end violence against women (VAW) includes both obligations of means or conduct and obligations of results. It highlights that ending violence against women in all contexts requires efforts that include for instance state’s duty to abstain from invading the rights of women. It also includes actions that are positive towards fulfilling and realizing women’s rights through the provision of relevant services. Under article 2 of CEDAW, the obligation to respect, the obligation to protect, and the obligation to fulfill are discussed. Significant obligations that require the attention of the ruling party in Ethiopia are obligations to protect and to fulfill.
Article 3 of the Maputo Protocol also enshrines that every woman has the right to dignity inherent in human beings and to respect as a person and to the free development of her personality. This protocol also clearly prohibits violence against women including women’s protection from physical, sexual, psychological, and economic harm. From the definition provided by the Protocol, it is clear that such protection also includes protection from rape during an armed conflict.
The Maputo Protocol also protects women from the violation of their human rights both in their private and public life; during both peacetime and conflict. The protocol stipulates that states are under an obligation to protect women seeking asylum and refugee status because of a given armed conflict by categorizing acts that have happened during the conflict including rape as a war crime.
Article 11(2) of the Maputo Protocol further underlines that women in whatever ethnic group they belong in a conflict should be provided civilian protection from violence. Here, the Maputo Protocol is very clear that rape during conflict constitutes an international war crime as stipulated under the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the ICC. The Protocol also positions sexual violence including wartime rape as genocide and requires African states when in conflict to adhere to the principles of international humanitarian law. These principles have been violated by parties to the conflict in Tigray.
The ruling party, therefore, needs to take appropriate measures to ensure that violent crimes are promptly reported and women are provided essential services. The ruling party therefore should;
Collaborate with local and international fact-finding missions to ensure that all perpetrators of sexual and other violence against women during the conflict are properly identified and prosecuted to deter the further commission of violent acts not only in Tigray but also in other parts of Ethiopia where violent crimes involving women are documented.
Take appropriate legal, institutional, and financial measures to ensure the provision of comprehensive services for survivors of sexual violence including but not limited to medical, psychological, and social services necessary for their rehabilitation and reintegration with their community.
Facilitate improved funding and support to expand the provision of vital services including one stop centers and safe homes, humanitarian contact, and language access for reporting violent crimes.
Ensure justice and accountability for rights violations and grant other relevant remedies including compensation.
Dunia Mekonnen Tegegn, Ethiopian Human Rights Lawyer and Gender Equality Advocate
Prior to her role as Human Rights Consultant on Ethiopia with the American Bar Association, and a Researcher on Privacy and Media Rights issues with Collaboration for International ICT policy for East and Southern Africa, Dunia worked as an Almami Cyllah Fellow with Amnesty International USA.
Before going to the United States, Dunia Worked as a Human Rights Officer in Addis Ababa in the Africa branch of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She also worked as a Program Officer on Ending Violence against Women and Girls at UN Women and as an Alternative Care Expert with UNICEF. Dunia is a trained Humanitarian Law and Policy profession with PHAP (Geneva).
Dunia holds a Master of Laws in National Security from Georgetown University Law Center and a Master of Arts in Human Rights from Addis Ababa University. Dunia is the first Africa Fellow for Georgetown’s Women’s Law and Public Policy Program to earn a Master of Laws in National Security.
Memberships Dunia is a member of the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), the Ethiopian Bar Association, and the Ethiopian American Bar Association in Washington DC. She also served as a Legal Compliance Coordinator for Your Ethiopian Professionals Network and co-chaired the Africa Committee of the United Nations Association for the National Capital Area.
Esteemed followers of the Addis Ababa University IHL Clinic,
Canadian Red Cross, in partnership with the University of Ottawa, invites you to its IHL NOW 2021 lecture series taking place from May 31-June 4th.
The session starts out with an introductory lecture to IHL by Professor Marco Sassòli, well known by many of you and world renowned in this field.
It is followed by a career panel on where speakers will present on challenges in IHL in relation to the conflict in Ethiopia; the conflict in Yemen; the protection of the environment during armed conflict, and conflict-related sexual violence.
On Thursday, June 3rd, 8:00 PM evening Ethiopian time Daniel Mekonnen a Human rights lawyer and Lea Mehari the Founder of Addis Ababa University International Humanitarian Law Clinic will be presenting on the Tigray crisis in light of IHL.
Editor’s note: The following post is part of the Articles of War Symposium onBeth Van Schaack’s book,Imagining Justice for Syria. The symposium offers a platform for the contributing experts to carry the conversation on justice and accountability in Syria forward.
Despite the long-standing and widespread norm to the contrary, intentional attacks against medical facilities and their personnel in conflicts around the world have increased over the past decade. In Sudan, for example, the government army was accused of deliberately bombing hospitals—including one of the few remaining hospitals in rebel-held territory during the civil war—and schools. In Central African Republic, over 40 medical facilities operated by Médicines Sans Frontièrs (MSF) were intentionally attacked in 2017, and the attacks continued into the following year. Perhaps nowhere have attacks been more rampant than in Syria, where over the course of the ten-year conflict, at least 923 medical workers have been killed in at least 595 documented attacks on medical facilities. Such deliberate attacks contribute to the “humanitarian catastrophe” that Beth Van Schaack describes befalling Syria in her recent and powerful book, Imagining Justice for Syria.
These attacks pose major challenges to the operation of Humanitarian Notification Systems (HNSs), which were set up in various conflicts to share information with warring parties about the locations and movements of both humanitarian sites and workers. These systems are rooted in the assumption that the warring parties will use the information they receive to assist in complying with their duty not to attack humanitarians. We identify a number of challenges such deliberate targeting poses for HNSs—including issues concerning the systems’ purposes, list distribution, and vetting of humanitarian entities. Ultimately, we believe that improvement in the operation of HNSs is possible, but it will require collaborative engagement of humanitarians, international organizations, policymakers, and military leaders, as well as a willingness to re-examine long-held assumptions about how to safeguard humanitarians in times of war.
The Protection of Medical Facilities Under International Humanitarian Law
The protection of medical workers and their facilities is one of the oldest principles of the law of war. It dates back to the first Hague Regulations of 1899 and serves as a bedrock for modern international humanitarian law (IHL). Its purpose was then, as it is now, to protect field medics who care for the wounded and pose no immediate tactical threat. The immunity of medical workers also reflects the belief that medical care preserves dignity in death and suffering, regardless of which side a person fights on. Under modern law, it is a war crime to deliberately target or recklessly strike or attack medical workers and identifiable medical facilities in wartime.
Notwithstanding this clear-cut norm, as mentioned above, attacks on medical personnel and facilities have been rampant. Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon decried the rising number of attacks in a U.N. Security Council meeting in May 2016. Speaking alongside him, former MSF President Joanne Liu fittingly referred to the situation as “an epidemic of attacks.”
There are differenttheories for why warring parties attack medical facilities and their personnel. Scholars have pointed to a broader wartime strategy of punishing civilians for their presumed political affiliations, dissuading medical workers and humanitarians from treating perceived enemies, ridding territory held by opposing forces of civilian infrastructure, or depriving civilians of the means to survive, thereby forcing them to flee or accept that party’s dominance.
Humanitarian Notification Systems
To help warring parties avoid striking medical facilities and their personnel, humanitarian notification systems emerged from military deconfliction processes to notify warring parties of humanitarian “locations, activities, movements, and personnel.” With use dating back to at least the early 2000s, HNSs are now deployed in various conflicts to provide warring parties with necessary data of medical facilities and their personnel, often in the form of GPS coordinates. Participation in the system is voluntary on the part of both warring parties and humanitarians, however, and critically, the systems do not guarantee humanitarian protection.
There are varying models of HNSs administered by different entities. The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), for example, runs centralized humanitarian notification systems in both Yemen and Syria, collecting fixed location and movement coordinates from humanitarian entities and disseminating them to some participating parties. In Yemen, recipients include the Saudi-led coalition; in Syria, they include the United States, Turkey, and Russia (though Russia recently backed out of the system). Importantly, OCHA does not verify the site submissions—including whether or not a site is indeed humanitarian and therefore protected under IHL. Instead, vetting a site’s status is the responsibility of warring parties, who are responsible for their own IHL compliance.
Beyond OCHA, several other entities also run HNSs. These include States, which rely on national humanitarian agencies to collect location data from humanitarian sites and disseminate it to the armed forces of that State, as well as often allied States operating in the area. Humanitarian groups such as the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and MSF also operate their own HNSs. In these ad-hoc systems, the ICRC and MSF work directly with warring groups in areas where they operate. The ICRC and MSF notify the warring groups of their humanitarian activities with a view towards ensuring protection. These systems often involve face-to-face meetings and can include non-State actors.
The Challenges Posed to Humanitarian Notification Systems
The increase in deliberate attacks against medical facilities over the past decade presents significant challenges to HNSs. HNSs are only as effective as the warring parties’ willingness to comply with IHL. Without compliance, HNSs are ineffective at best; at worst, they provide target lists for parties intent on attacking medical sites and personnel. This phenomenon demands a full understanding of the challenges posed by the rise in intentional attacks. We have identified a non-exhaustive list of these challenges below and grouped them into three categories: definition of purpose, list distribution, and humanitarian entity vetting.
Problem Area One: What Are the Purposes of an HNS?
The first set of challenges concerns whether the purpose of HNSs should change depending on a warring party’s (un)willingness to comply with IHL. In Syria, for example, the purpose of OCHA’s notification system as publicly stated is to “mitigate the risks, to the extent possible, of [humanitarian entities] being targeted / hit by an air strike.” But the persistence of strikes on humanitarian sites like hospitals—despite OCHA’s implementation of its HNS—highlights questions about the intended purpose. What functions should an HNS serve in the face of a warring party’s disregard for the law? And how could an HNS be redesigned to better advance those functions?
Protection of Humanitarian Entities?
A traditional view—reflected in OCHA’s system in Syria—is that HNS serves to enhance the protection of humanitarian entities. If this is the purpose, one possible change in HNS operation could be to exclude any party that intentionally targets medical facilities from access to the disseminated list. Or the exact location of humanitarian sites could be obscured in some way to protect them from attack. Other changes could involve using HNS information to discourage warring parties from attacking humanitarian sites by increasing the cost for such actions; for example, HNS information could be used to increase diplomatic pressure or exert public condemnation (“naming and shaming”).
Yet if warring factions repeatedly intentionally target humanitarian entities, it is far from clear how HNS can possibly hope to achieve the goal of protection, given that the legal obligation lies with the parties themselves. In such circumstances, HNS could prioritize accountability rather than protection as its purpose. Enhancing accountability would focus on data tracking and storage. This includes, for example, systematic tracking and storage of confirmation that warring parties received the coordinate lists of protected locations. Such evidence could be used to counter potential claims that a given attack was inadvertent. Admittedly, it is not clear what accountability would actually mean in this context of HNS. One view of accountability contemplates formal judicial proceedings, which would take place months, if not years, after the strikes occurred. Another view is that accountability could happen in real time in the form of naming and shaming.
We must also consider possible implications for humanitarian neutrality, a key principle requiring humanitarians to avoid favoring any side in an armed conflict. If an HNS were to be used to attribute a strike to a specific party, would this undermine the neutrality of the organization administering the list? Would humanitarian organizations be hesitant to participate in a notification system that could be used in a manner that calls out warring parties’ responsibility for IHL violations? And would warring parties refuse to participate in an HNS if they feared that it would be used in this way?
Problem Area Two: Who Gets the List?
The second set of challenges involves the distribution of protected location lists to warring parties if some are suspected of violations. Regardless of the purpose of an HNS, distribution to a party that subsequently intentionally targets hospitals can undermine the system’s functionality. Such distribution could sow distrust among humanitarians in the system. In worst case scenarios, it may lead to humanitarians opting out of the system altogether.
The first issue within this set of challenges is how non-compliance is defined. Is it only when a party commits intentional strikes against humanitarian entities? And if so, how would the intention of a warring party be determined? Must multiple strikes occur before a warring party is considered “non-compliant”? Could a party gain re-entry? These parameters would need to be worked out, likely by the list administrator, its participants, and/or an international body that could set guidelines for HNSs.
A closely connected issue is who decides whether a party is non-compliant. One option would entail leaving it in the hands of the list-controller, the entity that collects and disseminates the information. However, this option could impinge the list controller’s perceived or actual neutrality. This encroachment on neutrality—perceived or otherwise—risks sowing distrust among participants, causing some to decline participation. Instead, one could envision an independent review body in which a diverse set of experts receive evidence of strikes and make determinations of non-compliance. Another option would be to empower the humanitarians to make this decision themselves. If they receive reports that a particular entity is targeting hospitals, they could opt out of sending their coordinates to that specific entity. Perceived and actual biases, information access, and scope of mandates are relevant concerns with respect to all of these options.
A final, broader issue under this set of challenges connects back to the first problem area. If non-compliant members are removed from the system, does that contradict the very purpose of HNS?
Problem Area Three: Should Sites Be Vetted?
Under IHL, a humanitarian site is no longer protected when it is used to commit an act harmful to an enemy—such as serving as a weapons storage facility or a hideout for an armed group. Assertions that a humanitarian site is being used for hostile purposes is often presented as justification for attacks against it. Both Russia and Syria, for instance, have invoked this reasoning numerous times in response to allegations of war crimes.
To prevent misuse of humanitarian sites, and to refute false claims of such misuse, should list administrators vet humanitarian entities before including them in a notification system? Doing so could help refute false allegations, but it raises concerns because legal responsibility for IHL compliance—including confirmation a purportedly humanitarian entity is a legitimate target—is the responsibility of warring parties, not list administrators. Those involved in administering the lists, such as OCHA, might also credibly contend that they lack the resources and intelligence tools that would enable them to vet proposed humanitarian sites, much less conduct continual re-assessment as conditions on the battlefield change.
There are also concerns about the decision-making process. As with the issues raised in the previous problem area, what standards would be used to vet humanitarian entities? Who would decide whether or not an entity is in compliance? How frequently must these determinations be made, given the near-constant changing nature of conflict settings?
Next Steps: Addressing These Challenges
These challenges are serious but not insoluble. Addressing them will require creative, collaborative thinking, and willingness to rethink the design of HNS processes in situations where warring parties do not comply with IHL. Making progress will require bringing together stakeholders from different HNSs—including humanitarians, international organizations, policymakers, and military leaders—whose varying perspectives and interests can present solutions, along with buy-in to those solutions.
There is a cure to the epidemic of intentional attacks against healthcare facilities. But it will require collaboration and a willingness to question long-held assumptions about how to safeguard humanitarians in times of war.
Allen S. Weiner is Senior Lecturer in Law and Director of the Program in International and Comparative Law at Stanford Law School and serves as Director of the Stanford Center on International Conflict and Negotiation.
Bailey Ulbricht is a second-year law student at Stanford Law School, where she focuses on international humanitarian law, human rights law, and U.S. foreign policy.
The views expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
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The right to health was first articulated in the WHO Constitution (1946) which states that: “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being…”. The preamble of the Constitution defines health as: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
The 1948 UDHR article 25 mentioned health as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. In 1966, years after passage of the UDHR, the UN proposed another treaty that includes health care: the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural and Rights (CESCR). Article 12 of the CESCR further clarified “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” “Health” in this context is understood as not just the right to be healthy and have health care, but as a right to control one’s own body, including reproduction. Article 12 goes on to require that “states must protect this right by ensuring that everyone within their jurisdiction has access to the underlying determinants of health, such as clean water, sanitation, food, nutrition, and housing, and through a comprehensive system of health care, which is available to everyone without discrimination, and economically accessible to all.” The right to health framework is set forth in general comment No. 14 of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which interprets the right to health and mandates States to respect, protect and fulfill the right to health of everyone, including persons affected by and/or involved in conflicts.
Armed conflict is one of the circumstances in which health care delivery is most needed. Despite this fact, attacks on and interference with health care services, providers, facilities, transports, and patients in situations of armed conflict pose huge challenges to health care delivery.
In the world`s youngest nation South Sudan, not only hundreds of thousands of people have been effectively denied lifesaving assistance; but also, patients murdered in their beds in the town of Malakal, upper Nile state. A hospital in Leer, Unity state, was “thoroughly looted, burned and vandalized”. The MSF compound in Bentiu, capital of Unity state was also looted amid heavy fighting.
In the neighbor Ethiopia, in the recent situation in Tigray region, health facilities have been looted, vandalized, and destroyed in a deliberate and widespread attack on health care, ambulances have been seized by armed groups, and many health facilities have few or no remaining staff. Some have fled in fear; others no longer come to work because they have not been paid in months.
In Libya, on 18 February 2018, a woman in labor and her unborn child died on their way to the Wehda hospital, after armed men affiliated with the Libyan National Army at the Kirsa checkpoint, west of Derna, delayed their passage. Such acts are in breach of the obligation of parties to the conflict under IHL to ensure that adequate medical care is provided to the wounded and sick as far as practicable and with the least possible delay.
Also in Libya, in 2011 uprising discriminatory practices were frequently employed. Cars were stopped to prevent patients belonging to opposing ethnic groups reaching hospitals. IHL focuses on impartiality in responding to individuals in immediate need of care rather than on the structure and availability of services. IHL would forbid turning away a woman in labor based on her ethnic or political affiliation, it does not address entrenched practices that limit the availability, accessibility, and quality of facilities and services to members of her group and may make it dangerous for her to seek care. International Human Rights Law (IHRL) can assist in powerfully addressing these infringements.
The application of the general International Human Rights Law (IHRL) in an armed conflict is no more a debate. As settled by the ICJ, it will play a vital role protecting the right to health of individuals by complementing IHL which is the special law which applies in an armed conflict.
The right to health has been interpreted as consisting of key entitlements and state responsibilities, including the interrelated and essential elements of availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality of health care services, facilities, and goods.
IHL remains a critically important set of rules through which to address obligations with respect to health in armed conflict, with IHRL acting as a powerful complement to it. In circumstances where no armed conflict exists, but where health workers, facilities, patients, and ambulances are subject to threats, attacks, and other forms of interference and denial, IHRL fills an important gap.
As IHRL has been contributing to ensure the interests and needs of the powerless and the vulnerable, also in time of armed conflict and in time where there`s a debate whether the situation is an armed conflict or law enforcement, the application of IHRL will address the powerlessness experienced by those seeking care and those trying to provide it, across all conflict settings.
Yoseph Genene is an undergraduate student at the School of Law, College of Law and Governance Studies, Addis Ababa University. He can be reached through the email address email@example.com or twitter @geneneyoseph