MH17 and war crimes


The shooting down of Malaysian Airlines 17 over the territory of Ukraine should indeed be a source of great alarm. To begin with, airline travel has toady become the primary mode of transportation for passengers. I log in no less than 50,000 miles per year because I am engaged in the practice of International Law. The 11 million Filipino diaspora worldwide rely on air travel to reach their place of work and to return to their loved ones here in the Philippines. In fact, the three Filipinos based in the Netherlands who perished in the ill-fated flight were part of that diaspora. The concern is if a civilian airliner could accidentally be fired upon by a surface to air missile in an area with an armed conflict, no air passenger is in fact safe today.

The incident, under existing air travel conventions, should primarily be investigated by Ukrainian authorities. This is because Ukraine remains sovereign over its airspace. This is part of its territory. But even if this is the case, the shooting down of a civilian airliner is a concern for the entire international community. This is because the shooting incident is a grave breach of the non-derogable norms of the laws and customs of armed conflict, International Humanitarian Law. Under this law, combatants and fighters must at all times distinguish between civilians, as protected individuals, and other combatants and fighters. The rules say that civilians must not be the object of attack. This is in line with the avowed purpose of the law, which is to spare civilians and other protected persons, of the adverse consequences of an armed conflict. This is why the Geneva Conventions, the treaty that restates the norms of International Humanitarian Law, remains today to be the only universally ratified convention in our planet.

Why is International Humanitarian Law (IHL) applicable to the incident?

It is applicable since there is an armed conflict in parts of Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists have taken up arms with the goal of either creating a new state, or to be reunified with Russia. IHL is applicable to both international and non-international armed conflicts. Here, the rules applicable appear to be those for non-international armed conflicts since it is uncertain if the support given by Russia to the separatists is sufficient to ‘internationalize” the conflict. Thus far, it appears that the separatists, while armed and financed by Russia, do not appear to be under either the effective or over-all control of Russia. In any case, the duty to distinguish between combatants and civilians is a positive obligation of all fighters regardless of the type of conflict.

So how does the application of IHL affect the incident?

In many ways. To begin with, the investigation, apprehension, prosecution and punishment of all those behind the shooting become the concern not only of Ukraine, but the entire international community. In fact, their apprehension and punishment under the doctrine of au dudire au adjudicare are an obligation of all states. Russia hence, must take steps, as do Ukrainian authorities, to investigate the incident and ensure their prosecution and punishment. In default of this duty, Russia is under a positive obligation to surrender the suspected perpetrators to the jurisdiction of a third state that is able and willing to prosecute them.

International precedents have also treated attacks on civilians also as threats to international peace. IHL, or jus in belo, is distinct form the law that determines the legality of the use of force, Jud ad bellum. Under the latter the UN Charter provides that the use of force is illegal save in instances of self-defense or when authorized by the UN Security Council itself. The Security Council, in turn, has characterized the duty of states to turn over suspected perpetrators of attacks against civilian airlines as a binding obligation of UN member states. This was why Libya had to later create a fund to indemnify victims of the Lockerbie incident where a Pan-American airline 747 was shot down in the airspace of Lockerbie, Scotland. Libya initially invoked the provisions of the Montréal convention to argue that it should exercise jurisdiction over the suspected Libyan bombers, but the Security Council, weary of a moro-moro, said that Libya should turn over the suspects to United States authorities, the flag state of Pan Am. Libya’s initial refusal to turn over the suspects became the grounds for the imposition of economic sanctions against it for a very long time. In fact, the sanctions were only lifted shortly before the ouster of Khadafy and after it agreed to put up the fund to indemnify the victims.

Apart from the duty to investigate and prosecute, can Russia incur additional responsibility for the incident?

This would depend on whether evidence can be presented to prove that the separatists are in fact acting for and on its behalf. In the case of the contras that were financed and used by the Americans in attempting to topple the then Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, the International Court of Justice said that the mere training and funding do not make the acts of the contras attributable to the United States, The Court said that it must be shown that the contras were under the effective control of the Americans so that their acts could be attributed to the latter; this means that all the acts of the contras should be shown as undertaken upon orders of the American. This is a very high threshold.

This is probably why the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia formulated an alternative test known as the Over-all Control test. Under this test it need only be shown that the third state shared the same military objectives as the armed insurgents, even if the daily course of battle is not dictated by the third state. The problem is that the ICJ in a later case of Bosnia vs., Serbia ruled that the correct test should still be the higher Effective Control test. Currently, it is uncertain which test should apply. Maybe the ill-fated MH17 incident will provide the answer.

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