8 July 2011

"Gentlemen at home, hoodlums elsewhere..."

Yesterday, lost amid the hacking hullabaloo and the implosion of the News of the World, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights handed down two judgments in cases taken against the United Kingdom, in Al-Skeini and Others and Al-Jedda.  The underlying facts of both applications concerned armed conflict in which UK troops were involved, the latter in Kosovo, the former in Basra, Iraq. This isn't a blog primarily concerned with the human rights jurisprudence of the Strasbourg Court, so I don't propose to go into the legal findings in any detail.  For those interested, the speedy legalists Adam Wagner of the UK Human Rights blog and Antoine Buyse of the ECHR blog have already composed a thought or two on the European Court's findings. Marko Milanovic offers a more elaborated treatment on the blog of the European Journal of International Law. I just wanted to draw your attention to this amazingly caustic concurring opinion from the lushly face-furnitured Judge Giovanni Bonello, elected to the European Court in respect of Malta. While Judge Bonnello's remarks do stray onto issues of law occasionally, his prose is sufficiently peppery, picturesque, general and indicting about the UK-US coalition's invasion of Iraq - and the UK's attempts to argue its way out of responsibility for civilian deaths caused by British troops in Basra before the Court - to entertain and inform a general audience about what was at stake in the case.


1. These six cases deal primarily with the issue of whether Iraqi civilians who allegedly lost their lives at the hands of United Kingdom soldiers, in non-combat situations in the United Kingdom-occupied Basrah region of Iraq, were “within the jurisdiction” of the United Kingdom when those killings took place.

2. When, in March 2003, the United Kingdom, together with the other Coalition forces invaded Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) conferred upon members of that Authority the fullest jurisdictional powers over Iraq: “The CPA is vested with all executive, legislative and judicial authority necessary to achieve its objectives”. This included the “power to issue legislation”: “The CPA shall exercise powers of government temporarily”.

3. I fully agreed with the findings of the Court, but I would have employed a different test (a “functional jurisdiction” test) to establish whether or not the victims fell within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. Though the present judgment has placed the doctrines of extra-territorial jurisdiction on a sounder footing than ever before, I still do not consider wholly satisfactory the re-elaboration of the traditional tests to which the Court has resorted.

Extra-territorial jurisdiction or Functional jurisdiction?

4. The Court’s case-law on Article 1 of the Convention (the jurisdiction of the Contracting Parties) has, so far, been bedevilled by an inability or an unwillingness to establish a coherent and axiomatic regime, grounded in essential basics and even-handedly applicable across the widest spectrum of jurisdictional controversies.

5. Up until now, the Court has, in matters concerning the extra-territorial jurisdiction of Contracting Parties, spawned a number of “leading” judgments based on a need-to-decide basis, patchwork case-law at best. Inevitably, the doctrines established seem to go too far to some, and not far enough to others. As the Court has, in these cases, always tailored its tenets to sets of specific facts, it is hardly surprising that those tenets then seem to limp when applied to sets of different facts. Principles settled in one judgment may appear more or less justifiable in themselves, but they then betray an awkward fit when measured against principles established in another. Issa flies in the face of Banković and the cohabitation of Behrami with Berić is, overall, quite problematic.

6. The late Lord Rodger in the House of Lords had my full sympathy when he lamented that, in its application of extra-territorial jurisdiction “the judgments and decisions of the European Court do not speak with one voice”. The differences, he rightly noted, are not merely ones of emphasis. Some “appear much more serious”.

7. The truth seems to be that Article 1 case-law has, before the present judgment, enshrined everything and the opposite of everything. In consequence, the judicial decision-making process in Strasbourg has, so far, squandered more energy in attempting to reconcile the barely reconcilable than in trying to erect intellectual constructs of more universal application. A considerable number of different approaches to extra-territorial jurisdiction have so far been experimented with by the Court on a case-by-case basis, some not completely exempt from internal contradiction.

8. My guileless plea is to return to the drawing board. To stop fashioning doctrines which somehow seem to accommodate the facts, but rather, to appraise the facts against the immutable principles which underlie the fundamental functions of the Convention.

9. The founding members of the Convention, and each subsequent Contracting Party, strove to achieve one aim, at once infinitesimal and infinite: the supremacy of the rule of human rights law. In Article 1 they undertook to secure to everyone within their jurisdiction the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Convention. This was, and remains, the cornerstone of the Convention. That was, and remains, the agenda heralded in its preamble: “the universal and effective recognition and observance” of fundamental human rights. “Universal” hardly suggests an observance parcelled off by territory on the checkerboard of geography.

10. States ensure the observance of human rights in five primordial ways: firstly, by not violating (through their agents) human rights; secondly, by having in place systems which prevent breaches of human rights; thirdly, by investigating complaints of human rights abuses; fourthly, by scourging those of their agents who infringe human rights; and, finally, by compensating the victims of breaches of human rights. These constitute the basic minimum functions assumed by every State by virtue of its having contracted into the Convention.

11. A “functional” test would see a State effectively exercising “jurisdiction” whenever it falls within its power to perform, or not to perform, any of these five functions. Very simply put, a State has jurisdiction for the purposes of Article 1 whenever the observance or the breach of any of these functions is within its authority and control.

12. Jurisdiction means no less and no more than “authority over” and “control of”. In relation to Convention obligations, jurisdiction is neither territorial nor extra-territorial: it ought to be functional - in the sense that when it is within a State’s authority and control whether a breach of human rights is, or is not, committed, whether its perpetrators are, or are not, identified and punished, whether the victims of violations are, or are not, compensated, it would be an imposture to claim that, ah yes, that State had authority and control, but, ah no, it had no jurisdiction.

13. The duties assumed through ratifying the Convention go hand in hand with the duty to perform and observe them. Jurisdiction arises from the mere fact of having assumed those obligations and from having the capability to fulfil them (or not to fulfil them).

14. If the perpetrators of an alleged human rights violation are within the authority and control of one of the Contracting Parties, it is to me totally consequential that their actions by virtue of that State’s authority, engage the jurisdiction of the Contracting Party. I resist any helpful schizophrenia by which a nervous sniper is within the jurisdiction, his act of shooting is within the jurisdiction, but then the victims of that nervous sniper happily choke in blood outside it. Any hiatus between what logical superglue has inexorably bonded appears defiantly meretricious, one of those infelicitous legal fictions a court of human rights can well do without.

15. Adhering to doctrines other than this may lead in practice to some riotous absurdities in their effects. If two civilian Iraqis are together in a street in Basrah, and a United Kingdom soldier kills the first before arrest and the second after arrest, the first dies desolate, deprived of the comforts of United Kingdom jurisdiction, the second delighted that his life was evicted from his body within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. Same United Kingdom soldier, same gun, same ammunition, same patch of street - same inept distinctions. I find these pseudo-differentials spurious and designed to promote a culture of law that perverts, rather than fosters, the cause of human rights justice.

16. In my view, the one honest test, in all circumstances (including extra- territoriality), is the following: did it depend on the agents of the State whether the alleged violation would be committed or would not be committed? Was it within the power of the State to punish the perpetrators and to compensate the victims? If the answer is yes, self-evidently the facts fall squarely within the jurisdiction of the State. All the rest seems to me clumsy, self-serving alibi hunting, unworthy of any State that has grandiosely undertaken to secure the “universal” observance of human rights whenever and wherever it is within its power to secure them, and, may I add, of courts whose only raison d’etre should be to ensure that those obligations are not avoided or evaded. The Court has, in the present judgment, thankfully placed a sanitary cordon between itself and some of these approaches.

17. The failure to espouse an obvious functional test, based exclusively on the programmatic agenda of the Convention, has, in the past, led to the adoption of a handful of sub-tests, some of which may have served defilers of Convention values far better then they have the Convention itself. Some of these tests have empowered the abusers and short-changed their victims. For me the primary questions to be answered boil down to these: when a State ratifies the Convention, does it undertake to promote human rights wherever it can, or does it undertake to promote human rights inside its own confines and to breach them everywhere else? Did the Contracting Party ratify the Convention with the deliberate intent of discriminating between the sanctity of human rights within its own territory and their paltry insignificance everywhere else?

18. I am unwilling to endorse à la carte respect for human rights. I think poorly of an esteem for human rights that turns casual and approximate depending on geographical coordinates. Any State that worships fundamental rights on its own territory but then feels free to make a mockery of them anywhere else does not, as far as I am concerned, belong to that comity of nations for which the supremacy of human rights is both mission and clarion call. In substance the United Kingdom is arguing, sadly, I believe, that it ratified the Convention with the deliberate intent of regulating the conduct of its armed forces according to latitude: gentlemen at home, hoodlums elsewhere.

19. The functional test I propose would also cater for the more rarefied reaches of human rights protection, like respect for the positive obligations imposed on Contracting Parties: was it within the State’s authority and control to see that those positive obligations would be respected? If it was, then the functional jurisdiction of the State would come into play, with all its natural consequences. If, in the circumstances, the State is not in such a position of authority and control as to be able to ensure extraterritorially the fulfilment of any or all of its positive obligations, that lack of functional authority and control excludes jurisdiction, limitedly to those specific rights the State is not in a position to enforce.

20. This would be my universal vision of what this Court is all about – a bright line approach rather than case by case, more or less inspired, more or less insipid, improvisations, cluttering the case-law with doctrines which are, at best, barely compatible and at worst blatantly contradictory – and none measured against the essential yardstick of the supremacy and universality of human rights anytime, anywhere.


21. I consider the doctrine of functional jurisdiction to be so linear and compelling that I would be unwilling to acquiesce to any exceptions, even more so in the realm of the near-absolute rights to life and to freedom from torture and degrading or inhuman treatment or punishment. Without ever reneging on the principle of the inherent jurisdiction of the occupying power that usually flows from military conquest, at most the Court could consider very limited exceptions to the way in which Article 2 and Article 3 are applied in extreme cases of clear and present threats to national security that would otherwise significantly endanger the war effort. I would not, personally, subscribe to any exceptions at all.


22. Applying the functional test to the specifics of these cases, I arrive at the manifest and inescapable conclusion that all the facts and all the victims of the alleged killings said to have been committed by United Kingdom servicemen fall squarely within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, which had, in Basrah and its surroundings, an obligation to ensure the observance of Articles 2 and 3 of the Convention. It is uncontested that the servicemen who allegedly committed the acts that led to the deaths of the victims were under United Kingdom authority and control; that it was within the United Kingdom’s authority and control whether to investigate those deaths or not; that it was within the United Kingdom’s authority and control whether to punish any human rights violations, if established; and that it was within the United Kingdom’s authority and control whether to compensate the victims of those alleged violations or their heirs. Concluding that the United Kingdom had all this within its full authority and control, but still had no jurisdiction, would for me amount to a finding as consequential as a good fairy tale and as persuasive as a bad one.

23. The test adopted by the Court in this case has led to a unanimous finding of jurisdiction. Though I believe the functional test I endorse would better suit any dispute relating to extra-territorial jurisdiction, I would still have found that, whatever the test adopted, all the six killings before the Court engaged United Kingdom jurisdiction. I attach to this opinion a few random observations to buttress my conclusions.

Presumption of jurisdiction

24. I would propose a different test from that espoused by the domestic courts to establish or dismiss extra-territorial jurisdiction in terms of Article 1, in cases concerning military occupation, when a State becomes the recognised “occupying power” according to the Geneva and The Hague instruments. Once a State is acknowledged by international law to be “an occupying power”, a rebuttable presumption ought to arise that the occupying power has “authority and control” over the occupied territory, over what goes on there and over those who happen to be in it – with all the consequences that flow from a legal presumption. It will then be incumbent on the occupying power to prove that such was the state of anarchy and impotence prevailing, that it suffered a deficit of effective authority and control. It will no longer be for the victim of wartime atrocities to prove that the occupying power actually exercised authority and control. It will be for the occupying power to rebut it.

25. I was puzzled to read in the domestic proceedings that “the applicants had failed to make a case” for United Kingdom authority and control in the Basrah region. I believe that the mere fact of a formally acknowledged military occupation ought to shift any burden of proof from the applicants to the respondent Government.

26. And it will, in my view, be quite arduous for an officially recognised “occupying power” to disprove authority and control over impugned acts, their victims and their perpetrators. The occupying power could only do that successfully in the case of infamies committed by forces other than its own, during a state of total breakdown of law and order. I find it bizarre, not to say offensive, that an occupying power can plead that it had no authority and control over acts committed by its own armed forces well under its own chain of command, claiming with one voice its authority and control over the perpetrators of those atrocities, but with the other, disowning any authority and control over atrocities committed by them and over their victims.

27. It is my view that jurisdiction is established when authority and control over others are established. For me, in the present cases, it is well beyond surreal to claim that a military colossus which waltzed into Iraq when it chose, settled there for as long as it cared to and only left when it no longer suited its interests to remain, can persuasively claim not to have exercised authority and control over an area specifically assigned to it in the geography of the war games played by the victorious. I find it uncaring to the intellect for a State to disclaim accountability for what its officers, wearing its uniforms, wielding its weapons, sallying forth from its encampments and returning there, are alleged to have done. The six victims are said to have lost their lives as a result of the unlawful actions of United Kingdom soldiers in non-combat situations - but no one answers for their death. I guess we are expected to blame it on the evil eye.

28. Jurisdiction flows not only from the exercise of democratic governance, not only from ruthless tyranny, not only from colonial usurpation. It also hangs from the mouth of a firearm. In non-combat situations, everyone in the line of fire of a gun is within the authority and control of whoever is wielding it.

Futility of the case-law

29. The undeniable fact is that this Court has never, before today, had to deal with any case in which the factual profiles were in any way similar to those of the present applications. This Court has, so far, had several occasions to determine complaints which raised issues of extra-territorial jurisdiction, but all of a markedly different nature. Endeavouring to export doctrines of jurisdiction hammered out in a case of a solitary air-strike over a radio station abroad (Banković) to allegations of atrocities committed by the forces of an occupying power, which has assumed and kept armed control of a foreign territory for well over three years, is anything but consequent. I find the jurisdictional guidelines established by the Court to regulate the capture by France of a Cambodian drug-running ship on the high seas, for the specific purpose of intercepting her cargo and bringing the crew to justice (Medvedyev), to be quite distracting and time-wasting when the issue relates to a large territory outside the United Kingdom, conquered and held for over three years by the force of arms of a mighty foreign military set-up, recognised officially by international law as an “occupying power”, and which had established itself indefinitely there.

30. In my view, this relentless search for eminently tangential case-law is as fruitful and fulfilling as trying to solve one crossword puzzle with the clues of another. The Court could, in my view, have started the exercise by accepting that this was judicial terra incognita, and could have worked out an organic doctrine of extra-territorial jurisdiction, untrammelled by the irrelevant and indifferent to the obfuscating.

Indivisibility of Human Rights

31. The foregoing analysis is not at all invalidated by what is termed the “indivisibility of human rights” argument which runs thus: as human rights are indivisible, once a State is considered to have extra-territorial “jurisdiction”, then that State is held to be bound to enforce all the human rights enshrined in the Convention. Conversely, if that State is not in a position to enforce the whole range of Convention human rights, it does not have jurisdiction.

32. Hardly so. Extraterritorially, a Contracting State is obliged to ensure the observance of all those human rights which it is in a position to ensure. It is quite possible to envisage situations in which a Contracting State, in its role as an occupying power, has well within its authority the power not to commit torture or extra-judicial killings, to punish those who commit them and to compensate the victims – but at the same time that Contracting State does not have the extent of authority and control required to ensure to all persons the right to education or the right to free and fair elections: those fundamental rights it can enforce would fall squarely within its jurisdiction, those it cannot, on the wrong side of the bright line. If the “indivisibility of human rights” is to have any meaning at all, I would prefer that meaning to run hand in hand with that of the “universality of human rights”.

33. I believe that it ill suits the respondent Government to argue, as they have, that their inability to secure respect for all fundamental rights in Basrah, gave them the right not to respect any at all.

A vacuum of jurisdiction?

34. In spite of the fact that, as a leading partner in the Coalition Provisional Authority, the United Kingdom Government were “vested with all executive, legislative and judicial authority” over that part of vanquished Iraq assigned to them, the United Kingdom went a long and eloquent way in its attempt to establish that it did not exercise jurisdiction over the area assigned to it. It just stopped short of sharing with the Court who did. Who was the mysterious, faceless rival which, instead of it, exercised executive, legislative and judicial authority for three years and more over the area delegated to the United Kingdom? There unquestionably existed a highly volatile situation on the ground, pockets of violent insurgency and a pervasive, sullen resistance to the military presence.

35. However, in the Basrah region, some authority was still giving orders, laying down the law (juris dicere - defining what the binding norm of law is), running the correctional facilities, delivering the mail, establishing and maintaining communications, providing health services, supplying food and water, restraining military contraband and controlling criminality and terrorism as best it could. This authority, full and complete over the United Kingdom military, harassed and maimed over the rest, was the United Kingdom’s.

36. The alternative would be to claim that Basrah and the region under the United Kingdom’s executive, legislative and judicial responsibility hovered in an implacable legal void, sucked inside that legendary black hole, whose utter repulsion of any authority lasted well over three years. A proposition unlikely to find many takers on the legal market.

Human rights imperialism

37. I confess to be quite unimpressed by the pleadings of the United Kingdom Government to the effect that exporting the European Convention on Human Rights to Iraq would have amounted to “human rights imperialism”. It ill behoves a State that imposed its military imperialism over another sovereign State without the frailest imprimatur from the international community, to resent the charge of having exported human rights imperialism to the vanquished enemy. It is like wearing with conceit your badge of international law banditry, but then recoiling in shock at being suspected of human rights promotion.

38. Personally, I would have respected better these virginal blushes of some statesmen had they worn them the other way round. Being bountiful with military imperialism but bashful of the stigma of human rights imperialism, sounds to me like not resisting sufficiently the urge to frequent the lower neighbourhoods of political inconstancy. For my part, I believe that those who export war ought to see to the parallel export of guarantees against the atrocities of war. And then, if necessary, bear with some fortitude the opprobrium of being labelled human rights imperialists.

39. I, for one, advertise my diversity. At my age, it may no longer be elegant to have dreams. But that of being branded in perpetuity a human rights imperialist, I acknowledge sounds to me particularly seductive.


  1. We could do with more like this principled gentleman in our own courts (and in the Legislature!.

  2. Bobelix,

    It is true: Bonello's florid style is certainly not typical of the prose of the Scots bench, who favour a rather heatless, analytical prose, even when riled. Their judicial kickings are general administered in arch, exaggeratedly polite ways.