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On 2nd May, the High Court held that the UK Government must pay Serdar Mohammed (SM) compensation because British troops detained him unlawfully in Afghanistan. The case raised a myriad of international law issues, which are dealt with elegantly in an extensive judgment by Mr Justice Leggatt. This post will attempt to summarise some of the key issues involved.
SM is an Afghan citizen, who was captured (as a suspected Taliban commander) by British forces, operating as part of the UN’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), during a 2010 military operation in northern Helmand. He was imprisoned on UK military bases for 110 days, after which he was transferred to Afghan detention where he remains to this day.
He alleged that his detention by British forces was unlawful under (a) Afghan law (which applied to any tortious action committed by UK forces under Section 11 of the Private International Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1995), and (b) the right to liberty and security under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention).
Leaving Afghan law aside for now, the Judge found that SM’s detention breached Article 5 once it passed 96 hours in duration.
Leggatt J found that the ISAF detention policy, which permitted 96 hours of detention before a detainee must be handed over to the Afghan authorities, was compatible with Article 5. However, the UK had adopted a separate national policy in 2009, which permitted detention beyond 96 hours for the purpose of “interrogating a detainee who could provide significant new intelligence” (para 4). That was the basis on which SM was held for 25 days after the initial 96 hour period. Leggatt J held that this was not a purpose permitted by Article 5. SM was then held for a further 81 days in what Leggatt J termed “logistical” detention because the Afghan authorities were struggling with prison overcrowding. Leggatt J held that this also breached Article 5 because it was not in accordance with any ISAF/UK policy for detention and so was “arbitrary” (para 356).
The substantive analysis of Article 5 aside, the most interesting issues dealt with in this judgment arose as defences the MOD raised against the Article 5 claim. This post will discuss the following issues in brief:
The territorial scope of the Convention
Leggatt J found that the actions of the British troops in this case were within the territorial scope of the Convention. Many considered this to be inevitable following Al Skeini v United Kingdom and Smith v Ministry of Defence, although Leggatt J professed his own disquiet about the state of the law, stating:
I find it far from obvious why a citizen of Afghanistan, a sovereign state which has not adopted the Convention, should have rights under the Convention in relation to events taking place in Afghan territory. (Para 116)
As Marko Milanovic writes in his excellent post for EJIL: Talk!, Leggatt J’s decision puts paid (for now, and possibly for good) to the government’s strategy of attempting to distinguish the situation in Iraq (where the facts of Al Skeini and Smith took place) from the situation in Afghanistan: a strategy deployed by the MOD in this case on the grounds that the UK “did not have such complete control over the detention facilities in Afghanistan” (para 144). Leggatt J held that this distinction was “unsustainable” because
the decision of the European Court in the Al-Skeini case unequivocally decides that jurisdiction under Article 1 over an individual detained in a prison controlled by a state on foreign soil does not depend on whether the state has sovereignty over the prison, such that officials of the state on whose territory the prison is situated have no legal right to enter it. Indeed, the state’s jurisdiction does not even derive from the control exercised over the prison as such at all. In the Court’s words (para 136): “What is decisive in such cases is the exercise of physical power and control over the person in question. (Para 147)
Perhaps more notably, Leggatt J went on to say that Article 15 of the Convention could be invoked in an extraterritorial context. Article 15 gives States the ability to derogate “[i]n time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation” from some of its obligations under the Convention “to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation”.
Lord Bingham had previously expressed doubt in Al-Jedda v Secretary of State for Defence that the Article 15 conditions could ever be met “when a state had chosen to conduct an overseas peacekeeping operation, however dangerous the conditions, from which it could withdraw”, but, as Leggatt J noted, Lord Bingham was speaking at a very different time. Now it is clear that the Convention has extensive extraterritorial reach, Leggatt J considered that Article 15 must be interpreted “in a way which is consonant with that position” to permit derogation to the extent that it is strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.
This, Leggatt J concluded, “can readily be achieved without any undue violence to the language of Article 15 by interpreting the phrase ‘war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation’ as including, in the context of an international peacekeeping operation, a war or other emergency threatening the life of the nation on whose territory the relevant acts take place.” (Para 156)
The concern expressed by some is that states should not be encouraged to derogate their human rights responsibility when they have voluntarily entered conflicts which do not directly impact the “life of the [home] nation”. There are, I think, at least two counters to this.
The first is that Leggatt J’s suggestion makes practical sense. The use of the power of derogation may be the only way that human rights standards can become a workable set of norms in the context of armed conflict. The second counter is that when states derogate they formally acknowledge what human rights protections they feel able to uphold in a given situation. This pushes into the open what might otherwise be a clandestine deployment of emergency powers (see this post by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin on the Just Security Blog). It allows public debate and (potentially) judicial review of the restriction on the one hand, and the government to demand some realism from the courts on the other. It may operate to ensure that human rights are respected to the greatest extent possible; now that we know (post Al-Skeini) that the Convention obligations can be “divided and tailored”. This at least has the potential to ensure that the degree of respect for human rights in armed conflict increases in practice, if not in theory. Clearly, however, the nuances of this have yet to be worked out.
Who is responsible: the UK or the UN?
The MOD argued that the UN, rather than the UK, was responsible for the actions of the British troops because they operated under a UN mandate as part of ISAF: an argument rooted in the controversial Behrami; Saramaticase. As expressed by Lord Bingham in Al-Jedda, the ultimate test is one of “effective control”.
Leggatt J concluded that the UN Security Council did have effective control over ISAF “in the sense required to enable conduct of ISAF to be attributed to the UN” (Para 178). However, he found that the detention of SM was attributable to the UK and not the UN because it was not authorised under an ISAF detention authority, but under the UK’s own national detention policy.
The relationship between human rights law and UNSC Resolutions
Bound by Al-Jedda, Leggatt J held that the obligations imposed by the authorising UNSCRs were capable of displacing obligations imposed by Article 5 of the Convention. This occurs by virtue of Article 103 of the UN Charter, which gives Charter obligations primacy over obligations “under any other international agreement.”
Crucially, however, Leggatt J found that the UNSCRs (i) did not authorise detention for longer than necessary to pass the detainee into Afghan hands, and (ii) did not authorise detention which violated international human rights law (para 226). Here, he applied dicta of the Strasbourg Court in Al-Jedda, to the effect that:
In the absence of clear provision to the contrary, the presumption must be that the Security Council intended States . . . to contribute towards the maintenance of security . . . while complying with their obligations under international human rights law. (Para 105)
The upshot was that there was no question of the UNSCRs displacing the UK’s obligations under Article 5 as the UK was not operating within the mandate of the UNSCRs because (i) they gave no authority for detention beyond 96 hours, and (ii) the detention policy violated international human rights law.
The role of international humanitarian law (IHL)
Leggatt J reached two important conclusions on IHL. First, he found that IHL provided no legal basis for the detention of SM. Second, he found that IHL did not displace Article 5 as lex specialis.
Rejecting the arguments of some academics, Leggatt J refused to accept that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions or Additional Protocol II provide a legal power to detain, but rather found that these provisions “guarantee a minimum level of humanitarian treatment for people who are in fact detained during a non-international armed conflict” (para 251).
On the question of IHL as lex specialis, Leggatt J commented (obiter, since the question did not need to be decided given his conclusion that there was no basis for the detention in IHL) that:
At least arguably . . . the only way in which the European Court or a national court required to apply Convention rights can hold that IHL prevails over Article 5 is by applying the provisions for derogation contained in the Convention itself, and not by invoking the principle of lex specialis. (Para 284)
The “act of state” defence
In relation to the claim under Afghan law, Leggatt J concluded that this was indeed barred by the defence that the detention of SM was an “act of state”, finding that the doctrine operated analogously to the conflict of laws rule. He explained that UK detention policy and practice in Afghanistan:
. . . can be reviewed by the English courts in accordance with established principles of public law. But if and insofar as acts done in Afghanistan by agents of the UK state in carrying out its policy infringe Afghan domestic law, that in my opinion is a matter for which redress must be sought in the courts of Afghanistan. It is not the business of the English courts to enforce against the UK state rights of foreign nationals arising under Afghan law for acts done on the authority of the UK government abroad, where to do so would undercut the policy of the executive arm of the UK state in conducting foreign military operations. (Para 396)
Because Leggatt J saw the act of state doctrine as a rule of comity, rather than a rule of non-justiciability, the logic behind the doctrine only applies where the lawfulness of an act falls to be determined in accordance with a foreign source of law. Therefore, it did not apply in relation to the claim under the Human Rights Act, which was a claim in English law.
In holding that SM had an “enforceable right” to compensation, Leggatt J noted that this:
. . . will not come as a surprise to the MOD which formed the view at an early stage that there was no legal basis on which UK armed forces could detain individuals in Afghanistan for longer than the maximum period of 96 hours authorised by ISAF. (Para 6 (xi))
The fact that the result was predictable will provide little comfort to those who point out that commanders are being placed in the unenviable position of having to choose whether to release a suspected insurgent back into the battlefield or to accept that he will be held illegally and entitled to compensation for that. In light of Leggatt J’s judgment, there are at least two routes, neither free from difficulty, that could be taken to avoid this in any future armed conflict. First, the government could seek to have greater powers of detention conferred under the authorising UNSCRs. Second, it could attempt to derogate from Article 5. The fall-out from such an attempt would no doubt be great. For now we will have to wait and see whether the government appeals – as it is expected to do – and, if it does, how the higher courts tackle these issues.
Emily MacKenzie is a barrister at Brick Court Chambers and is currently working as an International Law Fellow at the American Society of International Law
(Suggested citation: E. MacKenzie, ‘The Lawfulness of Detention by British Forces in Afghanistan – Serdar Mohammed v Ministry of Defence’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (2nd June 2014) (available at: https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).