By Emmanuel Maphosa
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modifying the definition to qualify attacks by non-state actors as acts of aggression is a departure from a static and outdated approach to aggression.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.