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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 March 2022

Miles Jackson
Associate Professor of Law, University of Oxford,
Dapo Akande
Professor of Public International Law, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford,


General Comment 36 of the Human Rights Committee, adopted in 2018, asserts that ‘States parties engaged in acts of aggression as defined in international law, resulting in deprivation of life, violate ipso facto article 6 of the Covenant.’ One question about this claim is whether it reduces incentives for compliance with international humanitarian law for States and their agents—incentives provided through the principles of belligerent equality and combatant immunity. It is argued that it does not do so—such a worry about incentives is not a reason to reject the claim in General Comment 36. In the process, it can also be shown that, if accepted, this claim is interesting in another way: it entails, in effect, a duty on States to prosecute acts of aggression insofar as they entail killing, as they often will. This itself is doctrinally innovative. As to who is to be prosecuted, it is the political and military leadership of the State. It is their decision to wage war unlawfully that renders the killings arbitrary.

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Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press for the British Institute of International and Comparative Law

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1 United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC), ‘General Comment No 36 (2018) on Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the Right to Life’ (30 October 2018) UN Doc CCPR/C/GC/36 (GC 36).

2 See eg Darcy, S, ‘Accident and Design: Recognising Victims of Aggression in International Law’ (2021) 70 ICLQ 103CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lieblich, E, ‘The Humanization of the Jus ad Bellum: Prospects and Perils’ (2021) 32 EJIL 579CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an early articulation of the claim, see Ramcharan, BG, ‘The Concept and Dimensions of the Right to Life’ in Ramcharan, BG (ed), The Right to Life in International Law (Martinus Nijhoff 1985) 11–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion) [1996] ICJ Rep 226, para 25.

4 Lieblich (n 2) 579.

5 See Roberts, A, ‘The Equal Application of the Laws of War: A Principle under Pressure’ (2008) 90 IRRC 931Google Scholar; Weiler, JHH and Deshman, A, ‘Far Be It from Thee to Slay the Righteous with the Wicked: An Historical and Historiographical Sketch of the Bellicose Debate Concerning the Distinction between Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello’ (2013) 24 EJIL 25CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Yip, KL, ‘Separation between Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello as Insulation of Results, not Scopes, of Application’ (2020) 58 MLLWR 31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Weiler and Deshman (n 5).

7 Rodin, D, War and Self-Defence (Oxford University Press 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rodin, D and Shue, H, ‘Introduction’ in Rodin, D and Shue, H (eds), Just and Unjust Warriors: The Moral and Legal Status of Soldiers (Oxford University Press 2008)Google Scholar; McMahan, J, Killing in War (Oxford University Press 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Koutroulis, V, ‘And Yet it Exists: In Defence of the ‘‘Equality of Belligerents’’ Principle’ (2013) 26 LJIL 449CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an older account, see Greenwood, C, ‘The Relationship between Ius ad Bellum and Ius in Bello’ (1983) 9 Review of International Studies 221CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Roberts (n 5) 931. See further McMahan (n 7) 105–10; Lieblich (n 2) 580–1.

10 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR) art 6.

11 GC 36 (n 1) para 63.

12 ibid para 64.

13 On the addition of the qualifier, ‘in general’, see Lieblich (n 2) 588.

14 GC 36 (n 1) para 64.

16 Darcy (n 2) 123; Lieblich (n 2) 590–1.

18 Ahmadou Sadio Diallo (Republic of Guinea v Democratic Republic of the Congo) (Merits) [2010] ICJ Rep 639, para 66.

19 See generally J Crawford, Chance, Order, Change: The Course of International Law (Brill 2014) 365. For a recent discussion, Georgia v Russia (II) App No 38263/08 (ECtHR, 21 January 2021) (Concurring Opinion of Judge Keller) paras 28, 30.

20 See Walzer, M, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (5th edn, Basic Books 2015) 33–48Google Scholar.

21 McMahan, J, ‘On the Moral Equality of Combatants’ (2006) 14 The Journal of Political Philosophy 377, 379CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 ibid. See further Lazar, S, ‘Just War Theory: Revisionists versus Traditionalists’ (2017) 20 Annual Review of Political Science 37CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Haque, A, Law and Morality at War (Oxford University Press 2017) 19–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Lieblich (n 2) 19–20; Greenwood (n 8) 226.

24 Lauterpacht, H, ‘The Limit of the Operation of the Law of War’ (1953) 30 BYBIL 206, 212Google Scholar.

25 Y Shany, ‘A Rebuttal to Marco Sassoli’ (2011) 93 IRRC 432, 433.

26 McMahan (n 7) 108–9.

27 Lauterpacht (n 24) 212. Reasoning of this kind is at the heart of the ongoing debate about how to incentivise compliance on the part of non-State armed groups.

28 See Weiler and Deshman (n 5) 56.

29 P Kilibarda, ‘Turkey, Aggression, and the Right to Life under the ECHR: A Reaction to Professor Haque's Post’ (EJIL:Talk!, 22 October 2019) <>. See also V Gowlland-Debbas, ‘Some Remarks on Compensation for War Damage under Jus ad Bellum’ in A de Guttry et al., The 1998–2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia War and Its Aftermath in International Legal Perspective (Springer 2021) 533.

30 See in relation to different decisions of the United Nations Compensation Commission: V Heiskanen and N Leroux, ‘Applicable Law: Jus ad Bellum, Jus in Bello, and the Legacy of the UN Compensation Commission’ in T Feighery et al. (eds), War Reparations and the UN Compensation Commission (Oxford University Press 2015) 51; T Dannenbaum, ‘The Criminalization of Aggression and Soldiers’ Rights’ (2018) 29 EJIL 859, 879.

31 See further Yip (n 5).

32 Eritrea–Ethiopia Claims Commission – Final Award – Ethiopia's Damages Claims (2009) 26 RIAA 631, paras 333–349. The ECCC did find that deaths of militiamen were outwith its jurisdiction on the basis of the underlying Agreement establishing the Commission—see para 338. For wider discussion, see Koppe, ‘Compensation for War Damage Resulting from Breaches of Jus ad Bellum’ in de Guttry et al. (n 29) 509; Gowlland-Debbas (n 29) 533.

33 Eritrea–Ethiopia Claims Commission (n 32) paras 350–379.

34 This is not to say that there are not institutional implications of the claim—that is, which institutions are able to determine the existence of a breach of the jus ad bellum.

35 Murphy, S et al. , Litigating War: Mass Civil Injury and the Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission (Oxford University Press 2013) 136Google Scholar.

36 Greenwood (n 8) 227.

37 Dannenbaum (n 30) 869; Yip (n 5) 57–8.

38 See similarly Yip (n 5) 58.

39 Kress, C, ‘Time for Decision: Some Thoughts on the Immediate Future of the Crime of Aggression: A Reply to Andreas Paulus’ (2009) 20 EJIL 1129, 1134CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Dannenbaum (n 30) 869.

40 Lieblich (n 2) 598.

41 Huneeus, A, ‘International Criminal Law by Other Means: The Quasi-Criminal Jurisdiction of the Human Rights Courts’ (2013) 107 AJIL 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 For an overview, see Seibert-Fohr, A, Prosecuting Serious Human Rights Violations (Oxford University Press 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 See generally Chevalier-Watts, J, ‘Effective Investigations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights: Securing the Right to Life or an Onerous Burden on a State?’ (2010) 21 EJIL 701CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jackson, M, ‘Amnesties in Strasbourg’ (2018) 38 OJLS 451CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 GC 36 (n 1 ) para 26.

45 GC 36 (n 1) para 27.

46 See generally Seibert-Fohr (n 42) 11–49; Huneeus (n 41) 26.

47 HRC, ‘General Comment No 31 (2004) on The Nature of the General Legal Obligation Imposed on States Parties to the Covenant’ (26 May 2004) UN Doc CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add. 13, para 18.

48 Bautista de Arellana v Colombia CCPR/C/55/D/563/1993, para 8.2. See Coronel v Colombia CCPR/C/76/D/778/1997, para 6.2.

49 El Alwani v Libya CCPR/C/90/D/1295/2004, para 8.

50 Sathasivam and Saraswathi v Sri Lanka CCPR/C/93/D/1436/2005, para 6.4.

51 Marcellana and Gumanoy v the Philippines CCPR/C/94/D/1560/2007, para 7.2.

52 Amirov v Russian Federation CCPR/C/95/D/1447/2006, paras 11.4, 13.

53 Pestaño v The Philippines CCPR/C/98/D/1619/2007, paras 7.2, 9.

54 GC 36 (n 1) para 64.

55 GC 36 (n 1) para 27 (emphasis added).

56 GC 31 (n 47) para 18 (emphasis added).

57 On the moral position of individual soldiers killing in an aggressive war, see Dannenbaum (n 30) 868–72.

58 In relation to a related, though distinct, issue see McCann v UK, where the ECtHR distinguished the ‘actions of the soldiers’—no violation of art 2(2): para 201—and the ‘control and organisation of the operation’—violation of art 2(2): para 214—see McCann v United Kingdom App No 18984/91 (ECtHR, 27 September 1995).

59 See generally, Hajdin, NR, Individual Responsibility for the Crime of Aggression (Stockholm University 2021) Ch 5Google Scholar ‘The Leadership Requirement’.

60 United States v Wilhelm von Leeb et al (the High Command case) in Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No 10, Nuremberg, October 1946–April 1949, vol 11 (US Government Printing Office 1950) 489 (emphasis added).

61 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (adopted 17 July 1998, entered into force 1 July 2002) 2187 UNTS 3, art 8bis.

62 On this issue, see Heller, KJ, ‘Retreat from Nuremberg: The Leadership Requirement in the Crime of Aggression’ (2007) 18 EJIL 477CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63 For a wider discussion, see Jurdi, NN, ‘The Domestic Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression after the International Criminal Court Review Conference: Possibilities and Alternatives’ (2013) 14 MJIL 129Google Scholar; B Van Schaack, ‘Par in Parem Imperium Non Habet: Complementarity and the Crime of Aggression’ (2012) 10 JICJ 133; J Veroff, ‘Reconciling the Crime of Aggression and Complementarity’ (2015) 125 YLJ 730.

64 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (adopted 9 December 1948, entered into force 12 January 1951) 78 UNTS 277, arts 1, 5; arts 49, 50, 129, 146, respectively, of the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Geneva Conventions—75 UNTS 31; 75 UNTS 85; 75 UNTS 135; 75 UNTS 287.

65 Draft Articles on Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Humanity art 10 in ILC, ‘Report on the Work of its Seventy-First Session’ (2019) UN Doc A/74/10.

66 See Nouwen, S, ‘Is There Something Missing in the Proposed Convention on Crimes against Humanity: A Political Question for States and a Doctrinal One for the International Law Commission’ (2018) 16 JICJ 877Google Scholar.

67 Wrange, P, ‘The Crime of Aggression, Domestic Prosecutions and Complementarity’ in Kress, C (ed), The Crime of Aggression: A Commentary (Cambridge University Press 2016) 704, 720–1Google Scholar.