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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 September 2019

Miles Jackson*
Associate Professor of Law and Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University,


Humanitarian actors sometimes have to decide whether to render assistance in situations that put them at risk of liability for aiding and abetting under international criminal law. This is the problem of the virtuous accomplice—the idea that knowingly contributing to the wrongdoing of others might, exceptionally, be the right thing to do. This article explains why the problem arises and clarifies its scope, before turning to criminal law in England and Wales and Germany to assess potential solutions. It argues that the best approach is to accept a defence of necessity—of justified complicity—and shows that such an argument works in international criminal law.

Copyright © The Author (2019). Published by Cambridge University Press for the British Institute of International and Comparative Law 

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1 UNHRC, ‘Report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic’ (2 February 2017) UN Doc A/HRC/34/64.

2 ibid para 93.

3 See eg A Ullah, ‘Red Cross Defends Role in Aleppo Evacuations after Damning UN Report’ (Middle East Eye, 1 March 2018) <>.

4 For a survey, Prosecutor v Taylor (Appeal Judgment) SC-SL-03-01-A (26 September 2013) paras 353–486.

5 E Pothelet, ‘The Evacuation of Eastern Aleppo: Humanitarian Obligation or War Crime?’ (EJIL:Talk!, 14 March 2017) <>; K Ambos, ‘Evacuation of Civilian Populations and Criminal Complicity: A Critical Appraisal of the February 2017 Report of the Syria Commission of Inquiry’ (EJIL:Talk!, 24 May 2017) <>.

6 On the wider issue of the derivative nature of accomplice liability, see generally Schreiber, HL, ‘Problems of Justification and Excuse in the Setting of Accessorial Conduct’ (1986) 3 Brigham Young University Law Review 611Google Scholar; Stewart, J, ‘Complicity’ in Dubber, M and Hörnle, T, The Oxford Handbook of Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2014) 534, 543–6Google Scholar.

7 See Buth, P et al. , ‘“He Who Helps the Guilty, Shares the Crime?” INGOs, Moral Narcissism and Complicity in Wrongdoing’ (2018) 44 Journal of Medical Ethics 299Google ScholarPubMed.

8 Lepora, C and Goodin, R, On Complicity and Compromise (Oxford University Press 2013) 2Google Scholar. For further thoughts, see eg Murphy, L, Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (Oxford University Press 2000)Google Scholar; Ypi, L, ‘On the Confusion between Ideal and Non-Ideal in Recent Debates on Global Justice’ (2010) 58 Political Studies 536Google Scholar.

9 Valentini, L, ‘Ideal vs. Non-Ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map’ (2012) 7 Philosophy Compass 654, 655CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 See eg Lepora, C and Goodin, R, ‘Grading Complicity in Rwandan Refugee Camps’ (2011) 28 Journal of Applied Philosophy 259Google Scholar; Lepora and Goodin (n 8); Slim, H, Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster (Oxford University Press 2015)Google Scholar; French, P, ‘Complicity: That Moral Monster, Troubling Matters’ (2016) 10 Criminal Law and Philosophy 575Google Scholar; Calain, P, ‘Response to “On Complicity and Compromise” by Chiara Lepora and Robert Goodin’ (2017) 43 Journal of Medical Ethics (2017) 266CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Buth et al. (n 7).

11 It thus excludes domestic legal regimes—whether criminal or civil—and the potential obligations humanitarian agencies bear in other areas of international law.

12 In truth, a number of tribunals have held that a standard lower than knowledge—one based on foresight of risk—is sufficient—see text to (n 30).

13 Art 8(2)(b)(viii) ICCSt.

14 Lepora and Goodin (n 8) 3.

15 See Lepora and Goodin (n 8) 1.

16 Lepora and Goodin (n 8) 130. For a related discussion, see K Jones, ‘Humanitarian Action and Non-State Armed Groups: The UK Regulatory Environment’ (Chatham House Research Paper, February 2017).

17 Lepora and Goodin, ‘Grading Complicity’ (n 8) 2601. No claim is made here about liability in the specific example given by Lepora and Goodin, an example which combines conduct that might be assessed as (i) material aid to a group in the sense of counter-terrorism or sanctions law and (ii) assistance that contributes to the commission of a specific international crime. On this distinction, see text to (n 45).

18 See text to (n 30).

19 Prosecutor v Blaškic (Appeal Judgment) IT-95-14-A (29 July 2004) para 46.

20 To be clear, this is a debate about whether knowledge alone is sufficient; intention is always sufficient. For a recent philosophical exchange, see Yaffe, G, ‘Intending to Aid’ (2014) 33 Law and Philosophy 1Google Scholar; Husak, D, ‘Abetting a Crime’ (2014) 33 Law and Philosophy 41Google Scholar.

21 Taylor (n 4) paras 436, 471481, 483486; Prosecutor v Šainović et al (Appeal Judgment) IT-05-87-A (23 January 2014) paras 16171651, 1772; Prosecutor v Stanišić & Simatović (Appeal Judgment) IT-03-69-A (9 December 2015) paras 104107.

22 Art 25(3)(c) ICCSt.

23 See generally Finnan, S, Elements of Accessorial Modes of Liability (Brill 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Aksenova, M, Complicity in International Criminal Law (Hart 2016)Google Scholar.

24 See Prosecutor v Bemba et al. (Trial Judgment) ICC-01/05-01/13 (19 October 2016) paras 9798; Prosecutor v Bemba et al. (Appeal Judgment) ICC-01/05-01/13 (8 March 2018) para 1400.

25 See Prosecutor v Katanga (Trial Judgment) ICC-01/04-01/07 (7 March 2014) paras 1620, 1637–1642; Prosecutor v Mbarushimana (Decision on the Confirmation of Charges) ICC-01/04-01/10 (16 December 2011) paras 288–289.

26 See, similarly, Wilson, W, Central Issues in Criminal Theory (Hart 2002) 158Google Scholar.

27 Blaškić (n 19) para 48.

28 See Gardner, J, ‘Complicity and Causality’ (2006) 1 Criminal Law and Philosophy 127, 137–9Google Scholar.

29 For a wider discussion, see Stewart, JOverdetermined Atrocities’ (2012) 10 JICJ 1189Google Scholar.

30 Stewart, J, ‘The End of “Modes of Liability” for International Crimes’ (2012) 25 LJIL 165, 193CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Prosecutor v Taylor (Trial Judgment) SCSL-03-1-T (26 April 2011) para 6904. See also Taylor (n 4) para 438.

32 See Jackson, M, Complicity in International Law (Oxford University Press 2015) 76–8Google Scholar. For a careful analysis in domestic criminal law, see Stark, F, Culpable Carelessness: Recklessness and Negligence in the Criminal Law (Cambridge University Press 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Taylor, G, ‘Concepts of Intention in German Criminal Law’ (2004) 24 OJLS 99, 106CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 For a philosophical discussion, see Lepora and Goodin (n 8) 78–96.

35 See, relatedly, Finnis, J, ‘Intention and Side Effects’ in Finnis, J, Intention and Identity: Collected Essays Volume II (Oxford University Press 2011) 173, 186–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the potential problem of treating all accomplices alike, see Husak, D, ‘Abetting a Crime’ (2014) 33 Law and Philosophy 41CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36 Gardner, J, ‘Complicity and Causality’ (2006) 1 Criminal Law and Philosophy 127CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 Gardner, J and Jung, H, ‘Making Sense of Mens Rea: Antony Duff's Account’ (1991) 11 OJLS 559, 572CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 Lowe, V, ‘Responsibility for the Conduct of Other States’ (2002) 101 Kokusaiho Gaiko Zassi 1, 14Google Scholar.

39 For a domestic example in a related context, see the Campaign against the Arms Trade's challenge to the UK's Government's decision to allow the export of military equipment to Saudi Arabia—Campaign Against Arms Trade, R (on the application of) v The Secretary of State for International Trade [2019] EWCA Civ 1020.

40 Lowe (n 38) 14.

41 To be sure, the requirement of a substantial contribution, discussed below, might also exclude certain acts of assistance in situations of mitigating complicity.

42 Taylor (n 4) para 401.

43 See eg Prosecutor v Tadić (Appeal Judgment) IT-94-1-A (15 July 1999) para 229; Prosecutor v Simić (Appeal Judgment) IT-95-9-A (28 November 2006) para 85; Šainović (n 21) para 1626.

44 Taylor (n 4) para 369 illustrates the range of ways that accomplices have substantially assisted international crimes. See also Kutz, C, ‘Causeless Complicity’ (2007) 1 Criminal Law and Philosophy 289, 294CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 18 USC 2339B(a)(1).

46 Immigration and Nationality Act (USA), section 219.

47 The definition of material support or resources excludes ‘medicine or religious materials’—see 18 USC 2338A(b)(1). See also Holder v Humanitarian Law Project 561 US 1 (2010) (USA) on the provision's constitutional implications.

48 See, relatedly, art 10 Charter of the International Military Tribunal 82 UNTS 279.

49 See Taylor (n 4) para 391; Katanga (n 25) para 1632; Mbarushimana (n 25) para 283. As for art 25(3)(c), in Bemba et al. the Trial Chamber held that ‘the form of contribution under art 25(3)(c) of the Statute does not require the meeting of any specific threshold’, partly on the basis that enhanced mens rea in the provision provides an additional filter on liability—see Bemba et al., Trial Judgment (n 24) paras 93–96. It is worth noting that Bemba et al. concerned liability for offences against the administration of justice under art 70 ICC Statute, rather than a core crime.

50 Taylor (n 4) para 391.

51 For a rich overview, see Ventura, M, ‘Aiding and Abetting’ in Hemptinne, J de et al. , Modes of Liability in International Criminal Law (Cambridge University Press 2019) paras 49–64Google Scholar.

52 See eg Taylor (n 4) para 391; Katanga (n 25) para 1634; Mbarushimana (n 25) para 284.

53 On the difference between factual and legal requirements, see Kiss, A, ‘La contribución en la comisión de un crimen por un grupo de personas en la jurisprudencia de la Corte Penal Internacional’ (2013) 2 InDret 1, 1526Google Scholar. See also DeFalco, R, ‘Contextualizing Actus Reus under Article 25(3)(d) of the ICC Statute: Thresholds of Contribution’ (2013) 11 JICJ 715Google Scholar. See further text to (n 83).

54 For an overview in a related context, see H Moynihan, ‘Aiding and Assisting: Challenges in Armed Conflict and Counterterrorism’ (Chatham House Research Paper, November 2016) 37–44.

55 See, in this respect, eg UNGA, ‘Human Rights Due Diligence Policy on United Nations Support to Non-United Nations Security Forces’ (2013) UN Doc A/67/775; Aust, H, ‘The UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy: An Effective Mechanism against Complicity of Peacekeeping Forces?’ (2015) 20 JC&SL 61Google Scholar.

56 Art 7(1) Arms Trade Treaty (2013) 52 ILM 988. See generally Clapham, A et al. , The Arms Trade Treaty: A Commentary (Oxford University Press 2016)Google Scholar.

57 See generally art 3(1) Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1465 UNTS 85; UNHRC, ‘General Comment No. 20: Article 7’ (1994) UN Doc HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1 30, para 9; Othman (Abu Qatada) v The United Kingdom [2012] ECHR 56; Omar Othman (Abu Qatada) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2013] EWCA Civ 277. For an overview, see Alston, P and Goodman, R, International Human Rights: The Successor to International Human Rights in Context: Laws, Politics and Morals: Text and Materials (Oxford University Press 2012) 445–65Google Scholar. See also Jones, K, ‘Deportations with Assurances: Addressing Key Criticisms’ (2008) 57 ICLQ 183CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (n 55).

59 The availability of measures of risk mitigation will likely be relevant to any assessment of whether the provision of assistance was necessary, as discussed below.

60 Lepora and Goodin (n 8) 171–2.

61 For a discussion of defences to accessorial liability in private law, see Davies, P, Accessory Liability (Oxford University Press 2015) 222–54Google Scholar.

62 Serious Crime Act of 2007 (UK), sections 45, 50.

63 Sexual Offences Act of 2003 (UK), section 73.

64 It is doubtful that any real risk existed—see further text to (n 91).

65 Stewart, ‘Complicity’ (n 6) 541. See also Wilson (n 26) 158 giving the example of Section 81 of the Indian Penal Code.

66 This leaves aside the tricky issue of a distinction between justification and excuse in international criminal law.

67 cf Prosecutor v Erdemović (Appeal Judgment) IT-96-22-A (7 October 1997).

68 Art 31(d) ICCSt.

69 See Ohlin, J, ‘The Bounds of Necessity’ (2008) 6 JICJ 289, 292–3Google Scholar; Ambos, K, ‘Defences in International Criminal Law’ in Brown, B (ed), Research Handbook on International Criminal Law (Elgar 2011) 299, 310–11Google Scholar.

70 Moran, C, ‘A Perspective on the Rome Statute's Defence of Duress: The Role of Imminence’ (2018) 18 International Criminal Law Review 154, 155Google Scholar.

71 For criticism, see Moran (n 70).

72 See Ambos, ‘Defences’ (n 69) 313.

73 For a comparative and theoretical overview, see Fletcher, G, Rethinking Criminal Law (Oxford University Press 2000) 774–98Google Scholar.

74 To be sure, there may be overlap between the two groups.

75 On attribution in German criminal law generally, see Weigend, T, ‘Problems of Attribution in International Criminal Law: A German Perspective’ (2014) 12 JICJ 253Google Scholar. The analysis in this section should not be taken to exclude the possible availability of a necessity defence in German law.

76 See generally Kudlich, H, Die Unterstützung fremder Straftaten durch berufsbedingtes Verhalten (Dunker & Humblot 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

77 BGH, Judgment of 8 March 2001 – 4 StR 453/00; BGH, Judgment of 26 January 2017 – 1 StR 636/16. See Roxin, C, Strafrecht Allgemeiner Teil Band II: Besondere Erscheinungsformen der Straftat (Beck 2002) 218–46Google Scholar; Kindhäuser, U, ‘Risikoerhöhung und Risikoverringerung’ (2008) 120 Zeitschrift für die gesamte Strafrechtswissenschaft 481CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hefendehl, R, ‘Addressing White Collar Crime on a Domestic Level – Any Lessons Learned for International Criminal Law?’ (2010) 8 JICJ 769, 780––1Google Scholar.

78 Hefendehl (n 77) 781.

79 OLG Stuttgart, Decision of 19 June 1979 – 3 Sections (8) 237/79. See Joecks, W in Münchener Kommentar zum Strafgesetzbuch (3rd edn, Beck 2017)Google Scholar section 27 StGB, paras 47–48.

80 Eisele, J in Schönke/Schröder, Strafgesetzbuch (29th edn, Beck 2014)Google Scholar Preliminary Remarks to sections 13 et seq StGB, para 94.

81 Ambos, K, ‘The ICC and Common Purpose – What Contribution is Required under Article 25(3)(d)?’ in Stahn, C (ed), The Law and Practice of the International Criminal Court (Oxford University Press 2015) 592, 605Google Scholar.

82 See eg Ambos, K, Treatise on International Criminal Law: Volume 1: Foundations and General Part (Oxford University Press 2013) 165Google Scholar; Ambos, ‘25(3)(d)’ (n 81) 604–7. See also Kiss (n 53) and more equivocally Eser, A, ‘Individual Criminal Responsibility’ in Cassese, A et al. , The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Oxford University Press 2002) 767, 799801Google Scholar.

83 Prosecutor v Mbarushimana (Appeal Judgment) ICC-01/04-01/10 OA-4 (30 May 2012) Separate Opinion of Judge Fernández de Gurmendi, para 12 (emphasis added). See Ambos, ‘25(3)(d)’ (n 81) 605.

84 Katanga (n 25) Minority Opinion of Judge Van der Wyngaert, para 287.

85 Prosecutor v Perišić (Appeal Judgment) IT-04-81-A (28 February 2013) para 36.

86 See Kiss (n 53).

87 Šainović (n 21) paras 1617–1651; Prosecutor v Popović (Appeal Judgment) IT-05-88-A (30 January 2015) para 1758; Stanišić (n 21) paras 104–107. See Coco, A and Gal, T, ‘Losing Direction: The ICTY Appeals Chamber's Controversial Approach to Aiding and Abetting in Perišić’ (2014) 12 JICJ 345Google Scholar; Ventura, M, ‘Farewell “Specific Direction”: Aiding and Abetting War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in Perišić, Taylor, Šainović et al., and US Alien Tort Statute Jurisprudence’ in Casey-Maslen, S (ed), War Report: Armed Conflict in 2013 (Oxford University Press 2015) 511Google Scholar.

88 Taylor (n 4) para 393.

89 ibid para 395.

90 See, though, somewhat relatedly, Prosecutor v Blagojević (Appeal Judgment) IT-02-06-A (9 May 2007) para 202 holding that even if the defendant had been concerned with public safety and health in sending engineering equipment to the execution sites, he still ‘substantially contributed to the mass executions.’ See further Kiss (n 23) 23.

91 See Sexual Offences Act (2003) (UK), section 73.

92 Gillick v West Norfolk & Wisbeck Area Health Authority [1986] AC 112. See similarly J Stewart, ‘The ICTY Loses its Way on Complicity – Part 2’ (OpinioJuris, 12 June 2013) <>.

93 Gillick (n 92) 188–189.

94 Gillick v West Norfolk & Wisbeck Area Health Authority [1984] QB 581, 584.

95 Dennis, I, ‘The Mental Element for Accessories’ in Smith, P (ed), Criminal Law: Essays in Honour of JC Smith (Butterworths 1987) 40, 54Google Scholar.

96 ibid.

97 Smith, JC, Justification and Excuse in the Criminal Law (Stevens 1989) 65 (my emphasis)Google Scholar.

98 ibid 67.

99 See R v Jogee [2016] UKSC 8 para 9. The putative accomplice's act must also be deliberate and she must also have intended the principal to act with the mens rea required for the principal offence. For discussion, see Ormerod, D and Laird, K, ‘Jogee: Not the End of a Legal Saga but the Start of One?’ (2016) CrimLR 539Google Scholar; Dyson, M, ‘Letter to the Editor’ (2016) CrimLR 638Google Scholar.

100 See R v Woollin [1999] 1 AC 82; R v Matthews and Alleyne [2003] Cr App R 30. For the position at the time of Gillick, see R v Hancock and Shankland [1986] AC 455.

101 See Sullivan, G, ‘Intent, Purpose and Complicity’ (1988) CrimLR 641, 642Google Scholar.

102 Horder, J, ‘Intention in the Criminal Law – A Rejoinder’ (1995) 58 MLR 678, 687CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

103 See eg Horder, J, Ashworth's Principals of Criminal Law (8th edn, Oxford University Press 2016) 195CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

104 Norrie, A, Crime, Reason and History: A Critical Introduction to Criminal Law (3rd edn, Cambridge University Press 2014) 72CrossRefGoogle Scholar

105 Bibas, S, ‘The Need for Prosecutorial Discretion’ (2010) 19 Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review 369, 370Google Scholar.

106 Art 53 ICCSt. See ICC-OTP, ‘Policy Paper on the Interests of Justice’ (September 2007); ICC-OTP, ‘Policy Paper on Preliminary Examinations’ (November 2013) paras 67–71; de Souza Dias, T, ‘“Interests of Justice”: Defining the Scope of Prosecutorial Discretion in Article 53(1)(c) and (2)(c) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court’ (2017) 30 LJIL 731CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Varaki, M, ‘Revising the “Interests of Justice” Policy Paper’ (2017) 15 JICJ 455Google Scholar.

107 See Jones, ‘Humanitarian Action’ (n 16) 11.

108 See, relatedly, Sloane, R, ‘On the Use and Abuse of Necessity in the Law of State Responsibility’ (2012) 106 AJIL 447CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

109 For a discussion of a similar problem in respect of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures, in which specific exceptions are found, see E Gillard, ‘Recommendations for Reducing Tensions in the Interplay between Sanctions, Counterterrorism Measures and Humanitarian Action’ (Chatham House Research Paper, August 2017). On the ICRC's privilege against testifying before the ICC, see Rule 73(4)–(6) ICC RPE.

110 A similar set of issues to those discussed herein arise in respect of the State complicity rule reflected in Article 16 of the ILC's Articles on State Responsibility—International Law Commission, ‘Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts’ annexed to UNGA Res 56/83 (12 December 2001) UN Doc A/Res/56/83. For a discussion of elements of the rule, see Moynihan (n 54).