The events of recent years have prompted a closer examination of the legal complexities arising from transnational armed conflicts pitting a state against a non-state organized armed group based outside the state's territory. For much of the Twentieth Century it remained unclear whether human rights law apply to a state's conduct during armed conflict or occupation. Despite continuing objections on the part of a handful of states, a consensus is evolving in favor of the view that human rights law applies in full alongside humanitarian law.
Once it is settled that human rights law does not cease to apply by reason of the inception of a state of armed conflict, it is easy to see how this body of law would apply alongside humanitarian law in an internal armed conflict. The situation becomes more complex, however, when a state is engaged in a non-international armed conflict taking place outside of that state's territory.
Unlike human rights law, the law of armed conflict was designed to apply primarily in an inter-state context. Thus, the vast majority of its provisions clearly apply to a state's extraterritorial conduct, specifically in the territory of the opposing state. But what of that branch of humanitarian law that developed to regulate non-international (i.e., non-inter-state) armed conflict? Recently, controversy arose as to whether Common Article 3 applies only to internal conflicts. The question of the extraterritorial application of Common Article 3 must be examined in light of the more general evolution in humanitarian law in favor of recognizing rights of individuals as such.
There has been a substantial degree of convergence between the law of international armed conflict and the law of non-international armed conflict. A result of this convergence has been that individuals involved in a non-international armed conflict can now benefit from many of the protections once available only in the context of inter-state conflicts.
At the same time, some have relied on this convergence to extend to non-international armed conflicts not only the prohibitions of the law of international armed conflict, but also, controversially, authorizations. In any event, notwithstanding continuing controversy over its content, there seems to be a general consensus supporting the proposition that the law of non-international armed conflict applies extraterritorially. As noted above, demonstrating the applicability of humanitarian law outside of a state's territory is facilitated by the fact that the bulk of the law of armed conflict was designed to apply in an interstate context, presupposing that states would be acting on each other's territory. That some of these rules are now deemed to apply even in an internal setting does not lessen the presumption that they will still apply extraterritorially, at least insofar as they consist of prohibitions and do not purport to impose obligations on third states.
The situation is more complex under human rights law, which was not primarily designed to apply extraterritorially. In order to ascertain whether human rights law is applicable in the context of transnational conflicts with non-state groups, it is essential to consider the extent to which human rights law is applicable in relation to individuals outside the state's territory.
Most of the jurisprudence of human rights bodies, which have greatly elaborated on the content of states' obligations under the various human rights treaties, has been developed in the context of alleged violations committed on the territory of the respective state party. Can these same standards be transposed onto the state's conduct abroad?
Thus, it would seem that there may be an identifiable trend toward recognizing varying levels of obligation. In particular, it may be that negative obligations apply whenever a state acts extraterritorially (at least with respect to intentional human rights violations, as opposed to indirect consequences), but that the degree of positive obligations will be dependent upon the type and degree of control (or power or authority) exercised by the state. Such obligations are limited by a scope of reasonableness even when applied to a state's conduct within its territory; there is no reason why application to a state's extraterritorial conduct would not similarly be bounded by a scope of reasonableness, such that the adoption of affirmative measures is only required when and to the extent that the relevant party de jure or de facto enjoys a position of control that would make the adoption of such measures reasonable. This approach would preserve the integrity of the respective treaties and would vindicate the universal nature of human rights, which is proclaimed in the preambles of all of the human rights treaties considered in this analysis. At the same time, it would not place unreasonable burdens on states parties. From its inception, the international law of armed conflict followed the projection of power. The jus in bello would apply to armed conflicts irrespective of physical location, so long as opposability as between the warring parties was satisfied. The same could be said of the law of state responsibility for injury to aliens. While the application of both bodies of law clearly extended beyond the state's jurisdictional reach, neither could penetrate into the sphere of the state's domestic jurisdiction in the narrowest sense. Human Rights law was developed to fill that gap.
But just as humanitarian law ultimately began to press inward against that external membrane of a state's domestic jurisdiction, human rights law has now begun to exert outward pressure against the inner wall of the state's jurisdiction. Indeed, these two processes—of inward penetration and outward projection—can be seen along a single continuum with a common seam. That seam is manifested in the structural evolution of the international legal system that was consolidated in the years immediately following World War II. The principal structural development of that period was the emergence of the individual human being as a subject of international law, capable of bearing international rights and duties.
This structural development corresponded to a coalescence of values around a principle conceived as transcendental and universal—human dignity. Recognition by the newly reconceived international community that the dignity of the individual human being was something entitled to legal protection led to the transformation of this principle into positive law. It is this conception of human rights as both transcendental and universal that pushes against the concept of jurisdiction—pushing simultaneously into the domestic sphere and out of it—and underscores both its artificiality and diminished existence. It is this conception, far more than the force of legal reasoning from positive law that has enabled both human rights law and humanitarian law to grasp the outer and inner reaches of the power of the state.
To the extent these rules are designed to protect individuals from abuses of state power, realization of that design entails application coextensive with the projection of that power. While the exact contours of their application may not be settled, the traditional principles of good faith and reasonableness in the circumstances provide ample guidance for shaping those contours.