Preventing and Investigating Violations of International Law in Armed Conflict

This research project (based at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, and led by Dr Elizabeth Stubbins Bates) is at the intersection of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, where the two co-apply in international or non-international armed conflict. Its premise is the relative lack of monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for international humanitarian law, where domestic prosecutions or litigation under international human rights law might fill the gap. Its research questions consider how and to what extent states are willing to investigate violations of international law in armed conflict, and how accurately international legal concepts are understood by governments and domestic courts. Further, it asks if states might prefer to emphasise policies to prevent future violations of international law in armed conflict (including reforms to military training in international humanitarian law) while neglecting their investigatory obligations. 


The first article for this project, published in 2019 by the International and Comparative Law Quarterly, focuses on the United Kingdom's investigations into alleged torture and inhuman or degrading treatment in Iraq. This article finds that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) closed many hundreds of these investigations on the assertion that the allegations of ill-treatment were 'less serious' or at a 'lower' or 'middle' range of severity. These terms usually appeared without reference to international law, and are once defined with reference to the English criminal law of assault, so that investigations were closed if the alleged treatment resulted in less than grievous bodily harm. This approach is conceptually underinclusive, and fails to grasp substantive and procedural obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law. 

The second article, on the British Army's Training in International Humanitarian Law, has been published by the Journal of Conflict and Security Law. This combines archival research with documentary analysis of training materials obtained by Freedom of Information request. The article finds that historically, implementation of the IHL training obligation was delayed; and that absent or perfunctory training correlated with patterns of torture and ill-treatment in British military detention from the 1950s to the 2000s. From 2012-2017, however, there were comprehensive reforms to the British Army's IHL training, following the Report of the Baha Mousa Public Inquiry, into the death of an Iraqi civilian in British military custody. Current training comprehensively implements the 71 recommendations of the Baha Mousa Public Inquiry which the MOD accepted. Yet there is no norm-by-norm evaluation of soldiers' and officers' understanding of the training materials; some IHL and IHRL prohibitions are under-emphasised or absent; and training reforms have been cited (without justification) as one reason to close pending investigations into alleged violations of international law in Iraq. 

The third article, now published in the European Human Rights Law Review, examines the UK’s approach to the obligation to conduct an effective investigation into alleged breaches of the right to life and the prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The article finds evidence that the UK has sought to expand the dicta from Osman v United Kingdom that positive obligations should not be interpreted to impose an 'impossible or disproportionate burden' on domestic authorities, while under-emphasising the criteria for effective investigations. There are frequent, inappropriate references to 'proportionality' in the Ministry of Defence’s decisions to close hundreds of investigations of alleged unlawful killings, torture and ill-treatment in Iraq. The ECHR’s positive investigatory obligations do not allow the closure of investigations on unscrutinised proportionality grounds. The article highlights inconsistencies in domestic cases, and an undesirable divergence between these and the European Court’s jurisprudence. The article concludes that 'impossible or disproportionate burden' must be evidenced and narrowly construed.


This research project has had the following impact:

a) The Joint Civil Society Report to the UN Committee against Torture on the UK's 6th periodic report cited the first and second of these articles (from the International and Comparative Law Quarterly and the Journal of Conflict and Security Law). The Committee against Torture's Concluding Observations of May 2019 include an extract from the first article (para 32). In its response to these Concluding Observations, the UK denied that investigations had been closed owing to an 'arbitrary and conceptually under-inclusive ranking of their severity', quoting again from the article for the International and Comparative Law Quarterly, as cited in the Joint Civil Society Report. The Concluding Observations also include a recommendation, drawn from the article for the Journal of Conflict and Security Law, to '[d]evelop a methodology for assessing the effectiveness of training programmes' for the prevention of torture and ill-treatment (para 27(c)). 

b) The first and third articles were quoted in the December 2020 decision by the International Criminal Court Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to close its preliminary examination into the situation of the UK in Iraq (paras 357-360, notes 578, 580, 582). The OTP used research findings from both articles in its bilateral correspondence and discussions with the UK authorities. The UK objected to the OTP's request for information on allegations which were not investigated further by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) and the Service Police Legacy Investigations (SPLI), but confirmed findings from the article for the International and Comparative Law Quarterly that investigations into 'low-level offences were dropped', retained only for contextual understanding and 'intelligence purposes' (para 359).  Drawing on Dr Stubbins Bates's article for the European Human Rights Law Review, the OTP noted its concerns about the UK's 'use of the proportionality criterion to dismiss such allegations without further investigations' (para 360), especially given the lack of publicly-available information to enable the OTP to analyse investigators' decision-making. A lack of transparency in states' investigations is a recurring theme in this research project. 

c) Dr Stubbins Bates served on a panel of experts for the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Drones on the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill 2019-2021. She shared her research with members of the House of Lords in a virtual briefing, contributed to written briefings for the APPG on Drones, and wrote about the Bill's shortcomings for the international law blog EJIL:Talk! In that post, Dr Stubbins Bates argued that the Bill risked undermining the implementation and enforcement of international humanitarian law. She called for Schedule 1 to the Bill to be amended, so that the crime of torture, and war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide under the International Criminal Court Act 2001 should be exempt from the Bill's presumption against prosecution for crimes allegedly committed by members of the armed forces overseas five or more years ago. An amendment to this effect was passed by the House of Lords, and finally agreed by the government in the final legislative stages. The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021 reflects these research-led changes.