MH17 and the Legal Theory of Control

Writing on Opinio Juris, Jens David Ohlin raises the important issue of the theory of control in international law given the possibility of Russia’s involvement (or the “creating of conditions,” as phrased by Washington) and what level of responsibility there can be for the activity of the rebels.

If this story is true, it reveals how important the debate is, in international jurisprudence, between competing theories of control. This might seem like an obvious point, but the current situation in the Ukraine (vis-à-vis Russian influence) may stand at precisely the fault line between “effective control” and “overall control” – the two competing doctrines of attribution in international law.

As most readers already know, the effective control test was articulated in the ICJ’s Nicaragua judgment and offers a fairly robust set of standards for attributing the actions of an armed group to a particular state, essentially requiring that the armed units are operating on the instruction, or at the direction of, the foreign state. In these circumstances, the actions of the armed group can be attributed to the foreign state.

In contrast, the ICTY in Tadic declined to follow the ICJ’s Effective Control Test, and instead formulated and applied the broader Overall Control Test. The test was originally designed to determine in Tadic whether the armed conflict was an international armed conflict or a non-international armed conflict. If the conduct was attributable to a foreign state, then the armed conflict was international in nature. Subsequently, Cassese argued (correctly) that the test was, in fact, a general test for state responsibility. The test allowed for state responsibility in situations where a foreign power helped to coordinate the actions of an organized and hierarchically structured armed group by equipping, financing, or training the paramilitary force.

The dispute between these two tests is crucial because they really do give different answers in important cases. It seems to me that the Ukrainian situation falls directly on the fault line between the overall and effective control tests. If the Effective Control test applies, then it is not clear whether the shooting down of the airliner can be directly attributed to the Russian government (although that conclusion depends on which facts are unearthed in the investigation). On the other hand, if the Overall Control test applies, then there is a plausible argument that the shooting of Flight 17 can be attributed to Russia because their operatives probably helped train and equip, and coordinate, the activities of the pro-Russian militia. The Overall Control test supports the attribution of responsibility to Russia, while the Effective Control test probably does not.

Read the full post here.