More Memos Anyone?
Today the New York Times reported on the existence of four secret memos covering the various aspects of the U.S. Navy Seals raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. It would be great to see the memos, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. They aren’t likely to be released in the very near future, though I think each of them would, in very significant ways, increase our understanding of how the United States executive branch understands crucial questions of international law.
For now, until the memos arrive, here are a few brief comments about the underlying issues contained in them. First, let’s discuss the duty to capture. I think the memo (at least from its description in the New York Times) gets this exactly right. If Bin Laden effectively communicated his intention to surrender, the attacking forces are required to respect that decision and take him into custody instead of killing him. However, there is no affirmative obligation under IHL to offer targets the opportunity to surrender before attacking them. In other words, one does not need to ask a target if they wish to surrender before killing them. Based on this analysis, it is entirely legal under IHL for a military operation to proceed with the intention to kill the targets rather than to capture them (although query whether Ryan Goodman, presently at DoD, might disagree with this conclusion).
Another memo dealt extensively with the putative violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty caused by the Navy Seals raid. According to the Times article, the focus of the memo was the Unwilling or Unable standard, which has been extensively vetted on this blog in the past (including some intense back-and-forth between Kevin Heller and Marty Lederman). I wanted to make two quick points about the nature of this debate. First, I think the discourse is focused far too much on customary international law, which to my mind is of limited–or even no–relevance to the issue. (In this respect, various statements regarding self-defense from the ICJ, including in Nicaragua, have contributed to this confusion.) In reality, the law of self-defense is a question of treaty interpretation, governed by article 51, which recognizes and preserves, but strictly speaking does not create, an inherent right under international law. Indeed, even if customary international law were to purport to eliminate the right of self-defense, the right would still endure as legally effective, in part because it is an inherent right that cannot be taken away–a point recognized by the text of article 51 as central to the UN Charter regime. Consequently, the real test of the unwilling or unable standard is whether it is consistent with both the natural right of self-defense and the text of article 51–something that the current debate has shown insufficient attention to. And, dare I say it, the text of article 51 suggests that the provision was designed to carve out, as an exception from the general prohibition on the use of force, the defensive rights that existed pre-charter going back as far as natural law. That should be the focus of the analysis.
OK, now back to watching the GOP debate.