The Post-Election Crisis in The Gambia: An Interplay of a Security Council’s “Non-Authorization” and Intervention by Invitation

by Benjamin Nussberger

[Benjamin Nussberger is a PhD student and research fellow at the Institute for Peace and Security Law at University of Cologne. He is currently pursuing a LLM degree at Columbia Law School.This post is a response and addendum to Professor Helal’s post Crisis in The Gambia: How Africa is Rewriting Jus ad Bellum.]

The Security Council did it again. Intentionally? No answer. Striking? It seems so.

After famous resolution 2249 (2015) concerning the Syrian war, after under-the-radar-flying resolution 2216 (2015) concerning the Saudi military intervention in Yemen, the Security Council did it again responding to the constitutional crisis in The Gambia with its resolution 2337 (2017): it “non-authorized” the use of force. This however should not be equated with a prohibition of the use of force. Rather, it seems, the Security Council not only leaves open, but apparently also opens and encourages alternative avenues for States to legally resort to force – without the Security Council’s express authorization.

Accordingly, by analyzing resolution 2337 (2017) more closely and further scrutinizing the intervention by invitation doctrine against the facts of the post-election Crisis in the Gambia (which may be recalled here and here), I would like to take up and develop Professor Helal’s reflections on the role of the intervention by invitation doctrine. Professor Helal raises concerns about the ineffectiveness of Adama Barrow, concluding that the intervention by invitation is “at best questionable.” Moreover, I would like to interweave this with a response to Professor Hallo de Wolf’s fear that “this latest example of regional intervention [in The Gambia] will come to reside next to others in the unfortunate category of illegal, yet legitimate interventions (…)” and that “it would appear nobody cares for the legality or illegality of ECOWAS’s use of force as long as the bad guy was displaced.”

A “non-prohibitive non-authorization”

I agree with Professor Helal: An express authorization of any use of force cannot be deduced from resolution 2337 (2017), as none of the indicators generally accepted to signify the authorization of the use of force are present. The Council does neither act under Chapter VII nor Chapter VIII. The Council does not determine a threat to international peace and security. It does neither decide nor authorize. It does not use the key term “necessary measures”, and thus refrain from basing its language on the ECOWAS Authority’s 17 December summit and the AU Peace and Security Council’s communiqué of 13 December 2016. To scatter any doubt, members of the Security Council, e.g. Uruguay (as well as Bolivia, and Egypt), reaffirmed this conclusion underscoring that “nothing in resolution 2337 (2017) can be interpreted as express authorization of the use of force.” (emphasis added) While a previous draft had included the Council’s full support to ECOWAS’ commitment “to take all necessary means”, this had been apparently watered down to comfort Russian objections. Thus, there is nothing in resolution 2337 (2017), which may be read to constitute an express mandate or endorsement of military force.

The non-authorization, however, should not be interpreted as a prohibition of a use of force. As mentioned earlier, some States did favor an endorsement of military means in the earlier stage of drafting. And this may also be traced in the resolution: the Council “expresses its full support to the ECOWAS in its commitment to ensure by political means first, the respect of the will of the people of The Gambia as expressed in the results of 1st December elections” (para 6, emphasis added). What is more, the Council “welcomed” the ECOWAS’ and AU’s decisions, in which both organizations announced to take “all necessary measures to strictly enforce” the election results. Statements of Russia and Britain back this interpretation. Russia’s deputy ambassador Petr Iliichev was quoted later: “if diplomacy fails, Barrow can request military or other assistance.” and Britain’s deputy ambassador Peter Wilson was quoted: “it’s very clear that if president Barrow asks for assistance, then that’s something as the legitimate president of Gambia he’s perfectly entitled to do.”

Accordingly, viewed against the drafting history, this allows to conclude that the Security Council was aware of an eventual military solution – and by elegantly framing it as support for peaceful and political means of dispute settlement first, it left the door to the resort to force in accordance with the UN Charter ajar.

Intervention by invitation

So what might this mean for the only viable justification for a resort to military means – an intervention by invitation?

As a short reminder, the doctrine of intervention by invitation is firmly rooted in State practice and accepted by the ICJ (Military and Paramilitary Activities In and Against Nicaragua, Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo Case). It assumes that if a State’s government has requested military assistance, the invited State(s) might use force on the requesting State’s territory – without violating Article 2(4) UN Charter. Admittedly, it remains unclear whether, and if so when, the new president, Barrow, had issued such an invitation or request for military help to put him into power. Assuming he did, could this justify a military solution of the conflict?

As a side note, it shall be mentioned that the ECOWAS intervention in the Gambian constitutional crisis does not constitute State practice, shedding light to the murky waters of an intervention by invitation in a “civil war situation”, which recently has been subject to much debate: For the simple, but – as, e.g., the US has rightly commented – commendable fact that The Gambia did not immerse in armed confrontations.

Hence, if the president’s consent enfolds justifying effect, (only) dangles on the fundamental question: who is president? Who may legitimately call for military support by a foreign State, where competing claims to the presidency, entitled to act and speak on behalf the State, are advanced?

I agree that it is essentially this question, which puts the intervening States’ reliance on the doctrine of intervention by invitation alone on shaky grounds. This, however, is nothing exceptional or new, but rather common in scenarios of intervention by invitation. Two criterions are discussed in State practice and literature for answering this question. Traditionally, the government’s effectiveness has been a decisive component. More recently, legitimacy aspects arguably play an increasingly important role for determining a government’s representativeness. In the Gambian post-election crisis, both criteria are not unproblematic. As regards the effectiveness criterion, and as Professor Helal has rightly pointed out, Barrow was trapped in exile in Senegal, unable to take office at that moment in time. So his effectiveness appeared basically limited to an external dimension when the use of force began. The international community virtually unanimously recognized him as president and maintained diplomatic relations with him, and no longer with Jammeh. On the other hand, Jammeh’s effectiveness may be reasonably challenged as well: only some paramilitary units expressly said to defend him. The Gambian army chief declared not to involve the army into the political dispute; the Gambian navy decided to side with Barrow. Jammeh stood in isolation in the international community. This leaves two persons without a clear preponderance regarding effective control. Regarding the latter aspect, one may however ask in how far Jammeh’s ineffectiveness would have an impact on ineffective Barrow’s capability to call for help?

The legitimacy criterion seems to be clearer. Barrow has been elected president. He can base his claim to presidency on the will of the Gambian people expressed in “peaceful and transparent” elections, as the Security Council has observed (SC Resolution 2337, preamble 4). Nonetheless, this strong legitimacy basis has some scratches as well. Jammeh invoked irregularities taken place in the elections and referred the issue to the Constitutional Court – an argument advanced and a process taking place, which is not unknown, uncommon and without acceptance in “world-leading” democracies as well. Moreover, Jammeh declared a state of emergency, reacting to “unprecedented and extraordinary amount of foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs.” The Gambian parliament extended Jammeh’s mandate for 90 days, until the Supreme Court decided upon the matter. In this respect, the parliament also attempted to change the relevant constitutional provisions. Obviously, the parliament’s argumentation may be contestable from a rule of law as well as a political perspective, especially if one takes the circumstances and timing into consideration. The Security Council’s reaction in resolution 2337 (2017) seems to aim to express these concerns: “strongly condemning (…) the attempt by the Parliament on 18 January 2017 to extend President Jammeh’s term for three month beyond his current mandate.” In light of international norms of democracy (e.g. Art. 23 (4) of the African Union Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, to which the Security Council refers to) this raises difficult questions, exhibiting the tension in which international norms on and international assessment of democracy operate: Does all this still constitute a legitimate democratic process or does it exceed the competency of the parliament? What standard should apply? Is the parliament prohibited to change its constitution? And who should have the last word in deciding on the electoral process and the Gambian constitution: the State’s elected people’s representatives or the international community? The Security Council responded only with deafening silence, announcing the outcome of its assessment: this attempt was strongly condemnable (and illegal?). With all this in mind, one may also want to raise one more question: if we are very strict on this – how to assess an inauguration procedure taking place in the State’s embassy within a foreign country?

Despite these issues, which are yet another example illustrating that a clear-cut assessment in contested situations remains utopian, the international community takes an unambiguous position: The ECOWAS and the AU recognize Barrow as President of The Gambia. The Security Council also makes it very clear that it holds Barrow to be president of Gambia from 19 January 2016 onwards. In this respect it is also interesting to note that the Security Council reminds Jammeh of his contradictory behavior, by calling upon him to keep to the letter and spirit of his concession speech delivered on 2 December 2016 (para 5).

As I have argued elsewhere, an unambiguous international assessment and determination of relevant legal facts (in the case at hand the presidency) constitutes an important facet and indicator for States’ assessment of the question whether an intervention by invitation is permissible. Particularly, the Security Council’s assessment bears relevance. This invites us to shortly recapitulate. In a nutshell, the Security Council says the following in resolution 2337 (2017): It does not authorize the use of force. It does not prohibit the use of force. It takes note of and even welcomes the ECOWAS plans to eventually solve the conflict by military means. And it draws a remarkably clear and unambiguous picture of the conflict and its understanding of the legal facts relevant for a justification of a use of force.

It is my submission that the Security Council thereby (indirectly) assesses the related and relevant legal and factual questions. It hints to its understanding that a use of force may be legal if based on the doctrine of intervention by invitation, and thus equips any legal argumentation of the State resorting to force with greater legitimacy, persuasiveness, strength, and legal value. The case at hand is particularly illustrative, as the Russian and Britain diplomats quoted above even expressly voice their opinion that a military solution to the conflict may be based on Barrow’s request.

This strategy of “non-prohibitive non-authorization combined with fact-clearing, strengthening of alternative avenues of justification” is not new. Lately, the Security Council seems to have increasingly applied this approach to address various conflicts. For example, resolution 2249 (2015) concerning Syria created a skillful constructive ambiguity, enabling and de facto strengthening States to rely on self-defense measures, as Paulina Starski has explained here. In the still ongoing Yemen conflict, the Council’s resolutions and presidential statements as well as resolution 2216 (2015) clarified substantial legal facts relevant for the justification of the intervening coalition (for a detailed account see here). In both cases, some States had initially called for a mandate, which the Council was not ready to grant. In both cases, these States were comfortable and pleased with the above-sketched outcome. In both cases, the Security Council was aware of the States using force and their respective justifications. In both cases, the Council clarified facts, assessed the underlying legal concepts, and opened up and strengthened legal avenues justifying a use of force – be it self-defense or the intervention by invitation doctrine. In both cases, States invoked the resolution in addition to the general justifications, such as consent or the right to self-defense. And in both cases, except for some scant protests, a big international outcry against the intervention’s legality was inexistent. To the contrary, especially in the case of Yemen, the international community was almost unanimously ready to accept the resort to force as legal. Finally, in this respect both cases resemble the crisis in The Gambia. It is not the place to revisit and critically assess this strategy in detail. Yet, it invites us to pose questions in how far it contributes to an evolution or even changes the contemporary system of collective security.

Accordingly, in line with these developments and lines of arguments, if there has been an invitation, an intervention by ECOWAS may be arguably seen to be in accordance with international law. Different reasons for this conclusion may be advanced. One could read the incident as an additional example of State practice heralding the farewell of effectiveness as decisive criterion and turning to the criterion of legitimacy. But this seems not to be the main motivation. Strikingly, the Security Council does use the word “legitimate” other than when determining that Jammeh is no longer the “legitimate president.” Unlike to comparable incidents (e.g. Yemen Res 2216 (2015)) Barrow is not explicitly endorsed as “legitimate president”. Hence, I submit that the best understanding of the Gambian crisis, avoiding difficulties of legitimacy and effectiveness, is the following: accepting the Security Council’s assessment as a decisive indicator (amongst others), the non-prohibitive non-authorization, indirectly opening and strengthening the alternative avenue of the doctrine of intervention by invitation, eventually leads to the international community’s acceptance of ECOWAS intervention being in accordance with international law.

So, yes, the justification of “intervention by invitation” alone may be seen to stand on shaky grounds. But, no, the international community does not “not care” about the legality. Rather, it provides a strategy to legally resort to military force if diplomatic means fail – yet, admittedly, only for the time after inauguration, leaving the problem of the threat to use force unresolved. It is another question though, whether this strategy is commendable.

One Response

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. […] the right to intervention by invitation and authorizations by regional organizations (see here, here, or here). In particular, it shows that, if the circumstances admit it, the international community […]

Leave a Response    * indicates required information

Name *

email (will not be published) *


Comments will be closed on February 22, 2017.