Author Archive for
Kevin Jon Heller

IHL Does Not Authorise Detention in NIAC: A Response to Murray

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the past couple of years, a number of scholars — including me — have debated whether IHL implicitly authorises detention in non-international armed conflict (NIAC.) The latest intervention in the debate comes courtesy of Daragh Murray in the Leiden Journal of International Law. As the article’s abstract makes clear, Murray is firmly in the “IHL authorises” camp:

On the basis of current understandings of international law – and the prohibition of arbitrary detention in particular – it is concluded that international humanitarian law must be interpreted as establishing implicit detention authority, in order to ensure the continued regulation of armed groups.

I disagree that IHL cannot regulate non-state actor (NSA) detention in NIAC unless it authorises that detention, for reasons I will explain in this post. Before we get to Murray’s argument, however, it is important to remind ourselves of what is at stake in the debate. Put simply, if Murray is right and IHL authorises NSAs to detain, two significant consequences follow: (1) states have no right to prosecute NSAs who detain government soldiers, even if such detention would qualify as kidnapping or wrongful imprisonment under domestic criminal law; and (2) NSAs have the right to detain government soldiers for as long as they pose a “security threat” to the NSA — ie, essentially forever. In other words, FARC could detain a Colombian soldier for five decades and Colombia couldn’t prosecute the commander responsible for that detention as long as FARC complied with NIAC’s procedural restrictions on detention.

Now let’s turn to Murray’s argument. Here are the critical paragraphs in the article:

[I]nternational law cannot regulate activity that is subject to an absolute prohibition. For example, instances of torture cannot be regulated as torture is subject to an absolute prohibition. The same is true with respect to armed group detention in non-international armed conflict: the absolute prohibition of arbitrary detention precludes the possibility of regulating arbitrary detention (p. 9)

Two possibilities are open: either international humanitarian law establishes an implicit legal basis for detention, or it does not and the authority to detain must be established elsewhere. If international humanitarian law does not establish an implicit legal basis for detention then all instances of detention by armed groups will necessarily violate the prohibition of arbitrary detention as a legal basis for armed group detention does not exist under domestic law or elsewhere in international law. Yet, to interpret Common Article 3 and Article 5 Additional Protocol II in this way is to conclude that states have developed international treaty law to regulate detention operations by armed groups, despite the fact that all instances of armed group detention are illegal. This interpretation is incapable of giving effect to states’ intentions, and to the object and purpose of the provisions themselves. As discussed above, states cannot regulate that which is absolutely prohibited, and so the only means by which Common Article 3 and Article 5 Additional Protocol II can regulate detention by armed groups is if these provisions establish an implicit legal basis for that detention  (p. 14)

The first thing to note is that the torture analogy is misplaced. International law does indeed absolutely prohibit torture. But it does not absolutely prohibit detention — not even in NIAC. On the contrary, a state is free to detain as long as it adopts the necessary domestic legislation. It is even free to domestically authorise an NSA to detain, as well. (Which is not absurd. A state may well conclude that an NSA is more likely to treat captured government soldiers humanely if it does not prohibit the very act of detention.) So what Murray is actually arguing is that because most states choose not to authorise NSAs to detain, international humanitarian law (IHL) necessarily authorises it for them so they can regulate that detention. That’s a very puzzling claim, given that states are the authors of IHL.

The fundamental problem with Murray’s position, however, is that it is simply not the case that IHL can’t regulate a practice that international law absolutely prohibits. I will discuss in a minute the situation regarding detention in NIAC, in which the regulation and the prohibition come from different legal regimes — regulation from IHL, prohibition from international human rights law (IHRL). But before doing so, it is worth noting that Murray’s argument does not work even when the regulation and the prohibition come from the same legal regime — a situation in which you would think Murray’s argument would be even stronger…

The Disappearing UN Report on Israeli “Apartheid”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) sent shockwaves through the international community by issuing a report that — for the first time in UN history — claims Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amounts to the crime of apartheid. Here is ESCWA’s description of the report, entitled “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” which was officially commissioned by ESCWA but does not purport to represent the official opinion of the UN:

This report examines, based on key instruments of international law, whether Israel has established an apartheid regime that oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole. Having established that the crime of apartheid has universal application, that the question of the status of the Palestinians as a people is settled in law, and that the crime of apartheid should be considered at the level of the State, the report sets out to demonstrate how Israel has imposed such a system on the Palestinians in order to maintain the domination of one racial group over others.

A history of war, annexation and expulsions, as well as a series of practices, has left the Palestinian people fragmented into four distinct population groups, three of them (citizens of Israel, residents of East Jerusalem and the populace under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza) living under direct Israeli rule and the remainder, refugees and involuntary exiles, living beyond. This fragmentation, coupled with the application of discrete bodies of law to those groups, lie at the heart of the apartheid regime. They serve to enfeeble opposition to it and to veil its very existence. This report concludes, on the basis of overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid, and urges swift action to oppose and end it.

Predictably, the ESCWA report enraged Israel and the United States. Both states pressured the UN to withdraw the report — and to his lasting shame, the Secretary General, António Guterres, quickly folded. (Claiming, truly beggaring belief, that the decision had nothing to do with the report’s content.) Although you can still find the press release on ESCWA’s website, the report has been scrubbed from the webpage containing all of ESCWA’s reports. Only the Executive Summary remains — and it can only be found by entering the title of the report into Google and looking for the ESCWA link.

As critical as I am of Israel’s unconscionable oppression of and violence toward Palestinians, I have never accused Israel of practicing apartheid. But there is absolutely no justification for the UN suppressing an official report issued by one of the regional offices of the Economic and Social Council — particularly in response to pressure from the object of that report (and its chief enabler). Nor is this the first time the UN has bowed to Israeli pressure: recall Ban Ki-moon’s indefensible decision in 2015 to remove Israel from the UN’s “list of shame” of children’s rights violators. Unfortunately, it appears his successor will be no less craven.

That said, at least one UN official has the courage of her convictions. Rima Khalaf, the UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of ESCWA, reacted to Guterres’ decision to scrub the report by immediately resigning.

You can find a copy of the 74-page report here. Do what the Israel, the US, and the UN don’t want you to do — read the report and decide the apartheid question for yourself.

America’s Hubris, Cambodia Version

by Kevin Jon Heller

It is difficult to overstate the horrors the US inflicted on Cambodia from the air during the Vietnam War: 230,000 sorties involving 113,000 different sites; 500,000 tonnes of bombs, as much as the US dropped in the entire Pacific theatre during WW II; at least 50,000, and probably closer to 150,000, innocent civilians killed. Even worse, that bombing campaign, along with the US-backed coup against Prince Sihanouk in 1970, is widely credited with helping bring Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to power, and we know how that turned out — at least 1.7 million Cambodians murdered, an auto-genocide of epic proportions.

The US has never apologized for its actions in Cambodia. President Obama didn’t even mention the Vietnam War when he became the first President to visit Cambodia in 2012. The Trump administration, however, is not afraid to discuss Vietnam. On the contrary, it is currently very interested in discussing US actions during the war — to demand that Cambodia pay back $500 million it owes the US for providing support to Lon Nol’s unpopular regime:

The debt started out as a US$274 million loan mostly for food supplies to the then US-backed Lon Nol government but has almost doubled over the years as Cambodia refused to enter into a re-payment program.

William Heidt, the US’s ambassador in Phnom Penh, said Cambodia’s failure to pay back the debt puts it in league with Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

“To me, Cambodia does not look like a country that should be in arrears…buildings coming up all over the city, foreign investment coming in, government revenue is rapidly rising,” Mr Heidt was quoted as saying by the Cambodia Daily.

“I’m saying it is in Cambodia’s interest not to look to the past, but to look at how to solve this because it’s important to Cambodia’s future,” he said, adding that the US has never seriously considered cancelling the debt.

Look forward, not backward. Where have we heard that before?

I have little doubt that Cambodia’s debt to the US is valid under international law. But that does not mean the US has the moral right to demand payment — much less to compare Cambodia to debt scofflaws like Zimbabwe. (How much does the US owe the UN right now? It was almost $3 billion at the end of 2015.) As James Pringle, Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh city during the Vietnam War, recently wrote in the Cambodia Daily, “Cambodia does not owe even a brass farthing to the U.S. for help in destroying its people, its wild animals, its rice fields and forest cover.”

But what do I know? Perhaps Donald Trump needs the $500 million to finance the US’s current bombing campaigns in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Or to build the wall between the US and Mexico.

Two Positions at PHAP

by Kevin Jon Heller

PHAP — Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection — is advertising two positions in Geneva that might be of interest to readers. The first is Policy Coordinator:

The International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) is looking for an experienced policy professional to support the association’s efforts to foster new perspectives on critical issues affecting the humanitarian sector through inclusive and objective discussion. This is a new position.

Building on the association’s trend monitoring efforts, the Policy Coordinator will analyze a variety of emerging and developing challenges affecting humanitarian work. When priority issues are identified, the Policy Coordinator is accountable for setting up and supporting issue-focused member committees, assisting in organizing their discussions and supporting the association’s efforts to engage on priority policy issues.

The second is Communications Officer:

The International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) is looking for a dynamic communications professional to join the association’s secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Communications Officer is accountable for implementing and further developing the association’s public and member communication strategies.

I have worked with PHAP for years, conducting IHL trainings all around the world. It is an exceptional organisation that does interesting and important work. Definitely apply if one of the positions sound right for you! The deadline is coming soon — this Sunday, March 12, for both positions.

Welcome to the Blogosphere, Lawfire!

by Kevin Jon Heller

Apparently, being named Charles and having vast military experience is all the rage in the blogosphere these days. Last week I mentioned Charles Blanchard’s new blog. And this week I want to spruik Charles Dunlop’s new(ish) blog, Lawfire. Charlie is a retired Major General in the US Air Force (where he served, inter alia, as Deputy Judge Advocate General) and currently serves as Executive Director of Duke Law School’s excellent Center on Law, Ethics and National Security. He is also Professor of Practice at Duke. His bio is here.

Charlie’s blog has been around for about two years. Recent posts discuss the relevance of social justice to the encryption debate, defend prioritizing victims of genocide in US immigration policy, and claim that Chelsea Manning’s commutation is actually likely to harm transgender soldiers.

I often disagree with Charlie about national-security and IHL issues. (I’m on Adil Haque’s side, for example, in the fantastic Just Security debate he and Charlie had last year concerning the new Law of War Manual’s treatment of human shields.) But Charlie’s blogging is unfailingly serious, thoughtful, and informative. If you haven’t already, you should add Lawfire to your newsreader.

You can find Lawfire here.

Welcome to the Blogosphere, A Guy in the World!

by Kevin Jon Heller

The blog is a one-man show, and that man is Charles Blanchard — former General Counsel of both the Air Force and the United States Army, current partner at Arnold & Porter in DC. The blog will focus on national-security law, which Chuck “define[s] pretty broadly — to include topics such as climate change and immigration as well as defense policy.” Recent posts include an excellent primer on emoluments, a discussion of the practical difficulties of stopping North Korean aggression, and a debunking of the right-wing meme that the Ninth Circuit is reversed 80% of the time.

I don’t always agree with Chuck — which is not terribly surprising — but I always find his writing intelligent and insightful. I hope his blog has a long, happy life.

You can find A Guy in the World here.

ICC Communication About Australia’s Mistreatment of Refugees

by Kevin Jon Heller

As has been widely reported, 17 international-law scholars — including yours truly — recently submitted a 105-page communication to the Office of the Prosecutor alleging that Australia’s treatment of refugees involves the commission of multiple crimes against humanity, including imprisonment, torture, deportation, and persecution. The communication is a tremendous piece of work, prepared in large part by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic.

Peter Dutton, Australia’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, has described our efforts as a “wacky cause.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The communication is serious, sober, analytic, and comprehensive. I think it establishes far more than a “reasonable basis” to believe that Australian government officials and officials of the corporations that run the prison camps on Manus Island and Nauru have committed crimes against humanity. Here is (most of) the executive summary…

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

by Kevin Jon Heller

Oh, Fox News, how I love thee:

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PS: In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s real.

Dear Mr President: 40% of Zero is Zero

by Kevin Jon Heller

Kill me:

Funding will be taken away from any organisation that is “controlled or substantially influenced by any state that sponsors terrorism” or is behind the persecution of marginalised groups or systematic violation of human rights.

The order has singled out peacekeeping, the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Population Fund. The UNPFA targets violence against women, fights to keeps childbirth and abortion, where it is legal, safe, and was a key presence in safeguarding women in Haiti following Hurricane Matthew.

The order demands decreasing US funding towards international organisations by at least 40 per cent. Mr Trump has included the International Criminal Court here, yet the US currently pays nothing to the ICC.

When asked why he wants to reduce funding to an organisation the US doesn’t fund, President Trump reportedly responded, “the Prosecutor, Frederick Douglass, is a rabble-rouser.”

Event: Australia, Refugees, and International Criminal Law (February 13)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call readers’ attention to what should be — despite my participation — a fantastic event at City Law School the week after next. Here is the info:

City, University of London: The Refugee Crisis and International Criminal Law: Are Australian Agents and Corporate Actors Committing Crimes Against Humanity?

City Law School invites you to a panel discussion of international criminal law aspects of the refugee crisis, with a focus on the Australian detention facilities. The discussion will follow the announcement and launch of a new major initiative by the Stanford International Human Rights Clinic and the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN).

Refugees and asylum seekers are currently under attack in many developed countries, including in European states, the US, and Australia. International criminal law has developed around the need for international institutions to intervene on behalf of the most vulnerable populations, when states are unwilling or unable to do so. Can international criminal prosecution help counter the current encroachment upon refugee rights? Currently, the most flagrant examples of such encroachment are Australian practices, which have also served as a model for migration restrictionists around the world. Our focus will be on the treatment of refugees in Nauru and Manus Island by Australian officials and agents, including corporate actors. At issue, however, are not only legal questions. As important are contemporary political conditions, in which the international criminal court is under sustained critique for a seeming bias against African leaders; and in which Western governments and populist movements are proposing new policies that violate refugee rights. Does the concept of Crimes against Humanity accurately capture the conditions of detention and practices of mass deportations? And, if there are international crimes committed, are these grave enough for the International Criminal Court to investigate? Can and should International Criminal Law shift its focus from instances of spectacular or radical evil to the normalised and ‘banal’ violence waged by Western states as a consequence of the structures of global inequality?

Speakers: Ms Diala Shamas, Supervising Attorney and Lecturer, Stanford Law School International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic; Dr Cathryn Costello, Andrew W. Mellon Associate Professor in International Human Rights and Refugee Law, fellow of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford; Professor Kevin Jon Heller, Professor of Criminal Law, SOAS, University of London; Dr Ioannis KalpouzosLecturer in Law, City Law School, City, University of London; Legal Action Committee, Global Legal Action Network; Dr Itamar Mann, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Haifa; Legal Action Committee, Global Legal Action Network; Ms Anna Shea, Researcher and Legal Advisor, Refugee and Migrant Rights, Amnesty International.

The event takes place on Monday 13 February 2017 at 18:00 at City, University of London, College Building, St John Street, EC1V 4PB – Room AG21. The event will be followed by a wine reception. Attendance is free. You may sign up here.

Hope to see some OJ readers there!

RIP, Sir Nigel Rodley

by Kevin Jon Heller

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of my friend and Doughty Street colleague Sir Nigel Rodley. Cribbing from the statement issued by the International Commission of Jurists, of which Nigel was President:

Elected President of the ICJ in 2012, he was serving his third term as such. He had been first elected to the Commission in 2003 and re-elected in 2008 and 2013. He served as a member of the Executive Committee from 2004-2006.

He was also a Council member of JUSTICE, the British Section of the International Commission of Jurists.

Professor Sir Nigel Rodley was a towering figure in the area of international human rights, playing many roles as an educator, as an academic, as an activist and as an advocate.

He established and expanded the first human rights law department at Amnesty International in the 1970s and 1980s, leading the organization’s work on the development and promotion on international legal standards.

He spent eight years, from 1993 to 2001, as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture, visiting dozens of countries and working tenaciously toward the eradication of torture worldwide.

From 2001 to 2016 he served on the UN Human Rights Committee, including a period as it Chairman, where he often served as the intellectual author of the Committee’s most prominent accomplishments.

I’m sure many Opinio Juris readers knew Nigel, someone for whom the expression “towering figure” seems specifically invented. Although our paths had crossed both virtually and physically for a number of years, I did not get to know Nigel particularly well until we went to Beijing together a couple of years ago as part of a Chatham House project entitled “China and the Future of the International Legal Order.” I was fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time with Nigel during that trip, including flying back with him. (Nigel almost missed the trip because he left his wallet in our taxi.) After that, we were fast friends.

You would be hard pressed to find a kinder, more gracious person than Nigel. He will be sorely missed — by me and by anyone else who had the pleasure of knowing him.

Requiescat in pace, Sir Nigel.

GOP Wants the US to Leave the United Nations

by Kevin Jon Heller

Finally, a Republican bill we can all get behind! The American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017:

A bill was introduced to the House of Representatives in early January that, among other things, calls for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations. Sponsored by Senator Mike Rogers, the American Sovereignty Restoration Act (aka H.R. 193) had been previously introduced by the Alabama senator to no avail back in 2015 (then H.R. 1205), when he cited reasons ranging from spending waste to enabling an intercontinental “dictators’ club,” which sounds like a manuscript Ann M. Martin decided to leave in her desk drawer.

I believe in sovereignty — and in restoring it when it is lost. So I support the bill. And no more UN membership, of course, means no more permanent veto for the US. So no more holding peacekeeping missions hostage whenever the international community doesn’t let the US play by its own rules. No more US propping up its own preferred dictators while criticising the preferred dictators of others. No more US protecting Israel from the consequences of its actions. Sounds pretty good!

Does anyone know how to introduce similar bills in the Duma and the NPC? I hear Russia and China are suffering a sovereignty deficit, as well.