Author Archive for
Kevin Jon Heller

Apparently Perfidy Is Not Prohibited in 2256

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have just started watching Star Trek: Discovery, the first new Star Trek series in a decade. It’s excellent — dark, well-acted, with beautiful special affects. But I have to say that it was shocking to see the Captain of a Federation starship engage in a blatantly perfidious act in the second episode. The Federation has just come out on the losing end of a major battle with the Klingons. Captain Georgiou transports a photon torpedo into the torso of a dead Klingon, the lead Klingon ship retrieves the dead Klingon for burial, and… boom, the Klingon ship is disabled, with hundreds if not thousands dead.

As I have explained in a scholarly article, it is perfidious to use a booby-trap in a manner that violates the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices. Art. 2(4) of the Protocol defines a booby-trap as “any device or material which is designed, constructed or adapted to kill or injure, and which functions unexpectedly when a person disturbs or approaches an apparently harmless object or performs an apparently safe act.” And Art. 7(1)(b) specifically provides that “it is prohibited in all circumstances to use booby-traps and other devices which are in any way attached to or associated with… sick, wounded or dead persons.” Captain Georgiou’s use of a booby-trapped dead Klingon to disable the Klingon ship was thus unequivocally perfidious.

The Star Trek universe always presents the Federation as the height of legal and moral rectitude. At least for one episode of Star Trek: Discovery, that was not the case.

Response from the EIC of the Journal of the History of International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

[The following is a response from Anne Peters, the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the History of International Law]

Dear readers,

The JHIL received this letter and had agreed towards the authors in writing to publish it in the JHIL as soon as possible.

Publication in JHIL does not imply any agreement or endorsement by the editors or by the academic advisory board of the opinions expressed in an article.

The selection of articles for the journal occurs through double blind peer review on the basis of their academic quality. In the case of the article on the Jamestown Massacre, the editors were able to obtain only one peer review report.

The editor-in-chief acknowledges that there were flaws in the review process and apologizes for this.

The JHIL has recently amended the selection and review procedure in order to strengthen the process.

The new authors’ guidelines containing the description of the review process can be found on the Journal’s website.

Anne Peters

Letter to the Editors of the Journal of the History of International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

[This letter was sent to the editors of the Journal of the History of International Law on 29 August 2017. I am a signatory, not the letter’s author.]

Dear Editors,

We are writing to express our grave concern about the publication of an article entitled ‘The Forgotten Genocide in Colonial America: Reexamining the 1622 Jamestown Massacre within the Framework of the UN Genocide Convention’ in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of International Law. We find the decision to publish this article strange to understand to the extent that it combines dubious anachronisms and legal framings, problematic application of legal doctrine, selective presentation of facts and quotations, and outright contradictions and falsehoods. Notably, it is difficult, if not outright impossible, to reconcile the different parts of the argument with each other as well as with the conclusions of the article. For even if one was to ignore issues of historical accuracy and legal argumentation and accept the author’s arguments, this does not support in any way the conclusion that ‘Jamestown was radically disproportionate to any violence committed by the English, before or after 1622’ (p. 48), or that ‘a sense of self-respect, or at least … a sense of self-preservation’ (ibid) was the core or the motive of settlers’ actions and attitudes post-1622. After all, the article repeatedly emphasises the distinction between (genocidal) intent and motive only to collapse the two when it comes to justifying the acts of English settlers. In other words, this is a piece of work that fails in relation to its own terms as well as in relation to general standards of academic argumentation and rigour.

Since the said article is of considerable length and there are significant problems on virtually every page, we will only focus on a limited number of issues while emphasising that our enumeration is not exhaustive. To begin with, it is notable that even though the author argues that the Powhatan targeted the settlers indiscriminately and without respect for the distinction between ‘combatants and non-combatants’ (p.1), he also goes to great lengths to argue that no armed conflict (or ‘war’ in his own words) was taking place anyway. In any event, the existence, or not, of an armed conflict is doctrinally irrelevant for the finding of the crime of genocide. A review process exhibiting minimal familiarity both with international humanitarian law and the law of genocide would have pointed out these argumentative discontinuities. We find it impossible to find an explanation of what brings together combatants, the absence of armed conflict and the potential perpetration of genocide, since legal doctrine does not. We suspect that the author’s intention to portray the Powhatan as barbarians who embarked on senseless violence out of the blue might shed light on the structure of the article to the extent that international law fails to do so.

Moreover, we are surprised that the peer review process did not challenge the fact that at least the first part of the article is grounded on the argument that no other ‘single massacre’ (p. 5) claimed so many lives as the events in Jamestown. Since the ‘ratio of deaths per incident’ is a criterion as such unknown to international law, and hardly defensible from a moral or political perspective, this is an argumentative move worthy of serious scrutiny. The fact that this arbitrary criterion is clearly linked to an effort to ignore, underplay and eventually justify the prolonged, systematic and (alas) mostly successful process of exterminating Native Americans, dispossessing them of their land, and destroying their society and culture, should have raised even more questions. Indeed, even though Bennett focuses on English settlers, he fails to situate the events within a broader historical context of empire and colonisation as a process that did not simply encompass occasional, unconnected outbreaks of mass violence, but was specifically premised on continuous expansionism to the detriment of the existing occupiers of the land that culminated in their dispossession. The word ‘empire’ does appear twice in the article, but only in order to describe the political relations between the Powhatan and other Native Americans (p. 14, p. 17). Even if one disagrees with our assessment of imperialism and colonisation as articulated above, it would still be difficult to contest the prima facie relevance of this historical context to the discussed topic…

Symposium: Aeyal Gross’s “The Writing on the Wall”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the next three days we will be featuring an online discussion of my SOAS colleague and TAU law professor Aeyal Gross‘s new book for Cambridge University Press, The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017). The book develops ideas that Aeyal discussed on Opinio Juris — in a symposium on the functional approach to occupation — more than five years ago. So it’s fitting that we discuss his book on the blog now!

We are delighted to welcome a number of commenters, including Eliav Lieblich (TAU), Valentina Azarova (Koç) (who also contributed to the earlier symposium), Diana Buttu (IMEU), and Eugene Kontorovich (Northwestern). Aeyal will respond to the comments at the end of the symposium.

We look forward to the conversation!

Workshop CfP: Contingency in the Course of International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

I am delighted to release the call for papers for a workshop I am organising with Ingo Venzke, my fantastic colleague at the Amsterdam Center for International Law. The workshop is entitled “Contingency in the Course of International Law: How International Law Could Have Been” and will feature an opening address by Fleur Johns (UNSW) and a closing address by Sam Moyn (Yale). The workshop will be held over two half days and one full day from June 14-16 2018. Here is our description of the concept:

The workshop will ask a question that is deceptive in its simplicity: How might international law have been otherwise? The overarching aim will be to expose the contingencies of international law’s development by inquiring into international law’s past. Such inquiries may be of systematic purport – asking, for example, how a different conception of the sources of international law could have emerged. Or they may focus on specific areas of the law, asking questions like whether the idea of state crimes could have taken hold or whether the NIEO could have achieved greater success. International law’s past is almost certainly ripe with possibilities that we have forgotten. The workshop will seek to reveal and remember them.

The workshop will focus on trying to tell compelling stories about international law’s contingency. To be sure, those attempts may fail and claims to contingency may well turn out to be false. Either way, though, we will question the present state of international law by challenging its pretense to necessity and by better understanding the forces that have shaped it. Put simply with Robert Musil: ‘If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense for possibility’.

While the operation of the law is bound to gloss over any contingency in its course, we wish to draw out those contingencies to learn what could (not) have been. Some contributions will focus on the operation of international law itself, exploring the differential developments that could have taken place concerning seminal judicial decisions (eg, what if France had won the Lotus case?), key treaties (eg, what if states had failed to conclude the Second Additional Protocol in 1977?), or important institutions (eg, what if the International Clearing Union had been established in 1949?). Another set of inquiries will question the development of international law in light of more general historical events that might not have happened or might have happened differently, such as the outbreak of World War I, the processes of decolonization, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And yet other angles are welcome.

In the course of concrete inquiries into international law’s past, there are numerous opportunities for theoretical reflection about the nature of contingency itself, ranging from philosophies of legal history to questions about the narrator’s perspective. How should actor- and structure-centered accounts of the past be combined in probing the contingency of past events? How should we cope with possible tensions between pursuing interests in the present while avoiding undue anachronisms? And how can we contextualize legal developments without reducing law to its context only? Not the least, the question of how it could have been provides a renewed take on perennial questions of international law’s relationship with power, culture, and justice.

The workshop is open to everyone from PhD students to senior scholars — from law and from outside it — and the deadline for abstracts is December 1. You can download the full Call for Papers here. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me.

CUP Reverses Its Decision to Censor China Articles (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Here is CUP’s statement:

Kudos to CUP for doing the right thing. And kudos to everyone — including Jan Klabbers — who took a public stand against CUP’s capitulation to Chinese pressure.

UPDATE: True to form, China is now censoring news of CUP’s decision not to censor!

Saudi Arabia Threatens to Shoot Down a Qatari Airways Plane

by Kevin Jon Heller

Saudi-owned TV news network Al Arabiya aired a video simulation yesterday that shows a Saudi Arabian fighter shooting an air-to-air missile at a Qatari Airways plane. Here is the video:

That’s bad enough — but what is truly horrifying is the accompany voiceover, which intones the following:

International law permits states to shoot down any aircraft that violates a state’s airspace, classing it as a legitimate target, especially if flying over a military area.

No, it doesn’t. This is wrong on so many levels. To begin with, shooting down a Qatari Airways plane would categorically violate the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which Saudi Arabia ratified more than 50 years ago. Art. 3bis, which has been in force since 1998, provides as follows:

a) The contracting States recognize that every State must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight and that, in case of interception, the lives of persons on board and the safety of aircraft must not be endangered. This provision shall not be interpreted as modifying in any way the rights and obligations of States set forth in the Charter of the United Nations.

The second sentence recognises that Saudi Arabia would have every right under the UN Charter to defend it against armed attack — if, for example, the Qatar military decided to use a Qatar Airways plane for offensive military purposes. But although a civilian Qatar Airways plane would no doubt violate the principle of non-intervention if it intentionally entered Saudi airspace, thus giving rise to Qatari state responsibility (because Qatar owns Qatar airways), the mere fact of intentional entry would not remotely qualify as an armed attack — much less one that would justify the use of lethal force in self-defense.

The conclusion is no different under the jus in bello. A Qatar Airways plane would not become a legitimate target by flying over a Saudi “military area” — much less simply by entering Saudi airspace. Indeed, neither act would even be a use of force sufficient to create an international armed conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So IHL would not even apply.

We need to be clear about what the video represents. Quite simply, Saudi Arabia is threatening to engage in state terrorism — the use of violence to spread panic among Qatari civilians in order to persuade the Qatari government to supposedly stop supporting terrorist groups. (Something the Saudis know more than a little about.)

Saudi Arabia is a fundamentally lawless state. I’d like to think this horrific video could prove to be its Charlottesville moment, finally convincing the US and the UK that the Saudi government has no intention of complying with international law. But I’m not going to hold my breath. If routinely massacring civilians in Yemen isn’t enough, what’s casually threatening to blow up a civilian Qatari plane?

This Is Why People Think the ICC Is Unfairly Targeting Africa

by Kevin Jon Heller

Snapshot of two days in the life of the ICC.

On Tuesday, the ICC issued a new arrest warrant in the Libya situation — for Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a commander in the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), which defected from the Libyan army during the revolution and is currently vying for power with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The arrest warrant represents a new phase in the ICC’s completely unsuccessful investigation in Libya, as it is the first to focus on events that happened after the revolution. There is no reason to believe, however, that the warrant for al-Werfalli will be any more successful than the ones for Gaddafi and al-Senussi: the LNA has already made clear they will not surrender him to the ICC, and the GNA has zero prospect at present of capturing him.

On Wednesday, Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines, instructed his police to shoot human-rights activists who are “obstructing justice” by investigating his war against (alleged) drug dealers. That war has involved at least 7,000 extrajudicial killings in the past 13 months and has featured Duterte openly admitting not only that he has ordered the extrajudicial kilings, but that he has personally committed themHuman-rights groups and even a Philippine senator have called for the ICC to open an investigation into the situation.

There seems to be little question that al-Werfalli is guilty of ordering and participating in more than two dozen summary executions of captured soldiers — remarkably, there is video to that effect. But al-Werfalli is one military commander among hundreds responsible for horrific crimes in Libya. Duterte, by contrast, is the President of one of the only states in Southeast Asia that has ratified the Rome Statute. Even if he never ended up in the ICC’s dock, a formal investigation of the situation that he has almost single-handedly created in the Philippines would do more to deter the commission of international crimes than 500 arrest warrants for thugs like al-Werfalli. Yet despite issuing a strong statement making clear that the Court has jurisdiction over the situation and could prosecute individuals responsible for international crimes, there is no indication that the OTP has seriously contemplated opening a formal investigation in the Philippines.

The ICC fiddles in Benghazi while Manila burns. And yet the ICC claims not to understand why so many people think it’s obsessed with Africa.

Political Pressure Succeeds! (Update on My Student)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have happy news to report: after a groundswell of support, my student Tamara Tamimi has been granted a visa to attend her SOAS graduation. Apparently her Facebook post garnered more than 700 reactions, leading to letters and emails flooding into the Home Office. I want to thank each and every person who supported Tamara — whether through a letter, an email, or simply a retweet. And I want to give a specific shout-out to David Lammy MP, one of the brightest young stars in the Labour Party — and a graduate of SOAS law, I’m proud to say. His direct intervention on Tamara’s behalf was no doubt critical to Tamara receiving her visa.

The UK Is Preventing My Student from Attending Her Graduation

by Kevin Jon Heller

I opened Facebook just now to find the following post from my brilliant student at SOAS, Tamara Tamimi, whose MA dissertation — written under my supervision — received the law school’s award for the best MA dissertation of the year:

I am angry, frustrated and sad. I was denied entry clearance into the UK to attend my graduation from SOAS University of London. I finished my MA in Human Rights Law from SOAS, University of London ten months ago and returned to my homeland, Palestine. I decided to go through the trouble and expenses to attend my graduation for a number of reasons, including this burning desire to share the moment with my family and friends especially after I received the Sarah Spells Award by the SOAS School of Law for the best MA dissertation of the academic year. 

What was most exciting for me was that I was going to be standing on Thursday with the people I called family for a whole year and receiving my graduation certificate and celebrate the acknowledgment of the one hell of a work that bore fruits from the tediously long hours that I spent in the SOAS Library and UCL Main Library.

During the past couple of months I excitedly texted and talked to London friends and made plans for the five days my family and I were planning to spend in London. There were many things to be done: so many people to reconnect with in SOAS and the house I called home for a year and so many places to go to and take my family. I was getting more and more excited as my friends shared their plans: Amira and Giorgios were going to recreate another hellish night of cards against humanity at the ILSC and Scott was yet again hosting one of his crazy celebration milestone parties.

But the UK was “not satisfied” that I am “genuinely seeking entry for a purpose that is permitted by the visitor routes” and denied me entry clearance that would enable me to attend my own graduation, despite giving me two years ago a Chevening Scholarship to undertake my MA studies in SOAS. In doing so they are preventing me from spending time and celebrating my achievement with my family and friends. 

My graduation ceremony is Thursday the 27th… I will fight this injustice until the very end… fight with me and demand the UK to reverse this decision to deny me a visa to attend my own graduation by sharing my posts, writing to your MPs and mobilising the media… anything that you do will count.

This is appalling and unacceptable, but not surprising. Having ensured its increasing irrelevance on the world stage through the self-inflicted wound of Brexit, the UK is desperate to maintain good relations with any state that will trade with it, no matter how authoritarian or vicious — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the Philippines, Egypt, China… and, of course, Israel.

The UK can take away Tamara’s ability to attend her graduation. But they cannot take away her intelligence and passion. It was my honour to supervise her thesis, and SOAS was fortunate to have her as a student.

OJ Bloggers in Salim v Mitchell

by Kevin Jon Heller

As many readers are probably aware, the ACLU is currently bringing an ATS action against the two psychologists, James Mitchell and John Jessen, who allegedly designed and administered the CIA’s torture program. Here is the ACLU’s summary of the case, Salim v. Mitchell:

The CIA paid the two men and the company they later formed tens of millions of dollars over the next eight years [since 2002] to implement and refine the resulting program. Mitchell and Jessen designed the abusive procedures, conditions, and cruel treatment imposed on captives during their rendition and subsequent detention, devised the torture instruments and protocols, personally tortured detainees, and trained CIA personnel in administering torture techniques. In a clear conflict of interest later acknowledged by the CIA, the two men were also tasked with evaluating the “effectiveness” of the program from which they reaped enormous profits.

The plaintiffs in the case are Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, and the estate of the late Gul Rahman, who died as a result of his torture. They are three of 119 victims and survivors of the CIA program named in the Senate torture report. All three were experimented on and tortured in accordance with Mitchell and Jessen’s specifications. All were subjected to severe physical and psychological abuse including prolonged sleep deprivation and nudity, starvation, beating, water dousing, and extreme forms of sensory deprivation – methodically administered with the aim of psychologically breaking their will.

The plaintiffs are suing Mitchell and Jessen under the Alien Tort Statute for their commission of torture; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; non-consensual human experimentation; and war crimes.

I am not going to comment on the merits of the case. Instead, I want to let readers know that Opinio Juris bloggers are involved on both sides of it. I am the expert witness for the plaintiffs concerning the human-experimentation claim; Julian is the expert witness for the defendants on both the human-experimentation claim and the torture claim. You can find my declaration here, and Julian’s response here. We have also each submitted rebuttal declarations. Mine is here (scroll down to p. 48); Julian’s is here.

The New York Times published a long article about the case last weekend. It’s well worth a read.

William Bradford Fails Upward — and Is Still Lying About His Credentials

by Kevin Jon Heller

When last we met William Bradford, he had just published an article in the National Security Law Journal (NSLJ) accusing centrist national-security-law professors of treason and advocating prosecuting them for providing material support to terrorists. After many scholars, including me, pointed out that the article was both absurd and deeply offensive, the NSLJ repudiated the article. (Alas, the journal has since scrubbed the repudiation from its website.)

Bradford’s article was not his first brush with controversy He was forced to resign from Indiana University at Indianapolis after Inside Higher Education revealed that he had lied about his military service, falsely claiming, inter alia, that he had fought in Desert Storm and Bosnia and had won a Silver Star. Bradford then later resigned from West Point — whose decision to hire him still boggles the mind — after it came to light that he had falsely claimed that he had been an assistant professor at the National Defense University (NDU), run by the Department of Defense. According to the NDU, to quote the Guardian, “he was not a professor there, nor even a staff employee…. He is said to have worked for a Waynesboro, Virginia-based translations and business consultant, Translang, which had a contract with the university.”

You would be forgiven for thinking that someone who has accused respected law professors of committing treason and who was forced to resign from two academic institutions for lying about his credentials might have a difficult time finding a new — and more important — position. But if you do think that, you have never met Donald J. Trump, for whom no one is too dishonest or too incompetent to hire. Because Trump has recently appointed Bradford to the be the Director of the Office of Indian Energy at the Department of Energy (DoE).

That’s appalling in and of itself. But the awfulness doesn’t end there, because Bradford is still lying about his credentials. Here is a screenshot of Bradford’s bio on the DoE website (in case the DoE reads this and decides to scrub it):

Notice the text inside the red rectangle: Bradford is still claiming to have been a faculty member at the NDU — the same claim that led to his resignation from West Point.

In any sane administration, Bradford would be fired in the next 48 hours. But this is the Trump administration, so I’m not holding my breath.