Author Archive for
Kevin Jon Heller

Why Art. 4(h) of the AU’s Constitutive Act Does Not Support UHI

by Kevin Jon Heller

I like much of what Jennifer Trahan says in her recent post about the permanent veto. But I would take issue — unsurprisingly — with her claim that “there is in fact more past precedent for reliance on the doctrine of humanitarian intervention than is often recognized, including not only NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, but also African and Arab practice.” There is no need to belabour the Kosovo argument, which I have already criticised in my response to Harold Koh. Instead, I want to focus in this post on the idea that African practice provides support for a customary right to unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI). That idea seems to be popping up with more regularity these days, as those who believe UHI should be legal cast about for a plausible argument to that effect. Marc Weller, for example, recently made a similar claim in his intemperate response to Marko Milanovic’s recent post at EJIL: Talk! on the illegality of the Syria attack:

Moreover, the African Union has in fact formally committed itself to the doctrine in its own constitutive treaties–an act that destroys the presumption that the use of force for humanitarian purposes would necessarily violate the prohibition of the use of force.

Weller is referring to Art. 4(h) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union, which has been ratified by all 53 African states have signed the Act. Art. 4(h) permits the AU’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Union to authorise the use of force against a Member State that is responsible for the commission of international crimes:

The Union shall function in accordance with the following principles… (h) the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

Properly understood, however, Art. 4(h) of the Constitutive Act provides no support whatsoever for the legality of UHI. To see why, it is useful to begin by explaining why the case for a customary rule permitting UHI is not supported by humanitarian uses of force authorised by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The reason is straightforward: the essence of UHI is that the state being attacked does not consent to force being used on its territory, and all states consent to the possibility of the Security Council authorising the use of force on their territory when they ratify the Charter. The relevant provisions are Art. 24(1) and Art. 25:

Article 24

  1. In order to ensure prompt and effective action by the United Nations, its Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf.

Article 25

The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.

Because of Art. 24(1) and Art. 25, humanitarian intervention authorised by the Security Council under Chapter VII is by definition legally consensual — even if the state being attacked is politically opposed to the use of force on its territory.

For similar reasons, humanitarian intervention authorised by the AU’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Union pursuant to Art. 4(h) of the Constitutive Act cannot be non-consensual. By ratifying the Constitutive Act, all AU members have empowered the Assembly to authorise the use force on their territory to stop the commission of international crimes. They may not like that use of force, but they have consented to it.

Humanitarian intervention authorised by the AU, therefore, no more supports the customary legality of UHI than humanitarian intervention authorised by the Security Council. In each case, the use of force in question is authorised by a supranational organisation acting on the basis of the consent of the parties that have ratified its founding treaty. That is the antithesis of the nonconsensual use of force — the constitutive feature of UHI.

A Letter to Israel About Its Plans to Forcibly Deport Africans

by Kevin Jon Heller

Opinio Juris readers might be interested in this letter from GLAN Legal — the Global Legal Action Network — to the Presidents and Attorneys General of Israel and Uganda. It was written by Itamar Mann, Yannis Kalpouzos, and Omer Shatz, with input from me. Here is the introduction:

The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) is an organization of lawyers initiating transnational human rights litigation around the world. Our focus is on cases in which “developed” countries are responsible for violations occurring in “developing” countries. We write to respectfully warn both Israel and Uganda that the forcible deportation plan currently being discussed for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers living in Israel may amount to a crime within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The letter then proceeds to lay out the basics of the argument — which seems pretty unimpeachable to me. Note the reliance on the OPT’s recent argument concerning deportation from Myanmar to Bangladesh!

The Coming Attack on Syria Will Be Unlawful

by Kevin Jon Heller

You go to war with the President you have, not the President you wish you had.

We should keep that basic truth in mind as the US inches ever closer to war with Syria — and potentially with Russia, a far more terrifying possibility. Donald Trump does not care about civilians in Syria. He does not care about containing the spread of chemical or biological weapons. If he attacks Syria, it will be for one and only one reason: to distract attention from his collusion with Russia, his obstruction of justice, and his corruption. As Trump well knows, Americans love nothing more than high-def images of American bombs falling from the skies. No matter how many innocent civilians die (especially brown ones), an attack on Syria will give his approval ratings a healthy boost. That is all the motivation he needs.

That Trump will act with base motives does not mean, however, that an attack on Syria would be unlawful. Illegality has to be demonstrated, not assumed.

So let’s start with some basic principles. Syria is a sovereign state. Russia is using force on Syrian territory with the consent of the Syrian government. The US is not. To justify its use of force in Syria, therefore, the US would have to be acting in self-defence. If it was not acting in self-defence, it would be violating the jus cogens prohibition of the use of force that is enshrined in Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter.

With regard to its use of force in Syria against ISIS and other terrorist groups, the US at least has a plausible claim to individual and collective self-defence: the “unwilling or unable” doctrine. Readers know that I do not believe that “unwilling or unable” reflects customary international law. (For the most recent scholarly rejection of that idea, by Brunee & Toope, see here.) But the argument is not a frivolous one.

An attack directed at Syria itself, however, would be patently unlawful. Syria has never attacked US forces or interests. By contrast, the US has attacked Syria: in 2017, when it fired 59 cruise missiles at a government airfield in Shayrat; and in 2018, when it killed approximately 100 members of a pro-Assad militia who attacked a Syrian Democratic Forces headquarters. The US offered no legal justification whatsoever for the 2017 attack, and it claimed that the attack on the militia was “self-defence” — as if collective self-defence somehow permitted the US to come to the aid of a rebel group.

But that is the past. More importantly, there is no evidence — literally none — that Syria has any intention of attacking US forces. Not in the near future or in any future. If the US attacks Syria, therefore, it would not be acting in self-defence. Its attack would violate the jus cogens prohibition of the use of force. It would be, to use the accurate but loaded term, the aggressor.

And that would, of course, have two very important consequences — consequences you will not see discussed in the American media if and when the US attack begins. To begin with, Syria would have every right to use force to defend itself. It could shoot down American fighter planes. It could kill American soldiers. The only limitations on Syria’s right of self-defence would be the usual ones: necessity and proportionality.

Even more importantly, Russia would also be legally entitled to use force against the US. The right of collective self-defence is guaranteed by Art. 51 of the UN Charter and by customary international law. Just as the US invoked collective self-defence to justify attacking North Vietnam at South Vietnam’s request, Russia could invoke collective self-defence to justify attacking the US at Syria’s request. What is sauce for the American goose is sauce for the Russian gander. This is the most frightening aspect of Trump’s madness: although the Syrian military is capable of doing far more damage to American forces than Iraq’s or Libya’s militaries ever were, Russia’s military is one of the most powerful and technologically-sophisticated in the world. A hot war between Russia and the US could be literally catastrophic.

None of this jus ad bellum analysis should be remotely controversial — at least not to those who don’t believe the US has the God-given right to use extraterritorial force wherever and whenever it pleases. All of the conclusions above derive from a straightforward application of black-letter rules concerning the use of force.

That said, in recent days we have seen a number of scholarly attempts to justify Trump’s coming attack on Syria. I want to focus on one such attempt here, by my friend (and retired Maj. Gen.) Charlie Dunlap at Lawfire. Dunlap offers two potential justifications for attacking Syria: (1) self-defence; and (2) unilateral humanitarian intervention. Neither justification works.

With regard to self-defence, Charlie says the following with regard to Syria’s chemical and biological weapons:

Today, there are considerably more U.S. troops in Syria – perhaps as many as 2,000  – well within range of a number of Syrian weapons’ delivery systems.  Accordingly, it is not unreasonable to conclude that these uniquely dangerous weapons of mass destruction require an aggressive response.

Even if we assume that US troops are in Syria lawfully — a big if, given that it requires accepting the “unwilling or unable” doctrine — this argument denudes Art. 51’s armed attack requirement of all meaning. As noted above, Syria has neither attacked US troops nor threatened to do so. The mere possibility of attack — involving the mere possibility of that attack involving chemical or biological weapons — cannot justify an armed “response” by the US. To argue otherwise is to embrace preventive self-defence on steroids — going beyond even the US’s rationale for attacking the shadowy Khorosan group, where the US spokesman openly acknowledged, with regard to what armed attack the US was supposedly trying to prevent, that “I don’t know that we can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months.” At least terrorists who were possibly associated with the Khorasan group had previously attacked US interests. With regard to Syria, there is not even one previous attack to invoke.

Charlie’s invocation of unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI) is no more persuasive. Here is what he says:

I also contended that Harold Koh’s 2013 argument about humanitarian intervention in certain narrow circumstances was supportive of a separate legal rationale for the 2017 strikes. I think the reaction of the international community to last year’s strikes is indicative of a growing consensus supporting limited interventions in select situations much as Professor Koh conceptualized, at least in the case of a clear violation of international law.

I have previously explained — in response to Harold Koh — why there is no plausible argument for the legality of UHI. The same critique applies here. I would just add that the international reaction to the 2017 attack on the airfield at Shayrat does not help the argument, for one simple reason: the US never invoked UHI as a justification for the attack. Because it did not, states were under no obligation to denounce UHI after the attack took place — as they have repeatedly done in the face of attacks (such as Kosovo) where one or two states did invoke the doctrine. What I said a few days ago regarding Israel’s 2007 Al-Kibar attack applies no less to the 2017 Shayrat attack: had the US claimed that the attack was legal UHI, the international response would have assuredly been different.

The conclusion above thus remains sound: if the US attacks Syria, it will be the aggressor and both Syria and Russia will have the right to use force against the US in self-defence.

Let me end with what I hope is obvious: this is a legal analysis, full stop. It is not a normative argument. I loathe Assad, a murderous dictator who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison for his innumerable crimes. I understand the desire to something — anything — to prevent further violence against innocent Syrian civilians. I don’t believe, as I said in my response to Koh, that attacking Syria would contribute to that goal — particularly if it was limited to aerial warfare, as it almost certainly would be. But even if it would, the prohibition of the use of force still matters. We should not cloak acts that categorically violate that prohibition in a patina of legal respectability.

Implications of the Rohingya Argument for Libya and Syria (and Jordan)

by Kevin Jon Heller

In my previous post, I offered three cautionary thoughts about the OTP’s decision to ask the Pre-Trial Division to hold that the ICC has jurisdiction over Myanmar’s deportation of the Rohingya to Bangladesh. In this post, I want to offer a few thoughts on what a successful outcome would mean for refugee crises elsewhere — particularly in Libya and Syria.

We can start with the relatively easy case: Libya. Because of UNSC Res. 1970, the ICC has jurisdiction over any international crime committed on the territory of Libya from 2011 onwards. If the OTP’s theory of deportation is correct, it would be able to prosecute both (1) deportations from Libya committed by the Libyan government and armed forces, and (2) deportations into Libya from neighbouring states that are not members of the ICC — namely, Egypt, Sudan, and Algeria. Fatou Bensouda has already signalled interest in prosecuting “migrant-related crimes” committed by Libyans in Libya. A positive outcome to the OTP’s request in the Rohingya situation would make it possible for her to prosecute Egyptian, Sudanese, and Algerian nationals as well.

The more interesting case is Syria, given that Syria is not a member of the ICC and there is little chance the Security Council will refer the situation in Syria to the Court anytime soon. There are two scenarios worth discussing here: (1) deportations by the Syrian government or by various Syrian rebel groups into a neighbouring state; and (2) deportations by the Syrian government or by various Syrian rebel groups onto the high seas.

Going in reverse order, the ICC would have no jurisdiction over any deportation from Syria onto the high seas. There are two possible situations here: where the deported civilians drown on the high seas, and where the deported civilians make it to an ICC member-state such as Italy or Germany. In the first (profoundly sad) situation, no essential element of deportation (or of any other international crime) would have taken place on the the territory of a state party. And in the second situation, the civilians would not have been deported “directly” into the territory of a member-state — they would have been directly deported onto the high seas and only “indirectly” deported into the territory of a state party. Deportation’s “essential element” of crossing an international border would thus have taken place in Syria and on the high seas — not on the territory of a member state. This is the importance of the OTP’s repeated insistence in its request (see paras. 4, 13, and 28) that only direct deportations activate the Court’s jurisdiction.

In the second scenario, where the civilians are directly deported into a neighbouring state’s territory, a positive outcome to the OTP’s request in the Rohingya situation would mean that the ICC would have jurisdiction over any deportation from Syria into the territory of a state party. There is, in fact, only one ICC member-state that borders Syria: Jordan. Jordan would be a particularly attractive application of the OTP’s theory of deportation, given that more than 650,000 Syrians are currently taking refuge there — almost exactly the same number as the Rohingya in Bangladesh. (Though not all of the Syrian refugees in Jordan have been the victim of deportation.)

I wonder, though, what Jordan would think of the OTP opening an investigation into deportations from Syria into Jordan. Presumably, that situation would not be limited to deportations, but would also include Jordan’s own treatment of Syrian refugees. (A more tailored situation would be immediately seen for what it was — a sop to Jordan.) As Human Rights Watch has ably documented, Jordan has been summarily returning hundreds of Syrian refugees back to Syria each month, a clear violation of international law. Those actions very likely qualify as the crime against humanity of persecution, especially when Jordanian authorities specifically target for expulsion a national group such as Palestinians. So it is not difficult to imagine the OTP bringing a case involving Jordan’s expulsions as part of an investigation into Syrian deportations. Indeed, the OTP would likely find it much easier to prosecute the expulsions, given that Jordan is not only obligated to cooperate with the ICC but has long been one of its most vocal supporters. Ironically, then, an investigation into Syrian deportations might mean that a Jordanian ends up in the dock before a Syrian!

NOTE: I don’t think the Jordan prosecution I discuss above is likely to happen. I’m just teasing out the possible implications of the ICC having jurisdiction over deportations from non-member states to member-states.

Three Cautionary Thoughts on the OTP’s Rohingya Request

by Kevin Jon Heller

Major news out of the ICC today: the OTP has formally asked the Pre-Trial Division to determine whether the Court has jurisdiction over the deportation of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Here is the introduction of the OTP’s brief:

1. The Prosecution seeks a ruling on a question of jurisdiction: whether the Court may exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

2. Consistent and credible public reports reviewed by the Prosecution indicate that since August 2017 more than 670,000 Rohingya, lawfully present in Myanmar, have been intentionally deported across the international border into Bangladesh. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described the Rohingya crisis as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and according to the UN Special Envoy for human rights in Myanmar, it potentially bears the “hallmarks of a genocide”. The coercive acts relevant to the deportations occurred on the territory of a State which is not a party to the Rome Statute (Myanmar). However, the Prosecution considers that the Court may nonetheless exercise jurisdiction under article 12(2)(a) of the Statute because an essential legal element of the crime—crossing an international border—occurred on the territory of a State which is a party to the Rome Statute (Bangladesh).

3. Given these exceptional circumstances and the nature of this legal issue, the Prosecutor has exercised her independent discretion under articles 19(3) and 42 to seek a ruling on the question from the Pre-Trial Chamber. This will assist in her further deliberations concerning any preliminary examination she may independently undertake, including in the event an ICC State Party decides to refer the matter to the Court under articles 13(a) and 14.

This is one of the best OTP briefs I have ever read. It is rigorous, learned, and exceptionally sophisticated in its use of comparative materials. It is also far more persuasive than I expected it to be, particularly concerning the idea that the ICC has jurisdiction over a crime as long as one of its elements took place on the territory of a state party. I don’t know who wrote the brief — it names only Fatou Bensouda and James Stewart, the Deputy Prosecutor — but he or she needs to be promoted immediately.

I do, however, want to raise three concerns about the brief.

First, it is very important to understand how limited any ICC investigation into the Rohingya situation would be. There is a reason that the OTP is asking the Pre-Trial Division to offer its opinion only on deportation: no other war crime or crime against humanity necessarily involves conduct that crosses an international border. So even if the Pre-Trial Division agrees with the OTP about deportation, the Court will still not have jurisdiction over the many other crimes committed against the Rohingya. Not genocide. Not murder. Not sexual violence. Those acts have taken place solely on the territory of Myanmar.

Second, and relatedly, there is the question of situational gravity. Should the OTP investigate the Rohingya situation if it can only charge perpetrators with deportation as a crime against humanity and/or as a war crime? There is no legal reason it cannot, but imagine if the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Army ended up in the dock at the ICC. Would the Rohingya be satisfied if he was not charged with genocide or murder or sexual violence? Would Human Rights Watch or the International Commission of Jurists? Deportation is a serious crime, but it doesn’t inherently involve physical violence. And it’s unquestionably not the most serious crime committed by the Myanmar military and government. So I genuinely wonder whether an OPT investigation into deportation and deportation alone would be worth it.

Third, although I find much of the brief convincing, I am not completely sold on the OTP’s argument that “an essential legal element of the crime — crossing an international border — occurred on the territory of a State which is a party to the Rome Statute.” The argument assumes that it is not possible to distinguish between crossing an international border and being on the territory of the state on the other side. But is that correct? Can we really not view crossing an international border and being on the territory of the state on the other side as two spatially distinct acts?

Although it does not directly answer the question, there is at least one situation in which civilians can cross an international border without being on the territory of another state — when they are deported to the high seas. The OTP acknowledges as much in its brief. Here is footnote 32:

As a matter of law, however, it is not necessary to prove entry to another State, but merely that the victim has been ejected from the originating State—as such, a victim may potentially be deported to the high seas. What is crucial is that the international border, de jure or de facto, of the originating State is crossed. Hence, customary international law has emphasised consideration of the kinds of borders that might suffice: see e.g. Stakić AJ, para. 300; Đorđević AJ, paras. 533-536; Prlić TJ, Vol. I, para. 47; Popović TJ, para. 892.

The first sentence of the footnote seems important — and complicating. If deportation does not actually require proof of “entry to another State,” only the crossing of an international border, how can we say that an “essential element” of deportation was committed in State Y simply because civilians happened to enter there after crossing an international border? Either entry to another state is an essential element of deportation or it is not — and the high seas example seems to point toward “not.”

This argument does not hold, of course, if an international border is somehow dual territory: the territory of State X and the territory of State Y; the territory of State X and the high seas. An international border cannot be the territory of just the State into which the civilians enter, because that would mean, irrationally, that the border’s spatial location would change depending on which State — X or Y — was doing the deporting. But if an international border is dual territory, the OTP’s theory works: crossing an international border “between” the two states would take place on the territory of both State X and State Y.

There are, in short, two possibilities. The first is to assume that an international border is part of the territory of both of the states it divides. The second is to assume that an international border is part of the territory of neither of the states it divides. The first possibility means that the OTP is correct: the ICC has jurisdiction over the deportation of the Rohingya, because at least one “essential element” of deportation — crossing an international border — took place on the territory of a state party, Bangladesh. The second possibility means that the OTP is wrong: the ICC does not have jurisdiction over the deportation of the Rohingya, because no “essential element” of deportation took place on the territory of a state party, Bangladesh. The essential elements took place either in Myanmar or somewhere that does not qualify as either Myanmar’s territory or Bangladesh’s territory.

To be honest, I have no idea which possibility is correct. I simply do not know enough about the legal status of international borders. I just think the OTP’s assumption that the Rohingya crossing the border into Bangladesh necessarily means that an essential element of deportation took place in Bangladesh is less obvious than it might first appear.

I’m really glad I’m not a member of the Pre-Trial Division right now.

The ICC’s Curious Dissolution of the Afghanistan Pre-Trial Chamber

by Kevin Jon Heller

Many ICC observers have been wondering why the Pre-Trial Chamber is taking so long to decide on the OTP’s request to open a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan. A little-noticed document filed by the Presidency on March 16 provides at least part of the explanation: because of  the recent judicial elections, the Presidency has dissolved the PTC that was handling the Afghanistan situation (PTC III) and reassigned the situation to a newly-constituted PTC (PTC II). Here is the relevant paragraph of the document:

HEREBY FURTHER DECIDES to reassign the situation in the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire from Pre-Trial Chamber I to Pre-Trial Chamber II, to re-assign the situation in the Gabonese Republic from Pre-Trial Chamber II to Pre-Trial Chamber I and to re-assign the situations in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Republic of Burundi from Pre-Trial Chamber III to Pre-Trial Chamber II.

The Presiding Judge of PTC III, Judge Mindua, has been reassigned to PTC II, so he will continue to deal with the Afghanistan situation. But the other two judges assigned to the new PTC II, Judge Akane and Judge Aitala, have just been elected to the Court. So PTC II now has to essentially start over with regard to the OTP’s request to open a formal investigation. Here is Kate Clark on behalf of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN):

The Court had to re-assign the decision on Afghanistan to a new panel of judges (see details here). The new panel has had to start from scratch, wading through and considering all the material gathered on Afghanistan over the last decade. An ICC press release warned “it cannot be determined at present how many more weeks/months this process will take.”

I cannot find the quoted press release on the ICC’s website, but it makes sense that the Presidency’s assignment of two newly-elected judges to PTC II will slow down the Chamber’s analysis of the OTP’s request.

A question, however, still nags at me: given the importance of the Afghanistan decision — arguably one of the most momentous in the ICC’s history — and the fact that PTC III has been (actively) dealing with the OTP’s investigation request for nearly four months, why would the Presidency dissolve PTC III now? If the terms of the other two judges had expired, the decision would be understandable: even if the Presidency had assigned two experienced judges to the newly-constituted PTC II, those judges would have needed some time to familiarise themselves with the Afghanistan situation. But that is not what happened here: the Presidency simply reassigned the other PTC III judges — Judge Chung and Judge Pangalangan — to the Trial Division. That is not only problematic in terms of the resulting delay, it also means (pursuant to Art. 39(4) of the Rome Statute) that neither Judge Chung nor Judge Pangalangan will be able to hear any case that comes out of the Afghanistan investigation.

Would it not have been better to leave PTC III alone until it made a decision on the OTP’s request to investigate? I don’t see anything in the Rome Statute that required the Presidency to reassign Judge Chung and Judge Pangalangan. Judges assigned to the Pre-Trial Division normally serve for three years. Judge Pangalangan has three months left in his tenure (he was assigned to the Division on 15 July 2015), and although Judge Chung’s three years ended on March 11 (he joined the Division on that date in 2015), Art. 39(3) provides that judges who have served three years shall continue to serve “thereafter until the completion of any case the hearing of which has already commenced in the division concerned.” The language of Art. 39(3) is typically ambiguous regarding the situation/case distinction, but it’s at least arguable that the provision applies to a pending PTC decision concerning an investigation request. So, again, it does not appear that the Presidency had to reassign Judge Chung and Judge Pangalangan.

Let me be clear: I am not imputing any nefarious motives to the Presidency. I don’t believe the dissolution of PTC III was some kind of backhanded ploy to prevent the OTP from investigating the Afghanistan situation. The new PTC II will eventually authorise the investigation — the personnel changes are just delaying the inevitable. Moreover, it may well be the case that, logistically, reassigning Judge Chung and Judge Pangalangan could not be avoided. I have not systematically analysed the workload of the old judges or the qualifications of the new ones.

Once again, though, the Court’s lack of transparency does it no favours. Given the impact of the Presidency’s decision on the closely-followed Afghanistan situation, it is not enough for it to mechanically recite the various considerations in the Rome Statute concerning the assignment of judges. If only to avoid the kind of conspiracy theories that I personally reject, the Presidency needs to explain precisely why PTC III could not remain intact until it reached a decision on the OTP’s request to open an investigation.

Why Al-Kibar Does Not Contribute to Pre-Emptive Self-Defence

by Kevin Jon Heller

Elena Chachko has an interesting post at Lawfare discussing Israel’s recent public acknowledgement of what the international community has long known: that it was responsible for the 2007 attack on the Al-Kibar nuclear reactor in Syria. Although I agree with much of Chachko’s post, I would take issue with what she says about how the failure of states to condemn the attack at the time and to react to Israel’s new acknowledgment of its responsibility might affect the customary status of pre-emptive self-defence:

It would be unwise to jump to the conclusion that the many states that did not protest the Al-Kibar strike instead acquiesced to it, thus indicating their support for a right to exercise preemptive self-defense to eliminate nuclear threats. Still, one could argue that the clandestine and military nature of the Al-Kibar reactor, its proximity to Israel, and the hostility between Israel and Syria rendered Israel’s “last opportunity to stop an existential threat” argument more plausible now than when it invoked it to justify the destruction of Osirak—a distant, declared, reactor built with French assistance. Under this reasoning, the relatively muted international response could suggest that members of the international community might be willing to entertain preemptive self-defense under such extreme circumstances.

In sum, the question of whether international law now recognizes a right to preemptive self-defense against nuclear threats remains highly contested. But the evolution of the international position from “Opera” to “Outside the Box,” even after Israel acknowledged its role in the latter, is telling. Both scholars and politicians will likely take this evolution into account in discerning state practice on this question going forward.

With respect to Chachko, this argument is problematic. As she acknowledges, Israel has still not articulated any legal justification for the Al-Kibar attack, much less claimed that it represented a legal act of pre-emptive self-defence:

It remains true, however, that we do not know what Israel’s legal position actually was. Israel has yet to provide a public legal justification for the Al-Kibar operation under jus ad bellum. The newly released interviews with members of Israel’s leadership at the time, including then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, did not explicitly address the legal aspects of the decision to carry out the strike. The only  I found in the reports about the strike to the role of lawyers in vetting the operation was a brief mention of then-attorney general Meni Mazuz’s involvement in drafting the government decision that authorized the operation.

Because Israel has not provided a legal justification for the attack, the attack cannot help establish the legality of pre-emptive self-defence. As the ICJ made clear in the Nicaragua case, practice unaccompanied by opinio juris does not contribute to modifying customary rules concerning the use of force (para. 207; emphasis mine):

The Court has no jurisdiction to rule upon the conformity with international law of any conduct of States not parties to the present dispute, or of conduct of the Parties unconnected with the dispute; nor has it authority to ascribe to States legal views which they do not themselves advance. The significance for the Court of cases of State conduct prima facie inconsistent with the principle of non-intervention lies in the nature of the ground offered as justification. Reliance by a State on a novel right or an unprecedented exception to the principle might, if shared in principle by other States, tend towards a modification of customary international law. In fact however the Court finds that States have not justified their conduct by reference to a new right of intervention or a new exception to the principle of its prohibition. The United States authorities have on some occasions clearly stated their grounds for intervening in the affairs of a foreign State for reasons connected with, for example, the domestic policies of that country, its ideology, the level of its armaments, or the direction of its foreign policy. But these were statements of international policy, and not an assertion of rules of existing international law.

For similar reasons, the “relatively muted” response by states to the Al-Kibar attack also cannot help establish the legality of pre-emptive self-defence. It is true that silence in the face of practice can count as acquiescence to a proposed customary rule. But that is only the case when — to quote the ILC’s new Draft Conclusion 3 regarding the formation of custom — “the circumstances called for some reaction.” No reaction is required when a state does not provide a legal justification for its actions. In 2007, Israel did not even acknowledge that it was responsible for the attack. And even now, in 2018, Israel is not claiming that it acted in self-defence. So it would not simply be “unwise” to read too much into the international community’s response to the Al-Kibar attack. It would be legally inappropriate to do so.

I also disagree with Chachko’s claim that silence “could suggest that members of the international community might be willing to entertain preemptive self-defense under such extreme circumstances.” I think it actually suggests the opposite: it is extremely likely that states — particularly those in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) — remained silent about the Al-Kibar attack precisely because Israel neither acknowledged that it was responsible for the attack nor claimed that the attack was a legitimate act of pre-emptive self-defence. As Chachko rightly points out — echoing the Spector/Cohen blog post  she links to — there were sound political and strategic reasons for states, particularly in the Middle East, not to get too worked up about the 2007 attack. In the absence of Israel claiming self-defence, NAM’s silence was legally costless. But it is difficult to believe that it would have remained silent in the face of a legal claim that pre-emptive self-defence is lawful. After all, NAM has consistently denounced pre-emptive self-defence as unlawful.

Israel’s acknowledgment that it was responsible for the Al-Kibar attack is politically important. But it has no legal implications whatsoever.

Five PhDs and One Postdoc at the University of Amsterdam

by Kevin Jon Heller

I am delighted to announce that my law school is advertising six new positions to start in September 2018 — five PhD and one postdoc. The postdoc will be public international law with a focus on international economic law:

The vacancy is for a Postdoctoral researcher in Public International Law. The researcher should have a background in International Economic Law (broadly understood) that allows her/him to possibly contribute to teaching tasks (see below on ‘tasks’).

The postdoctoral researcher should place her/his research within the programme on ‘Law and Justice Across Borders’, in which ACIL collaborates with the Amsterdam Center for European Law and Governance (ACELG) and the Center for the Study of European Private Law (CSECL). Preferably, the postdoctoral researcher should connect to one of ACIL’s research projects (available on the ACIL website).

Three of the PhD positions will focus specifically on international criminal law:

In September 2018 a five year research project will be launched, entitled ‘The Outer limits of Secondary Liability for International Crimes and Serious Human Rights Violations’. The research project is directed by Göran Sluiter, professor in International Criminal Law, and is financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), by means of a VICI-grant.

The project will be embedded within the Amsterdam Center for International Law (ACIL), one of the research priority areas of the University, and the department of Criminal Law.

One of the PhD positions will be devoted to public international law generally:

The PhD researcher will develop his or her project as part of the Amsterdam Center for International Law (ACIL). In principle, the PhD researcher may focus on any aspect of Public International Law. Preferably, the research should connect to one of ACIL’s projects (available on the ACIL website).

The researcher is also encouraged to embed her/his research within the programme on  ‘Law and Justice Across Borders’, though that is not strictly necessary. In that programme, ACIL collaborates with the Amsterdam Center for European Law and Governance (ACELG) and the Center for the Study of European Private Law (CSECL).

And one PhD position will focus on the intersection of public international law and EU law:

The PhD researcher will develop his or her project as part of the Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance (ACELG) and Amsterdam Center for International Law (ACIL). In principle, the PhD researcher may focus on any question that involves aspects of both European Union law and Public International Law.

ACELG and ACIL cooperate together with the Centre for the Study of European Contract Law (CSECL) within the framework of the research platform ‘Law and Justice Across Borders’. An interest in participating in this broader research community is a significant advantage.

Research at ACELG And ACIL employs legal-doctrinal methods of research as well as non-legal methods. An interdisciplinary dimension of research is encouraged.

I strongly encourage Opinio Juris readers to apply. The University of Amsterdam Law School is a great place to work, with a superb Dean in Andre Nollkaemper, a new building in a great location (by the zoo!), numerous excellent ICL/PIL scholars, and a fantastic current group of (relatively new) PhDs and postdocs. With six new additions, our academic culture will be even richer.

The deadline for all the positions is May 1.

Please Take Our Reader Survey!

by Kevin Jon Heller

Dear readers,

As part of some exciting changes coming to Opinio Juris in the next month or so, we are completely redesigning our website. To that end, we would greatly appreciate your taking some time — about 10 minutes — to fill out our Readers Survey. You can find the survey by clicking here.

We will leave the survey open for two weeks — until March 20, 23:59 CET. All responses will be anonymous, so please don’t hesitate to tell us what you really think! If you would like to provide an email at the end of the survey, we will put it into a random draw for a € 75 Amazon gift card. We will collect your answers and your email address separately, so entering the draw will not affect the anonymity of your answers. And we promise not to use your email to send you unwanted messages.

Without our readers, there is no Opinio Juris. So thank you in advance for your participation.

Once again, the link.

Submit to the Harvard International Law Journal!

by Kevin Jon Heller

The Harvard International Law Journal has just posted a call for their 60th anniversary volume. Here is the relevant text:

The Harvard International Law Journal is now accepting article submissions for Volume 60. We seek to publish innovative, original scholarship that makes a significant contribution to the field of international law. We welcome submissions from legal scholars, practitioners, and doctoral degree candidates on topics of private or public international law and related fields, including interdisciplinary work.

For our 60th Anniversary volume, as we reflect on our past and look forward, the Journal is particularly interested in publishing articles about the frontiers of international law. Frontiers represent new horizons and new perspectives; but, they can also reveal limits, gaps, and boundaries. We intend the broad line of inquiry for this issue to include emerging issues in international law, interactions between existing bodies of international law, limits of international law, the influence of new technologies or scientific understandings on international law, and interdisciplinary perspectives on international law and governance.

I’ve been fortunate enough to publish two articles with HILJ, including one — my “What Is an International Crime? (A Revisionist History)” article — that will be in print very soon. I have nothing but good things to say about working with the journal. Not surprisingly given the caliber of the students, the journal provides excellent feedback that will make your article better. And if you’re particularly fortunate, HILJ will organise an online symposium about your article. They solicited responses to my “A Sentence-Based Theory of Complementarity” article from Carsten Stahn and Darryl Robinson. And Mia Swart, Astrid Reisinger Coracini, and Alejandro Chehtman will be responding to my new one. (I’ve also been given an opportunity to reply.) Being able to carry on a virtual conversation about your work is a rare treat.

As I said, submit to HILJ! (Yes, double entendre intended.)

Symposium: Koh, Trump, Obama – and Jean Baudrillard (Part 2)

by Kevin Jon Heller

[Kevin Jon Heller is a Professor of Law at the University of Amsterdam. This is the second part of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.]

Humanitarian Intervention

The first part of this post outlined my retrospective problem with Harold’s article. My prospective problem concerns his passionate call for the legal recognition of unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI) – intervention that is not authorised by the Security Council. Harold’s desire to legalise UHI is understandable, given the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria. (The past couple of days being a horrific reminder.) And I share his anger toward Russia, which has repeatedly used its permanent veto to prevent the international community from taking stronger action against Assad. (Though I think the US and NATO are at least partially to blame for Russia’s intransigence, given how NATO abused the authority Russia was willing to give it in Libya.) But even if we believe that UHI should be legal – which I don’t – I think Harold is wrong to insist that it is legal.

Here is what he says about the categorical prohibition of the use of force in Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter (p. 461):

This “never-never rule” exhibits the absolutist, formalist, textualist, originalist quality Americans usually associate with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. It relies on absolutist readings of text, as those texts were “originally understood,” claiming that a nation may not engage in unilateral humanitarian intervention because of prohibitive wordings of Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter and Article I of the U.S. Constitution. But on inspection, this position cannot be sustained. In both cases, this simplistic, absolutist reading cannot be squared with state practice, inter-branch practice, or the broader object and purpose of the document the reader claims to be interpreting.

To be clear, the “simplistic, absolutist reading” Harold condemns is not only consistent with the text of Art. 2(4), it is precisely the reading intended by the drafters of the UN Charter — powerful and weak states alike. Lowe and Tzanakopoulos explain:

13 The travaux préparatoires of the UN Charter, however, establish clearly that the expressions ‘territorial integrity’, ‘political independence’, and ‘in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations’ were not meant as qualifications of the scope of the prohibition in Art. 2 (4) UN Charter, but rather as reinforcements of the prohibition, aimed at assuring smaller and less powerful States that the use of force, for whatever reason, was absolutely prohibited. This was confirmed by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Corfu Channel Case, where a British argument that its actions in forcibly sweeping Albanian waters for mines did not violate the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Albania was rejected, the UK intervention being declared to be a ‘manifestation of a policy of force’ (at 35). In the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua Case (Nicaragua v United States of America), the ICJ reaffirmed the absolute prohibition of forcible intervention, and stated that ‘the use of force could not be the appropriate method to monitor or ensure … respect’ for human rights (at para. 268)….

With respect to Harold, dismissing the remarkable clarity of the text and history of Art. 2(4) by invoking a right-wing ideologue like Justice Scalia is unfair, conjuring as it does the image of a bunch of white men articulating rules that have to be blindly followed by future generations regardless of societal and demographic change. The Charter might have been drafted by a limited number of states, but the categorical nature of the prohibition of the use of force has been affirmed by every state that has ratified the UN Charter – i.e., all of them – including the dozens of states that did not yet exist when the Charter was drafted. In that respect, there is simply no parallel between the US Constitution and the UN Charter. Far from being quaint or outdated, the Charter’s regulation of self-help reflects state will no less today than it did in 1949.

Harold’s reference to the “object and purpose” of the UN Charter also fails to justify UHI. Although promoting human rights is one of the goals mentioned in the Preamble, it is not the only goal. Others include “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”; “to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security”; and “to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest.” It is impossible, therefore, to separate promoting human rights from the prohibition of the use of force; on the contrary, the UN Charter is founded on the idea that respect for the latter is a condition of possibility for the former. Lowe & Tzanakopoulos again:

14 Most importantly, the narrow interpretation of Art. 2 (4) UN Charter is inimical to the purpose and structure of an organization intended to maintain international peace and security through the establishment of a collective security system. Oscar Schachter famously wrote that the narrow interpretation of Art. 2 (4) UN Charter requires an ‘Orwellian construction’ (at 649) of the provision’s terms. The better view is that any use of force, irrespective of its—humanitarian or otherwise laudable—motivation, is caught by the prohibition of Art. 2 (4) UN Charter and must be justified on the basis of an accepted exception.

To be sure, I agree with Harold that state practice could legalise UHI, either as a new interpretation of Art. 2(4) through subsequent practice (Art. 31(3)(b) of the VCLT) or as a supervening rule of customary international law. But there is simply no evidence that any significant number of states want to legalise UHI. Here is Harold’s argument to the contrary (pp. 459, 462):

The United Kingdom, Denmark, and Belgium have all articulated the conditions under which they believe humanitarian intervention to be lawful.

To overcome the manifest rigidity of the never-never rule, state practice has offered many prominent counterexamples of de facto humanitarian intervention: India- Bangladesh; Tanzania-Uganda; Vietnam-Cambodia (Khmer Rouge); the U.S. and the U.K. creating no-fly zones over Iraq to protect the Kurds and the Shias; and of course, NATO’s famous Kosovo episode of the late 20th century.

None of the examples Harold mentions supports the legality of UHI — where opinio juris is required, not simply the ability to describe a use of force as “de facto humanitarian intervention.” In each and every case, the invading state invoked a traditional justification for its use of force instead of UHI:

[1] India justified its invasion of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on the ground that the millions of refugees created by Pakistan’s repression of the Bengalis qualified as an armed attack for purposes of self-defence – a view overwhelmingly rejected by the General Assembly.

[2] Tanzania claimed that it was responding to an armed attack by Uganda. In fact, as Lowe and Tzanakopoulos note (para. 15), Tanzania did not even mention Uganda’s terrible human rights record in its public statements.

[3] Vietnam justified its invasion of Cambodia as self-defence against armed attack.

[4] The Coalition initially provided no justification whatsoever for creating no-fly zones over Iraq. The UK eventually invoked UHI, but no other member of the Coalition did likewise. Indeed, the US later argued – unpersuasively, to be sure – that the no-fly zones were permissible acts of self-defence.

[5] Only the three states Harold mentions – the UK, Belgium, and Denmark – invoked UHI to justify NATO’s bombing of the Serbs. No other NATO state did, and Belgium argued that the bombing campaign should not be seen as a precedent for the legality of UHI in other situations. (A claim Germany made, as well, even though it did not invoke UHI.) By contrast, as Lowe and Tzanakopoulos note (para. 33), “[t]he Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), numbering well over half of the Member States of the UN, unequivocally condemned the use of force against the (then) FRY, as did many other States, some of which are nuclear powers.”

The UHI ledger, in short, can hardly be said to support the legality of UHI. Only three states have ever invoked UHI as a matter of law – and one of those three refuses to endorse it as a general rule. Three states do not a new interpretation or supervening custom make – especially when more than 130 states, the entire Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), have specifically and repeatedly condemned UHI as unlawful.

It is not an accident, of course, that NAM states have led the opposition to UHI. Their opposition may be overinclusive, in the sense that it is at least possible to imagine powerful states in the Global North using force against weaker states in the Global South for genuinely humanitarian purposes. But if the Global South is (too) skeptical of UHI, the US and other powerful states have only themselves to blame, given their long and ignoble history of using force illegally – and dressing up those illegal uses of force in the language of humanitarian concern. (See, e.g., the invasion of Iraq.) Just consider the US’s personal list of military and CIA interventions since WW II, courtesy of William Blum: Iran (1953); Guatemala (1954); Thailand (1957); Laos (1958-60); the Congo (1960); Turkey (1960, 1971 & 1980); Ecuador (1961 & 1963); South Vietnam (1963); Brazil (1964); the Dominican Republic (1963); Argentina (1963); Honduras (1963 & 2009); Iraq (1963 & 2003); Bolivia (1964, 1971 & 1980); Indonesia (1965); Ghana (1966); Greece (1967); Panama (1968 & 1989); Cambodia (1970); Chile (1973); Bangladesh (1975); Pakistan (1977); Grenada (1983); Mauritania (1984); Guinea (1984); Burkina Faso (1987); Paraguay (1989); Haiti (1991 & 2004); Russia (1993); Uganda (1996); and Libya (2011). And we wonder why the Global South doesn’t trust the US (or the UK, or France, or…) to get UHI right?

Does this mean that, to paraphrase Cicero, silent enim leges inter tyrannide? Not necessarily. As Harold’s discussion of the P5 (p. 461) itself indicates, the obstacle to addressing the situation in Syria is not Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter, but the existence of the permanent veto. So instead of embracing UHI, it would be far better to argue — as John Heieck has — that the P5 has a legal duty not to veto a Security Council resolution aimed at preventing jus cogens violations such as genocide and crimes against humanity.

To be sure, good positivist that I am, I am not completely convinced that international law imposes a “no veto” duty on the P5. (I’ll wait for John’s forthcoming book to convince me otherwise.) The stronger legal “solution,” therefore, is probably the one Lowe and Tzanakopoulos discuss — relying on the 1950 Uniting For Peace Resolution to argue that the General Assembly can authorise humanitarian intervention when, as in Syria, the P5 is hopelessly divided:

36 The lack of Security Council authorization cannot be the final word on the issue of legality of an intervention on humanitarian grounds, even if no right of unilateral humanitarian intervention has emerged by way of customary international law. As Certain Expenses of the United Nations (Advisory Opinion) and the Israeli Wall Advisory Opinion (Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory) have confirmed, the Council has primary but not exclusive responsibility for the maintenance or restoration of international peace and security, which may be threatened by humanitarian catastrophes. The UN General Assembly has devised a procedure through which to respond to threats to the peace when the Security Council cannot act because of the use of the veto. This is the procedure established under the Uniting for Peace Resolution (1950). In the event that the Security Council cannot act, States arguing in favour of humanitarian intervention may take the issue to the General Assembly, as in fact they should before even considering unilateral action. Many States have expressed their preference for some form of UN response to a humanitarian crisis as opposed to allowing unilateral action.

37 The position of NATO that it needs to ‘stand ready to act should the UN Security Council be prevented from discharging its purpose of maintaining international peace and security’ (North Atlantic Assembly Resolution 283 para. 15 (d)) is, accordingly, questionable without further qualification. One major reservation relates to whether and when the Security Council is indeed ‘prevented from discharging’ its duties: a decision of the Security Council not to act cannot, without more, be qualified as the Council being ‘unable’ to act; nor can the fact that a resolution in support of action fails to command the necessary majority in a vote within the Council. Even to establish the premise, further evidence is needed that the Security Council cannot act because of the recalcitrant stance of a permanent member, and not merely because there is no agreement as to the use of force in a particular instance. Indeed, the non-authorization of the use of force may be a clear instance of the Council actually discharging its primary responsibility, rather than of it being prevented from doing so. And even if it is considered that the Council is being prevented from acting, UN law allows for an institutional solution: recourse may be had to the General Assembly in an attempt to garner support by two-thirds of its members under the Uniting for Peace procedure. Indeed the language of the NATO resolution itself comes close to that of the Uniting for Peace resolution.

If 2/3 of the General Assembly wants to authorise force to promote human rights — a threshold that would require a number of states in the Global South to support intervention — what possible basis is there, other than a “simplistic, absolutist” reading of the UN Charter and naked power politics, for the P5 to prevent the UN from acting?

To be clear, this is a legal argument, not a practical one. Although as a lawyer I would feel better about humanitarian intervention in Syria if it was authorised by the General Assembly, I am skeptical that such intervention would actually work. (Hence the scare quotes around “solution” above.) There is evident reason to question the value of external military force in Syria, for reasons explored here and here and here and here and here and here. Those analyses focus on UHI, not humanitarian intervention authorised by the General Assembly. But similar considerations apply as long as Russia remains devoted to Assad’s murderous regime.

Indeed, Harold himself clearly recognizes that no durable solution is possible in Syria without Russia’s support (p. 460):

To solve Syria, the United States must join other nations— including Russia—in building a sustainable peace process, organized around lawful conduct and a durable legal arrangement, and leverage that lawful core into a broader policy solution that contains and manages the sprawling crisis.

I completely agree — which is why I find Harold’s full-throated defense of UHI so puzzling. If Russia ever gets on board with a “sustainable peace process,” the Security Council could authorize humanitarian intervention in Syria, making UHI unnecessary. And if Russia continues to obstruct peace in Syria, as it has to date, engaging in UHI (or any kind of HI) would be exceptionally likely to end badly – if not in WW III. Either way, there would be no pragmatic rationale for UHI.


I share Harold’s anger toward the lawlessness of the Trump administration, and his analysis of all the ways in which Trump has further destabilized an already chaotic world is essential reading for anyone interested in American politics, international law, and the intersection between the two. But we cannot allow the horrors of the Trump administration to blind us to the many failings of its predecessor. Like all presidents, Obama was only selectively committed to the values he espoused; democracy and human rights mattered to him in a way they will never matter to Trump, but those values all too often took a backseat to more quotidian US interests such as “national security” and access to markets and resources. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

As for Syria, UHI it is not the answer, no matter how understandable our desire may be to do something — anything — to alleviate the human suffering there. I don’t know precisely what the solution is; if I did, I would be a politician or a diplomat, not a pointy-headed law professor. But UHI is illegal, as it should be. And it would almost certainly only make the situation in Syria worse. Military force for ostensibly humanitarian purposes is exceptionally likely to fail even when blessed by the Security Council, as Libya tragically demonstrates. Such force without international support, and against the wishes of Russia, is a recipe for disaster.

Symposium: Koh, Trump, Obama – and Jean Baudrillard (Part 1)

by Kevin Jon Heller

[Kevin Jon Heller is a Professor of Law at the University of Amsterdam. This is the first part of a two-part post. The second part is found here.]


It is an honour to be invited to respond to the article version of Harold Koh’s recent Foulston Siefkin Lecture at Washburn Law School, “The Trump Administration and International Law.” I am a great admirer of Harold’s work and an even bigger fan of Harold himself, whom I am proud to call a friend and who has been incredibly supportive of me for a number of years, even though I was never his student.

There are many international-law issues Harold and I disagree passionately about. The Trump administration’s disdain for international law is not one of them. Harold’s wide-ranging analysis of how Trump has made both the US and the world a more dangerous place is spot-on, and I can only hope that the quiet resistance to Trump’s policies within the American government is as strong as Harold believes it to be. The wide circulation of his elegant article should certainly help.

The point of this symposium, however, is not (simply) to sing Harold’s praises. Although I agree completely with his critique of the Trump administration, I think there are two blind spots in the article’s analysis that are worth discussing. The first is retrospective, concerning the supposedly stark contrast between the Obama and Trump administrations concerning respect for international law and human rights. The second is prospective, on whether unilateral humanitarian intervention is or should be legal.

Obama vs. Trump

It is difficult to witness the daily international horrors wrought by the Trump administration and not feel more than a twinge of longing for its predecessor. But as I read Harold’s article, I could not help but think of what Jean Baudrillard, the great French cultural theorist, said about the role Disneyland plays in American culture:

The Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real. Whence the debility, the infantile degeneration of this imaginary. It is meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the “real” world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere, particularly among those adults who go there to act the child in order to foster illusions of their real childishness.

The Trump administration, I would suggest, functions as a similar kind of “deterrence machine.” Its almost comical awfulness retroactively burnishes and legitimates the records of the administrations that preceded it, no matter how problematic those records might be in their own right. To see the power of this effect, we need only consider the rapid rehabilitation of George W. Bush since Trump became the nominee, with a baffling 61% of Americans now viewing him favourably, compared to 33% at the time he left office. Even more distressing, the surge in Bush’s popularity has largely been driven by Democrats, who seem to have forgotten, in the face of Trump’s bumbling and absurdly bellicose foreign policy, that Bush is the president who brought us systematic torture and the invasion of Iraq.

The Trump deterrence machine hums along even more smoothly, though, with regard to the Obama administration. Who among us, even my fellow denizens of the far left, wouldn’t be delighted to have a third term of Obama now that we have a President who couldn’t find Ukraine on a map if you pointed him toward the correct continent? Should we lefty international-law types really be spending our limited energies reminding people of Obama’s failures, when we are currently being led by a pathological liar with the emotional maturity and impulse control of a third-grader – someone who would happily start WW III if he thought it would allow him to turn Mar-a-Lago into a survivalist camp for billionaires?

The answer, of course, is “yes.” I unequivocally reject the hard left argument that Obama was just as bad as Trump on foreign policy. But I also think it is important to resist Harold’s admittedly understandable nostalgic longing for the Obama administration, a supposedly halcyon time when international law and respect for human rights mattered. Consider this statement (p. 417):

The inside strategy, which I applied as a government official, I called “Engage–Translate–Leverage,” or simply, using “International Law as Smart Power.” In hindsight, call this “the Obama–Clinton doctrine.” President Barack Obama tried to apply this foreign policy philosophy throughout his presidency. Upon taking office in 2009, President Obama said that “A new era of engagement has begun,” emphasizing that “living our values doesn’t make us weaker. It makes us safer, and it makes us stronger.” That approach was particularly urged upon him by his first Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who argued: “We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural” to achieve better policy outcomes. Had she been elected President, Secretary Clinton undoubtedly would have continued that approach.

I have no doubt that Harold worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the Obama administration exercised what he calls “smart power.” As an outsider, though, I still find his description of the Obama administration often unrecognizable. I don’t have time to dwell on all the ways in which the Obama administration proved itself anything but a paragon of respect for international law and human rights, but a few examples are worth mentioning – in no particular order:

[1] Sold more than $100bn in weapons to Saudi Arabia – including fighter jets, attack helicopters, warships, tanks, bombs, and air-to-ground missiles – even after there was no longer any doubt the Saudis were using them to commit unspeakable war crimes in Yemen.

[2] Preached the importance of democracy and human rights in Iran and Syria, while remaining silent about viciously repressive regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and supporting dictators like Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia until it was clear neither would remain in power. (A particularly important point to make, given that Harold rightly condemns (p. 431) the Trump administration’s “blatant, disturbing softness on human rights in the Middle East, particularly with respect to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Turkey”).

[3] Used the Security Council resolution authorizing civilian protection in Libya as a pretext for regime change – and then stood idly by as Libya descended into chaos.

[4] Advocated, in the context of “self-defence” against the shadowy Khorasan Group, a view of imminence that denudes the requirement of all meaning. Recall what Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said about whether the US actually responded to an armed attack by the group: “I don’t know that we can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months…. We can have this debate about whether it was valid to hit them or not, or whether it was too soon or too late… We hit them. And I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes.”

[5] Claimed that Obama was free to violate both conventional and customary international law when authorizing covert actions.

The most problematic aspect of Harold’s argument, however, concerns what he says about torture (p. 431):

Perhaps the most visible proposed human rights rollback was candidate Trump’s statement that “[if I am elected, w]e’ll use waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Shortly after the election, the press leaked a draft national security executive order that called for reinstating the discredited program of interrogation of high-value alien terrorists, to be operated outside the United States, presumably at revived “black sites”—former offshore detention facilities operated by the C.I.A. But campaign statements and draft executive orders are not law. Congress has repeatedly forbidden torture by treaty and statute.

Harold is absolutely right to be appalled by Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of torture. But why shouldn’t Trump embrace it? Despite high-ranking government officials openly confessing to national and international crimes, the Obama administration did nothing – literally nothing – to hold anyone accountable for the systematic torture regime that Bush created. On the contrary, Obama promptly immunized the torturers, justifying impunity with what has to be one of the most profoundly Orwellian excuses in American political history – that he was “looking forwards, not backwards.” Had Obama been willing to look backwards – what we naive types call “criminal prosecution” – Trump might actually see torture as a crime, instead of as merely one policy choice among others.

In short, Harold’s critique of the Trump administration’s approach to international law is both accurate and devastating. But although his hands may be clean, the hands of the administration he worked for are not. Like its predecessors, the Obama administration was more than willing to ignore international law when it proved too limiting and human rights when they proved too inconvenient.

[The second part of Kevin’s post is found here.]