Author Archive for
Kevin Jon Heller

When the Left Shoots Itself in the Foot (IHL Version)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, I made the mistake of relying on an article in Electronic Intifada about a recent speech by Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli Defense Minister. Here are the relevant paragraphs in the article:

Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon on Tuesday said Israel would attack entire civilian neighborhoods during any future assault on Gaza or Lebanon.

Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem, Yaalon threatened that “we are going to hurt Lebanese civilians to include kids of the family. We went through a very long deep discussion … we did it then, we did it in [the] Gaza Strip, we are going to do it in any round of hostilities in the future.”

I probably should have known better than to rely on an article entitled, in relevant part, “Israeli defense minister promises to kill more civilians.” Prompted by a skeptical commenter, I watched the video of Ya’alon’s speech. And the video makes clear that the author of the article, Asa Winstanley, selectively quoted what Ya’alon said in order to make it seem like Ya’alon was advocating deliberately attacking civilians. In fact, Ya’alon was discussing a possible attack on a rocket launcher located in a civilian house and acknowledging that, if the IDF launched the attack, it was clear they were “going to hurt Lebanese civilians to include kids of the family.” The IDF launched the attack anyway, believing that the military advantage outweighed the certain civilian damage.

Bothered by being suckered into making such a significant mistake, I tweeted Winstanley about his selective quotation. Perhaps he had not actually seen the video? His response was disappointing, to put it mildly. Instead of acknowledging his mistake, he repeated the selective quote. I replied that the video made clear Ya’alon was talking about Israel’s proportionality calculation, not deliberate attacks on civilians, and pointed out that civilian damage is permissible under IHL unless the anticipated civilian damage caused by an attack is excessive in relation to the expected military advantage. I also noted that I thought the attack Ya’alon was discussing was still illegal, because in my view killing a number of civilians in order to take out one rocket launcher was disproportionate.

At that point, it’s safe to say, Winstanley simply lost it. Here are some of his tweets, with my thoughts in the parentheticals…

Regulation 55 and the Irrelevance of the Confirmation Hearing

by Kevin Jon Heller

It’s becoming an old story: the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) rejects a charged mode of liability after a confirmation hearing, so the OTP simply asks the Trial Chamber (TC) to give the defendant notice that it will consider convicting him on the basis of the rejected mode anyway. This time, the defendant is Laurent Gbagbo. The OTP initially alleged that Gbagbo is responsible for various crimes against humanity on the basis of Art. 25 in the Rome Statute — indirect co-perpetration; ordering, soliciting or inducing; and otherwise contributing to the commission of crimes — as well as command responsibility and superior responsibility. Following the confirmation hearing, the PTC confirmed all of the modes of liability in Art. 25, but declined to confirm command and superior responsibility, because those modes “would require the Chamber to depart significantly from its understanding of how events unfolded in Cote d’Ivoire during the post-electoral crisis and Laurent Gbagbo’s involvement therein.” Undeterred, the OTP then asked the TC to invoke Regulation 55:

The Office of the Prosecutor (“Prosecution”) requests that Trial Chamber I (“Chamber”) give notice to the Parties and participants pursuant to regulation 55(2) of the Regulations of the Court (“RoC”) that the legal characterisation of the facts confirmed by Pre-Trial Chamber I (“Pre-Trial Chamber”) may be subject to change to accord with a further alternative form of participation of the Accused Laurent Gbagbo (“Gbagbo”): superior responsibility under article 28(a) and (b) of the Rome Statute (“Statute”) for all crimes (“Request”).

I have explained at length in this article why the Rome Statute — Art. 61 in particular — does not permit the Trial Chamber to convict a defendant on the basis of an unconfirmed mode of liability, so there is no need to repeat the argument here. Suffice it to say that the OTP’s request, which will almost certainly be granted by the TC (if past practice is any guide), continues the confirmation hearing’s long, slow slide into irrelevance. Given how the TC and Appeals Chamber have (wrongly) interpreted Regulation 55, the confirmation hearing actually “confirms” nothing; it just provides suggestions to the TC concerning how it might choose to convict the defendant. If the TC wants to go a different direction and convict the defendant on the basis of an unconfirmed mode of participation, no problem. It can simply “recharacterize” the facts and circumstances proven at trial.

Discerning readers might wonder how a defendant is supposed to prepare his defence in such a situation. Isn’t the entire point of the confirmation hearing to inform the defendant of the crimes and modes of liability he will have to rebut during trial? Yes — which is the fundamental problem with Regulation 55 as the judges have interpreted it. Because of their interpretation, defendants now have only two potential strategies at trial: (1) prepare a defence to every possible legal characterization of the facts and circumstances in the charge sheet — all possible crimes and all possible modes of liability; or (2) ignore the law entirely and focus solely on rebutting the facts and circumstances themselves. The first strategy is effectively impossible — and it’s very unlikely the TC would even let a defendant do it. (“Sorry, you have to pick one or two theories of the case — even though we can pick any theory we want down the track.”) And the second strategy is inconsistent with the nature of the adversarial trial contemplated by the Rome Statute. Defendants are (supposed to be) charged with specific crimes on the basis of specific modes of liability; they are not charged with bare facts and circumstances.

It’s a shame that the ICC’s judges have allowed Regulation 55 to metastasise into the ultimate judicial hammer — a one-size-fits-all tool for saving the OTP from its own poor charging decisions and ineffective trial advocacy. (See, e.g., Katanga.) But, of course, it’s not a surprise. After all, the judges wrote the Regulation themselves.

Wherein I Defend Jeb Bush (Really!)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Both the liberal media and the conservative media are pulling out the fainting couches over something Jeb Bush said to Megyn Kelly during an interview on Fox News. In response to a question about whether he would have invaded Iraq in 2003 if he knew what we know now about WMDs and the like, Jeb supposedly said yes — he would still invade. That’s how both Josh Marshall and Byron York (polar opposites, they!) read Jeb’s answer. (And Kevin Drum. And Ed Kilgore.)

But that’s not what Jeb said. Here is the exchange, taken from York’s post:

Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked Bush a straightforward, concise question: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” Bush’s answer was an unhesitating yes.

“I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” Bush said, “and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”

“You don’t think it was a mistake?” asked Kelly.

“In retrospect, the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty,” Bush answered.

Jeb now says that he misunderstood the question. And that does, in fact, seem to be the case. Note the verb tenses in his first answer: he “would have” invaded Iraq, as “would have” Hillary Clinton and anyone else who had seen the intelligence “they got.” He didn’t say he or Hillary or anyone else “would” invade Iraq given the intelligence “they have now.” The tenses thus clearly indicate that Jeb was answering a different question — namely, whether he would have invaded Iraq given what decision-makers knew at the time. That reading is then confirmed by his second answer, in which he acknowledges that “in retrospect” — ie, based on what we now know — the invasion was a mistake.

To be sure, Jeb deserves some criticism for his answer. A number of important people opposed the invasion of Iraq even in the face of the faulty intelligence George Bush and Hillary Clinton received. And, of course, if Jeb wants to be president, he should probably pay attention to the questions journalists ask him in televised interviews.

But Jeb didn’t say he would have invaded Iraq knowing what we know now. He just didn’t.

Must Read: Darryl Robinson on the ICC’s “Inescapable Dyads”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Darryl is one of my very favourite international criminal law scholars. Indeed, I think he is the leading purveyor of what we might call “meta” ICL scholarship — scholarship that is concerned less with doctrine than with the nature of ICL reasoning and rhetoric itself. His article “The Identity Crisis of International Criminal Law” is a genuine classic, and I learn from everything he writes. So it is with great pleasure that I call readers’ attention to Darryl’s brilliant new article, just published in the Leiden Journal of International Law. It’s entitled “Inescapable Dyads: Why the ICC Cannot Win,” and here is the abstract:

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is surrounded by controversies and criticisms. This article highlights some patterns in the arguments, showing that many plausible criticisms reflect inescapable dyads. For any position that Court could take, one or more powerful criticisms can inevitably be advanced. The tension can be obscured because shared terms are often recruited for opposite meanings. Awareness of these patterns can (i) provide a framework to better situate arguments, (ii) reveal the deeper complexity of the problems, and (iii) help us to evaluate and improve upon the arguments. Awareness of dyadic structures can lead to a debate that is more generous, as we acknowledge the difficulty and uncertainty of choosing among flawed options, yet also more rigorous, as we attempt to articulate and improve upon our frameworks of evaluation. The goal of this article is to encourage a better conversation that can generate better insights.

The article is a must-read for anyone interested in ICL. You can find the published version here (free until end of October 2015) and an earlier SSRN draft here.

Breaking the Silence — About Israel’s Assault on Gaza

by Kevin Jon Heller

The irreplaceable Breaking the Silence has released a new report on Operation Protective Edge — and it’s a doozy. Here are some particularly disturbing snippets from the Guardian‘s article on the report, which contains dozens of testimonials by past and present IDF soldiers:

“[The commander] said: ‘We don’t take risks. We do not spare ammo. We unload, we use as much as possible.’”

“The rules of engagement [were] pretty identical,” added another sergeant who served in a mechanised infantry unit in Deir al-Balah. “Anything inside [the Gaza Strip] is a threat. The area has to be ‘sterilised,’ empty of people – and if we don’t see someone waving a white flag, screaming: “I give up” or something – then he’s a threat and there’s authorisation to open fire … The saying was: ‘There’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved.’ In that situation, anyone there is involved.”

“The rules of engagement for soldiers advancing on the ground were: open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing when you go in,” recalled another soldier who served during the ground operation in Gaza City. The assumption being that the moment we went in [to the Gaza Strip], anyone who dared poke his head out was a terrorist.”

Soldiers were also encouraged to treat individuals who came too close or watched from windows or other vantage points as “scouts” who could be killed regardless of whether there was hard evidence they were spotting for Hamas or other militant groups. “If it looks like a man, shoot. It was simple: you’re in a motherfucking combat zone,” said a sergeant who served in an infantry unit in the northern Gaza strip.

“A few hours before you went in the whole area was bombed, if there’s anyone there who doesn’t clearly look innocent, you apparently need to shoot that person.” Defining ‘innocent’ he added: “If you see the person is less than 1.40 metres tall or if you see it’s a lady … If it’s a man you shoot.”

In at least one instance described by soldiers, being female did not help two women who were killed because one had a mobile phone. A soldier described the incident: “After the commander told the tank commander to go scan that place, and three tanks went to check [the bodies] … it was two women, over the age of 30 … unarmed. They were listed as terrorists. They were fired at. So of course they must have been terrorists.”

The soldiers’ descriptions are disturbingly reminiscent of the notorious “free fire” zones in Vietnam and the US government’s well-documented (and erroneous) belief that signature strikes directed against “military-age men in an area of known terrorist activity” comply with IHL’s principle of distinction. The testimonials are, in a word, stunning — and put the lie to oft-repeated shibboleths about the IDF being “the most moral army in the world.” As ever, the stories told by the IDF and the Israeli government are contradicted by the soldiers who actually have to do the killing and dying.

You can find the report here. And if you’re interested in a predictable right-wing attempt to discredit the report — which basically just complains that Breaking the Silence doesn’t release the identity of the soldiers who gave testimony (gee, can’t imagine why not…) — see here.

Elisa Massimino Defends Harold Koh (And So Do I)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Massimino is the head of Human Rights First, one of the leading human-rights organisations in the US. Here is a snippet from her editorial today in the Washington Post, with which I almost completely agree:

As a close observer of the U.S. government’s national security policy, I know it is better for Koh’s involvement.

That’s not to say that I agreed with all the positions he took and defended. Two years ago at our annual human rights summit, Koh gave a speech defending the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes. He made the best case anyone could, but it left a lot to be desired. Throughout his tenure at State, we called on the administration to ensure that its targeted killing program was consistent with the laws of war. We’re still not satisfied that it is.

But on a range of issues — military commissions, treaties, Guantanamo Bay, detention, and transparency on drones — Koh forged progress behind the scenes. This wasn’t the kind of work that made headlines, but it strengthened respect for human rights and reduced suffering. If that makes Koh a sellout, we need more of them.

I hope that the students who signed the anti-Koh petition — who by doing so have demonstrated a concern for human rights — will spend their lives trying to advance them. They would, I’m confident, find such work fulfilling. But they will discover that victories are seldom, if ever, absolute, and that we in the movement simply can’t afford to mistake allies for enemies.

In a better world, the views of knowledgeable (and progressive) national-security experts like Massimino would carry some weight with Koh’s critics. I’d also like to think I have at least some credibility regarding the situation — after all, it was my blog post arguing that the killing of al-Aulaqi was murder under US criminal law that seemingly led the OLC to greatly expand its notorious memo justifying the attack, and I wrote the first substantial (and deeply critical) legal analysis of signature strikes. Moreover, although I don’t think having a been a student or colleague of Koh’s disqualifies someone from defending him, I have no such ties — although I have always admired Koh’s scholarship, I had never even met him until about a year ago, when he gave a lecture at Melbourne (which I disagreed with!) about his time at State.

Alas, many of Koh’s most vociferous critics — though certainly not all — have little interest in reasoned debate. My posts defending Koh are “laughable” and nothing more than “the academic equivalent of the ‘I’m not a racist, but….’ argument” — because it apparently makes no difference how critical you are of the US government’s drone program; if you defend Koh, you’re just an apologist for the program. I have taken “a careerist and opportunity [sic] approach when it suits” me — even though I am a professor in the UK and shudder in horror at the thought of ever having a position in the US government (or any government, for that matter). I am a “hitman” for Koh and an agent “in the market of favors (rather than ideas)” — this part of a bizarre ad hominem attack (with bonus points for working in the word “Zionist”) on Koh for alleged venality. I’m “bullying” the students by defending Koh on the blog instead of letting their accusations of murder go unchallenged. And I’m “elitist’ and “insular” because I believe students have no right to demand “standards” from their professors — a claim based on precisely nothing other than my disagreement with the petition. This is the kind of rhetoric that people use when they have nothing substantive to argue.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with students, faculty, or anyone else criticising Koh. I’ve done that myself. I also fully support the First Amendment right of students, faculty, and anyone else to circulate a petition calling for NYU to rescind its offer to Koh to teach human rights at the law school. But it is not “bullying” for those who respect Koh to respond to irresponsible claims that he is a murderer and war criminal. Nor is it an “attack on the students” to meet their speech with counter-speech. Indeed, if Koh’s critics are “drowned out” by the response to their petition — by the fact that more than 750 people of every political persuasion imaginable believe that the petitioners are, in Massimino’s words, “mistaking allies for enemies” — perhaps the problem isn’t the response.

Perhaps the problem is that the petition’s claims are wrong.

Students, Junior Faculty, and Human Rights Scholars are Delicate Flowers

by Kevin Jon Heller

At least according to Fionnuala Ní Aolain, criticising the counter-petition that I and hundreds of others signed in defense of Harold Koh. Her entire Just Security post is deeply problematic; let’s go through it systematically.

When asked to sign, I articulated a deep discomfort with the petition and the precedent it sets. I strongly believe that any academic should be able (as should any student) to openly and fully raise any issues about the decision(s) a person made while wearing a government lawyer’s hat. The capacity to question and unreservedly critique is particularly important when the decisions made were controversial.

Actually, she doesn’t believe any academic should be able “to openly and fully raise any issues about the decision(s) a person made while wearing a government lawyer’s hat.” If she did, that belief would extend to academics who believe — rightly or wrongly — that the petition calling for NYU to rescind its offer to Koh to teach international human-rights law fundamentally misstates Koh’s role in the drone program. Why are the academics who signed the counter-petition not entitled to the same freedom as those who signed the original one?

I also expressed my discomfort as a non-American international lawyer, echoing the views of many others within and outside the United States, that one can reasonably take the position that the US government and its targeted killing programs breached international and human rights law standards.

As does the counter-petition, which specifically acknowledges “that individuals can have significant and understandable concerns about the use of lethal force by the United States, including the U.S. drones program,” and that “U.S. actions must conform to a demanding application of constitutional law and international law.”

The bottom line is that I am not fully in a position to judge, but neither really are those students who chose to express their views as they did, nor are the academics who were asked and chose to sign the petition. Petitions that purport to know what is unknowable and not in the public domain are neither good individual defenses, nor are they robust defenses that advance the protection of human rights in the United States or elsewhere.

True, we do not know exactly what Koh did. But that did not stop the signatories of the original petition from claiming that Koh “directly facilitated the extrajudicial, unconstitutional killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011″ and generally played a significant role “in crafting and defending what objectively amounts to an illegal and inhumane program of extrajudicial assassinations and potential war crimes.” Yet Ní Aolain says not a word about the propriety of the signatories accusing Koh of being a murderer (and war criminal); her criticism is directed solely at the scholars who had the temerity to disagree with that accusation. And she simply ignores Ryan Goodman’s post on the same blog, which makes clear that what is publicly known about Koh favours the counter-petition, not the original one…

400+ Academics Sign an Open Letter in Support of Harold Koh

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m one of them. Here is the text of the letter:

To Whom It May Concern,

A recent petition at NYU urges people to express “no confidence” in the Law School’s invitation to Harold Hongju Koh to teach international human rights law this semester. We understand that this petition is motivated by Professor Koh’s recent service as Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State in the Obama Administration. We agree that individuals can have significant and understandable concerns about the use of lethal force by the United States, including the U.S. drones program. We also agree that U.S. actions must conform to a demanding application of constitutional law and international law.

Nevertheless, we believe the petition is deeply misguided. Professor Koh has been a leading scholar of, and advocate for, human rights for decades. While some may disagree with him on particular issues of law or policy, he is widely known for his unquestionable personal commitment to human rights and his eminent professional qualifications to teach and write on the subject. Any number of reports confirm that Professor Koh was a leading advocate for preservation of the rule of law, human rights and transparency within the Obama Administration, including on the drones issue.

While we strongly support the free exchange of ideas that is fundamental to civil society in general, and the academy in particular, we think it is patently wrong and unfair to suggest that Professor Koh acted unethically by his recent government service, or that his service now disqualifies him to teach human rights law on a leading law faculty. The world needs more human rights professionals who are willing to commit themselves to government service on behalf of their nation.

You can find a list of the signatories, which span the political spectrum, here.

NYU Petitioners Do Harold Koh — and Themselves — a Grave Disservice

by Kevin Jon Heller

Newsweek published a long article today about a petition organized by NYU students, alumni, and non-law faculty claiming that it would be “unacceptable” for Harold Koh to teach international human-rights law at the law school. Here is a snippet:

While working for the Obama administration, Koh was the most public legal defender of the president’s drone strike program. Last month, a petition was circulated at NYU Law—one of the top law schools in the country—that called Koh’s teaching of international human rights law for the 2014-1015 academic year “unacceptable.”

“Given Mr. Koh’s role in crafting and defending what objectively amounts to an illegal and inhumane program of extrajudicial assassinations and potential war crimes, we find his presence at NYU Law and, in particular, as a professor of International Human Rights Law, to be unacceptable,” the petition reads.

The petition has drawn around 200 signatures, but it has stirred a much bigger controversy on campus than the numbers might suggest.

I do not think scholars should get a free pass for their ideas simply because they were government officials when they embraced them. I continue to believe that it’s a terrible idea for serious scholars to go into government — this kerfuffle being Exhibit A. And I have very serious disagreements with Koh about the legality of the Obama administration’s drone program; indeed, I’ve discussed them with him.

That said, I find the petition appalling. Koh is one of the great international human-rights scholars of his generation — and he has personally taught or mentored most of the great international human-rights scholars of the current one. He is brilliant, compassionate, kind, and profoundly ethical. No one who knows him even a little (and although I know him, I can’t say I know him well) could possibly believe that he did not bring all of those qualities to his role as the State Department’s legal advisor. Does that mean he was always right? Of course not. As I said, I don’t share his view of the drone program. On the contrary, I think the program is abhorrent and quite often illegal. (And have said as much in my scholarship.)  But I would bet my last dollar that Koh never went against his beliefs while working at State — and that he did everything he could, within the confines of his position, to make the drone program comply with international law as he understood it.

Those of us on the left — and readers know just how far left I am — need to stop viewing US administrations as monoliths. Not all government officials are bad. Even terrible administrations have good people in them who work behind the scenes to minimise their terribleness. John Bellinger III falls into that category in the Bush administration; commenters on the blog have done him a disservice by lumping him together with people like John Yoo. And the NYU students, alumni, and faculty who have signed this petition have done Harold Koh an even worse disservice by accusing him — publicly — of being unfit to teach international human-rights law. On the contrary, NYU would be lucky to have him.

The Advantage for Palestine of a Slow Preliminary Examination

by Kevin Jon Heller

Nearly everyone treats Palestine’s membership in the ICC as a done deal; after all, the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) has accepted Palestine’s accession to the Rome Statute and the OTP has publicly stated that “since Palestine was granted observer State status in the UN by the UNGA, it must be considered a ‘State’ for the purposes of accession.” But neither the UNSG nor the OTP has final say over whether Palestine qualifies as a state; as Eugene Kontorovich, my friend and regular Israel/Palestine sparring partner, has repeatedly pointed out on Twitter (see here, for example), statehood is a legal issue that the ICC’s judges will eventually have to decide.

Unlike Eugene, I would be very surprised if the judges second-guessed the UNSG and the OTP and held that Palestine does not qualify as a state. But it’s certainly possible. So here is something for Palestine to consider: because the ICC’s judges cannot make a determination concerning Palestine’s statehood until the OTP has decided to formally investigate the situation, the longer the preliminary examination takes, the longer Palestine will have to make it more difficult for the judges to decide against it.

I don’t want to get into too much detail about the relevant provisions in the Rome Statute; a brief summary should suffice. Art. 15, which concerns proprio motu investigations — the current situation regarding Palestine, because the OTP treats an Art. 12(3) declaration as a request for an Art. 15 investigation — does not permit the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) to determine whether a situation “appears to fall within the jurisdiction of the Court” until the OTP has asked it to authorise a formal investigation. Art. 18, which in certain circumstances requires the OTP to defer to state investigations of specific suspects, also does not apply until the OTP has decided to formally investigate (whether proprio motu or on the basis of a state referral). And Art. 19, the basic complementarity provision, does not permit a state to challenge admissibility until there is a specific case pending and does not permit a suspect to challenge admissibility (which includes jurisdiction) until a warrant for his arrest or a summons for his appearance has been issued — both of which occur subsequent to the opening of a formal investigation.

There is, in short, only one party that can ask the PTC to decide a jurisdictional issue prior to the commencement of a formal investigation: the OTP itself. That’s Art. 19(3). And it’s safe to say that the OTP won’t ask the PTC to determine whether Palestine qualifies as a state before it has to.

That means, of course, that it could easily be years before the PTC gets to weigh in on the issue of Palestinian statehood. Why is that a good thing for Palestine? Most obviously, because it gives it more time to get its statehood ducks in a row — acceding to more international conventions, resolving internal political differences, seeking additional recognitions of Palestine as a state, etc. More importantly, though, it gives Palestine time to become an integral member of the Court, thereby increasing the institutional pressure on the PTC to conclude that it is a state. Assume that the OTP takes four years to open a formal investigation, which would be relatively quick by OTP standards. Palestine could — and should! — take advantage of that gap to pay dues each year to the ICC; to attend the annual sessions of the ASP (as it did as an observer in the 13th Session) and participate in its intersessional work; to nominate Palestine’s delegate to the ASP for a position in the Bureau; and (better still) to nominate a Palestinian as a judge. After four years of such involvement, it would be very difficult for the PTC to conclude that Palestine was not a state, given that such a decision would force the ASP to expel the Palestinian delegate, (presumably) refund four years of Palestine’s dues, and perhaps even unseat a Palestinian judge.

I’m sure some readers — particularly those who believe that Palestine cannot qualify as a state as long as Israel illegally occupies its territory — will find my strategy cynical. Perhaps it is — but it would hardly be the first time a state acted strategically with regard to an international organisation. After all, Israel is the culprit-in-chief in that regard; its favourite strategy, which is the height of cynicism, is to refuse to cooperate with an international investigation and then dismiss the results of that investigation as “one-sided” and thus biased. Moreover, I use the term “state” with regard to Palestine deliberately; contrary to the view of many pro-Israel commentators, the Montevideo criteria do not remotely doom Palestine’s claim to statehood. On the contrary, I believe Palestine has legally qualified as a state under those criteria for many years. But that is a subject for another day. (Interested readers can start with this brief, written by Errol Mendes.)

For now, Palestine needs to take full advantage of its admittedly provisional membership in the ICC. As a wise man once said, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

John Bellinger’s Op-Ed on ISIS and the ICC (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

The op-ed, which appears in today’s New York Times, argues that the ICC is the most appropriate venue for prosecuting ISIS’s many international crimes. I have great respect for John, who is unique among former high-ranking US government officials in his willingness to defend the ICC, but the op-ed makes a number of arguments that deserve comment.

It certainly makes more sense for the court’s prosecutor to investigate the Islamic State than to investigate the United States or Britain for treatment of detainees or Israel for its handling of last year’s Gaza conflict, as some activists have called for.

There is no question that ISIS is responsible for horrific international crimes that deserve to be prosecuted. But does it “certainly make more sense” for the ICC to prosecute those crimes than British torture in Iraq, US torture in Afghanistan, and Israel’s vast array of crimes against Palestinian civilians in Gaza? That’s not self-evident. Readers know my skepticism toward the ICC investigating the situation in Palestine, but the expressive value of prosecuting UK or US military commanders and political leaders for torture would be incalculable — it would get the ICC out of Africa; it would affirm that torture, a crime that rarely involves a large numbers of victims, is unacceptable and deserving of prosecution; and — of course — it would demonstrate that no state, no matter how powerful, is immune from international criminal justice.

At a minimum, the Security Council should ask the court to investigate the numerous offenses committed by the Islamic State that fall within the court’s mandate.

[snip]

A Security Council request would be necessary because Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State is operating, are not parties to the Rome Statute (the treaty that created the court) and are not otherwise subject to the court’s jurisdiction.

A Security Council referral is not actually necessary, because the ICC’s jurisdiction is not simply territorial. The Court can also prosecute any international crime committed by a national of a state that has ratified the Rome Statute. Many ISIS leaders are nationals of ICC member-states — including Jihadi John, who is a UK national. So the ICC could prosecute those leaders tomorrow if it had them in custody. Indeed, Fatou Bensouda has already mentioned the possibility of such nationality-based prosecutions.

Moreover, a Security Council referral may be more trouble than it’s worth. John himself notes a major problem: if the territorial parameters of any such referral exposed members of the Syrian government to ICC jurisdiction, Russia and/or China would almost certainly veto the referral. And what if the referral exposed Syrian rebels to ICC jurisdiction? I can’t imagine the US, France, and the UK would be too keen about that — not least because it would provide the ICC with a backdoor to prosecuting their nationals for aiding and abetting rebel crimes.

The United States has reason to be concerned about inappropriate and politicized investigations of the United States and Israel.

I don’t see why, given that the ICC has not opened a formal investigation in Afghanistan despite having examined the situation for eight years and has only had jurisdiction over Israel’s crimes for a few months. Moreover, John never explains why any ICC investigation of the US or Israel would necessarily be “inappropriate and politicized,” given that both states have quite obviously committed crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction. Why should the ICC only prosecute the US’s enemies — never its friends, and certainly never the US itself? Americans and Israelis might like that idea, but I imagine few others would accept it.

[B]ut the International Criminal Court still has an important role to play in investigating and prosecuting acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — all of which have reportedly been committed by the Islamic State.

I’m not so sure, at least in the context of ISIS — and this is my basic issue with John’s op-ed. Does the ICC really need yet another situation to investigate, given its already overtaxed resources? And do we really want the Security Council to refer the ISIS situation, given that there is almost no chance it will finance the resulting investigation? (See, for example, the failed Syria resolution.) Moreover, why should the ICC prosecute ISIS leaders when states like the US, the UK, and Japan (and Germany, and France, and…) are just as capable of prosecuting those leaders themselves — if not more so? They have investigative and prosecutorial resources the ICC can only dream of. So why should the ICC do their work for them?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we need to stop assuming that the ICC is always the best venue for prosecuting international crimes. It’s not. It’s a weak Court with more failures than successes on its ledger. Even under ideal circumstances — unlikely to exist — it would never be able to prosecute more than a handful of ISIS leaders. And if past cases are any indication, there is no guarantee those prosecutions would lead to convictions. So if states really want to bring ISIS to justice, the solution is there for all to see.

They should do the job themselves.

NOTE: I am not implying that John invented the idea that the ICC should investigate ISIS crimes. As he notes in his op-ed, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has previously suggested the same thing. But that in no way changes my position — and I think it’s unfortunate that High Commissioners see the ICC as the first resort instead of the last, even in situations (such as ISIS) where, unlike states, the ICC has no ability to effectively investigate. The previous High Commissioner exhibited the same problematic tendency, calling on the Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC despite the fact that the Court would be powerless to investigate Syrian and rebel crimes as long as the conflict continues. Security Council referrals only make sense after a conflict has ended — and not even there, unless the Security Council is willing to give its referrals teeth by funding the subsequent investigation and punishing states for not cooperating with the ICC, which it has shown no interest whatsoever in doing. Do we really need more failed ICC investigations like the one in Darfur?

Guest Post on the ICC and Palestine at Justice in Conflict

by Kevin Jon Heller

My contribution to the symposium is now available. Here is the introduction:

I want to start with a prediction, one I’ve made before and still subscribe to: the ICC will never open a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine. People of all political persuasions seem to think that the ICC is somehow eager to leap into the most politicised conflict of the modern era. I disagree, not because the situation doesn’t deserve to be investigated – I think it is one of the gravest situations in the world – but because I don’t think we take the ICC’s institutional interests into account nearly enough when we prognosticate about what it might do. And I see very little upside for the ICC in opening a formal investigation.

My thanks to Mark Kersten for posting it — and to Kirsten Ainley for organising the roundtable at the LSE on which it’s based.