Author Archive for
Kevin Jon Heller

Verdict

by Kevin Jon Heller

This is the first time a political ad has ever left me in tears. Enough said.

Vote. You know for whom.

Don’t Blame IHL for Attacks on “Hospital Shields”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Just Security published a very interesting post yesterday entitled “Military Attacks on ‘Hospital Shields’: The Law Itself is Partly to Blame,” which seeks to explain why deliberate attacks on hospitals are becoming increasingly common — in Syria, in Yemen, and elsewhere. The authors acknowledge that deliberate attacks on hospitals are almost always unlawful under IHL, because they violate the principle of distinction. But they nevertheless insist that “[t]he tragic irony is that international humanitarian law itself offers the legal toolkit for these regimes to justify the bombing of hospitals.”

The argument is provocative, but it is also misguided. And the authors’ solution is, I think, worse than the problem.

Let’s take a look at the how the authors believe IHL itself helps justify the bombing of hospitals. They cite two interrelated rules. Here is the first:

First, the logic of the human shields clauses can, it seems, quite easily be transferred to medical facilities. International law prohibits the use of civilians as human shields to protect military targets, but it also permits the attacking forces to kill human shields as long as they abide by the principle of proportionality. In this instance, then, international law ceases to protect civilians and actually becomes a weapon of the strong, protecting those who kill non-combatants. By extension, if hospitals are used as shields, they too can be bombed provided the principle of proportionality is not breached.

This argument is absolutely correct. Yes, human shields can be killed as long as they are not directly targeted and as long as an attack on the legitimate military objective they are shielding does not kill them disproportionately. And yes, the same goes for civilians objects, including hospitals, that are being used to shield military targets. But it is not clear what is problematic about either of those IHL rules, which are straightforward expressions of distinction and proportionality — unless you think that combatants should be able to render themselves completely immune from attack by hiding in hospitals. (Which is precisely what the authors think, as discussed below.) You don’t have to be soft on the military to suggest that combatants should not be able to use the protection IHL offers hospitals to gain a military advantage over their enemy.

Moreover, the authors fail to note that even though IHL permits “hospital shields” to be attacked, it imposes significant restrictions on such attacks. Most importantly, Art.19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that hospitals being misused lose their protection against attack “only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit and after such warning has remained unheeded.” Assuming that the attacking military complies with Art. 19 (and it is hardly IHL’s fault if it doesn’t), no hospital will be attacked that has not had an opportunity to expel the military objective it is shielding. IHL thus puts so much emphasis on protecting hospitals that it would rather require an attacker to let the enemy escape unharmed rather than apply the normal targeting regime of distinction and proportionality.

A similar problem undermines the authors’ argument concerning the second rule:

Second, international law affirms that the protection to which hospitals are entitled is revoked when they are “used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy.” This extremely vague formulation lends itself to those who target hospitals. Unlike IHL clauses prohibiting torture, which are absolute, applying at all times and in all circumstances, the articles relating to the bombardment of hospitals are conditional. Therefore, in certain “exceptional” situations medical facilities do lose their protected status.

This argument is vastly overstated. Is the “acts harmful to the enemy” formulation “extremely vague”? Sometimes, perhaps. But certainly not always. Art. 19 makes clear, for example, that “[t]he fact that sick or wounded members of the armed forces are nursed in these hospitals, or the presence of small arms and ammunition taken from such combatants and not yet been handed to the proper service, shall not be considered to be acts harmful to the enemy.” IHL can thus hardly be blamed when a military justifies attacking a hospital by claiming that the hospital was treating enemy soldiers. (A claim made by Afghanistan regarding the MSF hospital in Kunduz.)  Any such attack categorically violates IHL.

There is also widespread agreement about what kinds of acts do qualify as “acts harmful to the enemy.”  The ICRC’s commentary to Art. 21 of the First Geneva Convention is typical:

Such harmful acts would, for example, include the use of a hospital as a shelter for able-bodied combatants or fugitives, as an arms or ammunition dump, or as a military observation post; another instance would be the deliberate siting of a medical unit in a position where it would impede an enemy attack.

It is possible to criticise this understanding of harmful acts as being overbroad and in need of revision. I, for one, have a problem with the idea that a hospital can be attacked simply because combatants are using it as “an arms or ammunition dump.” Given the importance IHL puts on protecting medical units, that doesn’t strike me as enough to justify a hospital forfeiting its protected status. I might even be convinced that the mere presence of unwounded combatants in a hospital shouldn’t justify a deliberate attack.

But the authors are not arguing for a tightening of the rules that govern when hospitals can be deliberately attacked. No: because they believe it is too easy for an attacker to claim that a hospital is shielding a military objective (permitting attack after a warning), they want a categorical rule that prohibits attacking hospitals no matter how they are being used:

The only way to overcome this travesty is if IHL clauses pertaining to the protection of hospitals are reformulated in a way that categorically prohibits the use of lethal force against them. Currently, IHL provides the necessary protections for hospitals, and all that is really needed is to erase the clauses stipulating exceptions since these in essence hand out militaries a license to bomb medical facilities.

In other words, the authors believe that a hospital should be immune from attack even when combatants are using it to attack the enemy. What the attacked forces are supposed to do in such a situation, the authors never explain. Apparently, they are simply supposed to either tolerate casualties or somehow avoid coming within the hospital’s field of fire. (Which may well be impossible, depending on the kinds of weapons the holed-up combatants possess.)

That will never happen, of course. Not even the most professional military will tolerate being fired upon from a civilian hospital — or at least it won’t tolerate it indefinitely, which is what the authors expect. IHL recognises this basic reality of combat, which is why it attempts to strike a balance between humanitarian concerns and military necessity by permitting a hospital that is being used as a shield to be deliberately attacked, but requiring a warning and a reasonable time to comply.

As with the definition of “acts harmful to the enemy,” it is possible to quibble with the procedural requirements for attacking a hospital that is being used as a shield. Perhaps IHL should avoid using a mushy “reasonableness” test for the length of the warning a military must give before attacking a hospital, imposing a minimum amount of time instead. I’d be open to that. But again: the authors are not trying to strike an appropriate balance between humanity and necessity. They simply want a categorical ban on attacking hospitals — even those that are genuinely being used to shield military objectives.

I understand (and am sympathetic to) the reasoning behind the authors’ position. They don’t want innocent civilians, especially medical personnel and the wounded, to pay the price for the actions of combatants who have no respect for IHL. Hospitals don’t choose to be misused by combatants, and there will almost certainly be situations where combatants simply refuse to leave a hospital that has been warned of an impending attack. So hospitals may well find themselves in an impossible situation: subject to attack because their premises are being misused, but unable to do anything about it.

The answer, however, is not to categorically prohibit attacking hospitals. As noted, militaries would never comply with such a prohibition. And, of course, such a prohibition would ensure that combatants who don’t respect IHL will use hospitals as a shield as often as possible. The authors begrudgingly acknowledge that possibility, writing that “[s]ome might argue that such norms will produce the perverse incentive among certain belligerents to use hospitals as shields.” But that is a serious understatement. Some might argue? What IHL scholar wouldn’t? Why would a military that doesn’t respect IHL not use a well-placed hospital as a shield if doing so renders its forces absolutely immune from attack?

The authors are correct that anything short of a categorical prohibition on attacking hospitals will leave open the possibility of militaries inventing facts to justify attacks. That is the nature of IHL rules that are not categorical — and a reflection of the fact that IHL is neither purely humanitarian nor purely war-enabling. The authors’ solution, however, is worse than the problem. A categorical prohibition will not prevent IHL from being misused; it will simply ensure that IHL is ignored — resulting in far more “incidental” deaths than under the current IHL rules. The better solution (absent a tightening of the rules as discussed above) is to searchingly examine the legitimacy of each and every attack on a hospital and hold militaries to account when they use the concept of the “hospital shield” to justify an unlawful attack.

And that, of course, is exactly what IHL requires.

Kim Priemel, “The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence”

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call readers’ attention to Oxford University Press’s publication of my friend Kim Priemel‘s new book, The Betrayal: The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence. Here is the publisher’s description:

At the end of World War II the Allies faced a threefold challenge: how to punish perpetrators of appalling crimes for which the categories of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ had to be coined; how to explain that these had been committed by Germany, of all nations; and how to reform Germans. The Allied answer to this conundrum was the application of historical reasoning to legal procedure. In the thirteen Nuremberg trials held between 1945 and 1949, and in corresponding cases elsewhere, a concerted effort was made to punish key perpetrators while at the same time providing a complex analysis of the Nazi state and German history. Building on a long debate about Germany’s divergence from a presumed Western path of development, Allied prosecutors sketched a historical trajectory which had led Germany to betray the Western model. Historical reasoning both accounted for the moral breakdown of a ‘civilised’ nation and rendered plausible arguments that this had indeed been a collective failure rather than one of a small criminal clique. The prosecutors therefore carefully laid out how institutions such as private enterprise, academic science, the military, or bureaucracy, which looked ostensibly similar to their opposite numbers in the Allied nations, had been corrupted in Germany even before Hitler’s rise to power. While the argument, depending on individual protagonists, subject matters, and contexts, met with uneven success in court, it offered a final twist which was of obvious appeal in the Cold War to come: if Germany had lost its way, it could still be brought back into the Western fold. The first comprehensive study of the Nuremberg trials, The Betrayal thus also explores how history underpins transitional trials as we encounter them in today’s courtrooms from Arusha to The Hague.

I cannot recommend the book highly enough. It’s a remarkable piece of scholarship, weaving together legal history, political history, and intellectual history into a seamless and compelling whole. Kim is a superb historian — and one who writes about law as well as most legal scholars. The book also does something almost unprecedented: tell the story of the IMT and NMTs together, which is necessary for understanding both. The book’s only competitor in that regard is Telford Taylor’s wonderful book The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir — but Taylor’s book is, as the title indicates, a memoir, not an “objective” legal history.

Anyone interested in Nuremberg, international criminal law, or transitional justice will want to pick up a copy of The Betrayal. To appropriate Larry Solum: read Priemel!

New Article on SSRN

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have posted a short article on SSRN, entitled “Taking a Consenting Part: The Lost Mode of Participation.” Here is the abstract:

This short article, my contribution to a special issue of the Loyola International and Comparative Law Review commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trial, critically examines “taking a consenting part” in an international crime – a mode of participation that was applied by the Nuremberg Military Tribunals but then disappeared into the ether of international criminal law, never to be seen again. The article is divided into three sections. Section I briefly explains how the NMTs understood the basic principles of individual criminal responsibility. Section II discusses the essential elements of “taking a consenting part” as a sui generis omission-based mode of participation. Finally, using Hadžihasanović at the ICTY as a case study, Section III asks whether international criminal law would be better off if it rediscovered “taking a consenting part” in an international crime.

As always, comments welcome!

Vacancy: Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights

by Kevin Jon Heller

The National University of Ireland Galway seeks to appoint a Professor of Human Rights Law and Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, within the School of Law.

The Irish Centre for Human Rights has developed a global reputation for excellence in the field of human rights teaching, research and advocacy, which has enabled it to attract high quality students to its acclaimed postgraduate and undergraduate programmes. Its success is reflected in the calibre and diversity of its doctoral and masters students in particular.

[snip]

In filling the Established Professorship in Human Rights Law, NUI Galway is seeking a person with an international reputation for academic excellence in Human Rights Law combined with strong leadership skills who will complement the existing strengths of the Centre and enable it to develop new areas of activity in line with its future strategic priorities. S/he will normally have a doctoral- level degree in Human Rights Law and a substantial record of teaching and research, the later evidenced by substantial publications in the broad field of human rights. The post-holder will also be the Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at a critical time in its development having enjoyed tremendous success, nationally and internationally, particularly since 2000.

[snip]

The post-holder, as the recognised leader of the sub-discipline of Human Rights in the School of Law, will contribute to the development of the education and research programmes of the School. The Established Professor of Human Rights Law, in his or her role as Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, will also contribute positively and proactively to the collective leadership of the School of Law. S/he will be expected to work with colleagues in the Irish Centre for Human Rights, the School of Law and other stakeholders to develop an ambitious Strategic Plan for the Centre reflecting the most relevant emphases of the University’s current strategic plan, Vision 2020.

[snip]

For informal enquiries, please contact Professor Donncha O’Connell, Head of the School of Law, NUI Galway, Email donncha [dot] oconnell [at] nuigalway [dot] ie or telephone: +353 (0)91 492388.

Additional information on the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway is available at:http://www.nuigalway.ie/irish-centre-human-rights/.
Information on the University’s Strategic Plan is available at: www.nuigalway.ie/vision2020

Salary:
€106,515 to €136,275

(This appointment will be made on the Established Professor scale in line with current Government pay policy)

(For pre 1995 public sector entrants in Ireland, the D class Salary rates will apply)

Closing date for receipt of applications is 17:00 (Irish Time) on Thursday, 20th October 2016. It will not be possible to consider applications received after the closing date.

New (And Better) Eligibility Rules for the Lieber Prize

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last year, I criticised ASIL for limiting its very prestigious Lieber Prize to academics under 35. I described that limit as “ageist,” noting that in today’s academic world there are many law professors over 35 who, because they joined academia late, should rightfully be considered junior scholars. So I am delighted to note that ASIL has changed the eligibility criteria for the 2017 Lieber Prize:

Anyone may apply for the article or book prize. For those in academia or research institutions, the prize is open to those who are up to 8 years post-PhD or JD or those with up to 8 years in academic teaching or research position. Membership in the American Society of International Law is not required. Multi-authored works may be submitted if all the authors are eligible to enter the competition. Submissions from outside the United States are welcomed.

This is a much better approach to eligibility. Kudos to ASIL for the change.

Trump Advocates World War III

by Kevin Jon Heller

I know pointing out stupid things Donald Trump says is a fool’s errand — pretty much everything Donald Trump says is stupid. (Note to non-hack conservative friends: I genuinely feel sorry for you.) But I’m struck by how little attention pundits have paid to this gem:

I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we’re doing nothing there. China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.

There are, shall we say, a couple of problems with this suggestion. First, Trump is openly advocating China invading North Korea without provocation. You don’t have to be a Kim Jong-un apologist to suggest that international law might look rather unkindly at that. Second, although China is no doubt “totally powerful” compared to North Korea, North Korea has something of an equalizer — nuclear weapons. (The topic Trump had been asked to discuss.) Does anyone doubt that Kim Jong-un would use them against China if, as Trump wants, China tried to wipe North Korea off the face of the earth?

PS: I’m being good and not pointing out that Trump was openly advocating genocide…

Sixth Annual Junior Faculty Forum for International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM: MAY 8, 9 and 10, 2017

Earlier today, Dino Kritsiotis (Univ. of Nottingham), Anne Orford (Univ. of Melbourne) and JHH Weiler (NYU) launched the Sixth Annual Junior Faculty Forum for International Law, which will be held at the University of Nottingham in May 2017. All details regarding the Forum procedure and process are available here: http://annualjuniorfacultyforumil.org/

Israel Shows Its Contempt for Academic Freedom

by Kevin Jon Heller

The headline is almost a generic one, applicable to dozens of Israeli actions. I’m using it now specifically in connection with Israel denying entrance to my SOAS colleague Dr. Adam Hanieh, who was scheduled to give a series of lectures at Birzeit University:

Dr. Hanieh, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, was deported back to London on the morning of September 13, 2016. He was held for questioning for 10 hours at Ben Gurion airport, and then taken overnight to a detention centre outside the airport. In addition to being refused entry, Dr. Hanieh was banned from entering the country for ten years.

Dr. Hanieh was scheduled to share his vast knowledge of global and Middle East political economy with students in the Ph.D. program as well as the university community in a series of lectures scheduled in the coming two weeks. Hanieh is an accomplished scholar, the author of Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East (Haymarket Books, 2013) and Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), as well as numerous academic articles.

This act of denial of entry and deportation by the Israeli state and its agencies is part of a systematic policy of denial of entry to international academics, professionals and activists intending to visit Palestine. This policy represents an attack on Palestinian academic freedom, and is routinely practiced at the two entry points, the airport in Tel Aviv and the Jordan valley crossing from Jordan.

Israel is truly the Donald Trump of repressive states — unable to tolerate any criticism that doesn’t stay within the bounds of what it considers “legitimate.” Confident states address critics. Israel prefers to harass and silence them.

Business as usual in the Middle East’s supposed great democracy. Keep Hanieh’s treatment in mind the next time Israel complains about mean BDS-ers “silencing” (ie, protesting) Israeli academics.

The Guardian’s Remarkable Lack of Concern for Accuracy

by Kevin Jon Heller

I love the Guardian. It’s generally a great paper. But its unwillingness to correct even the most basic mistakes constantly amazes me. In an otherwise interesting article about the ICC and environmental crimes, John Vidal and Owen Bowcott — the Guardian‘s environment editor and legal affairs correspondent, respectively — say this (emphasis mine):

The ICC can take action if the crime happens in any of the 139 countries that have signed up to the Rome Statute, if the perpetrator originates from one of these countries, or if the UN security council refers a case to it. Crimes must have taken place after the Rome statue came into force on 1 July 2002.

This is just wrong. Unequivocally wrong. 139 states have signed the Rome Statute, but only 124 have ratified or acceded to it. The ICC has territorial and active-nationality jurisdiction only over the latter.

I tweeted the correction to John Vidal. He’s ignored it — for reasons that are beyond me, given that it would take a web editor 10 seconds to correct. But perhaps Owen Bowcott is to blame: a few years ago he not only refused to correct his blatant mistake concerning the ICTY’s holding in Perisic regarding specific direction, he repeated his mistake in a later article on Charles Taylor.

New Essay: What Is an International Crime? (A Revisionist History)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have posted the essay on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The question “what is an international crime?” has two aspects. First, it asks us to identify which acts qualify as international crimes. Second, and more fundamentally, it asks us to identify what is distinctive about an international crime – what makes an international crime different from a transnational crime or an ordinary domestic crime.

Considerable disagreement exists concerning the first issue, particularly with regard to whether torture and terrorism should be considered international crimes. But nearly all states, international tribunals, and ICL scholars take the same position concerning the second issue: an act qualifies as an international crime if – and only if – that act is universally criminal under international law. The international-law aspect of the definition distinguishes an international crime from a domestic crime: although some acts that qualify as domestic crimes are universally criminal – murder, for example – their universality derives not from international law, but from the fact that every state in the world has independently decided to criminalize them. The universality aspect of the definition, in turn, distinguishes an international crime from a transnational crime: although a transnational crime such as drug trafficking involves an act that international law deems criminal through a suppression convention, international law does not deem the prohibited act universally criminal, because a suppression convention does not bind states that decline to ratify it.

This definition of an international crime, however, leads to an obvious question: how exactly does an act become universally criminal under international law? Two very different answers are possible – and the goal of this article is to adjudicate between them. The first answer, what I call the “direct criminalization thesis” (DCT), is that certain acts are universally criminal because they are directly criminalized by international law itself, regardless of whether states criminalize them. Nearly every modern ICL scholar takes this position, as does the ILC.

The second answer, what I call the “national criminalization thesis” (NCT), rejects the idea that international law bypasses domestic law by directly criminalizing particular acts. According to the NCT, certain acts are universally criminal under international law – and thus qualify as true international crimes – because international law obligates every state in the world to criminalize and prosecute them. No modern ICL scholar has taken this approach, although intimations of it date back to Grotius.

Which thesis is correct? This article argues that it depends on whether we adopt a naturalist or positivist approach to international law. Although every international criminal tribunal has insisted that international crimes are positivist, not naturalist, phenomena, no extant theory of positivism – not even so-called “instant custom” – is capable of justifying the idea that certain acts are directly criminalized by international law. On the contrary: if we take positivism seriously, the NCT provides the only coherent explanation of how international law can deem certain acts to be universally criminal. Maintaining fidelity to the DCT, therefore, requires rejecting positivism in favour of naturalism – with all of naturalism’s inherent limitations.

I have given a number of talks on this topic over the past couple of years, and my positivist critique of direct criminalisation has always proved controversial. The argument in the essay has evolved substantially, but I doubt it will be any more popular. I still continue to be surprised that, with the exception of a somewhat skeptical Roger O’Keefe, no scholar and no court has ever attempted to provide a comprehensive defence of the idea that certain acts (international crimes) are directly criminalised by international law. The idea is simply taken for granted based on a single statement in the IMT judgment and on the work of the International Law Commission. Indeed, as I try to show, direct criminalisation seems to be little more than an article of faith — a naturalist artifact that has proven very useful for the ICL project, which is predicated on the superiority of international law over domestic law. Indeed, my suspicion, merely noted in the essay, is that ICL is inherently naturalist, at least in the form that has the kind of sovereignty-limiting muscle its acolytes believe it should have.

The essay is very long — 30,000 words, nearly 400 footnotes. I’ve submitted it for consideration by AJIL, but I am sure I will revise it substantially before it is ultimately published there or somewhere else. So comments and criticisms are, as always, most welcome.

Human Rights Hypocrisy — Special Rapporteur for Torture Edition

by Kevin Jon Heller

PassBlue published a very disturbing article yesterday about nominations for five vacant UN Special Rapporteur positions. According to the article, although the President of the Human Rights Council, South Korea’s Choi Kyonglim, has endorsed four of the selection committee’s five first choices, he has refused to endorse its first choice for Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Karim Khan QC, in favour of the committee’s second choice, Nils Melzer. There is no question Melzer is a wonderful choice — he’s an accomplished scholar, has vast practical experience with the ICRC, and is a great person. The article suggests, however, that there may be a darker reason for Choi not endorsing Khan — Khan’s defence work at various international tribunals:

Khan has worked in the prosecutor’s office of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, two courts created to try perpetrators of grave crimes in the Yugoslav wars and Rwandan genocide of the 1990s. He has also represented victims in the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia formed to prosecute culprits of the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s.

Khan also has a rich history of defending suspects of mass atrocity crimes. His current clients include William S. Ruto, deputy president of Kenya, who until April was on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, charged with crimes against humanity. Khan has also worked on the defense of Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In June, Bemba was found guilty by the court of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

One academic critic, based in Britain, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Khan had not showed enough dedication to protecting victims, given his defense of alleged criminals. This work, the person said, could clash with Khan’s role as special rapporteur if he had been nominated by the council president, should accusations be made against Ruto or other potential clients of his. (The Ruto case was vacated because of witness interference, but could be reopened if new evidence surfaces.)

In his application for the UN role, Khan wrote that “having acted for all sides in cases where torture is alleged, not only helps demonstrate my independence and ability to be impartial, but I believe that it can lend additional credibility to my role as Special Rapporteur.”

The case involving Ruto was deeply marred by witness intimidation, according to Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and judges who heard the case. Fergal Gaynor, who represents victims in the court’s case against Uhuru M. Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, has also questioned the extent of Khan’s commitment to justice for victims of violence.

“Bribery and intimidation of witnesses can and does collapse legitimate cases,” he said. “It is fair to question whether Mr. Khan appreciates how interference with witnesses can completely deprive torture victims of the ability to know the truth about the crimes committed against them, to have the wrongfulness of the torture publicly acknowledged, and to receive fair compensation for that torture.”

In an interview in 2014, Khan said of witness problems in the case, “I’m not sure witnesses have been and are being intimidated in this case. As I said, I have prosecuted and defended and represented the victims, and every single case I’ve been involved in has been headlined by ‘This is unprecedented witness intimidation’ and ‘unprecedented’ this and that.”

John Washburn, convener of the American Non-Governmental Organizations Coalition for the International Criminal Court, based at Columbia University, said the issue was “whether Khan’s actions as Ruto’s defense counsel displayed values and judgments that reflect on his suitability as rapporteur.”

The article is careful to avoid directly attributing these ideas to Choi. But given that Khan is the only first-choice candidate Choi has refused to endorse, it seems highly likely that Khan’s defence work is the reason. If so, that’s shocking. Defending individuals accused of serious international crimes is not inconsistent with human-rights work — it is human-rights work. It’s not an accident that Art. 14 of the ICCPR protects a defendant’s right to a fair trial. After all, show trials are a hallmark of repressive states, from Bangladesh to the United States.

This should be Human Rights 101. For some reason, though, the same “human-rights activists” who condemn unfair domestic criminal trials — special courts in Bangladesh and military commissions in the United States alike — fall silent when it comes to international trials. The tacit assumption — which should embarrass anyone who claims to care about human rights — is that an effective defence is unnecessary at international trials, because investigators always do a good job, the OTP is always motivated by a profound love of justice, judges are always infallible, and defendants are always guilty. All of those things are sometimes true. Perhaps even usually true. But not always. Sometimes an international tribunal doesn’t do its job and an innocent person is prosecuted. And it is precisely the job of skilled advocates like Khan to make sure those defendants are not convicted — or convicted only for crimes they actually committed.

I would say this about any defence attorney. (And of course I’m biased, having been one myself.) But it’s particularly appalling that Khan would be vilified for doing his job — anonymously, of course, because the British academic quoted above is a coward who wants to ensure his slander has no professional consequences. (As if anyone really cares what we academics think!) Khan has a sterling reputation as a defence attorney, no matter how contentious some of his trials might have been. I have never seen anyone claim — nor is there even the slightest evidence — that Khan was involved in the Kenyan government’s misconduct in Ruto. And I say that despite being completely convinced that the Kenyan government did, in fact, commit serious misconduct. The comments by Gaynor and Washburn are thus completely misplaced — and all too typical of the tendency, possessed by people who should know better, to conveniently forget that the right to a defence is a human right. But at least Gaynor and Washburn have the courage to attach their names to their opinions!

Finally, although it shouldn’t matter, it is worth remembering — as the article points out, to its credit — that Khan had a distinguished career as an international prosecutor before moving to the other side of the courtroom. He even has experience representing victims. Does he suddenly forget the importance of victims whenever he is retained to act for a defendant? Or does he simply understand that the rights of defendants are no less important than the rights of the other parties to a criminal trial?

I have no doubt Melzer, whom I’ve had the pleasure to know for more than a decade and think the world of, will make an excellent Special Rapporteur. But Khan would have made a great one, as well — and we are left to simply speculate how skilled Khan would have been at convincing states to cooperate with him, given his rich experience defending senior government officials. I hope, despite how it appears, that Choi preferred Melzer for reasons other than Khan’s work as a defence attorney. But if that is why he bypassed Khan, anyone who cares about human rights — all human rights — should be appalled.