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Foreign Volunteers or Foreign Fighters? The Emerging Legal Framework Governing Foreign Fighters

by Daphne Richemond-Barak and Victoria Barber

[Dr. Daphné Richemond-Barak is an Assistant Professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, and a Senior Researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT). Victoria Barber is a Master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she focuses on International Security Studies.]

The emerging legal framework governing foreign fighters, whose importance is set to grow, epitomizes assumptions we’ve made about the good, the bad, and the ugly in Syria. While the international community condemns the recruitment of “foreign fighters” by ISIS, it condones the recruitment of “foreign volunteers” by the Kurds.

That the international community has come together to condemn the recruitment of foreign “fighters” joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is unsurprising: Since the late 1960’s, it has repeatedly opposed the involvement of foreign individuals in conflicts to which their state of nationality is not a party. After decades of condemnation by the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, an entire (albeit-ineffective) regime outlawing mercenaries emerged, primarily to stop Westerners from fighting in African conflicts. It sent a clear signal as to the illegitimacy of participating in someone else’s war.

Though it could have built on this well-established framework, which is grounded in state sovereignty, the UN chose a more restrictive and case-specific approach. It addressed exclusively the case of foreign fighters travelling to aid ISIS and other designated foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) operating in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra. It purposefully did not mention mercenaries, which are covered by the broader anti-mercenary regime. Nor did it address the case of individuals who leave their home countries to join other groups fighting in Syria – or, for that matter, to fight alongside the Syrian government and its allies.

Quite the contrary: Western states have generally taken a permissive stance vis-à-vis individuals who join the ranks of the People’s Defense Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia in Syria. For more than two years, foreigners from Australia, Canada, the United States, the UK, and other countries have joined the ranks of the YPG as “volunteers” who are, more often than not, warmly and publicly received upon their return home. The UK maintains that there is a distinction between joining ISIS and joining the Kurds, pointing out that British law is designed to allow for different interpretations based on the nature of the conflict. Similarly, the Dutch government states that, while joining the YPG is not a crime in and of itself, foreign fighters can still be charged for crimes they committed in service of that membership, such as murder. Israel, too, declined to prosecute, or even reprimand, a Canadian-Israeli woman who traveled to Syria to fight as a volunteer with the YPG. This tacit acceptance of “foreign volunteers” also benefits a smaller number of Westerners travelling to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside Christian militias like the Dwekh Nawsha in Iraq.

The discrepancy between the treatment of the “good” auxiliaries combating ISIS and that of the “bad” ones ISIS recruits sets a dangerous precedent: Why classify the YPG as an acceptable group to join, but ISIS, Hezbollah or al-Nusra as an unacceptable one?

The nature of the group plays a role. The Kurds are viewed as defending their ethnic heartland in Syria against a barbaric movement known for wanton murder and enslavement. They are longstanding inhabitants of the region, and have a vaguely defined moral claim to the Syrian northeast, though not, if we go by most of the international community, a claim to sovereignty. The Kurdish Regional Government is slightly further along the continuum, with an effectively autonomous region and its own quasi-army, the Peshmerga, fighting to defend its homeland, ethnic kin, and other minorities.

But as beleaguered as the Kurdish community in Syria and Iraq is, the logic of extending blanket legitimacy to Kurdish militia, while categorically denying it to others, is difficult to sustain at the level of international policy. Hamas and Hezbollah, like the Kurdish PKK, effectively govern territory and have evolved into organized and recognized bodies. Yet foreign participation in one of these groups is unlikely to be regarded as acceptable.

Assuming we draw the line along the state/non-state divide, which is the simplest, we should feel comfortable with the involvement of foreigners on either side of the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Both can be regarded as joining forces with a sovereign government, whether Ukrainian nationalists from outside the country or Russian separatists and ethnic kin backed by the Russian government. Yet international condemnation came down against both sides as diaspora populations volunteered to fight. This suggests that the state/nonstate divide is not, in and of itself, sufficient to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of intervention.

The distinction could instead come from the conduct of the organizations, allowing volunteers to join groups that act within the bounds of international law and respect human rights. This distinction is appealing, particularly given ISIS’ ruthless violence, but it is a poor barometer. Most groups involved in the Syrian civil war have been shown to commit war crimes, even if ISIS is in a category of its own. The YPG has itself been accused of using child soldiers and carrying out ethnic cleansing in the areas it controls. Khorasan, al-Nusra, and the Sunni Islamic militias are generally viewed as non-compliant with the laws of war, as are Syrian government-allied auxiliaries such as Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militia. But “volunteering” for these latter groups has not drawn similar condemnation.

Alternatively, we might be tempted to regard volunteering as acceptable when the volunteer shares some kind of ethnic, religious or ideological roots with the group. This, however, could justify virtually any foreign participation in any conflict – particularly in Syria, where neither foreign fighters nor foreign volunteers are thought to receive any meaningful monetary compensation. Clearly, they must be joining the fight because they share some kind of ethnic, religious, or ideological affinity with a party to the conflict. This rationale, moreover, could apply to ISIS as much as the YPG. Taking the Ukrainian conflict again as an example, the same considerations would apply: ethnic Russians and Ukrainians travelling to Ukraine identify with the separatists and nationalists, respectively. A criterion relating to shared ethnic, religious, or ideological roots is thus unhelpful in delineating the contours of legitimate foreign intervention.

The upshot of this is that none of the suggested criteria provide a satisfactory justification for why states – and, for that matter, international law – view joining the YPG as acceptable, but joining ISIS (or al-Nusra) as reprehensible. This lack of regularity undermines existing policies, as it gives the impression that the distinction is based on ideology, which is a dangerous precedent to set. This development is especially alarming given that the Western-backed coalition (including Russia’s) objectives may not align with those of the YPG’s in the long-run. Kurdish territorial ambitions in a fragmented Iraq and Syria are likely to increase – not diminish – with battlefield success, pitting them against the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran once the guns fall silent.

Should such a change of affinity occur in the fight against ISIS, it could undermine the legitimacy of the emerging regulatory framework governing foreign fighters and make for awkward moments. The UK government experienced some embarrassment when the prosecution of a Swedish national collapsed after it emerged that the group he had joined in Syria was receiving covert support from the British government itself.

Ultimately, the treatment of Western foreign fighters joining the YPG (while it may appeal to our present sympathies) is not as straightforward as many states have made it seem. In the absence of objective criteria, the Security Council’s strong and welcome measures against foreign fighters could be undermined. In the years to come, as Syria re-constitutes itself or further fragments into rump ethnic states, we may look back at today’s auxiliaries and ask ourselves with some confusion who were the “foreign volunteers” and who were the “foreign fighters” in Syria’s horrific civil war.

 

Thoughts on Jens’s Post about the Kunduz Attack

by Kevin Jon Heller

I read with great interest Jens’s excellent post about whether the US attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz was a war crime. I agree with much of what he says, particularly about the complexity of that seemingly innocuous word “intent.” But I am not completely convinced by his argument that reading intent in the Rome Statute to include mental states other than purpose or dolus directus would necessarily collapse the distinction between the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population and the war crime of launching a disproportionate attack. Here is the crux of Jens’s argument:

In the civilian tradition, the concept of intent is a wider category that in some circumstances might include recklessness. This equation sounds odd to a common-law trained criminal lawyer, because to an American student of criminal law, intent and recklessness are fundamentally different concepts. But just for the sake of argument, what would happen if intent were given this wider meaning? Could the U.S. service members be prosecuted for intentionally directing an attack against the civilian population because “intentionally” includes lower mental states such as dolus eventualis or recklessness?

I worry about this argument. And here’s why. If intent = recklessness, then all cases of legitimate collateral damage would count as violations of the principle of distinction, because in collateral damage cases the attacker kills the civilians with knowledge that the civilians will die. And the rule against disproportionate attacks sanctions this behavior as long as the collateral damage is not disproportionate and the attack is aimed at a legitimate military target. But if intent = recklessness, then I see no reason why the attacking force in that situation couldn’t be prosecuted for the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against civilians, without the court ever addressing or analyzing the question of collateral damage. Because clearly a soldier in that hypothetical situation would “know” that the attack will kill civilians, and knowledge is certainly a higher mental state than recklessness. That result would effectively transform all cases of disproportionate collateral damage into violations of the principle of distinction and relieve the prosecutor of the burden of establishing that the damage was indeed disproportionate, which seems absurd to me.

I don’t want to focus on recklessness, because it isn’t criminalised by the Rome Statute. The lowest default mental element in Art. 30 is knowledge, which applies to consequence and circumstance elements — “awareness that a circumstance exists or a consequence will occur in the ordinary course of events.” So Jens’s real worry, it seems to me, is that reading the “intentionally” in “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” to include knowledge would mean a proportionate attack could be prosecuted as an intentional attack on a civilian population as long as the attacker was aware that civilians would be harmed “in the ordinary course of events” — a state of affairs that will almost always be the case, given that an attacker will engage in a proportionality assessment only when he knows that civilians will be incidentally affected by the planned attack on a military objective.

I’m not sure I agree. As I read it, the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” consists of two material elements: a conduct element and a circumstance element. (There is no consequence element, because the civilians do not need to be harmed.) The conduct element is directing an attack against a specific group of people. The circumstance element is the particular group of people qualifying as a civilian population. So that means, if we apply the default mental element provisions in Art. 30, that the war crime is complete when (1) a defendant “means to engage” in an attack against a specific group of people; (2) that specific group of people objectively qualifies as a civilian population; and (3) the defendant “is aware” that the specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population. Thus understood, the war crime requires not one but two mental elements: (1) intent for the prohibited conduct (understood as purpose, direct intent, or dolus directus); (2) knowledge for the necessary circumstance (understood as oblique intent or dolus indirectus).

Does this mean that an attacker who knows his attack on a military objective will incidentally but proportionately harm a group of civilians commits the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” if he launches the attack? I don’t think so. The problematic element, it seems to me, is not the circumstance element but the conduct element: although the attacker who launches a proportionate attack on a legitimate military objective knows that his attack will harm a civilian population, he is not intentionally attacking that civilian population. The attacker means to attack only the military objective; he does not mean to attack the group of civilians. They are simply incidentally — accidentally — harmed. So although the attacker has the mental element necessary for the circumstance element of the war crime (knowledge that a specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population) he does not have the mental element necessary for its conduct element (intent to attack that specific group of people). He is thus not criminally responsible for either launching a disproportionate attack or intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.

To be sure, this analysis is probably not watertight. But I think it’s based on the best interpretation of the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.” The key, in my view, is that the crime does not contain a consequence element — no harm to civilians is necessary. If the war crime was “intentionally directing attacks that cause harm to a civilian population,” the analysis would be very different: the crime would then consist of three material elements: a conduct element (intentionally directing an attack), a consequence element (harming a group of people), and a circumstance element (the harmed group of people qualifying as a civilian population).The applicable mental elements would then be quite different: the defendant would commit the war crime if he (1) intentionally launched an attack that harmed a civilian population, (2) knowing that the attack would harm a specific group of people, and (3) knowing that the harmed group of people qualified as a civilian population. And in that case, a proportionate attack on a legitimate military objective would qualify as “intentionally directing attacks that harm a civilian population” — a nonsensical outcome, for all the reason Jens mentions.

In the absence of the consequence element, however, this situation does not exist. As long as the defendant whose attack harms a civilian population meant to attack only a legitimate military objective, his knowledge that the attack would incidentally harm a civilian population would not qualify as the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population. He would be guilty of that crime only if he meant to attack the civilian population itself.

Your thoughts, Jens?

NOTE: This post generally takes the same position Adil Haque took in a series of comments on Jens’s post.

Anchugov and Gladkov is not Enforceable: the Russian Constitutional Court Opines in its First ECtHR Implementation Case

by Marina Aksenova

[Marina Aksenova is a Post-doc at the Centre of Excellence for International Courts, Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen. You can reach her at: Marina [dot] aksenova [at] jur [dot] ku [dot] dk.]

On 19 April 2016, the Constitutional Court of Russia (CC) issued its pilot decision testing newly acquired powers to refuse the implementation of the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) contradicting Russia’s Constitution. The case under review of the CC was Anchugov and Gladkov v Russia. In this case, the ECtHR previously found that automatic and indiscriminate ban on Russian prisoners’ voting rights was disproportionate and thus in violation of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 (right to free elections) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Ever since it was issued in 2013, the Russian authorities viewed this ruling as problematic because it directly contradicts Article 32(3) of the Russian Constitution, which reads as follows:

Deprived of the right to elect and be elected shall be citizens recognized by court as legally unfit, as well as citizens kept in places of confinement by a court sentence.

The CC has been enjoying powers to refuse the implementation of contested decisions of the ECtHR for only nine month, and, more precisely, since 14 July 2015 when it issued ground breaking decision to reaffirm the primacy of the Russian Constitution over the conflicting rulings of the ECtHR and any other international bodies tasked with human rights protection (some aspects of this decision are discussed here and in the second half of this post). On 14 December 2015, the legislature, in line with the position of the CC, amended the law regulating the operation of the Russian Constitutional Court, granting the President and the Government the right to appeal to the Court in instances when they suspect that executing the ruling of the ECtHR may contradict the Constitution. Following the introduction of this new internal review mechanism, the Ministry of Justice swiftly filed an appeal to the CC asking it to rule on the possibility of implementing the ECtHR judgment in Anchugov and Gladkov.

The CC held on 19 April 2016 that the ECtHR judgment in Anchugov and Gladkov could not be executed. The CC adopted, however, a diplomatic approach by not ruling out the introduction of future penalties involving non-custodial sentences that limit the freedom but do not impede on the voting rights. The CC nonetheless insisted on its previous interpretation of Article 32(3) as sufficiently discriminate to satisfy the requirements Article 3 of Protocol No. 1. The Court further stressed European pluralism in what concerns organisation of the electoral processes in different members states as well as inconsistent position of the ECtHR itself in matters concerning voting rights (the CC contrasted Hirst v UK (2005) and Scoppola v Italy (2012) judgments, pointing to a certain change of heart by the Strasbourg court).

The CC distinguished general measures and measures that benefit the applicant in making three important pronouncements:

  • Anchugov and Gladkov cannot be implemented in what concerns general measures involving repealing or changing the imperative provision of Article 32(3) of the Constitution given its supremacy within Russian legal system. The CC found it particularly troubling that the provision in question can only be changed by virtue of adopting a new Constitution;
  • Anchugov and Gladkov can be implemented in what concerns general measures ensuring fairness, differentiation and proportionality of the restrictions on voting rights. Here the CC adopted a rather questionable approach arguing that only a custodial sentence leads to the disenfranchisement of the offender concerned, which ensures sufficient differentiation because most of the first-time offenders charged with minor crimes do not get imprisoned, ergo their voting rights are intact. The ECtHR has however already dismissed this argument in Anchugov and Gladkov (para. 106) pointing to the lack of evidence that courts take into account impending disenfranchisement when deciding on the type of sanction to be imposed on the convicted person. Possibly sensing some weakness in this position, the CC made an additional promise for the future – the legislator may optimise Russian penitentiary system so as to ensure the existence of punishments limiting freedom but not involving imprisonment, thus guaranteeing voting rights to the convicted persons;
  • Finally, Anchugov and Gladkov cannot be executed in what pertains measures benefitting individual applicants because the applicants were convicted for serious offences and sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment, automatically leading to their disenfranchisement. Moreover, restitutio integrum is simply impossible in this case for the elections that the applicants wished to participate in took place between 2000 and 2008.

14 July 2015 CC Ruling

The CC Anchugov and Gladkov ruling was made technically possible due to the adoption of (more…)

Jus ad Bellum Implications of Japan’s New National Security Laws

by Craig Martin

[Craig Martin is an Associate Professor at the Washburn University School of Law. He specializes in international law and the use of armed force, and comparative constitutional law He can be reached at: craigxmartin [at] gmail [dot] com.]

Far-reaching revisions to Japan’s national security laws became effective at the end of March. Part of the government’s efforts to “reinterpret” Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution, the revised laws authorize military action that would previously have been unconstitutional. The move has been severely criticized within Japan as being a circumvention and violation of the Constitution, but there has been far less scrutiny of the international law implications of the changes.

The war-renouncing provision of the Constitution ensured compliance with the jus ad bellum regime, and indeed Japan has not engaged in a use of force since World War II. But with the purported “reinterpretation” and revised laws – which the Prime Minister has said would permit Japan to engage in minesweeping in the Straits of Hormuz or use force to defend disputed islands from foreign “infringements” – Japan has an unstable and ambiguous new domestic law regime that could potentially authorize action that would violate international law.

By way of background, Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution provides, in part, that the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force in the settlement of international disputes.” It was initially drafted by a small group of Americans during the occupation, and they incorporated language and concepts from the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, and Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter that had been concluded just months earlier. Thus, Article 9 incorporated concepts and language from the jus ad bellum regime for the purpose of imposing constitutional constraints that were greater than those imposed by international law, and waiving certain rights enjoyed by states under international law. While drafted by Americans, it was embraced by the government and then the public, such that it became a powerful constitutive norm, helping to shape Japan’s post-war national identity. (For the full history, see Robinson and Moore’s book Partners for Democracy; for a shorter account and analysis, see the law review article “Binding the Dogs of War: Japan and the Constitutionalizing of Jus ad Bellum”).

Soon after the return of full sovereignty to Japan in 1952, the government interpreted this first clause of Article 9 as meaning that Japan was entitled to use the minimum force necessary for individual self-defense in response to an armed attack on Japan itself. It also interpreted it as meaning that Japan was denied the right to use force in the exercise of any right of collective self-defense, or to engage in collective security operations authorized by the U.N. Security Council. These were understood to be the “sovereign rights of the nation” under international law that were waived by Japan as a matter of constitutional law.

All branches of government have consistently adhered to this interpretation every since. In 2014, however, frustrated in its efforts to formally amend Article 9, (more…)

Does the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” Violate International Law?

by Julian Ku

President Obama has threatened to veto a bill pending in the U.S. Congress that would allow private plaintiffs to sue foreign sovereigns for committing (or abetting) terrorist attacks inside the territory of the United States.  The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act has broad bipartisan support in Congress and from all of the presidential candidates (including Hillary Clinton). It would add an exception to the general rule of  immunity for foreign sovereigns in U.S. courts in cases

in which money damages are sought against a foreign state arising out of physical injury or death, or damage to or loss of property, occurring in the United States and caused by the tortious act or omission of that foreign state or of any official or employee of that foreign state while acting within the scope of the office or employment of the official or employee (regardless of where the underlying tortious act or omission occurs), including any statutory or common law tort claim arising out of an act of extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, terrorism, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act, or any claim for contribution or indemnity relating to a claim arising out of such an act...

(emphasis added).

The bill drew more attention this week when the NY Times reported that Saudi Arabia is threatening to dump $750 billion in U.S. assets in retaliation for allowing the bill to become law.  Lawsuits from September 11 victims against the Saudi government would benefit tremendously from this law.

Anything with this much bipartisan support must be wrong in some important way. I suppose one reason to be skeptical is that it would mix delicate political and diplomatic relations into judicial proceedings where private lawyers can demand discovery into a foreign government’s internal deliberations and activities.

 Another reason is that there seems little basis in international law for creating an exception to sovereign immunity for terrorist attacks, or supporting terrorist attacks.  The traditional view of sovereign immunity is that it is absolute, and that remedies against a sovereign must be sought in diplomatic or international fora.  Allowing a domestic judicial proceeding to judge the actions of a foreign sovereign would seem to undermine this basic idea.

But there are exceptions to sovereign immunity, such as for commercial activities, that much of the world accepts. It is just not clear whether a new exception can and should be created here. I am doubtful, but I am willing to be convinced.

The $50 BILLION Treaty Interpretation Question: Dutch Court Sets Aside Yukos Award Against Russia

by Julian Ku

Russia scored a huge victory today when the Hague District Court in the Netherlands court set aside a $50 billion arbitral award in favor of former shareholders of Yukos.  The $50 billion Yukos award (that’s BILLION, with a “B”),  is the largest arbitration award ever issued, was issued under the authority of the Energy Charter Treaty.  The arbitral tribunal (hosted at the Permanent Court of Arbitration) had found that the Russian government was liable for expropriating the former shareholders of Yukos through use of tax laws, harassment, criminal punishments, and other government measure without providing adequate compensation.

The Hague District Court set aside the award on jurisdictional grounds.  According to this English-language summary, the Dutch court held that Russia was not bound to arbitration under the Energy Charter Treaty because it never ratified the ECT.  The arbitral tribunal held in its interim award that Russia was bound under Article 45, which calls for provisional application of the treaty pending ratification.  But the Hague District Court disagreed.

Here is Article 45(1) and (2)(a):

(1) Each signatory agrees to apply this Treaty provisionally pending its entry into force for such signatory in accordance with Article 44, to the extent that such provisional application is not inconsistent with its constitution, laws or regulations.

(2) (a) Notwithstanding paragraph (1) any signatory may, when signing, deliver to the Depository a declaration that it is not able to accept provisional application. The obligation contained in paragraph (1) shall not apply to a signatory making such a declaration. Any such signatory may at any time withdraw that declaration by written notification to the Depository.

Russia did not make such an Article 45(2) declaration, but the Dutch Court held that Article 45(1) still acted as a jurisdictional bar on the arbitral tribunal’s jurisdiction because it requires the arbitral tribunal to go back and assess whether the dispute resolution provision (Article 26) of the Energy Charter treaty is “inconsistent” with Russia’s “constitution, laws or regulations.”  the Dutch court concluded that Russia’s constitution does not permit it to be bound to an arbitration assessing the legality of its tax laws without the consent of its legislature.

I don’t have a strong view on who is right here. I will note that Russia is represented by the well-known New York law firm Cleary Gottlieb (where I once toiled as a young summer associate) and that Russia mustered an impressively long list of international law experts on its behalf such as Martti Koskenniemi, Alain Pellet, and Gerhard Hafner (to list just a few).  The claimants had their own impressive list including James Crawford and my former Yale professor Michael Reisman.  This is a truly difficult treaty interpretation question, which just happens to have $50 billion riding on it.  So we can be sure there will be an appeal of the Hague District Court’s ruling.

It is worth noting that also that Russia has a lot riding on this case, but it also decided to litigate this matter fully even though it believes the tribunal has no jurisdiction.  This turns out to be a smart move, since they seem to have won (for now) and because not litigating would have still subjected them to lots of enforcement actions against them around the world. So litigation seems to have worked out for Russia this time. I wonder if that will encourage Russia  to try its hand at litigation in future cases as well?

 

Rest in Peace, John Jones QC

by Kevin Jon Heller

It is with great sadness — and ongoing shock — that I report the unexpected passing of John Jones QC, one of the great international lawyers. Accomplishments are not important at a time like this, but here is a snippet from his Doughty Street International profile to give readers  a sense of what a spectacular barrister John was:

John has acted as Counsel in 5 cases before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”) – in two cases (Naser Oric and Ante Gotovina/ Mladen Markac), his clients were acquitted of all charges on appeal. Two of his other ICTY cases were not completed due to the death of the acused (Mehmed Alagic and Rasim Delic). In the fifth case, he appeared as Counsel as part of the amicus curiae team (Krajisnik). John was also the first head of the Defence Office of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) and legal officer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), contributing to  the first Judgment on genocide. He was one of only 8 counsel assigned as defence counsel at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), established to try those allegedly responsible for the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in an explosion on 14 February 2005.

I had the great honour of considering a John a good friend. I first got to know him during the Gaddafi case, when he and I regularly exchanged emails about Libya’s complementarity challenge. And then he encouraged me to join the Doughty Street team as an academic member. John was, quite simply, a wonderful person — warm, funny, supportive. I never met anyone who didn’t like him, even people who had to face him the courtroom. I know I liked him. Very much.

I will miss John dearly, and my heart goes out to his beloved wife and two remarkable children. We all deserved to have John longer, but we’re lucky to have had him at all.

Requiescat in pace, John.

Happy Birthday to the International Court of Justice!

by Julian Ku

We would be remiss here at Opinio Juris if we did not mark today’s 70th anniversary of the opening of the International Court of Justice on 18 April 1946 at the Peace Palace in The Hague.  I have been fairly critical of the ICJ over the years. Way back in 2005, I complained about the ICJm22133338_241x164-international-court-of-justice‘s molasses-like deliberations.  (I also inadvertently declared an ICJ member dead when he was (and still is) very much alive.)  But I do think the ICJ is an important and interesting participant in the development of international law, even if it is not as important as it would like to be.

Having said all that, the ICJ is an ongoing experiment in the use of permanent international judicial institutions to resolve state-to-state disputes, and it has had its fair share of successes over the years.  So let’s take today and celebrate its 70th birthday by viewing films from its opening day and interviews with its current registrar.  We can save our grousing for tomorrow and other days.

Stay in Your Lane! When Political Scientists Become Bad International Lawyers

by Julian Ku

Next month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, a leading journal of highbrow foreign policy in the U.S., features an important article on the United States as “The Once and Future Superpower” (subscription).  Based on their forthcoming book, professors Steven Brooks and William Wohlforth of Dartmouth College argue that China is not going to displace the United States as the world’s leading superpower in the near or even mid-range future.

As an article analyzing global power politics, it seems fairly (although not completely) persuasive.  But I was struck by how the otherwise carefully argued piece descends into complete gibberish when it tries to explain how “international law” can be a tool for the United States to constrain and manage China’s activities in the South China Sea.

And if Beijing tried to extract economic gains from contested regions [in the South China Sea], Washington could facilitate a process along the lines of the proportional punishment strategy it helped make part of the World Trade Organization: let the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague, determine the gains of China’s illegal actions, place a temporary tariff on Chinese exports to collect exactly that much revenue while the sovereignty claims are being adjudicated, and then distribute them once the matter is settled before the International Court of Justice.

Whaaaahhht?

In this one sentence, the authors propose that an arbitral tribunal convened under UNCLOS issue an award granting money damages to the Philippines. This is somewhat unlikely, but it is theoretically possible.  But who exactly is going to place a “temporary tariff on Chinese exports”?  The United States? A country that is not party to the dispute between China and the Philippines? And why exactly wouldn’t this cause a trade war with China and why wouldn’t it violate the WTO Agreement? And when exactly did the International Court of Justice get involved given that China has not consented to that court’s compulsory jurisdiction?  

Not only is this not a plausible mechanism for sanctions against China (the world’s second largest economy), but it is not a plausible mechanism for sanctions against almost any country in the world.  It has never been done before outside of the trade context, where every country specifically agreed to the trade sanction system in advance! 

The authors’ casual, offhand explanation of how “international law” is an asset that can be used for pursuing policy goals irrespective of existing legal institutional frameworks and legal principles is something I’ve noticed before in political science literature.  The “law” argument is not a bad one in principle, but it requires a deeper understanding of law as an independent analytical field than political scientists are willing to give it credit for.

As it stands now, this otherwise interesting article loses credibility with policymakers because the authors didn’t bother to try to understand how law and legal institutions are organized.  Maybe they should just skip over the legal stuff, and stay in their own lanes.  Or maybe they could find a reader up there in New Hampshire with a J.D. (I’m always available!).

Complementarity Compromised? The ICC Gives Congo the Green Light to Re-Try Katanga

by Patryk Labuda

[Patryk I. Labuda is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and a Teaching Assistant at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.]

On 7 April 2016, the ICC made an important but troubling decision in the case of Germain Katanga. After reviewing a request from the authorities of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the ICC Presidency determined that, in spite of the Rome Statute’s prohibition of double jeopardy, a Congolese military tribunal may effectively re-try Katanga on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In addition to fair trial concerns, this decision raises a number of questions about the ICC’s raison d’etre, in particular the relationship of international criminal justice to human rights law and the future of complementarity.

Readers of this blog will know that Katanga’s trial has generated significant controversy over the years, especially as regards the ICC judges’ use of Regulation 55 (covered by Kevin Jon Heller here and here). A Congolese rebel re-integrated into the national armed forces, Katanga was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in March 2014. Later that year, the ICC sentenced him to twelve years imprisonment, of which he had already spent seven years in detention at the ICC. In November 2015, just 18 months into his sentence, the ICC decided that he was eligible for early release, meaning Katanga would be a free man in January 2016.

Everything seemed to be going well for Katanga, when in December 2015 he made the fateful and still inexplicable decision to return to the DRC to finish serving his sentence. Shortly after he was transferred to a prison in Kinshasa (together with his compatriot and fellow ICC inmate Thomas Lubanga), rumors surfaced that the Congolese authorities would want to prosecute Katanga domestically. Sure enough, a few weeks before his scheduled release, the Congolese authorities announced Katanga would be tried in the DRC for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It should be noted at the outset that Katanga’s trial in the DRC is not prohibited as such by the Rome Statute. That multiple courts may assert jurisdiction over a single suspect flows from the ICC’s principle of complementarity. However, national prosecutions cannot violate Article 20 (2), which guarantees that “[n]o person shall be tried by another court for a crime… for which that person has already been convicted or acquitted by the [ICC].“

A reaffirmation of the cardinal human rights principle ne bis in idem (known as double jeopardy in the common law, though there are some differences), this provision basically ensures that ICC defendants will not be tried for the same crimes twice.

Simple enough in theory, Article 20 is not as clear as it should be. International crimes are by their very nature composites of multiple crimes, which means that unless a person is tried and convicted for everything they did in their first trial, there will almost always be additional charges that a thorough or overzealous national prosecutor can bring in domestic proceedings.

Thus, the key question is who gets to decide whether a national court may prosecute an ICC defendant for ‘a crime for which that person has already been convicted or acquitted.’ It would be extremely problematic if national courts were free to decide this vexing issue, especially in cases such as Katanga’s, where the defendant is a former rebel who fought to overthrow the government currently in power. Thankfully, the Rome Statute recognizes this risk and gives the ICC the final word:

A sentenced person in the custody of the State of enforcement shall not be subject to prosecution… unless such prosecution… has been approved by the Court at the request of the State of enforcement.

It is Article 108 (1) that lies at the heart of the ICC’s decision to allow (more…)

The Ruto Trial Chamber Invents the Mistrial Without Prejudice

by Kevin Jon Heller

As readers no doubt know, on Tuesday the ICC’s Trial Chamber declared a “mistrial” in the case against William Ruto and Joshua Arap Sang. The decision likely puts an end to the fiasco of the Ocampo Six — now the “Ocampo Zero,” to borrow Mark Kersten’s nicely-turned expression — although the Trial Chamber dismissed the charges “without prejudice,” leaving the door open for the OTP to prosecute Ruto and Sang again if its evidence ever becomes stronger.

The decision is obviously terrible for the OTP. And it is difficult not to feel sympathy for its plight: although I fully agree with the majority that no reasonable finder of fact could convict Ruto and Sang on the evidence presented during the OTP’s case-in-chief, Kenya has consistently refused to cooperate with the Court (despite its treaty obligations under the Rome Statute) and the allegations that pro-Ruto and Sang forces intimidated (and perhaps even killed) witnesses seem well-founded. In the absence of those serious limitations on its ability to investigate, it is certainly possible the OTP might have been able to establish a case to answer.

In this (extremely long) post, however, I want to address a different issue: the majority’s decision to declare a mistrial and dismiss the charges against Ruto and Sang without prejudice, instead of entering a judgment of acquittal. That is very much a distinction with a difference: had the majority acquitted Ruto and Sang, the OTP could not prosecute them again for the same conduct, because Art. 20 of the Rome Statute — the ne bis in idem provision — specifically provides that “no person shall be tried before the Court with respect to conduct which formed the basis of crimes for which the person has been convicted or acquitted by the Court.”

My question is this: where did the majority get the idea it could declare a mistrial instead of granting the defence’s no-case-to-answer motion? Unfortunately, Neither Judge Fremr nor Judge Eboe-Osuji provide a convincing answer to that question. On the contrary, they have simply invented the possibility of a mistrial in order to leave open the possibility of Ruto and Sang being re-prosecuted…

The U.S. Embargo on Cuba Should Be Lifted, But It is Not a Blockade, and Perfectly Legal

by Julian Ku

Last week, I accompanied a group of Hofstra Law students on a one-week study abroad “field study” in Havana, Cuba. We visited just a week after President Obama’s historic visit and a day after an almost equally historic Rolling Stones concert.  The trip gave my students and I an opportunity see how some of the effects of President Obama’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba, and also how the U.S. embargo on Cuba is viewed bimage1y Cubans.

It also gave me a chance to think again about my earlier analysis of Cuba’s argument that the U.S. embargo violates international law.  I still think Cuba’s description of the U.S. embargo as a “blockade” is ludicrous. But I am more sympathetic to legal criticisms of the
extraterritorial effects of the U.S. embargo.

First, as the photo suggests, Cuba calls the U.S. embargo a “blockade”.  Indeed, the billboard (which faces visitors as soon as they drive in from the airport), refers to the “bloqueo” as the “longest genocide in history.”  This might be put down simply to rhetorical excess, but the Cuban government has repeatedly used the term “blockade” in public statements at the United Nations. It has demanded upwards of $80 billion in compensation for damages caused by the “blockade.”

Whatever the U.S. embargo on Cuba is, it is NOT a blockade as that term is defined under international law.  According to a U.S. definition, a blockade is a “belligerent operation to prevent vessels and/or aircraft of all nations, enemy as well as neutral, from entering or exiting specified ports, airfields, or coastal areas belonging to, occupied by, or under the control of an enemy nation.” Oppenheim had an even narrower definition, limited to naval blockades “of the approach to the enemy coast or a part of it….to intercept all intercourse and especially commercial intercourse by sea….”

It goes without saying that the U.S. is not imposing a blockade under this definition.  The U.S. embargo is not a belligerent operation using its military forces to prevent commercial intercourse with Cuba.  No military force prevents Cuba from trading with nations other than the U.S.  Calling a refusal by one country to trade with another a “blockade” is an insult to any reasonable definition of the term (or actual blockades).

The Cuban government knows that U.S. is not imposing a blockade, but it is useful for it to keep using the term at the U.N. and even win support from other nations for its characterization of the embargo.  The U.S. doesn’t even bother protesting Cuba’s use of the term anymore, which is a mistake because it grossly mischaracterizes what the U.S. embargo actually is.  Moreover, if the U.S. doesn’t fight back against the “blockade” smear, it subtles undermines the legitimacy of U.S. embargos on other (much more dangerous) countries like North Korea and Iran.

Accepting the term “blockade” uncritically also allows the Cuban government to blame the U.S. for Cuba’s various economic problems.  But while the U.S. embargo definitely is having an impact on Cuba, it is not the nearly as important as the Cuban government’s own economic policies.  It is worth noting that the international Cuban campaign against the embargo really started in the early 1990s after Cuba lost support from the Soviet Union.  Cuba did not “need” the embargo to be lifted until it lost Soviet support.  Relatedly, Cuba’s main high-value exports today are services (e.g. medical doctors and other specialists) that the U.S. probably won’t actually purchase.  There is only so much in cigars and rum that the U.S. market can absorb.  Cuba’s burgeoning tourist industry is growing, but it is hard to imagine Cuba could handle many more tourists than it is already receiving (or until at least they build a new airport).

To be sure, there is one aspect of the U.S. embargo that probably does violate international law. Under the 1996 “Helms Burton” law, the U.S. created a private cause of action against anyone trading in assets expropriated by the Cuban government, even if that person was located in a foreign country.  This, along with a measure requiring denial of visas to anyone who has traded in such expropriated assets, caused consternation in the EU and Canada.   Their pressure (and a threatened WTO case) has led to the U.S. suspending Helms Burton so that it has never actually gone into effect.

U.S. law also extends the embargo to foreign subsidiaries that are “owned or controlled” by U.S. persons.  This is also controversial because it applies U.S. law extraterritorially in violation of other countries’ sovereignty.  I think this is problematic, but this is not as settled as it might seem since the U.S. is arguably simply asserting an aggressive form of nationality jurisdiction.  But this aspect of the embargo is definitely legally questionable.

In the end of the day, I think the U.S. embargo is perfectly legitimate as a matter of international law.  But just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is a good or necessary policy.  Based in part on my trip to Cuba, I am inclined to agree with President Obama that the U.S. embargo is no longer useful, and counterproductive in many ways. Congress should probably (and will eventually) lift the embargo.  But the U.S. should not back down from defending the legality of its use of economic sanctions as a tool of statecraft.