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Why It Doesn’t Seem to Matter that the Syria Strikes Violated International Law

by Julian Ku

Over at Vox, I have published an essay fleshing out the thoughts I first published here on the legality of the recent U.S. cruise missile attacks on Syria and the international reaction to it.

President Donald Trump’s surprising decision to launch a cruise missile strike on Syria was sharply criticized by Russia as a “flagrant violation of international law.” While it might be tempting to dismiss this claim as mere Putinesque propaganda, on this question at least, Russia is almost certainly correct. In the view of most international lawyers, the US strike on Syria is a crystal-clear violation of the UN Charter. So why doesn’t anybody, except Russia and some international lawyers, seem to care?

The uncomfortable answer seems to be that, at least with respect to this question — can a state use military force against a regime that uses banned weaponry against citizens? — international law simply doesn’t matter very much. And this suits the United States and the Trump administration just fine.

Please read the whole thing. I am especially pleased with this line, drafted with the assistance of one of the very smart editors they have over there:

So the UN will not become an irrelevant bystander, but neither will it operate as the final authority on the US decision to use force. This may not be ideal, but one important lesson of the reaction to the Syria strikes is that we should all start getting used to this reduced role for the UN, and stop the unrealistic fetishization of Article 2(4).

In Defense of Humanitarian Intervention

by Jennifer Trahan

[Jennifer Trahan is Associate Clinical Professor, at The Center for Global Affairs, NYU-SPS, and Chair of the American Branch of the International Law Association’s International Criminal Court Committee. The views expressed are those of the author.]

Postings on Opinio Juris seem fairly squarely against the legality of the U.S. missile strike last week into Syria. Let me join Jens David Ohlin (blogging on Opinio Juris) and Harold Koh (blogging on Just Security) in making the contrary case.

When NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1999, member states did not have UN Security Council approval; yet all NATO members supported the intervention designed to stave off ethnic cleansing. True, many did not defend it as “humanitarian intervention” per se, except Belgium, which made the case for the legality of humanitarian interventions in briefing to the International Court of Justice. Still, all NATO members endorsed the military action.

Humanitarian intervention has also been cited as the legal justification for UK and US no fly zones in Iraq, and to justify ECOWAS’s interventions in Liberia in 1990 and Sierra Leone in 1998, prior to UN Security Council approval, which was later forthcoming.

And, after the Assad regime used sarin gas in August 2013, resulting in an estimated 1,400 victims, the UK was prepared to act under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, arguing that the 3 criteria for intervention were met:

  • There is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;
  • it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and
  • the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (ie the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).

So, despite many who would argue there is no such thing as “humanitarian intervention” or it is dead subsequent to the development of the responsibility to protect (R2P), humanitarian intervention keeps being invoked.

Why? Because there are times that UN Security Council dysfunctionality in voting, serves to shield the commission of atrocity crimes. China shielded President Bashir of Sudan while his armed forces coordinated with the Janjaweed militias to commit genocide in Darfur, and Russia has been shielding the Assad regime while it uses sarin and chlorine gas, not to mention other indiscriminate weapons and targeting of civilians. (We should not be outraged only at the regime’s chemical weapons use.)

Therefore, when R2P tells us that “pillar 3” forceful intervention requires UN Security Council approval, as it does, it is failing to do what it set out to achieve—to protect a people in peril from grave atrocities.

Remember, in 1999, Kofi Annan asked the General Assembly:

If, in those dark days and hours leading up to the [Rwanda] genocide, a coalition of States had been prepared to act in defence of the Tutsi population, but did not receive prompt Council authorization, should such a collation have stood aside and allowed the horror to unfold?

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty gave a helpful response in 2001, not only setting criteria for intervention, but also, noting that if the UN Security Council failed to act, one should not be surprised if others did. The Secretary-General’s 2004 High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change then went on and also set similar criteria for intervention (as had the Independent International Commission in Kosovo (the “Goldstone Commission” before it).

So for those who claim we don’t know what humanitarian intervention is, these sources and the criteria they articulate suggest that we have a pretty good understanding of it. If we need more clarity as to its parameters to ensure the doctrine is not susceptible to abuse, then, rather than rejecting the doctrine entirely, it should be up to us international lawyers to figure them out.

R2P then backs off its promising start and ultimately concludes that UN Security Council approval is required for any forceful intervention. So, basically in answer to Kofi Annan’s question what to do when there is no UN Security Council approval, it answers: get UN Security Council approval.   This cannot suffice.

Borne out of frustration with this dilemma, the French adopted their initiative “not to veto” in the face of mass atrocity crimes, and 112 states have joined the Accountability, Consistency and Transparency (ACT) Code of Conduct to act in the face of mass atrocity crimes. These were both extremely useful initiatives.

Yet, three of the permanent members of the UN Security Council will agree to neither initiative—Russia, China, and the U.S. I do not lump these countries fully in the same boat, because the US often makes clear the importance of deterring atrocity crimes, while not formally joining the initiatives, which it should.

The day that these hold-out P3’s join the French or ACT initiative, we no longer need to talk about “humanitarian interventions,” because the UN Security Council will be able to function as it was designed under the UN Charter, to both maintain international peace and security and to protect human rights (one of the purposes of the UN).

Another fallacy is that we read the veto as if absolutely anything can be vetoed, when the veto sits within the context of the UN Charter, which imposes obligations; we should explore further what is a legitimate versus an illegitimate veto that should be treated as null and void. The General Assembly could request an advisory opinion from the ICJ on this.

In the meanwhile, the UK has the right approach (as well as the Danish), that we have to leave a small carve out for the legality of humanitarian intervention, when narrowly construed. (The US has previously sometimes invoked what sounds like humanitarian intervention, while not fully formally endorsing the doctrine.)

Humanitarian intervention, narrowly construed, then clearly also would not constitute the crime of aggression, which is poised to activate this December 2017 before the International Criminal Court. (Anything in a legal “grey area” is excluded from that definition—and, at minimum, humanitarian intervention (sometimes supported and sometimes invoked) is within that legal grey area. The U.S., a non-State Party to the ICC’s Rome Statute, would be exempt from the crime’s jurisdictional reach, even if it does activate.)

It is unclear if the US’s missile strike was intended to fall within the doctrine of humanitarian interventions, as we don’t have a statement of the legal basis, which the U.S. should make clear, as well as what if any follow up plan it has. Harold Koh is right when he writes: “Going forward, all of this will require not just bombs, but diplomacy; not just tweets, but thoughtful diplomatic proposals; not just ‘America First,’ but genuine American multilateral leadership.” Just Security, 4/7/17.

One approach would be appointing a special envoy to pursue diplomatic negotiations, including partition of the country, similar to the partitioning of Bosnia under the Dayton Peace Accords. Republika Srpska iwithin Bosnia was given entity status, yet its military and political leaders were later tried by the Yugoslav Tribunal for atrocity crimes. Clearly, diplomacy and war crimes trials are not mutually exclusive.

President Obama’s “red line” in response to which the US and international community did nothing was shameful. Yet, an argument can be made that at that point in time there was an alternative — to require Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons stocks. And, indeed, some, but clearly not all, of those stocks were destroyed pursuant to the legal regime established. So, by now, what could have been a viable alternative has been pursued, and Assad failed to adhere to it.

It is important to also note that humanitarian intervention can take many forms, and need not mean full-scale intervention, which should always be the last resort. Other forms would include limited no fly zones, protection of civilians in refugee camps, and establishing humanitarian corridors.

Furthermore, unilateral intervention is always the least best alternative. Certainly, endorsement by a regional organization (such as NATO or ECOWAS – as was done in the past), or even multilateral action not endorsed by a regional organization would be preferable. And, if there must be unilateral intervention, it should occur under close consultation with key US allies.

It is far too easy to insist on legal perfectionism and a strict readings of the UN Charter as we sit comfortably typing at our computers. We should not utterly shut the door on a doctrine designed to prevent atrocity crimes when all other means are failing, as they have been in Syria. I agree with Jens David Ohlin that we are “too focused on state sovereignty to the exclusion of any other legal categories” including “the right to be free from genocide and crimes against humanity.” The principles of humanity that have been a guiding principle since the time of Hugo Grotius, and the 1899 Martens clause, should still guide us today to seek a more responsible legal approach, one that does not prioritize sovereignty over humanity.

An Important Absence in the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017

by Kevin Jon Heller

On Monday, my friend Beth van Schaack posted an excellent analysis at Just Security of the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017, a bipartisan Senate bill “[t]o require a report on, and to authorize technical assistance for, accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Syria.” Beth summarises the most important aspects of the bill; in this post I want to focus on Section 7, which authorises US technical assistance to certain non-US accountability mechanisms. The most important paragraph in Section 7 is this one (emphasis mine):

(a) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary of State (acting through appropriate officials and offices, which may include the Office of Global Criminal Justice), after consultation with the Department of Justice and other appropriate Federal agencies, is authorized to provide appropriate assistance to support entities that, with respect to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, all forces fighting on its behalf, and violent extremist groups in Syria beginning in March 2011—

(1) identify suspected perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; (2) collect, document, and protect evidence of crimes and preserve the chain of custody for such evidence; (3) conduct criminal investigations; (4) build Syria’s investigative and judicial capacities and support prosecutions in the domestic courts of Syria, provided that President Bashar al Assad is no longer in power; (5) support investigations by third-party states, as appropriate; or (6) protect witnesses that may be helpful to prosecutions or other transitional justice mechanisms.

There a very interesting — and potentially very important — absence in Section 7(a). As the bolded text indicates, the paragraph only authorises the US to provide technical assistance to entities that are investigating international crimes committed by pro-Assad forces and “violent extremist groups.” Note what is missing from that construction: Syrian rebel groups. The bill does not permit the US to support any entity investigating war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide committed by rebels.

Lest anyone think I am reading Section 7(a) too narrowly, consider the wording of Section 3(1), which summarises acts that the US “strongly condemns” (emphasis mine):

(A) the ongoing violence, use of chemical weapons, targeting of civilian populations with barrel, incendiary, and cluster bombs and SCUD missiles, and systematic gross human rights violations carried out by the Government of Syria and pro-government forces under the direction of President Bashar al-Assad; and (B) all abuses committed by violent extremist groups and other combatants involved in the civil war in Syria.

It is difficult to see who “other combatants involved in the civil war in Syria” might be if they are not rebels. Indeed, Section 5(a), which requires the Secretary of State to submit a report on international crimes to Congress, explicitly distinguishes between “violent extremist groups” and rebel groups (emphasis mine):

(b) ELEMENTS.—The reports required under subsection (a) shall include— (1) a description of alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated during the civil war in Syria, including— (A) incidents that may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide committed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and all forces fighting on its behalf; (B) incidents that may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide committed by violent extremist groups, anti-government forces, and any other combatants in the conflict.

In light of Section 5(a), it is clear that Section 7(a) does not authorise the US to support an entity that is investigating international crimes committed by rebels.

That said, the bill is unclear in one important respect: whether the US can support an entity that investigates international crimes committed by both pro-Assad forces and rebel groups. On a literal reading of Section 7(a), the answer would seem to be no. But the sponsors of the bill might disagree. Journalists?

I agree with Beth that the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017 is an important step forward for accountability in Syria. Unfortunately, it also reflects the US’s tendency to take international crimes committed by rebel groups much less seriously than those committed by Assad’s forces and by ISIS.

War by Any Other Name? It’s Still War

by Gabor Rona and Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum

[Gabor Rona  is a Visiting Professor of Law and Director of the Law and Armed Conflict Project at Cardozo Law School. Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Cardozo Law Institute in Holocaust and Human Rights, Cardozo School of Law.]

“It’s not war. We haven’t gone to war against Syria.”

These are the quoted words of former legal advisor of the U.S. Department of State Harold Koh in a recent New Yorker article addressing the legality of the April 6 U.S. missile strike on Syria. While there are many nuanced aspects to the debate about the strike’s legality, the question of whether the use of force by one sovereign nation against another is war is not one of them. See, for example, the Just Security post by Mike Schmitt and Chris Ford.

Professor Koh may have meant only to suggest that the attack does not rise to a level requiring Congressional consent in advance under the U.S. Constitution. But the question: “Is it war?” also has consequences relevant to at least three aspects of international law: 1) the law of state responsibility, 2) the crime of aggression as defined in the International Criminal Court, and 3) the U.N Charter’s prohibition on the use of force. It is the latter two international law issues that we address here.

But first, is it war? It is well established under U.S. law that unless Congress says otherwise, the U.S. considers itself bound to comply with its obligations under international law. International law to which the U.S. is bound includes the Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Conventions are clear that the use of force by one state against another constitutes an international armed conflict, i.e., a war. Congress has never said otherwise, and so, both domestic and international law dictate the same conclusion: the United States and Syria are at war.

Engaging in war is not necessarily unlawful, but starting a war is. The U.S. government should know because it spearheaded successful efforts to prosecute the Nazi leadership for the crime of waging aggressive war (then called “crimes against peace”) at Nuremberg. If that’s too dusty a precedent, then consider that the 124 states party to the International Criminal Court treaty agree that starting a war constitutes the international crime of “aggression.” (See the treaty’s Article 5.1(d)). Or if your exceptionalist bent leaves you cold when the amorphous notion of “international community” is invoked, consider what the U.S. reaction might be when North Korea drops a missile on a South Korean military base and says “It’s not war.”

Professor Koh also suggests that the U.S. attack, even absent U.N. Security Council authorization, is “not illegal.” He cites to the emerging doctrine of humanitarian intervention, according to which, under certain conditions that he concedes may not have been met here, State A may use force to put an end to atrocities in State B. But the U.N. Charter permits State A to use force against State B only if done in self-defense or with Security Council authorization. There is no free-standing right of humanitarian intervention in international relations under the U.N. Charter, or any other instrument of international law. The 2004 Report of the U.N. Secretary General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change is the primary source document for the notion of humanitarian intervention (following on the 2001 Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, produced under the auspices of the Canadian government). The Panel’s conclusions about the use of force for humanitarian purposes presume Security Council approval:

We endorse the emerging norm that there is a collective international responsibility to protect, exercisable by the Security Council authorizing military intervention as a last resort, in the event of genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing or serious violations of international humanitarian law which sovereign Governments have proved powerless or unwilling to prevent.

(Para. 203.)

In other words, the Panel does not claim that the use of force for humanitarian purposes is legal in the absence of either Security Council authorization or conditions that trigger the inherent right to strike in self-defense. Rather, the Panel’s evident intention is to suggest that the Security Council should ipso facto consider mass atrocities against civilians to be a threat to international peace and security, thus triggering its power to authorize use of force pursuant to Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter.

The Panel then, once again, confirms the essential role of the Security Council:

In considering whether to authorize or endorse the use of military force, the Security Council should always address – whatever other considerations it may take into account – at least the following five basic criteria of legitimacy:

(a) Seriousness of threat. Is the threatened harm to State or human security of a kind, and sufficiently clear and serious, to justify prima facie the use of military force? In the case of internal threats, does it involve genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing or serious violations of international humanitarian law, actual or imminently apprehended?

(b) Proper purpose. Is it clear that the primary purpose of the proposed military action is to halt or avert the threat in question, whatever other purposes or motives may be involved?

(c) Last resort. Has every non-military option for meeting the threat in question been explored, with reasonable grounds for believing that other measures will not succeed?

(d) Proportional means. Are the scale, duration and intensity of the proposed military action the minimum necessary to meet the threat in question?

(e) Balance of consequences. Is there a reasonable chance of the military action being successful in meeting the threat in question, with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction?

Professor Koh has suggested similar criteria here, but leaves out the all-important reference to the Security Council.

A year after the Panel delivered its Report, the U.N General Assembly endorsed the notion of a “responsibility to protect” (of which the notion of humanitarian intervention is a part) but also maintained reference to the role of the Security Council:

We (the international community) are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Whether the U.S. missile strike on Syria meets the criteria established by the international community for humanitarian intervention is questionable. For one, the missile strike was most certainly not an act of “last resort.” For example, while there may be little that the U.S. could do to pressure Assad directly, there is no indication that the Trump administration made any effort to drum up international support to pressure Moscow to lean on Assad after his latest provocation. Second, the propriety of the administration’s purpose is, at best, unclear. With the Trump White House having flip-flopped at lightning speed on whether there is or is not a place for Assad in Syria’s future, the situation is reminiscent of military intervention in Libya, which started as humanitarian intervention and quickly morphed into “regime change.” An additional source of legitimate concern about the administration’s purpose is the heavy cloud of suspicion that the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to deny a Hillary Clinton victory. What better way to show that Trump is not Putin’s pawn than by attacking a Russian ally? Finally, when considering “the balance of consequences,” one must question whether airstrikes are reasonably calculated to lessen, rather than intensify conflict, and thus, civilian suffering, in Syria.

Our doubts about the legality of the attack are not, however, an end in themselves. Jens Ohlin sees the many opinions objecting to the bombing on either domestic or international legal grounds and concludes that “everyone seems to have lined up against humanitarian intervention.” Not us. We firmly endorse the notion of humanitarian intervention but fault the Security Council for not doing its job. Thus, if anything good comes out of this debate, it should be a stark reminder of the need for Security Council reform concerning use of the veto power in the face of mass atrocities.

Meanwhile, as the former head lawyer for the State Department, Professor Koh’s opinion carries great weight. We hope he was misquoted. If not, we fear a future in which other countries itching to find “permission” from the U.S. to drop bombs on their nemeses might just agree with him that war is not war. We are equally concerned that such countries will misinterpret his end-run around the Security Council as open season for threats and use of force, as long as they’re couched in the language of humanitarian intervention.

The Syria Attacks: Haven’t We Had These Debates Already?

by Julian Ku

Reports of another horrific use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria seems to have affected President Trump. In comments today, President Trump said the chemical attacks against civilians “crossed a lot of lines for me” and changed the way he views Syria and leader Bashar al-Assad. Although it is always hard to interpret the President’s comments, he did cite his “flexibility” to change his policies. One might interpret this to mean that the U.S. my change course and directly use military force against the Assad government in Syria.

As tragic as this latest attack is, I also feel like I am in a time-warp that has sent me back to 2012-13 when similar chemical weapons attacks led to similar global outrage which led to an American debate about whether to launch military attacks on Syria.  President Obama famously decided to launch such strikes (without Congress or the UN) and then changed his mind and sought congressional consent.  He never got that, but he did work out an agreement with Russia and the Assad government to remove Syria’s chemical weapons capability.  That didn’t work out as well as he hoped (to use a tragic understatement).  But the factual and legal issues are almost identical today.

So as a service to readers, let me just link to some of the legal analysis we posted back then, much of which still applies today. Updates of course will be necessary, but this is the right place to start.

I argued in 2012 that a strict reading of the U.N. Charter prohibited any U.S. strike on the Syrian government without consent from the U.N. Security Council.  This would be the case even if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians during its civil war.  Former top UK legal adviser Daniel Bethlehem took issue with my formalist reading of the U.N. Charter.

Kevin wondered why the use of chemical weapons itself was so significant as opposed to the civilian deaths it caused.  Put another way, he pointed out that the use of chemical weapons, however horrible, was not necessarily any more of a war crime for legal purposes that the use of non-chemical weapons against civilians and non-combatants.  He also points out in a later post that the Rome Statute does not single out chemical weapons use alone as a crime, despite an initial proposal by drafters to do so.

Finally, we held an “insta-symposium” on Syria with many great contributions from scholars, legal and non-legal, on the difficult questions raised by the Syria conflict.  A list of those posts can be found here at the bottom of the first post in that symposium, from Stephanie Carvin.

Hopefully, this will help all of us refresh ourselves for the great Syria intervention debate, Round II (Donald J. Trump edition).

The Unattractive Question is Back: SCOTUS (Again) Considers Corporate Liability Under the Alien Tort Statute

by Julian Ku

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Jesner v. Arab Bank in order to resolve a single issue: “[w]hether the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1350, categorically forecloses corporate liability.” This post will briefly review the case and offer a quick assessment of the ATS corporate liability issue.  Longtime readers will not be surprised to read that I side with the Defendants on this issue, although I will also add that I think my side on this case will have an uphill battle to prevail in the high court. 

Should the Court have agreed to hear the case?

The Court’s decision to hear the case is a bit surprising given that it had refused to hear at least two cases raising the same issue in the previous two terms.  On the other hand, the Court’s decision to hear the case is also quite understandable given the fairly sharp split between lower circuit courts on the question. Such an enduring split among the opinions of lower courts is always an important factor for the Court in deciding whether to hear a case. The rather dramatic divisions among judges on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on this issue probably caught the Court’s attention as well.

Still, it is also worth noting that the Court granted cert on this exact same issue not six years ago when it first agreed to hear Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum in the fall of 2011.  The parties submitted briefs and held oral arguments on the corporate liability issue itself.  But during argument, the Court decided that the question of whether the Alien Tort Statute has extraterritorial reach needed to be resolved first, and sent the case back for re-argument the next term.  That re-argued case eventually became the 2013 Kiobel decision sharply limiting the extraterritorial scope of lawsuits brought under the ATS to cases that “touch and concern” the territory of the U.S.  The corporate liability issue was left fully argued and untouched.

To be sure, since 2013, several other circuit courts have issued opinions on the corporate liability issue and all have split from the original Second Circuit Kiobel decision denying corporate liability under the ATS. And the Court may have a new member by the time Jesner v. Arab Bank is decided.  So while that is a possible reason for reversing course and granting cert, it is still unusual for a Court to hear a case on the exact same issue it already heard in argument a few years ago.

What Law Should Determine Whether Corporations Should Be Liable Under the Alien Tort Statute?

One of the more annoying hard-to-explain legal issues in ATS cases is also one of my favorite law-nerd issues: what law should govern?  On its face, the ATS calls for the application of “the law of nations” but courts have long disagreed about whether international law also applies to questions such as standards for aiding and abetting liability and whether a corporation can be liable.  ATS plaintiffs have typically argued that these questions should be governed by domestic law, that is to say, federal common law. Under federal common law, corporations are typically liable for torts and application of this law would almost certainly favor the plaintiffs on this question.

But the Court has never fully resolved this issue.  To me, it has always seemed that any questions affecting the substance of a case against an ATS defendants should be governed by international law, as the ATS’ text seems to demand.  The temptation to fill in the many gaps left by international law with U.S. common law is strong, but the ATS clearly sought to ask US courts to apply international law.  Getting past that textual directive will be difficult for me, and I suspect the textualist-oriented justices on the Court.

Will Justice(?) Gorsuch’s Vote Matter?

The circumstances of this grant for cert, which occurred after several prior opportunities were rejected, does not bode well for respondents.  Nor is the fact that the cert grant adopts the petitioners’ phrasing of the issue word-for-word.  I would be particularly troubled by the Court’s decision to phrase the question as whether the ATS “categorically” forecloses corporate liability. This is plainly language structured to favor the plaintiffs’ case.

My views on the ATS corporate liability question should be well known to most OJ readers.  I think the issue of corporate liability should be governed by international law and that the strict standards for recognizing an actionable norm under the Court’s prior decision in Sosa precludes recognizing an ATS cause of action against corporations.  I joined a great amicus brief saying basically that in the original Kiobel case back in 2012.

I have also recognized, however, that this is pretty formalistic argument that is unusually unattractive to most observers. Still, the international norms haven’t really changed since 2012.  Plaintiffs will not be able to cite to many (or any) sources that hold corporations liable for violations of international law norms.  But they can still pound the table and simply say it is ridiculous to “immunize” corporations for torts, which I think still has quite a bit of force.  The response has got to be that corporations are often liable for torts, but not always.  Even under domestic law, the U.S. Supreme Court has foreclosed corporate liability for certain statutes (like the Torture Victim Protection Act) or for constitutional norms in the context of Bivens actions).

This leads me to Judge/Justice Gorsuch.  Since the case will be heard next term, Judge Gorsuch will have a chance to rule on the case if he is confirmed.  Will he be willing to sign on to a formalistic/textualist interpretation that is extremely normatively unattractive?  I don’t know enough about Judge Gorsuch to know, but I am not sure this will matter. My guess is that Justices Roberts and Kennedy were sufficiently repulsed by the idea of ruling against ATS corporate liability back in 2012 that they sought (and found) a different way of resolving the case.  I suspect (without having any inside information) that they would like to find an out again.  If they can’t, I can see a 6-3 opinion for the plaintiffs, with Chief Justice Roberts writing an opinion that he tries to make as narrow as possible.

So that’s my first take on Jesner v. Arab Bank.  I will no doubt be back for more. Stay tuned!

Examining Detention Authority in NIAC: A Response to Heller

by Daragh Murray

[Daragh Murray is a Lecturer at the University of Essex School of Law and Human Rights Centre.]

Thanks to Kevin for his post engaging with some of the issues discussed in my recent article on detention authority in non-international armed conflict. I would like to take this opportunity to provide a quick overview of my argument as relevant to this post, to discuss Kevin’s prohibition v. regulation argument and some of the other points he raised, and to highlight a key proposal developed in the article but not included in the original post.

Detention is a core activity in armed conflict, and one central to the conduct of military operations. The law of NIAC applicable to armed groups regulates detention when it occurs, but it does not establish an explicit legal basis for that detention. However, in the article I suggest that the fact that the law of armed conflict/international humanitarian law regulates detention means that it must be interpreted as establishing implicit detention authority.

This is because the prohibition of arbitrary detention is absolute, and this absolute prohibition remains applicable during non-international armed conflict. The right to liberty and security establishes that, to protect against arbitrariness, all detention must, amongst other requirements, have a legal basis. Accordingly, if IHL does not establish an implicit legal basis, then all detention by armed groups will be arbitrary and therefore prohibited, there being no other existing legal basis available to armed groups (see below). The law of treaty interpretation precludes this conclusion: it cannot be assumed that States intended to regulate that which is absolutely prohibited (arbitrary detention) as this would constitute an exercise in futility. CA3 must therefore be interpreted as establishing an implicit legal basis.

Importantly, if international law does not establish an implicit legal basis – and therefore prohibits all instances of armed group detention as arbitrary – international law will be of little relevance to armed groups, given the reality in which they exist. This will have significant practical consequences, and so clarity on this issue is essential.

Regulation v. prohibition

In his reply, Kevin raises an interesting question as to whether CA3 (etc.) regulates detention, or merely prohibits certain activities. In my view, NIAC’s detention-related provisions extend beyond mere negative prohibitions. The content of the obligations imposed require active (positive) measures. For instance, in order to fulfil the requirement that detainees ‘in all circumstances be treated humanely’, detaining authorities will be required not only to refrain from ill-treating detainees (i.e. through physical abuse) but also to actively address: conditions of detention, including quarters; provision of food, water, medicine; access to appropriate medical care; exercise, and so on. In my opinion, this active involvement indicates regulation, not just the imposition of prohibitions.

Different forms of regulation

The article discusses why international law cannot regulate that which is absolutely prohibited and I don’t want to repeat those arguments here. However, picking up on Kevin’s point regarding the regulation of torture, and the possibility of regulating impermissible activity, it is perhaps appropriate to make a distinction between two forms of regulation:

(A) regulations established to ensure compliance with an absolute prohibition, and

(B) regulations governing conduct that is absolutely prohibited.

(A)-type regulations are, of course, necessary. Indeed, this is exactly what UNCAT does. (B)-type regulation is, in my opinion, impermissible. Accordingly, while you may regulate the prohibition of torture (A), you cannot regulate torture itself (B). This was clearly stated by the ICTY in Furundzija (para 155). As such, international law would prohibit a doctor’s involvement in torture, as torture. This is distinct from the requirement that medical attention be given to detainees, irrespective of the cause of the harm. Returning to detention, international law clearly and absolutely prohibits arbitrary detention. It cannot therefore be assumed that States established rules to regulate detention by armed groups knowing that all instances of armed group detention will be arbitrary and therefore prohibited.

A legal basis for armed group detention could be established outside international law

 As Kevin notes, States may provide a domestic legal basis for armed group detention, although they do not typically do so. However, in creating CA3 (etc.) States chose to regulate armed group detention. This act of regulation necessitates the establishment of a legal basis in order to ensure consistency with the prohibition of arbitrary detention. As States have not provided a legal basis under domestic law, the required legal basis must be regarded as implicitly established under IHL.

Consequences of armed group detention authority

If armed groups party to a NIAC are recognised as having authority to detain, this does not suggest that all armed group detention is permissible. The scope of detention authority must be determined, and established procedures (such as judicial supervision) must be adhered to; this is something I have examined elsewhere (chapter 7). Issues also arise with respect to State sovereignty. However, it should be recalled that the authority under discussion is restricted to armed groups party to a NIAC, and is circumscribed by the law applicable in NIAC. That is, it applies only in exceptional situations, where State authority has been displaced. In such volatile situations, it is important that law applies, and that this law is appropriate to the situation. If we accept that detention is a necessary activity during armed conflict, then recognising, regulating and circumscribing the scope of that activity is arguably appropriate. Importantly, this also provides an opportunity to engage with armed groups in an effort to encourage legal compliance. At the same time, States can continue to criminalise armed group activity, from membership related offences, to violations of international law.

Moving forward

Acceptance of armed groups’ authority to detain will raise a number of legitimate concerns. Nonetheless, I do believe that this is an accurate reflection of the law as it stands. That is not to say, however, that this is necessarily ideal or the end of the story. The conclusion that IHL must be interpreted as establishing an implicit legal basis for detention is based on the application of the prohibition of arbitrary detention, as that prohibition applies to States. Understood in the State context, human rights law’s protection against arbitrariness requires a legal basis. It is possible, however, that the content of this prohibition as applied to armed groups might need to be re-evaluated.

Given the non-State status of armed groups, and the consequent difficulties vis-à-vis the creation of law, perhaps other protections against arbitrariness should be prioritised ahead of the legal basis criterion. Human rights law establishes a number of requirements in this regard, and these – and the possible re-consideration of the content of the prohibition of arbitrary detention – are discussed in greater detail in the article. Focusing on the ‘essence’ of human rights protections in this manner could be a possible ‘way forward’ both in relation to the specific issue of detention in NIAC, and to legal engagement with armed groups and other non-State actors more generally. This would facilitate coherence within international law, without necessitating that international law authorise elements of armed group activity.

Bad Criminal Law in the Alexander Blackman Case (With Addendum)

by Kevin Jon Heller

In September 2011, Alexander Blackman, a Sergeant in the Royal Marines serving in Afghanistan, executed a Taliban fighter who had been incapacitated by his wounds.This was no spur-of-the-moment killing, as video recovered one year later makes clear. Here is the Court Martial’s summary of Blackman’s actions, as shown on the video:

[The insurgent] had been seriously wounded having been engaged lawfully by an Apache helicopter and when [Blackman] found him he was no longer a threat. Having removed his AK47, magazines and a grenade, [Blackman] caused him to be moved [because Blackman] wanted to be out of sight of [the] operational headquarters at Shahzad so that, to quote what [Blackman] said: ‘PGSS can’t see what we are doing to him.

He was handled in a robust manner by those under [Blackman’s] command clearly causing him additional pain and [Blackman] did nothing to stop them from treating him in that way. When out of view of the PGSS [Blackman] failed to ensure he was given appropriate medical treatment quickly and then ordered those giving him some first aid to stop.

When [Blackman was] sure the Apache helicopter was out of sight, [Blackman] calmly discharged a nine millimetre round into his chest from close range. [Blackman’s] suggestion that [he] thought the insurgent was dead when [he] discharged the firearms lacks any credibility and was clearly made up after [he] had been charged with murder in an effort to concoct a defence. It was rejected by the Board.

Although the insurgent may have died from his wounds sustained in the engagement by the Apache [Blackman] gave him no chance of survival. [Blackman] intended to kill him and that shot certainly hastened his death.

[Blackman] then told [his] patrol they were not to say anything about what had just happened and [Blackman] acknowledged what [he] had done by saying [he] had just broken the Geneva Convention. The tone of calmness of [his] voice as [he] commented after [he] had shot him were matter of fact and in that respect they were chilling.”

Not surprisingly, the Court Martial convicted Blackman of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. All of his fellow soldiers were acquitted.

Fast forward to last week — when the Court Martial Appeal Court (CMAC) allowed Blackman’s appeal, substituted a verdict of manslaughter for murder on the ground of diminished responsibility, and reduced his sentence to seven years imprisonment. Blackman will be a free man, with an honourable discharge from the Royal Marines, in a couple of weeks.

From a criminal law perspective, I find CMAC’s judgment profoundly unconvincing. I will explain why in this post.

CMAC’s reasoning proceeded in three steps. First, it found that Blackman had suffered from an “adjustment disorder” at the time of the killing…

IHL Does Not Authorise Detention in NIAC: A Response to Murray

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the past couple of years, a number of scholars — including me — have debated whether IHL implicitly authorises detention in non-international armed conflict (NIAC.) The latest intervention in the debate comes courtesy of Daragh Murray in the Leiden Journal of International Law. As the article’s abstract makes clear, Murray is firmly in the “IHL authorises” camp:

On the basis of current understandings of international law – and the prohibition of arbitrary detention in particular – it is concluded that international humanitarian law must be interpreted as establishing implicit detention authority, in order to ensure the continued regulation of armed groups.

I disagree that IHL cannot regulate non-state actor (NSA) detention in NIAC unless it authorises that detention, for reasons I will explain in this post. Before we get to Murray’s argument, however, it is important to remind ourselves of what is at stake in the debate. Put simply, if Murray is right and IHL authorises NSAs to detain, two significant consequences follow: (1) states have no right to prosecute NSAs who detain government soldiers, even if such detention would qualify as kidnapping or wrongful imprisonment under domestic criminal law; and (2) NSAs have the right to detain government soldiers for as long as they pose a “security threat” to the NSA — ie, essentially forever. In other words, FARC could detain a Colombian soldier for five decades and Colombia couldn’t prosecute the commander responsible for that detention as long as FARC complied with NIAC’s procedural restrictions on detention.

Now let’s turn to Murray’s argument. Here are the critical paragraphs in the article:

[I]nternational law cannot regulate activity that is subject to an absolute prohibition. For example, instances of torture cannot be regulated as torture is subject to an absolute prohibition. The same is true with respect to armed group detention in non-international armed conflict: the absolute prohibition of arbitrary detention precludes the possibility of regulating arbitrary detention (p. 9)

Two possibilities are open: either international humanitarian law establishes an implicit legal basis for detention, or it does not and the authority to detain must be established elsewhere. If international humanitarian law does not establish an implicit legal basis for detention then all instances of detention by armed groups will necessarily violate the prohibition of arbitrary detention as a legal basis for armed group detention does not exist under domestic law or elsewhere in international law. Yet, to interpret Common Article 3 and Article 5 Additional Protocol II in this way is to conclude that states have developed international treaty law to regulate detention operations by armed groups, despite the fact that all instances of armed group detention are illegal. This interpretation is incapable of giving effect to states’ intentions, and to the object and purpose of the provisions themselves. As discussed above, states cannot regulate that which is absolutely prohibited, and so the only means by which Common Article 3 and Article 5 Additional Protocol II can regulate detention by armed groups is if these provisions establish an implicit legal basis for that detention  (p. 14)

The first thing to note is that the torture analogy is misplaced. International law does indeed absolutely prohibit torture. But it does not absolutely prohibit detention — not even in NIAC. On the contrary, a state is free to detain as long as it adopts the necessary domestic legislation. It is even free to domestically authorise an NSA to detain, as well. (Which is not absurd. A state may well conclude that an NSA is more likely to treat captured government soldiers humanely if it does not prohibit the very act of detention.) So what Murray is actually arguing is that because most states choose not to authorise NSAs to detain, international humanitarian law (IHL) necessarily authorises it for them so they can regulate that detention. That’s a very puzzling claim, given that states are the authors of IHL.

The fundamental problem with Murray’s position, however, is that it is simply not the case that IHL can’t regulate a practice that international law absolutely prohibits. I will discuss in a minute the situation regarding detention in NIAC, in which the regulation and the prohibition come from different legal regimes — regulation from IHL, prohibition from international human rights law (IHRL). But before doing so, it is worth noting that Murray’s argument does not work even when the regulation and the prohibition come from the same legal regime — a situation in which you would think Murray’s argument would be even stronger…

The Disappearing UN Report on Israeli “Apartheid”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) sent shockwaves through the international community by issuing a report that — for the first time in UN history — claims Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amounts to the crime of apartheid. Here is ESCWA’s description of the report, entitled “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” which was officially commissioned by ESCWA but does not purport to represent the official opinion of the UN:

This report examines, based on key instruments of international law, whether Israel has established an apartheid regime that oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole. Having established that the crime of apartheid has universal application, that the question of the status of the Palestinians as a people is settled in law, and that the crime of apartheid should be considered at the level of the State, the report sets out to demonstrate how Israel has imposed such a system on the Palestinians in order to maintain the domination of one racial group over others.

A history of war, annexation and expulsions, as well as a series of practices, has left the Palestinian people fragmented into four distinct population groups, three of them (citizens of Israel, residents of East Jerusalem and the populace under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza) living under direct Israeli rule and the remainder, refugees and involuntary exiles, living beyond. This fragmentation, coupled with the application of discrete bodies of law to those groups, lie at the heart of the apartheid regime. They serve to enfeeble opposition to it and to veil its very existence. This report concludes, on the basis of overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid, and urges swift action to oppose and end it.

Predictably, the ESCWA report enraged Israel and the United States. Both states pressured the UN to withdraw the report — and to his lasting shame, the Secretary General, António Guterres, quickly folded. (Claiming, truly beggaring belief, that the decision had nothing to do with the report’s content.) Although you can still find the press release on ESCWA’s website, the report has been scrubbed from the webpage containing all of ESCWA’s reports. Only the Executive Summary remains — and it can only be found by entering the title of the report into Google and looking for the ESCWA link.

As critical as I am of Israel’s unconscionable oppression of and violence toward Palestinians, I have never accused Israel of practicing apartheid. But there is absolutely no justification for the UN suppressing an official report issued by one of the regional offices of the Economic and Social Council — particularly in response to pressure from the object of that report (and its chief enabler). Nor is this the first time the UN has bowed to Israeli pressure: recall Ban Ki-moon’s indefensible decision in 2015 to remove Israel from the UN’s “list of shame” of children’s rights violators. Unfortunately, it appears his successor will be no less craven.

That said, at least one UN official has the courage of her convictions. Rima Khalaf, the UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of ESCWA, reacted to Guterres’ decision to scrub the report by immediately resigning.

You can find a copy of the 74-page report here. Do what the Israel, the US, and the UN don’t want you to do — read the report and decide the apartheid question for yourself.

NATO, in Nine Tweets

by Chris Borgen

This morning President Trump tweeted that “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”

But that’s not how NATO commitments work. And so this afternoon, former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder gave President Trump a tutorial in nine tweets.

Maybe we can get someone to read the tweets aloud on Fox & Friends.

 

The impact of Morocco’s admission to the African Union on the dispute over the Western Sahara

by Alonso Illueca and Sophocles Kitharidis

[Alonso Illueca is Adjunct Professor of International Law at Universidad Católica Santa María La Antigua (Panama) and holds an LL.M. from Columbia University, where he specialised in Public International Law. His main fields of research include recognition of states and governments, the law of treaties, and the use of force. Sophocles Kitharidis is a sessional academic at Monash University and holds an LL.M from the University of Melbourne, where he specialised in Public International Law. He has worked and published within the field of public international law, with his current fields of research including the use of force, peacekeeping operations and the law of international organisations.]

On 30 January 2017, Morocco was admitted to the African Union (AU) after previously withdrawing more than three decades ago, from the Organization of African Unity (its predecessor). Morocco became the 55th Member State of the AU, a decision adopted by “consensus”.  Nevertheless, as many as 15 Member States, inter alia, South Africa and Algeria, initially stressed their disapproval of Morocco’s bid. These States were concerned with the simultaneous debate on the question of the Western Sahara and the status of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the AU.

The return of Morocco to Africa’s regional organization raises a plethora of issues within the field of Statehood. One central issue explored below is whether Morocco’s membership to the AU, has a practical effect on the SADR’s claim of statehood, given the SADR membership to the regional organization.  In addition, what are the legal consequences of Morocco’s action vis-à-vis the SADR?

The UN and the question of recognition of States

The status of the Western Sahara remains a contested issue since the 1970s. This situation has been the subject of a treaty (Madrid Accords), the advisory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, an armed conflict, and several resolutions by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the Security Council (UNSC). The UNGA has characterized Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara as an “occupation”, recognizing the right to self-determination and independence for the people of Western Sahara with the Polisario Front as their legitimate representative (see resolutions 34/37 and 35/19).

After 15 years of hostilities between Morocco and the SADR, the UN brokered a ceasefire. In 1992, the UNSC established the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara with the mandate of implementing a Settlement Plan (See S/21360 and S/22464) in the hope of leading a referendum on self-determination. Needless to say, the Plan has not been fully implemented, but the ceasefire has been maintained.

The UN considers the Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory (see here and UN Charter, Chapter XI). Notwithstanding this status, the SADR has managed to gain recognition by more than 80 States (even though many of them have later withdrawn it). It is important to note that the UN is not the appropriate legal entity to recognize States, given its adopted (and maintained) view that recognition can only be granted or withheld by States (see here & UN Doc. 1466). The UN appears to follow the practice of the League of Nations, where membership was not equated with recognition by all Members.

The SADR membership to the OAU and the AU

In 1982, the SADR was admitted to the OAU. Art IV of the OAU Charter establishes that the organization is open to “each independent sovereign African State”. Reacting to the OAU decision to admit the SADR as a Member State, Morocco decided to withdraw from the regional body. In 2001, the OAU was replaced with the AU, whose membership is open to any “African State” (AU Constitutive Act, Article 29). Additionally, 38 out of the 54 (now 55) AU Member States have explicitly recognized the SADR, accounting to 70% of the Union’s membership.

Recognition Theories applied to the SADR

Within the field of the recognition of States, two theories offer divergent views: (1) the declarative doctrine, which advocates for a norm based approach to the Statehood question, and (2) the constitutive doctrine, which offers a collective approach to the question. These theories provide different answers to the question of the SADR’s statehood.

When reflecting on the doctrinal debate of the recognition of States, one would assume that by applying the declarative theory, the admission of Morocco to AU would not have practical effects on the SADR’s Statehood claim. The declarative theory considers the political existence of a State as a ‘fact’, which is independent of recognition by other States. This theory, as articulated by the 1933 Montevideo Convention (arts. 1, 3 & 6) characterizes the act of recognition of a State as the acceptance of the entity’s international legal personality with all the rights and duties determined by international law. It considers recognition as an ‘unconditional and irrevocable’ act. To be recognized as a State, the aspiring entity must fulfil the Montevideo criteria (art. 1, note that this criteria has been expanded on by other scholars). As such, the act of recognition is nothing more than the acknowledgement of a pre-existent condition (Statehood) by other States. Consequently, the SADR claim would depend on its ability to satisfy the criteria for statehood, namely permanent population, defined territory, government, and the capacity to enter relations with other States.

The declarative doctrine was adopted by the Organization of American States’ Charter (arts. 13-14). Similarly, the Institut de Droit International endorsed the declaratory theory in its 1936 Resolution, while stressing the irrevocable character of recognition and the absence of effect of non-recognition by other States.

If analysed through the constitutive theory, Morocco’s admission to the AU may be interpreted as an implicit recognition of SADR. Nevertheless, this approach remains problematic as it equates the AU’s decision on admission with recognition of States. There is no established test within this theory that provides for the number of States that have to extend recognition for aspiring entity to be considered as such.

Lastly, it remains unclear whether the AU Constitutive Act adopts, if any, a Statehood recognition theory. Contrary to the question of the recognition of governments, where the AU has a settled practice on non-recognition of unconstitutional governments, its practice concerning the recognition of States remains inconclusive. Admission to the AU (Constitutive Act, art 29), requires the individual consideration by each Member State of an application. As illustrated by the case of South Sudan, the question of Statehood seems to be left for the legal and political considerations of each State.

Morocco’s obligations vis-à-vis the SADR

The fact that Statehood theories do not provide a definitive answer to our first question does not mean that Morocco’s readmission to the AU had no actual legal effect. When a State declares its membership to a regional organization, it accedes to its constitutive instrument. The obligations enshrined in such an instrument become applicable to the new member (in this case, Morocco) and all other members (inter alia the SADR) notwithstanding their mutual recognition as States (See, Christian Hillgruber, p. 496). Therefore, it could be argued that by joining the AU, Morocco recognized the principles established in Art 4 of the Constitutive Act, in its relations vis-à-vis the Member States (and, therefore, the SADR), which include respect of borders existing on achievement of independence, peaceful resolution of conflicts, prohibition on the threat or use of force, non-interference in internal affairs, and peaceful co-existence of Member States. It is difficult to think what would remain of these principles if a Member State could cherry-pick which principles it would apply in its relationship with other Member States. Similar problems would also arise if a Member State could choose the States that would benefit from the principles enshrined in the AU Constitutive Act.

Similarly to the OAU Charter, the AU Constitutive Act, does not provide for reservations. Therefore, for Morocco to disregard the principles of the organization in its relations vis-à-vis the SADR, it would need, at least, the approval of all Member States of the AU as provided by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (see section on reservations).

It is also relevant to note that the AU Constitutive Act does not provide for the expulsion of members and that their suspension is only considered in cases of unconstitutional regime change. The latter entails that in the event of a Moroccan bid for suspension, exclusion or expulsion of the SADR, the Court of Justice of the Union (now the African Court of Justice and Human Rights) would be entrusted with deciding the question dealing with the “interpretation arising from the application or implementation of this Act” (AU Constitutive Act, art. 26). Prior to the establishment of this Court, the Assembly of the Union, the supreme organ of the organization, was entrusted with such decision (two-thirds majority vote). In any event, the decision would have to acknowledge the irrevocable character of the recognition that 70% of the AU membership has extended to the SADR. All things considered, the question of the SADR membership to the AU and the rights that it holds in relation to other States is likely to be considered a settled issue.

Conclusion

The establishment of a State is a contested issue, both doctrinally and politically. Whether Morocco’s recent admission to the AU is viewed as an implied recognition of the SADR and its statehood is of course questionable. However, this political ‘act’ allows scholars and practitioners to explore the possibility that under international law, and dependent on the interpretation of the AU’s Constitutive Act, Morocco’s admission may have legal consequences on the Western Sahara question and the SADR status under international law.