Archive of posts for category
Featured Posts

The Kampala Amendments on the Crime of Aggression Before Activation: Evaluating the Legal Framework of a Political Compromise (Part 1)

by Astrid Reisinger Coracini

[Astrid Reisinger Coracini is is Lecturer at the University of Salzburg and Director of the Salzburg Law School on International Criminal Law, Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law (SLS). This is the first of a two-part post on the subject. The second can be found here.] 

In December 2017, the Assembly of States Parties of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court will hold its sixteenth session with the ‘activation of the Court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression’ on its agenda. Almost twenty years after the crime of aggression was included within the subject-matter jurisdiction of the Court as one of the four core crimes and seven years after the adoption of a ‘provision on the crime of aggression’ in accordance with article 5(2) of the Rome Statute (hereinafter all articles refer to the Rome Statute, unless otherwise clarified), the Review Conference’s determination to activate this jurisdiction ‘as early as possible’ (preambular paragraph 6 of Resolution 6) will be put to a test. Once the ‘decision to be taken after 1 January 2017’ (common para. 3 of Arts. 15bis and 15ter) will have been reached, the Court will be able to exercise jurisdiction ‘with respect to crimes of aggression committed one year after the ratification or acceptance of the amendments by thirty States Parties’ (common para. 2 of Arts. 15bis and 15ter), a temporal condition that was met on 26 June 2017.

In preparation of its upcoming session, the Assembly established ‘a facilitation, based in New York, open only to States Parties, to discuss activation of the Court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression’ (ICC-ASP/15/Res.5, annex I, para. 18(b)). The activation decision is a mere procedural step. However, given the continuing unease voiced by a few States, the facilitation seems to also provide a platform for discussions on substance. This post will address arguments that were presented during the facilitation process by academic experts, Prof. Dapo Akande, Prof. Roger Clark, Prof. Kevin Heller, and Prof. Noah Weisbord. Considering that the current discussion has narrowed down to the question of the Court’s jurisdictional reach, so will this post.

1. The Kampala compromise

Notwithstanding the two temporal conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction over the crime of aggression (entry into force of a minimum number of ratifications and the activation decision), the Kampala compromise is embedded in the jurisdictional regime of the Rome Statute. Following a referral by the Security Council of the United Nations, the Court may exercise its jurisdiction in accordance with Art. 13(b) (Art. 15ter). Following a referral by a State party to the Rome Statute or a proprio motu investigation by the prosecutor, the preconditions for the exercise of jurisdiction as defined in Art. 12 apply (Art. 15bis referring to Art. 13(a) and (c)), albeit with two restrictions.

First, Art. 12 only applies in situations involving ‘a crime of aggression, arising from an act of aggression committed by a State Party, unless that State Party has previously declared that it does not accept such jurisdiction by lodging a declaration with the Registrar’ (Art. 15bis(4)). In other words, the Court may not exercise jurisdiction over an act of aggression committed by a non-State party or committed by a State party that has previously opted-out.

Second, the Court shall not exercise its jurisdiction over the crime of aggression when committed by nationals or on the territory of a non-State party (Art. 15bis(5)). Accordingly, the exercise of jurisdiction is further excluded over any crime of aggression arising from an act of aggression committed against a non-State party as well as over any non-State party national contributing to a crime of aggression over which the Court otherwise could exercise its jurisdiction. As part of the compromise reached in Kampala, States parties further decided that the provision on aggression shall enter into force only for those States that ratify or accept the amendments (in accordance with Art. 121(5)). A more detailed analysis can be found here, here, and in this Chart.

The conditions for the Court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the crime of aggression allow for broad exceptions from the Court’s default jurisdictional regime. Those regarding non-States parties are absolute exceptions and unprecedented in the general jurisdictional regime of the Statute. Those regarding States parties are less expansive but still represent serious deviations from Part 2 of the Statute. The exceptions were strongly criticised, for being too far-reaching as well as for not being sufficiently far-reaching, for establishing a different jurisdictional regime relating to States parties that do not accept the amendments on the one hand and to non-States parties on the other hand, or for establishing a third jurisdictional regime different from Part 2 of the Statute and from Art. 121(5). Still, they represent the compromise that was negotiated in good faith and adopted by consensus in Kampala in 2010. It is a compromise that determines who should be covered by the Court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression, which has so far been ratified by 34 States parties, and on the basis of which an opt-out declaration has once been lodged.

2. Does the political compromise of Kampala include application of Art. 121(5) second sentence?

A preliminary note on the meaning of Art. 121(5) second sentence: the overwhelming view holds that Art. 121(5) second sentence establishes a distinct jurisdictional regime for crimes covered by an amendment when committed by nationals or on the territory of a State party that does not accept that amendment. Art. 121(5) second sentence is not directed at non-States parties. The Court’s jurisdictional reach over nationals and the territory of non-States parties remains governed by Part 2 of the Statute and any deviation thereto would require a formal amendment (States should therefore refrain from eroding Part 2 through an enabling resolution). But Art. 121(5) second sentence provides a privileged position for States parties regarding the Court’s jurisdiction over amended crimes. I have argued elsewhere that this provision should be interpreted systematically and in light of the object and purpose of the Statute to not have such a wide scope. The subject-matter jurisdiction of the Court, which is ‘limited to the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole’ (Art. 5(1)), sets a high threshold for amendments. Either a crime is generally accepted to fulfil this criterion and warrants inclusion in the Statute, or it does not and should consequently not be the subject of an amendment. If all crimes equally fulfil this criterion, it is debateable why the sole fact of a later inclusion should submit ‘amended most serious crimes’ to a different jurisdictional regime. Applying two different jurisdictional regimes leads to particularly odd results in the interpretation of the ‘Belgian amendments’ that expand war crimes in the context of a non-international armed conflict. The Court’s jurisdictional reach over the same conduct includes nationals and the territory of States parties when it is committed in the context of an international armed conflict. When it is committed in the context of a non-international conduct, the Court’s reach over nationals or the territory of States parties that have not (yet) accepted the amendment is excluded. The precluded reach over ‘territory’ deprives a non-accepting State party from the protection it otherwise enjoys in the context of an international armed conflict. The precluded reach over ‘nationals’ seems to privilege foreign fighters that join an organized armed group in a fight against governmental authorities. They would be exempt from the Court’s reach, whereas members of the regular armed forces (which under the same constellation would internationalize the conflict) could be prosecuted by the Court. For these reasons, I uphold my previous position, but this interpretation remains a minority view and was not further discussed or acted upon during the negotiations on the crime of aggression. The Kampala compromise is without doubt based on the generally accepted interpretation of Art. 121(5) second sentence. This post will therefore proceed on this basis.

The main controversial issue is currently whether Art. 121(5) second sentence applies to the aggression amendments. To answer this question, it is fundamental to first establish whether the application or non-application of that provision is part of the compromise adopted in Kampala.

A textual interpretation of Art. 15bis and 15ter suggests that the jurisdictional regime established for the crime of aggression differs and partly directly contradicts Art. 121(5) second sentence. First, Art. 15bis and 15ter foresee different conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction for different trigger mechanisms. Art. 121(5) second sentence applies to all trigger mechanisms; at least in the ordinary meaning of its words. Second, Art. 15bis defines an absolute exception to the exercise of jurisdiction over crimes committed by nationals or on the territory of non-States parties. Art. 121(5) second sentence does not exclude the exercise of jurisdiction with regard to non-States parties and it was argued that the main purpose of the provision was not to open such an exception, but instead to privilege States parties and thus provide an incentive for non-States parties to join the Statute. Third, Art. 15bis is based on the assumption that nationals and the territory of States parties that do not accept an amendment are within the Court’s jurisdictional reach. Art. 121(5) second sentence is generally interpreted to provide the contrary. Fourth, a State party that opts-out in accordance with Art. 15bis is still be protected by the Court’s jurisdictional reach as a victim of an act of aggression. Art. 121(5) second sentence on the other hand does not concern itself with State acts and would provide for the same limited jurisdictional regime for aggressor States and their victims.

The aggression amendments do not only constitute a compromise in substance. A major component of the Kampala compromise was to establish agreement on the question of which of the three available amendment mechanisms was to be applied. This also included the question of how the conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction were to be consolidated with the consequences that these mechanisms may provide. The possibility that a compromise may not include Art. 121(5) second sentence had been discussed in detail prior to Kampala. The travaux préparatoires of Kampala provide clear evidence that the non-applicability of Art. 121(5) second sentence was part of the negotiations leading to the compromise. This is particularly underlined by the explanation of position by the delegation of Japan, criticizing ‘cherry picking’ from the relevant provisions of the Statute from a legal point of view.

Finally, it would be incomprehensible why States should have invested in lengthy and arduous negotiations to find a compromise if its essence would subsequently be reversed by way of an amendment procedure. It is therefore understood that the reference to article 121(5) in operative para. 1 of Resolution 6, in the context of the expressions ‘adoption, in accordance with Art. 5(2)’ and ‘shall enter into force in accordance with Art. 121(5)’, must be read as referring to the entry into force leg of article 121(5), namely its first sentence.

3. Does the non-application of Art. 121(5) second sentence violate the Statute?

Having established that the non-applicability of Art. 121(5) second sentence was part of the political compromise reached in Kampala, the key question remains whether this was lawfully so.

In order to address this question, it is necessary to recall the relevant provisions of the Rome Statute, which were themselves the result of a compromise that allowed removing the brackets around the crime of aggression during the final days of the Rome Conference. Accordingly, the crime of aggression falls within the subject-matter jurisdiction of the Court, but the Court shall only exercise its jurisdiction once a provision would be adopted, in accordance with articles 121 and 123, defining the crime and setting out the conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction thereover (Art. 5(1)(d) and Art. 5(2)).

The mandate of Art. 5(2) has generally been interpreted as giving the negotiators wide discretion in order to agree upon a provision on the crime of aggression. That includes that the conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction over the crime of aggression might differ from the general jurisdictional regime established in the Statute. On the procedural level, Art. 5(2) refers to ‘adoption’ in accordance with Art. 121 at a review conference (Art. 123). This reference is indisputably imprecise and it has therefore generated three readings: (i) that a provision on the crime of aggression merely required adoption in accordance with Art. 121(3); (ii) that it required adoption and entry into force in accordance with Art. 121(4); and (iii) that it required adoption and entry into force in accordance with Art. 121(5).

It is inherent in the vagueness of Art. 5(2) that all three readings may be legally substantiated or criticised. However, the decision taken in Kampala renders these competing arguments obsolete. The question today is not anymore, which argument is the strongest one (and therefore merits reflection in the compromise decision). The question today is rather whether the decision taken in Kampala can be reasonably argued within the legal framework of the Statute. Against this background, the provisions of the Statute may support different justifications, which are not mutually exclusive, on the non-applicability of Art. 121(5) second sentence to the provision on the crime of aggression; a position that was expressed in academia and that was supported by a majority of States in the negotiation process.

The Kampala compromise has its foundation in the Art. 5(1) and Art. 12(1) ‘jurisdiction’ argument. Art. 5(1) clearly provides that the crime of aggression falls within the jurisdiction of the Court. This understanding is emphasised by Art. 12(1), which provides that States parties accept the Court’s subject-matter jurisdiction, including over the crime of aggression, upon acceptance or ratification of the Statute. The crime of aggression has a specific position, insofar, as it was expressly listed in the Statute at the time of its adoption. Since the Court’s jurisdiction was already accepted by all States parties, it may be argued that the provision on the crime of aggression does not require further acceptance.

The Art. 5(2) ‘adoption’ argument comes to a similar result. It contends that the aggression amendments are based on Art. 5(2) and require mere adoption in accordance with Art. 121(3). This view was supported by some States during the negotiation process. In Kampala, this minority view was joined by a large number of States that shared arguments based on the specific position of the crime of aggression within the Statute but would not accept a solution without an entry into force mechanism. Under the premise not to be bound by either Art. 121(4) or 121(5), the Kampala conference consequently agreed on an individual entry into force of the amendments in accordance with (and as provided by) the first sentence of Art. 121(5).

According to the Art. 5(2) ‘conditions’ argument, Art. 121(5) may in principle apply to the aggression amendments, albeit subject to the mandate provided by Art. 5(2). Given the broad authority to define specifically the conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction of the crime of aggression in the mandate of Art. 5(2), it is not convincing that the drafters would have been mandated to override conditions prescribed in Part 2 with regard to the crime of aggression but would be limited by conditions foreseen in Art. 121(5) second sentence.

All these elements were part of debates before and in Kampala and helped pave the way for the compromise. They were reflected in the decision of the review conference ‘to adopt’ the provision on aggression ‘in accordance with article 5, paragraph 2’.

Do Kurds Have the Right to Self-Determination and/or Secession?

by Milena Sterio

[Milena Sterio is a Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Academic Enrichment at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.]

On September 25, 2017, Kurds voted in a self-declared independence referendum organized by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). , According to the referendum results, it appears that about 78 per cent of Kurds actually participated in the referendum and that nearly 93 per cent of participants voted in favor of independence). This post will briefly analyze the Kurdish proposal for independence via a unilaterally organized referendum in the larger context of international law on self-determination and secession.

Although the Kurdish independence referendum resulted in a “yes” vote, does this mean that Kurds automatically have the right to separate from Iraq and form their own independent state? Under international law, the answer is no (despite the Kosovo “precedent,” which should continue to be viewed as exceptional). In international law, one of the main vehicles by which groups have achieved statehood in the post-World War II era is self-determination. Self-determination is a principle of international law which posits that specific groups called “peoples” have the right to auto-determine their political fate. The right to self-determination entails self-governance for peoples and the idea that every people should have a government representative of its interests. This idea is reflected in several important international documents, such as the 1970 Friendly Relations Declaration, which proclaims that peoples are to be “possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed or colour.”

Within the decolonization paradigm, it was widely accepted that colonized peoples did not possess governments representative of their interests and the principle of self-determination was interpreted in that context as entailing the right to separate from the colonizer and form a new independent state. This type of self-determination has been described as “external,” and is widely seen as the more disruptive form of self-determination because it entails the dismembering of the territory of the mother state. Almost all scholars of international law would agree that colonized peoples had the right to external self-determination. External self-determination is typically exercised through the process of secession – a separation from the larger mother state by the smaller territorial unit inhabited by the self-determination-seeking people. While international law recognizes the right to self-determination, international law does not contain a positive law norm on secession. In other words, no people or other minority group can claim an international law-bestowed right to secede (more on this below).

While everyone in the international community agrees that the principle of self-determination applies squarely within the decolonization paradigm, when this principle was one of the main theoretical foundations toward the creation of new states, it is uncertain as to how this principle applies within other non-decolonization contexts. Outside of the decolonization paradigm, the principle of self-determination has typically been interpreted to entail internal autonomy for the relevant people within an existing mother state- the right to form a representative regional parliament and to elect regional and perhaps national government officials, as well as the respect of other non-political minority rights (such as the right to speak a separate language, to have education choices, to freely exercise a different religion, to have respect for a regional culture, etc.). This type of self-determination has been described as “internal,” and many in the international community argue that outside of the decolonization paradigm, peoples only have internal self-determination rights. Unlike the exercise of external self-determination, the implementation of meaningful internal self-determination rights does not entail disrupting the territorial integrity of the larger mother state. This is why most scholars argue that peoples outside of the decolonization paradigm can only exercise self-determination rights within the territory of their mother state, in an internal manner.

Nonetheless, external self-determination has occurred outside of the decolonization context and is supported by some scholars in limited circumstances. A minority scholarly view recognizes that in instances of extreme persecution by the mother state, a non-colonized people ought to be able to exercise external self-determination through remedial secession (.pdf). According to this argument, if a mother state is completely non-representative of the interests of a particular people, then the people accrues the right to exercise external self-determination through a remedial secession. However, even those who espouse this view do not claim that international law contains a positive right of secession. Instead, secession is a process through which external self-determination may be achieved, and international law at best tolerates secession, in instances of legitimate external self-determination or in exceptional situations, like in Bangladesh or Eritrea. Precedent for this argument exists in recent history – in 2008, Kosovar Albanians unilaterally declared independence and seceded from Serbia, through the exercise of external self-determination. While many other states almost immediately recognized Kosovo as a new sovereign state, it is important to note that almost no such states argued that Kosovar Albanians were indeed exercising external self-determination, or that they had a right to remedial secession. Instead, most argued that Kosovo was sui generis, an exceptional case which does not constitute any sort of precedent in international law. However, the Kosovo “precedent” exists, for better or for worse, and it has been relied upon in the rhetoric of other independence-seeking groups, in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and by Russia, to justify its annexation of Crimea. The issue of the Kosovar declaration of independence was also the subject of an International Court of Justice advisory opinion in 2010; the world court, in an opinion disappointing to many scholars of international law, avoided issues of self-determination and secession and instead decided that the Kosovar declaration of independence was not prohibited by international law. Thus, in the Kosovo case, secession was tolerated by the international community, not as a right but as the outcome of a self-determination quest (because, inter alia, the Serbian government was deemed as non-representative of Kosovar Albanian interests). This is why the Kosovo case will likely remain exceptional: while it may be viewed as setting a factual precedent, it may not be easily interpreted as crafting new legal precedent on self-determination and secession. In fact, one scholar has argued that Kosovo is a “hard case” which should not be used as precedent for making “bad law.”

What does all of the above imply for the Kurds? Kurds, assuming that they are a people, should have internal self-determination rights respected within Iraq. If those rights are not respected by Iraq, then it may be argued that Kurds would accrue rights to external self-determination, which they could potentially exercise through remedial secession. It is questionable whether, as of today, Kurds can demonstrate that their autonomy/internal self-determination rights are not respected by Iraq. The current government of Iraq may be willing to grant the Kurds meaningful autonomy within Iraq, and if this were the case, then Kurds would have to satisfy themselves with the exercise of internal self-determination. Thus, putting aside the Kosovo “precedent,” it is unclear that the Kurds have the right to secede from Iraq under international law. If the government of Iraq were willing to authorize the Kurds to have an independence referendum and to negotiate a separation agreement, this would then become a matter of domestic/Iraqi law and international law would no longer be relevant. Regardless of the ultimate outcome in Kurdistan, this situation remains pertinent and it will be of particular interests to other independence seeking groups in the near future, such as the Catalan in Spain.

The Law Applied by the UN Syria Commission to the Al-Jinah Strike is Correct – And Reflects US Doctrine: A Reply to LTC Reeves and Narramore

by Elvina Pothelet

[Elvina Pothelet is a Visiting Researcher at the Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Geneva.]

A few days ago, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Shane Reeves and Lieutenant Colonel Ward Narramore published a harsh criticism of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria for its “emphatic, and faulty, conclusion that the U.S. violated the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)” in an airstrike that hit a religious complex in the village of Al-Jinah. The two authors challenge both the factual and the legal findings of the Commission. In this post, I do not engage in the factual controversy – as long as the facts underlying the legal analysis are withheld from public or judicial scrutiny, everyone will inevitably retain room to influence the narrative. However, I challenge the surprising legal claim made by the authors that there is no duty to take all feasible precautions to minimize incidental civilian harm. This reading of the law contradicts a host of sources, including US military doctrine (for a strong critic of other arguments they raised see this on point reply by Adil Haque).

LTC Reeves and LTC Narramore argue that the COI applied a “non-existent legal standard” when it found that “United States forces failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law”. Let us first note that the COI did not, as the authors argue, “impose an absolute requirement on commanders to avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life”, but only a duty to take all feasible precautions to achieve this aim–an obligation of means rather than of results.

According to the authors, the COI mistakenly interpreted an obligation to refrain from causing excessive civilian harm as a more demanding duty to take all feasible precautions to minimize incidental civilian harm. It supposedly did so by borrowing the standard of Art. 57(2)(a)(ii) AP I to “take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding or minimizing incidental [civilian harm]” (emphasis added) and by unduly applying this standard to the proportionality rule (reflected in Art. 51(5)(b) and Art. 57(2)(a)(iii)).

I would respectfully suggest that their view conflates proportionality and precautions, and fails to recognize the full scope of the customary obligation to take precautions. It is clear that the Commission’s findings are not based on proportionality but on precaution rules. These rules include the duty to take all feasible steps to avoid or minimize incidental civilian losses. This obligation derives from Art. 57(1) – which the authors’ analysis omits. That paragraph provides that: “[i]n the conduct of military operations, constant care shall be taken to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects.” This general obligation is to be implemented by taking different precautions including those described in other parts of Article 57. The general aim of “sparing civilians” includes protecting civilians both from deliberate targeting and from incidental harm. In relation to the later aspect, not only is it prohibited to cause excessive collateral damages, there is also a positive obligation to take feasible measures to minimize even those collateral damages that might be deemed acceptable under the proportionality rule.

This duty is stated explicitly in Rule 15 of the ICRC Study on Customary IHL and confirmed by state practice and scholarship. The U.S., which is not a party to AP I, has unambiguously recognized that, as a matter of customary law, “[a]ll practicable precautions, taking into account military and humanitarian considerations, shall be taken in the conduct of military operations to minimize incidental death, injury, and damage to civilians and civilian objects” (see here p. 233). This obligation further appears in the U.S. Law of War Manual (see section 5.3.3 on “Affirmative Duties to Take Feasible Precautions for the Protection of Civilians and Other Protected Persons and Objects” and section 5.11 on “Feasible Precautions In Conducting Attacks To Reduce The Risk Of Harm To Protected Persons And Objects”) as well as in the U.S. Operational Law Handbook (“If civilians are present, a duty also exists to take feasible… precautions to minimize civilian casualties”, p. 24). The Commission applies this exact rule. So LTC Reeves and LTC Narramore’s blunt statement that “this is simply not the legal standard” is more than a little surprising.

In their example of an enemy leader in a crowd of civilians, they claim that:

“[T]he law, as currently structured, allows a commander the discretion to drop a bomb on the hypothetical leader assuming the resultant civilian death and injury is not excessive in relation to the expected military advantage gained.”

I argue that the lawfulness of the strike depends on the rest of the story. The commander may well act in compliance with the principle of distinction and proportionality, but if she failed to take feasible precautions that could have brought the foreseeable civilian casualties down to, say, 30 instead of 50, then there is a LOAC violation (although no war crime would be committed).

As to the possible measures aiming at minimizing incidental losses, some are listed in Art. 57 (or in corresponding customary rules of the ICRC’s Study). But they are not limited to that list–and certainly not limited to the choice of means and methods of attack, as the authors seem (?) to suggest when they mention Art. 57(2)(a)(ii). The U.S. Law of War Manual Section 5.11 supports that finding:

“Feasible precautions in conducting attacks may include the following:…”

Feasible precautions could include for instance adjusting the timing or point of impact of the strike. Logically, collecting sufficient intelligence (on the nature of the target, possible collateral damages and how to minimize them) is the first component of the obligation to take precautions. This aspect is an important part of the COI’s findings.

Ultimately, whether the COI was correct when it concluded that the US airstrike on Al-Jinah violated the LOAC depends, as always, on the facts. The views of CENTCOM and the two authors on these facts are important. However, calling into question the law applied by the COI is not warranted here. There is a duty to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental civilian casualties and damages–even below the threshold of proportionate collateral damages. Restating this is not an attempt “to usurp the LOAC by injecting some version of human rights laws” but a correct reading of the LOAC. It would be important for the authors to clarify their view, as this rule is too significant to leave the wrong impression that the US does not agree with it (anymore?). There is a number of complex legal questions implicated in this event (such as what precautions were “feasible” in this context, or what the commander could have “reasonably” known and how this relates to the COI’s findings on public knowledge about the religious nature of the building and the frequency of religious gatherings there) – but the existence of this specific rule is simply not one of them.


In Celebratus: M. Cherif Bassiouni (1937-2017)

by Mohamed Helal

[Mohamed Helal is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law & Affiliated Faculty, Mershon Center for International Security Studies – The Ohio State University.]

Cherif Bassiouni, Distinguished Research Professor of Law Emeritus and President Emeritus of the International Human Rights Law Institute at the DePaul University College of Law, Honorary President of the Siracusa Institute (formerly known as the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences (ISISC) – Siracusa, Italy), and Honorary President of L’Association Internationale de Droit Pénal, passed away on September 25, 2017.

International law academe customarily mourns the passing of great jurists by authoring In memoria tributes to the departed leaders of our field. However, as I reflected on what to write to honor Cherif’s memory, I felt that an In memoriam was not exactly the suitable tribute. This is because Cherif’s legacy is in no danger of being forgotten. Cherif, or MCB, as his friends and close associates called him, has left us a mammoth scholarly record of thirty-five books, forty-four edited volumes, and over two hundred and seventy law review articles. These publications have been authored in and translated into multiple languages, including Arabic, English, French, Italian, and Spanish and have been cited by the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Supreme Court of the United States, and other judicial bodies.

Through these writings and in over six decades of teaching at the DePaul College of Law, in various universities in the United States and around the world, and at the Siracusa Institute, Cherif made a permanent mark on international law. He is essentially the father of International Criminal Law as we know it today; he is the authority on extradition law and practice; he has made immense contributions to international human rights law; he has written widely on Islamic law and Middle East politics; and he is one of the authors of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Cherif was also a consummate educator who cared deeply about his students. He always sought to nurture their ability to apply the law rigorously and to live up to the highest ideals of justice to which the legal profession aspires. For his contributions to humanity, Cherif was nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, and was awarded numerous medals and decorations from the Egypt, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Croatia, Bahrain, and the United States.

So in short, Cherif’s legacy is ineffaceable. This makes an In celebratus that commemorates Cherif’s life and contributions a more fitting tribute to this giant of international law.


There is one saying that encapsulates Cherif’s worldview. He repeated this saying often and it was included in a final message that he personally authored and that was sent out to his students, friends, and colleagues after his passing. It is this hadith by the Prophet Mohamed:

“If you see a wrong, you must right it:
with your hand if you can,
or, with your words, or with your stare, or with your heart
and that is the weakest of faith.”

Cherif’s life was dedicated to the righting of the many wrongs that afflict our world. He did this through his writings, his teaching, his advocacy, his volunteerism, and his involvement with the United Nations, all of which were all motivated by a commitment to confront tyranny and defend the defenseless. One way to celebrate and honor Cherif is to reflect on his scholarly work and discuss how he helped elucidate concepts such as Double Criminality for the purposes of extradition and articulate principles such as aut dedere aut judicare. Or one could recount his instrumental role in the drafting of the Convention Against Torture and the Rome Statute. However, having been a mentee, friend, and adoptive son of Cherif’s for many years, I would like to recount four stories from different stages in Cherif’s life which I knew were dear to his heart and that reflect his passion for the pursuit of justice.

The first story is from his childhood. As he tells us in his soon-to-be-published memoirs, one afternoon in 1943 his father, who was an Egyptian diplomat, received an unfamiliar guest in their home. Although he was not in the room, an ever-curious and ever-mischievous Cherif listened-in on the conversation. He saw this man roll-up his sleeve to reveal a number that had been tattooed on his forearm. Later, Cherif’s mother explained to him that there was a “bad man” in Europe who was taking certain people, tattooing numbers on their arms, and killing them. Who were these people, and why was the “bad man” killing them, asked Cherif. Unable to reveal the full extent of the terrible truth to her young son and unable to contain her emotions, Cherif’s mother simply told him that these people were Jewish like Mr. so-and-so and Ms. so-and-so who were Jewish friends of the Bassiouni family, and added that the “bad man” didn’t like these people only because they were Jewish. This experience left a lasting impression on Cherif. It introduced this seven year old boy to the existence of evil and ingrained in him a reflexive desire to defend the meek, the voiceless, and the powerless, and to resist those who commit such atrocities.

A few years later, Cherif witnessed another instance of injustice. This time, however, it was not tyranny directed at specific individuals or at particular peoples. Rather, it was imperialism that sought to subjugate an entire nation. In 1956, while he was studying law at the Faculté de Droit of the Université de Dijon in France, Egypt’s revolutionary President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Shortly thereafter, Britain, France, and Israel signed the Sevres Protocol pursuant to which they launched the Suez War, which Egyptians call “The Tripartite Aggression,” in a bid to regain control of the Suez Canal and emasculate Nasser’s burgeoning influence across the Arab World and throughout the Third World. Cherif immediately dropped everything, returned to Egypt, joined the National Guard, and fought against the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion forces. For his bravery and for the injuries he sustained in combat, Cherif was awarded the Medal of Military Valor First Class, one of Egypt’s highest decorations at the time. This was Cherif at his finest. In the face of injustice that was manifesting itself at the level of relations among nations, Cherif left the relative safety of a quaint French university campus to risk his life fighting for his country.

The third story comes from the early 1990’s. By then Cherif had been teaching for decades and had become recognized as a leading authority on international criminal law. It was, therefore, natural for his compatriot UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to appoint him to serve on and then chair the Commission of Experts established by the Security Council to investigate the crimes being committed in the former Yugoslavia. The commission had an important impact on the development of international criminal law. It paved the way for the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the evidence it gathered proved invaluable to the tribunal’s prosecutors as they commenced their investigations. One aspect of the commission’s work that has received relatively lesser attention was its role in shedding light on the use of rape as a weapon of war. The commission conducted interviews with hundreds of female and some male victims of rape, and documented patterns of sexual assault that were undertaken by belligerents to achieve tactical gains on the battlefield, to realize the strategic objective of ethnic cleansing, or for the mere entertainment of troops. Meeting victims of these horrendous crimes deeply affected Cherif. One summer night in his beloved retreat in Michigan he recounted this experience and began telling his wife Elaine Klemen and myself how for years after the end of the commission’s mandate he would get nightmares about the interviews he conducted with rape victims, and how one of his proudest moments was when rape was included as a war crime and crime against humanity in the Rome Statute.

The final story comes from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which Cherif chaired. I had the privilege of serving as the commission’s Legal Officer and worked closely with Cherif and the other commissioners on BICI’s Final Report. During a visit to a women’s detention facility, Cherif, BICI’s Chief Investigator Khaled Ahmed, and I met two high-profile detainees. These were Jalila Al-Salman, the Vice President of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association, who had been detained for allegedly inciting teachers to participate in anti-government protests, and Rula Al-Saffar, the President of the Bahrain Nursing Society, who had been detained for providing medical assistance to injured protestors. Both of these detainees recounted to us the inhumane and degrading treatment to which they were subjected. As we left the detention facility, Cherif appeared visibly shaken. He told Khaled and myself that he was determined to secure the release of these women and that he would raise the matter with H.M. King Hamad of Bahrain. Being the disciplined positivist that I am, I looked to Cherif and said: “But that’s not in our mandate. Our job is to investigate allegations of human rights abuse and faithfully report our findings. We’re impartial investigators not activists.” He looked at me and said: “Yes, we’re investigators, but we’re also here to do good.” He then went on to tell us about the following incident that happened during his service as the UN Independent Expert for Human Rights in Afghanistan.

He had located a detention facility in which 852 Afghan men where being held in despicable conditions. When he investigated the matter, Cherif discovered that these men had been held incommunicado for over two years because US Attorney General John Ashcroft wanted them to remain detained until they were interrogated. That night after witnessing the agony and misery of these detainees who were neither charged nor indicted of any crime, Cherif knelt to the ground and prayed to God. He said: “I truly want you to make me an instrument of these people’s freedom. I do not want reward or recognition – I just want the satisfaction of getting these people out.” The next morning, Cherif launched a campaign to set these men free. He met US Ambassador Khalilzad and virtually everyone in the Afghan government to secure the release of these men, including the Chief Justice, the Attorney General, the Minister of Interior, and President Hamid Karzai. In each of these meetings, Cherif gave the Afghan Government an ultimatum: he threatened to announce and widely publicize this unjust mass incarceration in his report to the UN Secretary General, unless these men were released. Sure enough, a few days after he returned to Chicago, his representative in Kabul, Hatem Aly, called to inform him that the 852 men had been released and returned to their families.

Naturally, having heard this moving story and seeing Cherif’s resolve to intercede on behalf of Jalila Al-Salman and Rula Al-Saffar, I relented (not that it was up to me whether Cherif discussed the matter with H.M. King Hamad anyway!) Sure enough, weeks later, these two women were released from detention to spend Eid Al-Fitr with their families. This was only one example of many interventions that Cherif and Khaled made on behalf of victims of human rights abuses in Bahrain. They helped reinstate hundreds of students and employees who had been expelled from their schools or jobs for demonstrating against the government and they helped establish a compensation commission to provide financial reparation for the victims of human rights abuses.


In addition to his professional pursuits, Cherif was a multifaceted man of many talents and multiple layers of identity.

Cherif was an immensely proud Egyptian. I think there is no story he enjoyed telling as much as that of his fighting in the 1956 Suez War. But Cherif was also a citizen of the world and a proud naturalized American. He unwaveringly believed in those universal self-evident truths that are the foundation of the ideals that make America great. He was an unrelenting advocate of the unalienable right of every human being to pursue a life of liberty, dignity, and happiness.

Cherif was a force of nature. He wrote his latest book on the former Yugoslavia while battling multiple myeloma. Cherif was also a perfectionist. As Kelly McCracken-Pembleton, Giovanni Pasqua, Assia Buonocore, Filipo Musca, Stefania Lentinello, Neil Townsend, Jessica DeWalt, Daniel Swift, Deirdre McGrory, Douglass Hansen, Molly Bench, Kandy Christensen, Meredith Barges, Jennifer Gerard, Kari Kammel, Mohamed Abdel Aziz and all those who worked with him know, Cherif was a tough taskmaster. He was an obsessive micro-manager who paid close attention to every substantive and procedural detail of his work. But he also cared deeply about our lives. To many of us, especially Khaled Ahmed, Yaser Tabbara, Ahmed Rehab, Kelly McCracken-Pembleton, and myself he was our adoptive father. He advised us on our education, counseled us on our careers, consoled us during life’s trials and tribulations, and mediated arguments with our significant others. Cherif was omnipresent in the lives of all those around him, and for many of us, including myself, he was our anchor.

Cherif was a patron of the arts, a connoisseur of fine wines, and an amateur singer (although I wouldn’t count this as one of his outstanding talents!) He was an aristocrat who ‘walked with Kings, but never lost the common touch’. His charm, his charisma, and his sense of humor were enrapturing. His soul was generous and his heart compassionate; he was an unmatched orator; an inspiring teacher; a gifted wordsmith; a spectacular storyteller; and a supreme scholar of encyclopedic knowledge.

Cherif was a warrior for justice. He confronted the worst in man with the best in man, he fought might with right, and stood for virtue in the face of evil.

– Farewell, MCB! Gone, but never forgotten. May you rest in peace.

Symposium on Occupation Law: The Writing the on the Wall 2.0: A Rejoinder

by Aeyal Gross

[Aeyal Gross is Professor of Law at the Tel-Aviv University Law School and Visiting Reader in Law at SOAS, University of London. In Fall 2017, he will be a Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute. This post is the final post of the symposium on Professor Aeyal Gross’s book The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017).]

Nothing could be more rewarding for authors than to have experts on the topics discussed in their books sharing ideas, concerns, and critiques. I am thus deeply grateful to the four contributors who devoted time and thought to comment on my book as well as to the editors of Opinio Juris. In this brief reply, I cannot do justice to all the contributors’ comments but will try to address some of them.

Eliav Lieblich addresses the normative/functional approach to occupation developed in my book and points to its potential for creating new ambiguities. Rather than limit the application of this approach to a “full” post-occupation stage, after states remove “boots on the ground” while retaining some form of control, Lieblich considers the option of states exercising control over some government functions in other states without a previous “traditional” occupation stage.

In a way, this question returns to a more fundamental one: should the beginning and end of occupation be viewed as symmetric for all purposes, including for a functional analysis of occupation? I address this question in my book and argue that dismantling an occupation is different from establishing one. One response to Lieblich, then, could be that the remnants of an occupation that never ended may possibly signal that the law of occupation continues to apply functionally, even when the remaining degree of control might have been insufficient to establish the occupation and apply the laws that govern it. Another answer, however, backed by some of the decisions of the Ethiopia Eritrea Claims Commission (EECC), support the notion that the law of occupation could be triggered based on partial or functional occupation and not only following a “full” occupation.

The question of what might be the triggering standards for functional occupation is also raised by Kristen Boon. Boon asks how to avoid a standard that is either too high (imposing positive obligations on states simply holding territories within their sphere of influence) or too low (permitting states to operate just short of the “boots on the ground” standard or taking advantage of new forms of technology while depriving individuals of the humanitarian protections they are legally owed). Finding a “one size fits all answer” may be hard, but one guiding principle should be whether the perceived occupier exercises some power over the territory with its actions preventing exercise of authority by other powers, especially the authorities of the occupied party. As I note in the book, Judge Kooijmans’s separate opinion in the Armed Activities (DRC v Uganda) case, which views states as occupiers when their actions preclude the functioning of local government, seems to be a step in the right direction (see pp. 74 and 129). Combined with the EECC approach mentioned above, we can consider that the responsibilities of occupation exist when power – not just influence – is exercised. From this perspective, continued Israeli control of the airways and waterways of Gaza in a way that does not allow the local population and its government to exercise control, seems like a clear case of occupation functionally continuing.


Whatever the answers we choose to Lieblich’s and Boon’s questions, they seemingly highlight two significant issues. The first is that, once we stop thinking of occupation in on/off terms, we realize that a continuum exists between occupation and other forms of control. The second is that, given occupation’s indeterminacy, the functional approach presented in my book attempts to replace a “pick and choose approach” with one that creates accountability, without claiming this to be a panacea to all the problems of the law of occupation. No such panaceas are available in law (or in life …).

Lieblich further ponders whether the functional approach does not ultimately collapse into some extra-territorial variation of human rights implementation. Although this is a valid question, it is pertinent to insist on the special protections that the law of occupation makes available (including the special status of protected persons) that are lost in a human rights analysis. In the last chapter of the book, I show how a human rights analysis often undermines the special protections accorded within the law of occupation. In this light, shifting the focus to the extra-territorial application of human rights law does not appear to be an alternative to the solution offered by the functional approach.

Finally, Lieblich mentions that the functional approach, which I began to develop in my work in 2007, has recently been endorsed by the ICRC. The need for this approach arose after the 2005 Gaza disengagement, growing out of both my academic research and my NGO work. I first presented it at the closing plenary lecture of a 2007 conference organized by the Minerva Centres for Human Rights at the Tel-Aviv and Hebrew Universities together with the ICRC, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and first published about it in 2012, in a post that opened a symposium on the topic in this blog. As Lieblich notes, the ICRC adopted a variation of what was suggested in my work and the work of the Gisha NGO, on whose board I serve, and eventually backed the functional approach in its 2016 updated commentary on the Geneva Conventions, as documented here. The ICRC model, however, is a somewhat narrower version of the view developed in my book. It considers the functional approach relevant to “specific and exceptional cases,” whereas my analysis throughout the book shows that, given the indeterminacy of many situations where occupation and sovereignty are mixed, we need to rely on it regularly (see p. 133, n. 350). The Gaza situation and the analysis it required led me to a deeper understanding of how indeterminacy, control, and functions are always relevant to the understanding of occupation, be it in Berlin, Iraq, or Ethiopia-Eritrea.

While Lieblich’s comment considers the actual framework of the law of occupation, Valentina Azarova points to the connection between the law of occupation and other regimes of international law. Specifically, Azarova notes the role of jus ad bellum in the prohibition of annexation and shows how this prohibition should be seen as deriving from jus ad bellum rather than, as my analysis might imply, from the law of occupation itself. The law of occupation, she argues, depends for its proper function on the operation of other rules of international law, such as jus ad bellum, yet notes that an unlawful annexation maintained through occupation exposes the limit of the jus in bello/jus ad bellum distinction. Indeed, occupation highlights the complexities of the relationship between them, as Iris Canor noted. Azarova’s comments require me to reconsider the relationship between the law on the use of force (jus ad bellum) and occupation, a question I admittedly scarcely addressed in the book.

Going back to the law of occupation itself, Diana Buttu points to its limited role in giving any remedy to Palestinians. She argues that, despite very small legal victories (or, in her usage, “victories”), Israeli courts have legitimized Israel’s actions and prevented any scrutiny of the big picture, focusing instead on localized practices. Indeed, part of my reason for writing Illegal Occupation with Orna Ben-Naftali and Keren Michaeli in 2005 was to take back the discussion to the big picture— the illegality of the occupation itself. I find Buttu’s reservations about my statement that “only insisting on the normative content can save the benevolent reading of this body of international law… and prevent a return of colonialism” (252) intriguing, when she notes how, in the case of Israel, we are not facing a return of colonialism since it never left. Whereas I was alluding to the return of a colonialism that has been rendered illegal but might be brought back in the guise of a legally structured occupation, Buttu seems to be referring to this specific territorial context, pointing to the continuity of colonialism/occupation in Israel/Palestine (and beyond). How is this particular continuity an instance of a general continuity between the law of colonialism and the law of occupation? These questions need a broader scope than the one considered in my book. In his recent book on the Israeli occupation, Gershon Shafir touches on this relationship in the Israeli-Palestinian context from a historical political perspective, but further legal historical work seems warranted on this issue.

Coming from a very different perspective, and that is an understatement, Eugene Kontorovich questions the value of the normative approach from several perspectives, mainly that of gaps of enforcement in the law of occupation. Violations of the law of occupation by countries other than Israel have, in Kontorovich’s argument, gone unnoticed by the international community. But even if, for the sake of the argument, we agreed that Israel is treated as an exception, the enforcement gaps he addresses remain relevant to Israel too. He has counted about five hundred UN General Assembly resolutions dealing with Israel and very few regarding other occupations. These resolutions, however, remain unenforced and, moreover, since for the most they are not backed by the Security Council, are not even binding. How do these conditions affect Kontorovich’s suggestion that, before building a normative regime of occupation, it might make sense to bolster the existing one? I would argue that, without endorsing a normative approach, much of the criticism of Israel, at least at the legal level, not only lacks concrete enforcement but remains focused on specific issues, thus validating the bigger picture of this occupation rather than pointing to it as intrinsically illegal and illegitimate. The normative approach, then, which could help us to evade this vicious cycle, would prove vital for breaking the current impasse.

Kontorovich also notes that assigning a key role to self-determination, as I do in the normative analysis, constitutes a departure from current law and practice, which respect the sovereignty of states and not of peoples. Insistence on the relevance of self-determination first emerged in the 2005 Illegal Occupation article by Ben-Naftali, Michaeli, and myself. It is justified not only by the current understanding of self-determination in international law as a necessary interpretation of the law of occupation but also given the need to deal with occupation in areas where no state had previously been sovereign, such as the Occupied Palestinian Territory or Western Sahara. Taking self-determination out of this equation would imply denying protection to people who are occupied but had previously lacked a state.

Finally, though I do not share Kontorovich’s interpretation of the political context, I will avoid a factual and political argument on his determination that the Israeli occupation is different given the rejection of “numerous … good-faith offers of statehood to the Palestinians,” an issue I deliberately sidestepped in my book. My argument is that this occupation, which entails the constant dispossession of Palestinians, the establishment of a discriminatory apartheid-like regime, and illegal settlements whose existence is central to the dispossession and discrimination, is illegal regardless of who is to “blame” for the lack of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Had the occupation abided by international law (meaning no settlements and no dispossession of the Palestinian population) and notwithstanding the denial of liberties inherent in any situation of occupation, we would be engaging in an entirely different discussion. The current occupation, now ongoing for fifty years, which denies Palestinians their most basic liberties and dispossesses them daily, often denying their very life, must stop, and this illegal and inexcusably unjust situation must be brought to an end.

Symposium on Occupation Law: Control and the Law of Occupation

by Kristen Boon

[This post is part of an ongoing symposium on Professor Aeyal Gross’s book The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017).]

One of the interesting observations Aeyal makes in his important new book The Writing on the Wall, is that new forms of control are radically challenging the law of occupation.   Traditionally, occupation has been understood as a question of fact:  territory will be considered occupied if there are “boots on the ground” that demonstrate effective control.  However, as Aeyal notes throughout the book, the law of occupation is fraught with complex realities.  One of these realities is that new forms of technological and political control are increasingly relevant to the law of occupation.   Citing the 2015 ECHR decisions Chiragov (question of Armenia occupying Nagorno-Karabakh) and Sargsyan (question of Azerbaijan occupying Gulistan), Aeyal argues that adopting restrictive interpretations of the law of occupation results in denying protection of norms in the Geneva Conventions.     The Sargasyan decision is particular explicit in its explanation of what is required to trigger the law of occupation:

“The requirement of actual authority is widely considered to be synonymous to that of effective control. Military occupation is considered to exist in a territory, or part of a territory, if the following elements can be demonstrated: the presence of foreign troops, which are in a position to exercise effective control without the consent of the sovereign. According to widespread expert opinion physical presence of foreign troops is a sine qua non requirement of occupation, i.e. occupation is not conceivable without “boots on the ground” therefore forces exercising naval or air control through a naval or air blockade do not suffice.”

Instead, he argues, indirect and remote control, virtual occupation, should trigger the law of occupation to extend the protections afforded to populations.   I agree with his assessment of the problem, and have looked myself at the problematic aspects of the effective control test in the field of the law of responsibility.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to determine what the triggering standards for these other types of control should be.   As I note in my article, in the context of the law of responsibility, it goes to the definition of the state, and the decision made by the drafters of the articles of the law of responsibility was to maintain a high standard resulting in limited exposure, despite the trend of outsourcing many state responsibilities.  In the occupation context, too low a standard places positive obligations on states that may simply hold territories within their spheres of influence, too high a standard permits states to operate just short of the boots on the ground standard, or to take advantage of new forms of technology, while depriving individuals of the humanitarian protections they are owed as a matter of law.

I would be delighted if Aeyal could further elaborate these points.   How should we think about control in the occupation context?  Are there lessons learned from the law of responsibility, such as the development of alternative means of holding states responsible based omissions or the duty to prevent.  And I look forward to continuing this conversation during at International Law Week at Fordham this fall, where Aeyal and I will be speaking on a panel on the law of occupation.

Symposium on Occupation Law: The Necessary Non-Normativity and Temporal Indeterminacy of Occupation Law

by Eugene Kontorovich

[Eugene Kontorovich is a Professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. This post is part of an ongoing symposium on Professor Aeyal Gross’s book The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017).]

Prof. Gross’s excellent book The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation presents a normative synthesis of international humanitarian and international human rights law design to provide an occupation law regime acutely focused on protected persons and the ensuring that the temporariness of the occupation. Gross’s honest embrace of a normative regime allows him to be quite acute in his analysis of practice and case law that does not support his vision. Thus the book includes incisive analyses of international court decisions regarding northern Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh, and a valuable discussion about the applicability of occupation law to Western Sahara and East Timor. He points out many interesting incoherencies and tensions in occupation law in these contexts. His account of the legal treatment of these various situations, and his very detailed discussion of the case law of the Israeli High Court, are invaluable for any student of international humanitarian law.

First, it is worth pointing out a basic challenge of any normative account of IHL.

The non-normativity of what he calls the “factual” approach to the law of occupation is deeply embedded in the essential non-normativity of international humanitarian law itself. IHL treats aggressors and victims the same. There are strong reasons for that non-normativity. Among them, IHL is primarily treaty-based, and requires initial state consent for its rules. States have highly diverse normative commitments. One can, of course, have a state sign up for one thing only to learn it has signed up for another, but such moves, while they may be immediately gratifying, will not encourage states to support any further development of IHL.

A central part of IHL’s neutrality is its prospectivity. IHL norms are agreed on in advance of conflicts to which they apply. This prospectivity is why in the Fourth Geneva Convention, Art. 6 exempts occupying powers from certain restrictions in prolonged occupations. When the conventions were adopted, the Allied Powers were engaged in preexisting occupations of Germany and Japan. In the drafting of the conventions, the U.S. expressed concern that the new norms would apply to its existing occupations. Art. 6 was in part a concession to this concern.

Gross sees Art. 6 in its traditional interpretation as “incongruent with the purpose and practice of the normative regime of occupation.” This may be true, but it is fully consistent with the intent of the Drafting Conference and their understanding of the functions of occupation law, which did not apparently include making long-term occupation more difficult. Indeed, assuming the Fourth Convention represents some step towards Gross’s normative vision compared to prior law, Art. 6 shows the difficulty of shoehorning existing situations into old norms.

This leads to a difficulty. Gross’s normative vision of occupation law is a response to certain situations, which in his view the “factual” approach occupation law has not dealt with satisfactorily. Most prominent among these is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But a normative reinterpretation of existing law cannot expect buy-in from existing participants, as it is clear from the outset who it benefits. To put it differently, what does the normative vision offer currently affected states?

This problem is exacerbated by the great “enforcement gap” in the international law of occupation. One of the great virtues of Gross’s book is that while it focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian case, it does not give short shrift to historic or ongoing occupations, including some that have received almost no academic attention, such as East Timor and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Yet the enforcement of occupation law by the international community almost entirely exempts these situations. For example, the U.N. General Assembly has reminded Israel in critical resolution of the country’s obligations under the Geneva Conventions about 500 times since 1967—as opposed to twice for the other prolonged occupation situations. Even in recent weeks, reports of a new Armenian settlement being built in Karabakh, and massive Russian settlement activity in Crimea – which challenge both a formalist and certainly the normative regime of occupation law – have gone entirely unremarked by the international community.

This suggests a few things. First, before building a normative regime of occupation, it may make sense to actually bolster the existing formal one. Second, the practical outcome of a normative regime is known in advance. It will not likely have any more effect on existing occupations than the formal one, with the possible exception of Israel. From Gross’s normative approach, this may be better than nothing, but from a positivist approach, it is hard to see why Israel or its allies would endorse such a development, and indeed it might weaken their commitment to the basic black-letter Geneva Convention regime.

Gross’s normative model is based on ensuring that occupations remain temporary, and do not become a shell for conquest. He argues that occupation law should be much more informed in its particulars by the systemic principles of international law – self-determination and the prohibition on conquest in particular.

One normative criterion is the occupation law according to Gross that ensures the self-determination of people in the occupied territory. But this seems a large leap from existing practice. International humanitarian law is based on the sovereignty of states, not peoples. Thus Libya returned the Azou strip to Hassan Habre’s Chad, not to its population. Israel has long been asked to turn the Golan Heights over to Assad’s Alawite regime, not to the Druze people (though these demands have become more muted lately, they have not been withdrawn). Iraq returned Kuwait not to the Kuwaiti people but to its monarch. Indeed, the self-determination principle will often contradict the preservation of the status quo principle. In his central example of the Palestinian situation, the creation of a new Palestinian state would be a departure from the pre-war status quo.

Gross correctly notes that the applicability of the law of occupation cannot be defeated by the occupier merely claiming sovereign title. Occupations routinely (but not inevitably) take place in the context of territorial disputes. On the other hand, the occupation cannot be entirely insensitive to considerations of underlying sovereignty. A country retaking its territory in a conflict can hardly be deemed an occupier.

Gross suggests that prolonged prior control by another power, even one lacking sovereignty, is enough to trigger the applicability of occupation law if that territory is retaken. But this can conflict with his normative goal of not giving any lasting weight to the reality created by an occupation. In the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it would mean the very borders of a brand-new state were created by the Egyptian/Jordanian occupation that lasted until 1967.

Or consider the following example. Imagine a newly created country occupying the territory of its newly created neighbor in a war that breaks out upon their mutual creation. An imperfect armistice holds for twenty years, after which the state that lost territory in the original conflict manages to retake some of it in a new one – albeit territory over which it had never previously exercised control, and from which all of its nationals had been expelled. Would the new state be considered an occupier?

It is not a hypothetical question, but rather reflects what happened when Azerbaijan managed to retake some previously Armenian-held territory in Karabakh. As far as I know, this has not been treated as an occupation by anyone.

Thus normative criteria such as self-determination cannot avoid the questions of territorial sovereignty. Self-determination does not answer the question of the geographical unit in which it is exercised. Armenians, for example, do not principally have a preexisting sovereignty claim to Nagorno-Karabakh. Rather, they see Armenian control as an exercise of the self-determination of the Karabakh population. Similarly, Russia justifies its occupation not on prior title but on the self-determination of the Crimean population. International law rejects this argument, and regards Armenian control as an occupation, because the standard lines in which self-determination is exercised is the preexisting administrative borders, in which case Azerbaijan, not Karabakh, is the relevant unit.

Another of Gross’s normative goals, in accord with most of the literature, is the vital need for preserving the prior status quo. Gross faults existing occupation law for sometimes being inadequate to that aim. But this is in part, as he recognizes, because the Geneva Convention may not have contemplated decades-long occupations. (This omission may have arisen in part because the norms against conquest were not as clearly defined in 1949 as he would suggest, as witnessed by the vast reapportionment of territories by the Allied Powers after the war, Yugoslavia’s absorption of the sector of the Free State of Trieste that was under its control, and similar examples.)

Certainly some prolonged occupations are the result of colonialist or annexationist aims. But this is not inevitably the case. The Allied occupation of West Berlin lasted forty-five years, and had the then-dominant views about the duration of the Soviet empire been correct, it could have lasted forever. This was not an occupation of choice but of expedience. Similarly, with Israel’s capture of the West Bank, the situation was even more contingent. Jordan only entered the Six Day War half-way through, and the West Bank was entirely outside of Israel’s original war aims.

Israel retained the territory because immediate attempts at a settlement with the Arab states were rejected, as were numerous internationally-backed good-faith offers of statehood to the Palestinians after the end of the Cold War. Indeed, it is these repeated and rejected offers of statehood that prominently distinguish Israel’s situation from any of the others discussed in the book.

This leads us back to the question of temporariness. Maintaining a status quo over many decades is an impossible task, as nothing in the world stands still. Demographics and migrant flows, as Europe’s recent experience has shown, is one of those things. No one can stop the clock at 1967. Of course, Gross’s position is more nuanced, as it would forbid only changes that benefit the occupier. But this itself is a monumental task, as it effectively burdens the occupier.

Limiting one’s trade and movement with an adjacent territory is a high cost. That which burdens the occupier reduces the other side’s incentives to accept an amicable deal. And indeed, one reason the Geneva Convention may not have anticipated prolonged occupations is that its drafters did not conceive of situations where occupation would not promptly lead to annexation, or a peace deal on terms acceptable to both parties.

Thus an alternative normative occupation regime might, for example, terminate all restrictions on the occupier upon the failure of the other side to accept a good faith diplomatic arrangement that would leave them better off than they were before.

Symposium on Occupation Law: Fitting a Square Peg into a Round Hole

by Diana Buttu

[Diana Buttu is a lawyer and activist who is currently a law fellow at the University of Windsor Law School. This post is part of an ongoing symposium on Professor Aeyal Gross’s book The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017).]

This June, Israel marked 50 years of military occupation of the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Far from being a sombre affair, this anniversary was met with wide celebrations by Israeli politicians across the political spectrum. Titling the event “50 years of liberation,” (not occupation), Israeli politicians spoke of the “miracle” (not disaster) of Israel taking over and conquering Palestinian land and vowed never to withdraw: “[I]n any agreement, and even without an agreement, we will maintain security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River,” said Netanyahu. In August 2017, Netanyahu added that, “We are here to stay, forever. There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel.” Not to be outdone, Israel’s opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, chimed in with similar expressions of occupied lands forever remaining in Israel’s hands.

These expressions of joy at having maintained an occupation for half a century were only slightly tempered by statements of the United Nations calling occupation “ugly” and reminding the world that years of living under foreign military rule has had devastating humanitarian and other effects on Palestinians forced to live under or cope with this rule. More tellingly, the United Nations reminds us that, “Neither the occupation, nor its impact, is static of course.” It is this latter sentence that stands out the most, as we try, as lawyers, academics and activists, to ensure that the occupation is temporary and static insofar as it does not lead to a deterioration of living conditions for Palestinians under Israeli military rule.

It is in addressing this struggle – that of the desire by Israel to maintain this occupation so as to facilitate its colonization and attempts by activists to ensure that occupation is temporary – that the role of Israel’s courts, international humanitarian law and international human rights law come to play an important, indeed vital, role. For years, lawyers, trying to alleviate the ravages of Israeli military occupation, have resorted to Israel’s (and later international) courts for redress. Using international humanitarian law, international law and domestic Israeli law arguments, lawyers have fought tirelessly to soften Israel’s blow. Yet despite very small legal “victories” in the Israeli court system, Israel’s courts have not only legitimated Israel’s actions but have prevented an examination of big picture Israeli practices in favor of examinations of discrete, localized practices so as to maintain the fiction that Israeli actions are needed as part of an overall security effort and not as part of a long-term goal of perpetual control and colonization of Palestinian and Syrian lands.

By focusing on the international law of occupation in the context of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, Professor Aeyal Gross thoroughly and thoughtfully outlines the limitations of international humanitarian law, the risks of using an international human rights framework to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, and the limitations (and tricks) of the Israeli Supreme Court in addressing these issues. As Nimer Sultany points out in his review of the Israeli Supreme Court, “Now, one needs to talk about one checkpoint out of the hundreds of check- points rather than the policy of checkpoints; one portion of the wall rather than the wall; and one settlement rather than the project of colonization. The effect of the Court’s rulings is to marginalize the overall picture. It also forces Palestinians and lawyers representing them to de-radicalize their demands.” The resultant effect is that the Court has justified the home demolitions, settlement construction, torture, fuel and electricity cuts and pillaging, among other practices, while pretending that it is implementing international humanitarian law. This is not simply a case of legal interpretation gone awry but the failure to view law in context of the political system implementing these problems.

But Gross’s analysis is not merely a critique of the application (or the non-application) of international humanitarian law by Israel, but also aims to examine the use of these legal frameworks in the context of an ongoing occupation. By arguing for a normative and functional approach to occupation, particularly in light of changing circumstances (such as in Gaza) so as to avoid legitimizing colonialism and conquest, Gross reframes our understanding of international humanitarian law.

Reading the book, however, one cannot help but feel that lawyers, academics and activists are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, with these same actors going to great lengths to simply try to ameliorate a daily worsening situation in the form of legal redress (hence the growing attempt to try to use international human rights law arguments despite the risks pointed out by Gross). This is, not, of course, the same argument put forth by occupation-apologists, who seem to try to make claims that Israel is entitled to extreme latitudes when dealing with IHL – (the “pick and choose” types highlighted by Gross). Rather, by attempting to pretend that the occupation is temporary or static – when it is both permanent and dynamic – and using legal tools that fit this pretend state of affairs rather than reality, we are left with endless debates about international humanitarian law which Gross so aptly highlights, documents and critiques.

While the book has no shortcomings, an analysis of apartheid and colonialism would serve the reader well. I find myself in disagreement with only one line: Gross mentions that “what makes occupation akin to colonialism is not the length of the occupation per se but the breach of the normative content” adding that “only insisting on the normative content can save the benevolent reading of this body of international law … and prevent a return of colonialism.” Yet, in the case of Israel, we are not facing a return of colonialism: it has never left.

And while, in the context of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, there are no magic formulas that will end Israel’s military rule over Palestinians and their land, one thing is clear: Israel’s military occupation will not end through a legal “knock-out.” Israel’s courts are too entrenched in preserving the occupation – rather than challenging it – and international mechanisms remain far too weak and flawed to have any real impact. Given this reality, we will continue to see lawyers, academics and activists continue to try to fit square pegs into round holes in an attempt to try to address legally an issue that requires a political solution.

Of Fire and Fury: The Threat of Force and the Korean Missile Crisis

by Mohamed Helal

[Mohamed Helal is an Assistant Professor of Law, Moritz College of Law & Affiliated Faculty, Mershon Center for International Security Studies – The Ohio State University.] 

Wars of Words and Tweets

The recent escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula provides an opportunity to reflect on the prohibition on the threat of the use of force. In less than a month, virtually every form of threat of force was either expressed or exercised by the United States and North Korea. Pyongyang precipitated the crisis on July 4th and 28th, 2017 by test-firing ballistic missiles reportedly capable of reaching the contiguous United States. The initial US response was measured. The White House issued a statement affirming that the US “will take all necessary steps to ensure the security of the American homeland and protect our allies in the region.” The US and South Korea also test-fired missiles, including South Korea’s Hyunmoo-2 missile, in response to the North Korean tests. Then, on August 5th, acting under Chapter VII, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2371. The resolution determined that the situation threatened international peace and security and imposed new sanctions on North Korea.

On August 8th, the war-of-words between the US and North Korea escalated. Echoing President Truman’s warning that Japan would suffer “a rain of ruin” if it failed to surrender, President Trump warned that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury” if it threatened the US. Seemingly undeterred, North Korea announced that it was preparing plans to attack Guam, in response to which President Trump took to twitter to warn that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded.” The next morning, another Presidential tweet further flexed American military muscle by showcasing the readiness of US Pacific Command’s B-1B bombers based in Guam to execute operations against North Korea.

Meanwhile, in what is either evidence of confusion within the American administration or an exercise of ‘good-cop, bad-cop’ tactics, the US Secretaries of State and Defense issued statements that were less bellicose than the President’s. They expressed Washington’s preference for a diplomatic solution to the crisis and declared that the US was not seeking regime change in North Korea. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un decided to delay plans to strike Guam. The next week, the US and South Korea commenced the annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises that simulate operations to repel a North Korean attack. Pyongyang condemned these exercises and affirmed that “The Korean Peoples’ army is keeping a high alert, fully ready to contain the enemies. It will take resolute steps the moment even a slight sign of preventive war is spotted.”

The US administration appeared to have interpreted North Korea’s backing down from attacking Guam and the lack of an immediate provocative or forceful response to its joint exercises with South Korea as a conciliatory gesture. President Trump declared that Kim Jong-Un “is starting to respect us,” and Secretary of State Tillerson expressed satisfaction at Pyongyang’s restraint and hinted at the possibility of dialogue with North Korea in the near future. Days later, however, North Korea proved that President Trump’s triumphalism and Secretary Tillerson’s optimism were premature. On Saturday, August 25th, North Korea test-fired several short-range missiles, and then in the early hours of Tuesday, August 29th, it test-fired a longer range missile that overflew Hokkaido, prompting the Japanese government to sound air raid sirens and to instruct civilians to seek shelter. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called North Korea’s escalation, which is the third time that North Korea fired missile over Japan, a “reckless action [that is] an unprecedented, serious, and grave threat.” Meanwhile, President Trump declared that “threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table.”

The Prohibition on the Threat of Force

Unlike the prohibition on the use of force, the threat of force is an undertheorized area of jus ad bellum. Despite the efforts of some scholars who have written in this area (see notably here), the content of the prohibition on the threat of force is ambiguous. Both the definition of threats of force and the threshold separating legal and illegal threats remain uncertain. Even the few judicial statements on the matter have left many questions unanswered. As is well known, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) reflected on threats of force on a few occasions, most notably in the Nicaragua Case and in the Advisory Opinion on the Threat and Use of Nuclear Weapons. In both instances, the Court linked the legality of threats of force to the legality of the actual use of force. As it explained in the Nuclear Weapons Opinion: “The notions of ‘threat’ and ‘use’ of force … stand together in the sense that if the use of force itself in a given case is illegal … the threat to use such force will likewise be illegal.”

While this formulation offers some guidance on the content of the prohibition on threats of force, it is insufficiently developed to enable a thorough legal evaluation of the infinite variety of threatening behavior that occurs in inter-state relations. For instance, should threats of force involving weapons of mass destruction be subjected to the same legal standards as threats to use conventional weapons? Does the form of threat matter? In other words, is a physical threat, in the form of, for example, military maneuvers, more serious than a threatening statement, or in the case of North Korea, a photograph or video threatening an attack against the US? How do the principles of necessity and proportionality, which govern the use of force, apply to threats of force? Can force be threatened to preempt armed attacks, or to deter less grave uses of force that do not amount to armed attacks? Can threats be wielded to achieve legally permissible policy objectives that enjoy the support of the international community, such as the denuclearization of North Korea? (For an insightful discussion by James Green and Francis Grimal see: here)

These are some of the issues that are unanswered by existing judicial consideration of the prohibition on threats of force. One possible approach to examine these issues and to reflect on the legality of threats, such as those recently exchanged between the US and North Korea, is to construct an escalating scale that includes three levels of threats: (1) non-coercive threats, (2) demonstrations of force, and (3) prohibited threats of force.

An Escalating Scale of Threats

Non-Coercive Threats

This category is legally unproblematic. Not every hostile statement, menacing act, or antagonistic policy constitutes a prohibited threat of force. It is widely recognized that Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits threats of armed force. This means that the non-coercive tools of diplomacy employed by states to affect the policies of their adversaries, or even their allies, such as political and economic pressure or diplomatic censure, broadcasting propaganda, unilateral or multilateral sanctions, trade, travel, and arms embargoes, are not affected by the prohibition on threats of force.

Demonstrations of Force

Demonstrations of force have many forms. These include troop movements, mobilization, and troop concentrations or constructing military bases, including in areas bordering an adversary; putting the armed forces on heightened alert; conducting military exercises, including using live ammunition; increasing defense budgets; developing weapons systems and conducting tests of conventional and/or unconventional weapons.

Demonstrations of force are the most challenging category of threats of force. In addition to jus ad bellum, these activities are governed, inter alia, by arms control agreements, environmental law, the law of the sea, and bilateral peace treaties. Thus, while the latest North Korean missile test of August 29th 2017 that overflew Japan was not a prohibited threat of force, which is discussed below, it violated the sovereignty of Japan over its maritime and territorial airspace. Also, in some cases such as North Korea, there are Security Council resolutions that prohibit demonstrations of force such as nuclear detonations and missile tests. Determining the legality of demonstrations of force is also challenging given the endless purposes that they serve. These include: demonstrating a WMD first or second strike capability, signaling the credibility of conventional and unconventional deterrents, showcasing force-projection abilities, reinforcing a commitment to a mutual defense treaty, displaying force readiness, rejecting certain policies of adversaries (think of US naval operations in the South China Sea to challenge China’s claims in the area), and training for offensive and defensive operations.

Further complicating discussions on the legality of demonstrations of force is the ambiguity of the political message that these threats are intended to signal. Whatever their form, all demonstrations of force include an element of political messaging. Whether they are routine exercises or exceptional maunvers, demonstrations of force send signals to specific adversaries or to general domestic or foreign audiences, or some combination thereof. Ultimately, whatever the content and political context of that signal, the purpose of demonstrations of force is to affect and shape the policy, preferences, and perceptions of the target state or audience. Demonstrations of force are not merely tools of self-defense and deterrence, but are also an exercise of political influence. As Thomas Schelling put it: “It is latent violence that can influence someone’s choice – violence that can still be withheld or inflicted, or that a victim believes can be withheld or inflicted. The threat of pain tries to structure someone’s motives.”

Given the ubiquity of demonstrations of force in international relations and the general tolerance of such behavior by states, it appears that these forms of threats are not proscribed by international law. (See contra Marco Roscini) Even if they occur in the context of a protracted conflict or a hostile relationship, as long as demonstrations of force do not rise to the level of prohibited threats of force such as ultimatums, which are discussed next, it appears that these practices are generally permissible. This is supported by the brief discussion in the Nicaragua Case on a series of acts and statements that constitute demonstrations of force. Although the Court did not use the label ‘demonstrations of force’, it examined the legality of US military exercises with the Honduran army close to the Nicaraguan border and US naval maneuvers involving thousands of troops, which led the Nicaraguan government to put its armed forces on alert. The ICJ also examined what it termed “the militarization of Nicaragua” through increasing arms purchases. The Court found that neither of these demonstrations of force constituted impermissible threats of force. The US exercises and maneuvers, which took place amidst a hostile relationship between Washington and the Sandinistas, did not violate of the prohibition on the threat of force, and Nicaragua’s arms-buildup was not illegal because there are no general rules “whereby the level of armaments of a sovereign State can be limited.”

Prohibited Threats of Force

A prohibited threat of force is a clear act or an unambiguous statement that communicates an intention to use armed force unless a specific demand, that is impermissible under international law, is met. (See Oscar Schachter here p.1625) This definition of a prohibited threat of force is akin to ultimatums, which were a widely wielded instrument in the pre-Charter era. (See here)

Defining prohibited threats of force in this manner is supported by the observations of the ICJ in its Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion. The Court stated that “whether a signalled intention to use force if certain events occur is or is not a ‘threat’ within Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter depends upon various factors.” It is noteworthy that the Court used the term “signaled intention to use force” and later in the same paragraph, the phrases “stated readiness” and “declared readiness” to use force, to describe threats falling within the ambit of Article 2(4). This suggests that the ICJ sought to exclude implicit threats, ambiguous signals, and menacing behavior that is intended to relay political messages without amounting to a clear and unambiguous sign of an intention to use force, which are hallmarks of demonstrations of force. Moreover, the phrase “whether a signalled intention to use force if certain events occur” indicates that not only should there be a signaled, stated, or declared readiness to use force, but that this threat should be accompanied with a specific demand which if not fulfilled would lead to the use of force. Finally, by requiring that this demand be impermissible under international law, the aforementioned definition allows for threats of force in situations where the actual use of force would be lawful, such as self-defense against an armed attack or against an occupation or to enforce a Chapter VII Security Council resolution. (See Dino Kritsiotis here)

Determining the legality of threats of force will always depend on their political context and strategic circumstances. This is because the threshold between permissible demonstrations of force and prohibited threats is not a bright-line. States rarely issue unequivocal ultimatums of the kind made by George Bush against Saddam Hussein on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. More often, states express positions or adopt physical postures that, in combination with other statements or policies, could constitute a prohibited threat, even if the determination to use force remains ambiguous or equivocal. One example of this is US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s threat of “preventive war” against North Korea if it develops the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons to the US. Although not phrased as a clear ultimatum – “relinquish your nuclear weapons, or else” – explicitly threatening preventive war to denuclearize North Korea, which if executed would constitute an illegal use of force, potentially amounts to a prohibited threat of force. 


Viewed on this escalating scale of threats, it appears that the recent war of words, tweets, videos, missile tests, and military maneuvers between the US and North Korea did not, for the most part, involve prohibited threats of force. These acts and statements appear to be demonstrations of force that each party used to communicate political messages to its adversary and to affect its strategic calculus. Finally, I should note that it is not my intention to extoll the value of demonstrations of force as a tool of statecraft or to underestimate the dangers of this practice, especially in a context that involves nuclear weapons and unpredictable leaders. Nonetheless, we do live in an anarchic international system in which violence is pervasive and where threats of force perform an important, if regrettable, function in inter-state relations, and it appears that international law reflects this unfortunate reality.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” – Sun Tzu

Symposium on Occupation Law: Rethinking the Regulation of Occupation in International Law: A Review of Gross’ ‘The Writing on the Wall’

by Valentina Azarova

[Valentina Azarova, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Center for Global Public Law, Koç University Law School, Istanbul; legal adviser, Global Legal Action Network (GLAN).This post is part of an ongoing symposium on Professor Aeyal Gross’s book The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017).]

The Writing on the Wall is a valuable response to growing frustration with the inadequacies of the law of occupation in redressing contemporary realities of foreign territorial control. The book, informed by Gross’ deep involvement in the international practice he documents, addresses a key question that has been posed by civil society about Israel’s occupation: has occupation law become so implicated in Israeli actions aimed at maintaining prolonged rule over Palestinian territory, that the law is now part of the problem? Gross exposes the manipulative application of this special legal regime, and interrogates the structures and political orientation of the law. The book complements the classic works on the law of occupation – including by Benvenisti, Dinstein, and Arai-Takahashi – and provides the ground work for a “rethinking” that may open up transformative possibilities.

Gross claims that occupation law is based on the presumption that occupying states are precluded from dressing up outlawed forms of conquest and exploitation in the “new clothes of the legal and temporary institution of occupation” (p. 21), but that the law of occupation nonetheless lacks the normative safeguards necessary to effectively disincentivize and regulate such actions. Though occupation law was intended as a merely “neutral” standard based on a “factual” approach to the determination and regulation of situations of occupation, Gross maintains that “occupation is not only a fact but a norm.” Its normative content consists of three “prongs”: “non-acquisition of sovereignty,” “management of the territory for the benefit of the local population,” and “temporariness.” (pp. 23-34) Unless occupying states adhere to these premises, foreign territorial control “can, under the cloak of temporariness, lead to […] continued rule by the conquering country, this time in the garb of legitimacy.” (p. 23)

Gross couples this “normative” shift with a “functional” approach to the assessment of the extent of an occupier’s responsibility, which moves beyond the binary question of whether or not an occupation exists and occupation law applies (Chapter 2). Instead, the book is structured by Gross’s distinction between what he dubs the “jus ad occupation” and the “jus in occupation”: the former considers whether an occupation exists and is legal, and the latter regulates the norms concerning the occupier’s conduct. (p. 4)

Limiting my comments to Gross’ framing of the “jus ad occupation” – Chapters 1, 2, and parts of 3 – I offer two reflections intended to further the project of “rethinking” the law of occupation in light of the need to better regulate contemporary situations of occupation in international law. The first pertains to Gross’ “normative approach” and its presuppositions about the regulatory reach and remedial nature of occupation law and its relationality to other bodies of international law. My second point queries whether the “functional approach” Gross advocates can redress the problem of occupation law’s indeterminacy.

The remedial limits of occupation law

Gross’s premise is that if occupation law is to address contemporary abuses, it must be based on a “normative approach.” He adduces support for this approach by arguing that, as an exclusionary legal category, occupation “differs in its nature and legal consequences from conquest” (quoting Graber, p. 29). Gross notes the importance of turning to “other regimes” of international law – on acquisition of territory by force and self-determination of people – if we are to reckon with the limits of occupation law. Indeed, I would argue that occupation law is integrally reliant on other bodies of law to regulate certain consequences outside its scope and to enable its own proper function.

Take for instance the provision in Article 47 of Geneva Convention IV that protected persons shall not be deprived of the benefits of the convention, including through an attempt to annex the occupied territory or change its government. The provision precludes occupiers from opting out of their obligations under occupation law, and maintains the objective applicability of occupation law, irrespective of the occupying state’s positions and actions. But what Article 47 is not, despite having sometimes been misconstrued as such, is a prohibition of annexation internal to IHL. (Its purpose, according to the ICRC’s commentary, “is to safeguard human beings and not to protect the political institutions and government machinery of the State as such.”) The consequence of an occupation that pursues annexation is, rather, an issue of the jus ad bellum: the law on the interstate use of force and its prohibition on the acquisition of territory through force against the territorial integrity and political independence of another state (enshrined in Art 2(4) of the UN Charter), which arguably includes the territorial integrity of an internationally recognised self-determining people. Annexation is a situation that violates the absolute prohibition of territorial acquisition (Jennings 1963). While IHL can function as an indicator for violations of the jus ad bellum – for instance, an occupying power’s changes to local laws may violate IHL, and that violation may also be evidence of unlawful intent to claim sovereignty over the territory – violations of IHL cannot in themselves substantiate a breach of the jus ad bellum prohibition of annexation (or territorial acquisition by force).

The lex specialis of occupation is an inherently interactive body of law that presupposes the concurrent application of the jus ad bellum in situations of occupation to protect against transformative acts. That is, occupation law not only exists within a broader normative environment, but depends for its proper function on the operation of other international law, like the jus ad bellum, to determine the legality of the purpose of the continued use of force to maintain the occupation. It is hard to see how occupation law’s restrictions could serve their intended purpose where the occupier pursues the acquisition of the occupied territory without incurring the consequences for such a breach of the jus ad bellum. The contemporary absolute prohibition on the acquisition of territory by force provides an existential backbone for occupation law. It also enables the vigorous application of the third state responsibility of non-recognition as lawful of an unlawful situation of annexation and its perquisites.

Such an unlawful situation maintained through occupation exposes the limits of the classic axiomatic distinction between jus in bello and jus ad bellum. The consequences of the jus ad bellum is triggered by an occupier’s actions having the intent or effect of annexation or regime change (Giladi and Sloane). Gross does not explicitly discuss the necessity of applying jus ad bellum to respond to such unlawful situations. But the substantiation of this exception could encourage a rethinking of how contemporary occupations are and should be regulated in international law (including through more diligent application of the jus ad bellum), and pre-empt claims that one is making merely aspirational arguments about occupation law.

Gross examines the abusive application of IHRL in time of occupation, arguing that the ”righting” of occupation law through IHRL has permitted occupiers to justify abuses against protected persons in the name of “balancing” their human rights against those of the occupier’s own nationals whom it unlawfully transferred into the occupied territory (Chapter 5). Just as the IHL of occupation law must be predicated on respect for and compliance with the jus ad bellum, as its backbone, the application of IHRL in time of occupation must be predicated on the full implementation of IHL. Here too, it should be noted, another body of law is also highly relevant: the concurrently applicable law on the self-determination of peoples, which places limits on the scope of the occupier’s human rights protection mandate. In this regard, as Carcano affirms, self-determination law interplays with and reinforces the conservationist premise of occupation law.

The effects of an obligation to withdraw

Gross argues that to “reinforce accountability – rather than allow a ‘pick and choose’ situation where the powerful [occupier] chooses the norms convenient for its control” (p. 130) – a “functional approach” is needed to determine the scope of the occupier’s responsibility, based on the extent of its actual control over different domains of life in the occupied territory. His logic seems indisputable: “duties follow from the existence of control, regardless of whether the situation is conceptualized as falling into the category of occupation or of sovereignty” (p. 130).

But a fully adequate assessment of responsibility must necessarily judge not only whether control is being exercised, but also the purpose of that control and its effect on the population under occupation. Such a judgment would need to factor in the legality of the occupier’s casus belli under the jus ad bellum, as well as the obligation to demonstrate a good faith effort to withdraw from the territory for occupiers that violate the jus ad bellum. Gross remarks that the indeterminacy of Israel’s control over Palestinian territory is disguised by a “cherry picked” law of occupation (Chapter 3). To expose this subterfuge and remedy its effects, it is surely necessary to identify the jus ad bellum consequences of Israel’s underlying intent to annex Palestinian territory (as evidenced by e.g. unclassified official Israeli government documents unearthed by Akevot), and its consequent obligation to withdraw from the territory.

A full assessment of the occupier’s responsibility must also address the manner and structures through which it exercises control over the territory. In cases where the genuine local authorities of the occupied territory exercise control over certain domains of life, international law is likely to prohibit an occupier from (re-)asserting its control by ousting local authorities. (p. 133) Yet, when the occupier has wrongfully delegated such authority to de facto authorities such as secessionist movements that depend on the occupying state’s support to further their claims (and who seldom have the best interests of the local population in mind), the occupier may be legally obligated to re-assert and re-centralise control over life in the territory. An occupier whose actions attract an obligation to withdraw is precluded from invoking “security needs” to perpetuate the occupation, and is limited to adopting only necessary measures of protection of the local population pending withdrawal (by analogy, Kretzmer argues the occupier owes only pragmatic minimal obligations to settlers pending their removal).

IHL, quite simply, was never intended to redress exploitative (or colonial) occupations, and has been widely criticised for its plasticity. To call the bluff of an occupation that has become an unlawful territorial situation (Milano) or illegal territorial regime (Ronen), the jus ad bellum must be diligently applied and enforced. Yet, an overreliance on “conflict management” law (IHL and IHRL) in the regulation of occupation has come at the cost of the application of “conflict resolution and prevention” law, and its critical component the jus ad bellum. Scholars and practitioners afflicted with IHL tunnel vision risk rendering occupation law into disrepute. As we take up Gross’s challenge of rethinking the law of occupation, we should not neglect the lex specialis’s integral interaction with the other bodies of law, and seek to better understand the apparent reluctance to apply the jus ad bellum to contemporary predicaments.

Symposium on Occupation Law: The Normative and Functional Approaches to Occupation: A Response to Aeyal Gross

by Eliav Lieblich

[Eliav Lieblich is Associate Professor at Buchmann Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University.This post is part of an ongoing symposium on Professor Aeyal Gross’s book The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017).]


Living up to its name, Aeyal Gross’s insightful new book engages critically with traditional assumptions of the law of occupation. As in his past work, Gross’s critique here is firmly rooted in traditions of legal realism, critical legal studies (CLS), and – in his constant attacks on binary legal categories – in deconstructive method. In fact, the book can serve as an excellent exposition on critical approaches to law, even for those not specifically concerned with occupation law.

Yet, despite of his critical view of law and its relationship to power, Gross’s thought is not driven by despair or nihilism. Instead, his approach urges jurists to reflect on their work, and to refrain from being passively complicit in the overtaking/perpetuating dynamics of law and power. In this sense, rather than dismissing legal doctrine altogether, as some critical scholars do, Gross analyzes and suggests to reformulate law to reflect what matters to living and breathing human beings, not to legal persons as abstract clusters of rights and duties.

In this comment, I will say a few words about two of the book’s central themes: (1) the normative approach to occupation; and (2) the functional approach to occupation.

The Normative Approach and Per Se Illegality

Gross suggests a normative approach to occupation, which challenges the longstanding view of occupation as a factual, normatively neutral construct. Viewed in the latter way, law only imposes certain limitations on the occupier, while tolerating – and in fact legitimizing – the violations of fundamental rights inherent in the concept of occupation. Accordingly, Gross expands in the book a claim he first formulated together with Ben-Naftali and Michaeli, whereby occupation becomes illegal when it infringes three principles: (1) that the occupier is not the sovereign in the territory; (2) that the occupier is obligated to preserve public order and civilian life in the area; and (3) that occupation must be temporary.

In my view, principles (1) and (3) are interrelated mainly because the perpetuation of occupation blurs the distinction between occupation and annexation. When this distinction is blurred without proceeding to civilian rule, without allowing the political participation of the local population, and without granting them full and equal rights, the distinction between occupation and unlawful regimes such as colonialism, apartheid, or plain military dictatorship collapses.

The distinction between occupation and annexation is not only a temporal one, but also pertains to the nature of the administrative discretion exercised by the occupying power. For this distinction to hold, occupation law must construct the “military commander” – the de facto administrator of the occupied territory – as functionally independent from her state. Her discretion is not one of sovereignty but of trusteeship: it begins and ends with the interests protected by occupation law, while wider state interests must be disregarded. If the commander is made, however, a technical instrument of the occupying state – with no independent discretion whatsoever – again, the distinction between occupation and annexation collapses.

In terms of legal theory, the tension is the following: from the intra-state perspective (at least in dualist states), the military administration in occupied territories is simply an agent of the executive, deriving its power from domestic law. Conversely, from the viewpoint of international law, the military commander draws her power from occupation law. The military administration must somehow operate within this dualism, navigating between its double identity as a state and international organ.

If we examine the situation in Israel-Palestine, this double identity has been brought to a breaking point with the recently passed “Judea and Samaria Settlement Regulation Law.” In this law – the constitutionality of which is now pending in the Israeli Supreme Court – the Israeli legislature directly compels the military commander in the West Bank to seize, in certain situations, private Palestinian lands taken by Jewish settlers, and to legalize these takings. Obviously, this law – beyond compelling the commander to violate Article 49(6) of Geneva Convention IV – suffers from another layer of illegality by disregarding that power to act in the occupied territories derives from international law alone. Therefore, the Israeli parliament cannot override the military commander’s duty to exercise independent discretion while performing her obligations under international law.

The Functional Approach

The functional approach to occupation, expounded in Gross’s book, has its roots in Felix Cohen’s classic critique of the excessive recourse by jurists to abstract legal terms, in detachment from their operation in the real world. Cohen referred to this as “transcendental nonsense” and called to examine law in functional terms, that is, according to its actual influence on people.

Throughout the book, Gross illustrates how the concept of “occupation,” in its formal sense, suffers from this syndrome. By altering the formal designation of a situation from one of occupation to “non-occupation,” states seek to reduce their obligations toward people, although they continue to exercise power over their lives. Conversely, Gross calls not to ask whether a territory is formally “occupied,” but to ask two other questions: (1) what are the facts on the ground; and (2) whether obligations derived from occupation law should apply in these circumstances.

The functional approach to occupation law emerged directly from practice, and specifically from the attempt to makes sense of the peculiar relations between Israel and Gaza after Israel’s 2005 “disengagement” from the territory. Initially, this question was discussed in binary terms: does the situation qualify as occupation or does it not? Gross was perhaps the first to identify the problem of this binary discourse – including in a symposium in this blog – as on the one hand, Israel maintains control over many aspects of life in Gaza, while on the other, it does not have “boots on the ground” in the territory. Gross argued, since 2007, that Israel’s post-disengagement obligations toward Gaza should not be examined in formal, abstract and binary terms. Instead, we should ask the opposite question: does Israel influence the lives of Gaza’s citizens? Does this influence relate to functions that can be viewed as governmental (such as control of the population register, the air space, and so forth)? If so, whether or not we use the formal term “occupation” to describe the aggregate of these powers, by virtue of its de facto control over government functions in Gaza, Israel is both morally and legally required to administer these functions in accordance with what occupation law requires: namely, to act positively for the benefit of the protected population.

The functional approach has practical implications and can be extremely helpful to counter attempts by states to exercise control without responsibility. It is unsurprising, thus, that it was adopted by the ICRC in its updated commentary on the Geneva Conventions. For instance, during 2014’s Gaza conflict (Operation Protective Edge), some Israeli jurists argued – in a legal opinion that was discussed in the Israeli parliament – that Israel was permitted to cut off water and electricity provided to Gaza because Gaza is not occupied territory. To them, if Gaza is not occupied according to the formal definitions of occupation (no military presence on the ground), then Israel has no positive obligations toward its population (to act in favor of the population), but only negative obligations derived from the laws on the conduct of hostilities (not to inhibit those acting in favor of them).

By contrast, the implementation of the functional approach’s two stages clearly indicates that such a cutoff would be illegal: (1) factually, the Gaza Strip is (almost) entirely dependent on Israel for its electricity supply, partly because Israel alone controlled the territory for almost forty years; (2) the control of electricity supply is a governmental function and, therefore, concerning this specific government function, Israel should be subject to the positive obligations of occupation law. Indeed, it impossible to wield quasi-government powers on the one hand and, on the other, to deny the obligations that flow from them. Twelve other Israeli international jurists (including me) submitted such an opinion reflecting this line of argument concerning this question , in contrast to the legal opinion read in parliament.

Like every legal doctrine, however, the functional approach is not perfect. In a sense, it almost willfully gives rise to new ambiguities. For instance, until now, this approach has been understood to delineate state obligations after removing troops from “fully” occupied territories. Yet, if we take this approach seriously, it is unclear why a previous “full” occupation is needed to begin with. Assume that using peaceful means only – say, through state-run corporations – State A takes over the natural resources of State B. Functionally, isn’t State A now exercising control over a governmental function in B, sens previous occupation or even armed conflict? If so, shouldn’t obligations from occupation law apply? And if this is true, isn’t the connection between the functional approach and IHL rather tenuous? Doesn’t it collapse, at the end of the day, to a close variant of international human rights law, applied extraterritorially?

Furthermore, Gross views indeterminacy as a characteristic feature of occupation. This indeterminacy enables the occupying state to manipulate the status of the territory according to its own interests, while maintaining a façade of legality and legitimacy. The paradigmatic example – analyzed in detail in the book – is Israel’s official attitude toward the West Bank, which recognizes the situation as occupation when this allows exercise of power (for example, the power to enact security legislation), while simultaneously denying the existence of occupation, on purely formal grounds, when occupation law limits state action (for example, by prohibiting the transfer of population to the territory). The functional approach, according to Gross, will make it harder to play this “pick and choose” game. It exposes functional power, and thereby limits the ability to mask wrongful actions with formal indeterminacies.

Yet, we should ask whether indeterminacy is indeed an inherent, rather a historically contingent, situation. Counterintuitively, at the basis of the opportunistic use of indeterminacy is a yearning for legal legitimacy, which, in turn, assumes a domestic and international order that still perceives adherence to law as a virtue. If one discards this notion, resort to indeterminacy to conceal violations of law is unneeded, because law itself becomes unimportant. In other words, if states are not embarrassed by violations of law, they don’t need to manipulate law by taking advantage of its indeterminacies to begin with. They can simply claim that law is irrelevant. In this context, by exposing manipulations of law, critical approaches might be “fighting the last war.” Arguably, we are living in times of post-embarrassment, in which even legal apologetics are abandoned. In such times, indeterminacy might be replaced by utter clarity—an unambiguous admission by (some) states that they simply do not care about international law. Therefore, the next legal fight might not be against the abuse of legal indeterminacy, but rather, against the very clear and straightforward discarding of international obligations altogether.

Symposium on Occupation Law: Writing ‘The Writing on the Wall:’ Why and How to Rethink The Law of Occupation

by Aeyal Gross

[Aeyal Gross is Professor of Law at the Tel Aviv University Law School. He is also Visiting Reader in Law at SOAS, University of London. In Fall 2017 he will be a Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute.This post is part of an ongoing symposium on Professor Aeyal Gross’s book  The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017).]

When I started writing on the law of occupation about twelve years ago, the contemporary case law concerning occupied territories was scanty. The Israeli Supreme Court had a very big roster of cases but, other than a few Cyprus related cases from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), not much more was available. In the course of my work on The Writing on the Wall, however, new case law began to emerge. Some of it followed the occupation of Iraq, when UK courts and later the ECtHR made important judicial pronouncements on the application of human rights in occupation. Other cases came from the engagement of the International Court of Justice with Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) and with Uganda’s occupation of parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The ECtHR also revisited the Northern Cyprus question and issued significant decisions concerning occupation (or lack thereof) in Nagorno-Karabakh.

These cases brought up questions that intrigued me in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian case: what is a military occupation? How do we determine that it exists, and how do we know if it has ended? Does this category offer appropriate protection to occupied populations or does it legitimize new forms of dispossession? Does applying human rights in occupation in addition to the traditional framework of international humanitarian law (IHL) help or hinder the protection of occupied populations?

In 2000, when the Second Intifada began, a debate emerged within human rights organizations in Israel. Up until then, human rights groups had usually focused on specific violations of the law of occupation based on a widely shared view stating that international law has nothing to say about the legality of occupation as such. I held, however, that addressing particular violations legitimized continued Israeli control under the cover of occupation as a temporary regime, and that the traditional understanding of occupation in international law as merely a factual situation is partly responsible for this legitimation effect. This debate led me to develop the thesis that the acceptability of occupation as a legal regime rests on several basic norms. Chief among them is the principle that occupation is a temporary deposit and, should the occupier depart from it, occupation is illegal. Orna Ben-Naftali was developing similar ideas at the very same time and, after teaming up with Keren Michaeli, we published our article “Illegal Occupation.” The Writing on the Wall begins from where we left off in that article, focusing on the need to shift from a “merely factual” approach to occupation to what I term a “normative approach.”

In 2005, Israel withdrew its settlers from the Gaza Strip and ended its permanent military presence there. Since Israel retained control over many aspects of life in Gaza, a debate ensued as to whether Gaza was still occupied territory. To me, these discussions seemed like an enactment of Felix Cohen’s “heaven of legal concepts,” where legal concepts are “thingified” in what Cohen characterizes as “transcendental nonsense.” Insofar as we continued to deal with it in the on/off terms of traditional international law, occupation fitted Cohen’s category of “magic solving words,” referring to terms incapable of solving anything. Cohen’s legal realist approach suggests that norms should not follow from abstract concepts but rather the opposite. When applying Cohen’s insights to occupation law, we need to consider whether the liabilities and duties of an occupier should attach to certain acts. The backdrop was thereby set for a functional approach to occupation, which looks at the substance of control rather than at whether there are “boots on the ground.” In the course of the writing, the normative and functional approaches were increasingly revealed as complementary. If occupation is a normative rather than merely a factual framework, it entails duties when the occupant continues to exercise power, even if control no longer takes the form of “boots on the ground,” as in Gaza. The first two chapters of The Writing on the Wall are devoted to the normative and functional approaches and their mutual relationships. The last two chapters consider the application of international humanitarian law and human rights law in situations of occupation, reflecting my critical concern re their legitimizing role and pointing to their nature as double edged swords. Regarding human rights, my discussions in the book developed in the wake of Israeli Supreme Court cases that applied human rights law in the OPT. Reading these cases, I realized that a rights analysis shifts the vertical balance between the rights of the occupied and the security of the occupier to a horizontal balance between both parties’ rights. Applying human rights, then, upsets the balance built into IHL—which ensures special protections to people living under occupation—and widens the justification for limiting their rights. In the Israeli case, the settlers’ security adds a burden unanticipated in international law. For example, to protect settlers from potential violence, Israel’s High Court of Justice allowed the demolition of Palestinians’ houses. While humanitarian law places strict limits on the destruction of civilian property in occupied territories, a human rights analysis allowed to “balance” the property rights of Palestinian owners against the rights of settlers that the occupying army claimed it must protect.

The book offers a critique of the legal framework and a different way of thinking about occupation, without pretending that a normative and functional approach is a panacea to the flaws of the current approach. It considers the application of IHL and human rights law in occupation from a critical perspective, showing they may not only offer protection but also legitimize dispossession and oppression.

The first two chapters of the book look at the occupation framework (what I call jus ad occupation), and the last two look at the application of humanitarian law and human rights in occupation (what I call jus in occupation). In between is Chapter 3, which functions as a bridge and closely examines the Israeli occupation of the OPT and its legal history through the perspective of the book’s different themes. The analysis points out how the official Israeli position created legal indeterminacy as to the OPT’s status, when definitions of it as occupied/not occupied played out against one another. This uncertainty enables a “pick and choose” regime, whereby Israel acts as both occupier and sovereign, while Palestinian residents of the OPT enjoy neither the full rights of protected persons under humanitarian law nor citizenship rights in Israel. This chapter considers how this indeterminacy and the repeated description of the situation as sui generis allowed for control through indeterminacy at different stages of the occupation—after 1967, after the 1993 Oslo agreements, and after the 2005 Gaza disengagement. The chapter aims to explain the complex legal and political mechanisms serving as the building blocks of Israel’s control that, besides creating indeterminacy, include a shift toward a reduction of direct friction meant to render the occupation invisible (through Oslo, the disengagement, the wall, and the privatization of checkpoints). Another major building block is the rise of the proportionality analysis focusing on means-ends tests, which isolates cases rather than enabling a broader context and artificially separates the authority to act from the ways this authority is exercised. I believe that looking at these processes together, as I do in Chapter 3 and more generally in the book, is crucial to understanding the role of law in this occupation, and indeed in occupations in general.

I am grateful to Opinio Juris for devoting a symposium to the book. Its 2012 symposium dealing with the functional approach, which opened with a post where I outlined it, was an important milestone on the way to the book and it is exciting that, in a way, we have now come full circle. I am thankful to the authors of the posts that will follow for engaging with my work and look forward to reading their contributions.