Archive of posts for category
Human Rights

A Letter to Israel About Its Plans to Forcibly Deport Africans

by Kevin Jon Heller

Opinio Juris readers might be interested in this letter from GLAN Legal — the Global Legal Action Network — to the Presidents and Attorneys General of Israel and Uganda. It was written by Itamar Mann, Yannis Kalpouzos, and Omer Shatz, with input from me. Here is the introduction:

The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) is an organization of lawyers initiating transnational human rights litigation around the world. Our focus is on cases in which “developed” countries are responsible for violations occurring in “developing” countries. We write to respectfully warn both Israel and Uganda that the forcible deportation plan currently being discussed for Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers living in Israel may amount to a crime within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The letter then proceeds to lay out the basics of the argument — which seems pretty unimpeachable to me. Note the reliance on the OPT’s recent argument concerning deportation from Myanmar to Bangladesh!

The Coming Attack on Syria Will Be Unlawful

by Kevin Jon Heller

You go to war with the President you have, not the President you wish you had.

We should keep that basic truth in mind as the US inches ever closer to war with Syria — and potentially with Russia, a far more terrifying possibility. Donald Trump does not care about civilians in Syria. He does not care about containing the spread of chemical or biological weapons. If he attacks Syria, it will be for one and only one reason: to distract attention from his collusion with Russia, his obstruction of justice, and his corruption. As Trump well knows, Americans love nothing more than high-def images of American bombs falling from the skies. No matter how many innocent civilians die (especially brown ones), an attack on Syria will give his approval ratings a healthy boost. That is all the motivation he needs.

That Trump will act with base motives does not mean, however, that an attack on Syria would be unlawful. Illegality has to be demonstrated, not assumed.

So let’s start with some basic principles. Syria is a sovereign state. Russia is using force on Syrian territory with the consent of the Syrian government. The US is not. To justify its use of force in Syria, therefore, the US would have to be acting in self-defence. If it was not acting in self-defence, it would be violating the jus cogens prohibition of the use of force that is enshrined in Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter.

With regard to its use of force in Syria against ISIS and other terrorist groups, the US at least has a plausible claim to individual and collective self-defence: the “unwilling or unable” doctrine. Readers know that I do not believe that “unwilling or unable” reflects customary international law. (For the most recent scholarly rejection of that idea, by Brunee & Toope, see here.) But the argument is not a frivolous one.

An attack directed at Syria itself, however, would be patently unlawful. Syria has never attacked US forces or interests. By contrast, the US has attacked Syria: in 2017, when it fired 59 cruise missiles at a government airfield in Shayrat; and in 2018, when it killed approximately 100 members of a pro-Assad militia who attacked a Syrian Democratic Forces headquarters. The US offered no legal justification whatsoever for the 2017 attack, and it claimed that the attack on the militia was “self-defence” — as if collective self-defence somehow permitted the US to come to the aid of a rebel group.

But that is the past. More importantly, there is no evidence — literally none — that Syria has any intention of attacking US forces. Not in the near future or in any future. If the US attacks Syria, therefore, it would not be acting in self-defence. Its attack would violate the jus cogens prohibition of the use of force. It would be, to use the accurate but loaded term, the aggressor.

And that would, of course, have two very important consequences — consequences you will not see discussed in the American media if and when the US attack begins. To begin with, Syria would have every right to use force to defend itself. It could shoot down American fighter planes. It could kill American soldiers. The only limitations on Syria’s right of self-defence would be the usual ones: necessity and proportionality.

Even more importantly, Russia would also be legally entitled to use force against the US. The right of collective self-defence is guaranteed by Art. 51 of the UN Charter and by customary international law. Just as the US invoked collective self-defence to justify attacking North Vietnam at South Vietnam’s request, Russia could invoke collective self-defence to justify attacking the US at Syria’s request. What is sauce for the American goose is sauce for the Russian gander. This is the most frightening aspect of Trump’s madness: although the Syrian military is capable of doing far more damage to American forces than Iraq’s or Libya’s militaries ever were, Russia’s military is one of the most powerful and technologically-sophisticated in the world. A hot war between Russia and the US could be literally catastrophic.

None of this jus ad bellum analysis should be remotely controversial — at least not to those who don’t believe the US has the God-given right to use extraterritorial force wherever and whenever it pleases. All of the conclusions above derive from a straightforward application of black-letter rules concerning the use of force.

That said, in recent days we have seen a number of scholarly attempts to justify Trump’s coming attack on Syria. I want to focus on one such attempt here, by my friend (and retired Maj. Gen.) Charlie Dunlap at Lawfire. Dunlap offers two potential justifications for attacking Syria: (1) self-defence; and (2) unilateral humanitarian intervention. Neither justification works.

With regard to self-defence, Charlie says the following with regard to Syria’s chemical and biological weapons:

Today, there are considerably more U.S. troops in Syria – perhaps as many as 2,000  – well within range of a number of Syrian weapons’ delivery systems.  Accordingly, it is not unreasonable to conclude that these uniquely dangerous weapons of mass destruction require an aggressive response.

Even if we assume that US troops are in Syria lawfully — a big if, given that it requires accepting the “unwilling or unable” doctrine — this argument denudes Art. 51’s armed attack requirement of all meaning. As noted above, Syria has neither attacked US troops nor threatened to do so. The mere possibility of attack — involving the mere possibility of that attack involving chemical or biological weapons — cannot justify an armed “response” by the US. To argue otherwise is to embrace preventive self-defence on steroids — going beyond even the US’s rationale for attacking the shadowy Khorosan group, where the US spokesman openly acknowledged, with regard to what armed attack the US was supposedly trying to prevent, that “I don’t know that we can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months.” At least terrorists who were possibly associated with the Khorasan group had previously attacked US interests. With regard to Syria, there is not even one previous attack to invoke.

Charlie’s invocation of unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI) is no more persuasive. Here is what he says:

I also contended that Harold Koh’s 2013 argument about humanitarian intervention in certain narrow circumstances was supportive of a separate legal rationale for the 2017 strikes. I think the reaction of the international community to last year’s strikes is indicative of a growing consensus supporting limited interventions in select situations much as Professor Koh conceptualized, at least in the case of a clear violation of international law.

I have previously explained — in response to Harold Koh — why there is no plausible argument for the legality of UHI. The same critique applies here. I would just add that the international reaction to the 2017 attack on the airfield at Shayrat does not help the argument, for one simple reason: the US never invoked UHI as a justification for the attack. Because it did not, states were under no obligation to denounce UHI after the attack took place — as they have repeatedly done in the face of attacks (such as Kosovo) where one or two states did invoke the doctrine. What I said a few days ago regarding Israel’s 2007 Al-Kibar attack applies no less to the 2017 Shayrat attack: had the US claimed that the attack was legal UHI, the international response would have assuredly been different.

The conclusion above thus remains sound: if the US attacks Syria, it will be the aggressor and both Syria and Russia will have the right to use force against the US in self-defence.

Let me end with what I hope is obvious: this is a legal analysis, full stop. It is not a normative argument. I loathe Assad, a murderous dictator who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison for his innumerable crimes. I understand the desire to something — anything — to prevent further violence against innocent Syrian civilians. I don’t believe, as I said in my response to Koh, that attacking Syria would contribute to that goal — particularly if it was limited to aerial warfare, as it almost certainly would be. But even if it would, the prohibition of the use of force still matters. We should not cloak acts that categorically violate that prohibition in a patina of legal respectability.

Implications of the Rohingya Argument for Libya and Syria (and Jordan)

by Kevin Jon Heller

In my previous post, I offered three cautionary thoughts about the OTP’s decision to ask the Pre-Trial Division to hold that the ICC has jurisdiction over Myanmar’s deportation of the Rohingya to Bangladesh. In this post, I want to offer a few thoughts on what a successful outcome would mean for refugee crises elsewhere — particularly in Libya and Syria.

We can start with the relatively easy case: Libya. Because of UNSC Res. 1970, the ICC has jurisdiction over any international crime committed on the territory of Libya from 2011 onwards. If the OTP’s theory of deportation is correct, it would be able to prosecute both (1) deportations from Libya committed by the Libyan government and armed forces, and (2) deportations into Libya from neighbouring states that are not members of the ICC — namely, Egypt, Sudan, and Algeria. Fatou Bensouda has already signalled interest in prosecuting “migrant-related crimes” committed by Libyans in Libya. A positive outcome to the OTP’s request in the Rohingya situation would make it possible for her to prosecute Egyptian, Sudanese, and Algerian nationals as well.

The more interesting case is Syria, given that Syria is not a member of the ICC and there is little chance the Security Council will refer the situation in Syria to the Court anytime soon. There are two scenarios worth discussing here: (1) deportations by the Syrian government or by various Syrian rebel groups into a neighbouring state; and (2) deportations by the Syrian government or by various Syrian rebel groups onto the high seas.

Going in reverse order, the ICC would have no jurisdiction over any deportation from Syria onto the high seas. There are two possible situations here: where the deported civilians drown on the high seas, and where the deported civilians make it to an ICC member-state such as Italy or Germany. In the first (profoundly sad) situation, no essential element of deportation (or of any other international crime) would have taken place on the the territory of a state party. And in the second situation, the civilians would not have been deported “directly” into the territory of a member-state — they would have been directly deported onto the high seas and only “indirectly” deported into the territory of a state party. Deportation’s “essential element” of crossing an international border would thus have taken place in Syria and on the high seas — not on the territory of a member state. This is the importance of the OTP’s repeated insistence in its request (see paras. 4, 13, and 28) that only direct deportations activate the Court’s jurisdiction.

In the second scenario, where the civilians are directly deported into a neighbouring state’s territory, a positive outcome to the OTP’s request in the Rohingya situation would mean that the ICC would have jurisdiction over any deportation from Syria into the territory of a state party. There is, in fact, only one ICC member-state that borders Syria: Jordan. Jordan would be a particularly attractive application of the OTP’s theory of deportation, given that more than 650,000 Syrians are currently taking refuge there — almost exactly the same number as the Rohingya in Bangladesh. (Though not all of the Syrian refugees in Jordan have been the victim of deportation.)

I wonder, though, what Jordan would think of the OTP opening an investigation into deportations from Syria into Jordan. Presumably, that situation would not be limited to deportations, but would also include Jordan’s own treatment of Syrian refugees. (A more tailored situation would be immediately seen for what it was — a sop to Jordan.) As Human Rights Watch has ably documented, Jordan has been summarily returning hundreds of Syrian refugees back to Syria each month, a clear violation of international law. Those actions very likely qualify as the crime against humanity of persecution, especially when Jordanian authorities specifically target for expulsion a national group such as Palestinians. So it is not difficult to imagine the OTP bringing a case involving Jordan’s expulsions as part of an investigation into Syrian deportations. Indeed, the OTP would likely find it much easier to prosecute the expulsions, given that Jordan is not only obligated to cooperate with the ICC but has long been one of its most vocal supporters. Ironically, then, an investigation into Syrian deportations might mean that a Jordanian ends up in the dock before a Syrian!

NOTE: I don’t think the Jordan prosecution I discuss above is likely to happen. I’m just teasing out the possible implications of the ICC having jurisdiction over deportations from non-member states to member-states.

Three Cautionary Thoughts on the OTP’s Rohingya Request

by Kevin Jon Heller

Major news out of the ICC today: the OTP has formally asked the Pre-Trial Division to determine whether the Court has jurisdiction over the deportation of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Here is the introduction of the OTP’s brief:

1. The Prosecution seeks a ruling on a question of jurisdiction: whether the Court may exercise jurisdiction over the alleged deportation of the Rohingya people from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

2. Consistent and credible public reports reviewed by the Prosecution indicate that since August 2017 more than 670,000 Rohingya, lawfully present in Myanmar, have been intentionally deported across the international border into Bangladesh. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described the Rohingya crisis as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and according to the UN Special Envoy for human rights in Myanmar, it potentially bears the “hallmarks of a genocide”. The coercive acts relevant to the deportations occurred on the territory of a State which is not a party to the Rome Statute (Myanmar). However, the Prosecution considers that the Court may nonetheless exercise jurisdiction under article 12(2)(a) of the Statute because an essential legal element of the crime—crossing an international border—occurred on the territory of a State which is a party to the Rome Statute (Bangladesh).

3. Given these exceptional circumstances and the nature of this legal issue, the Prosecutor has exercised her independent discretion under articles 19(3) and 42 to seek a ruling on the question from the Pre-Trial Chamber. This will assist in her further deliberations concerning any preliminary examination she may independently undertake, including in the event an ICC State Party decides to refer the matter to the Court under articles 13(a) and 14.

This is one of the best OTP briefs I have ever read. It is rigorous, learned, and exceptionally sophisticated in its use of comparative materials. It is also far more persuasive than I expected it to be, particularly concerning the idea that the ICC has jurisdiction over a crime as long as one of its elements took place on the territory of a state party. I don’t know who wrote the brief — it names only Fatou Bensouda and James Stewart, the Deputy Prosecutor — but he or she needs to be promoted immediately.

I do, however, want to raise three concerns about the brief.

First, it is very important to understand how limited any ICC investigation into the Rohingya situation would be. There is a reason that the OTP is asking the Pre-Trial Division to offer its opinion only on deportation: no other war crime or crime against humanity necessarily involves conduct that crosses an international border. So even if the Pre-Trial Division agrees with the OTP about deportation, the Court will still not have jurisdiction over the many other crimes committed against the Rohingya. Not genocide. Not murder. Not sexual violence. Those acts have taken place solely on the territory of Myanmar.

Second, and relatedly, there is the question of situational gravity. Should the OTP investigate the Rohingya situation if it can only charge perpetrators with deportation as a crime against humanity and/or as a war crime? There is no legal reason it cannot, but imagine if the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Army ended up in the dock at the ICC. Would the Rohingya be satisfied if he was not charged with genocide or murder or sexual violence? Would Human Rights Watch or the International Commission of Jurists? Deportation is a serious crime, but it doesn’t inherently involve physical violence. And it’s unquestionably not the most serious crime committed by the Myanmar military and government. So I genuinely wonder whether an OPT investigation into deportation and deportation alone would be worth it.

Third, although I find much of the brief convincing, I am not completely sold on the OTP’s argument that “an essential legal element of the crime — crossing an international border — occurred on the territory of a State which is a party to the Rome Statute.” The argument assumes that it is not possible to distinguish between crossing an international border and being on the territory of the state on the other side. But is that correct? Can we really not view crossing an international border and being on the territory of the state on the other side as two spatially distinct acts?

Although it does not directly answer the question, there is at least one situation in which civilians can cross an international border without being on the territory of another state — when they are deported to the high seas. The OTP acknowledges as much in its brief. Here is footnote 32:

As a matter of law, however, it is not necessary to prove entry to another State, but merely that the victim has been ejected from the originating State—as such, a victim may potentially be deported to the high seas. What is crucial is that the international border, de jure or de facto, of the originating State is crossed. Hence, customary international law has emphasised consideration of the kinds of borders that might suffice: see e.g. Stakić AJ, para. 300; Đorđević AJ, paras. 533-536; Prlić TJ, Vol. I, para. 47; Popović TJ, para. 892.

The first sentence of the footnote seems important — and complicating. If deportation does not actually require proof of “entry to another State,” only the crossing of an international border, how can we say that an “essential element” of deportation was committed in State Y simply because civilians happened to enter there after crossing an international border? Either entry to another state is an essential element of deportation or it is not — and the high seas example seems to point toward “not.”

This argument does not hold, of course, if an international border is somehow dual territory: the territory of State X and the territory of State Y; the territory of State X and the high seas. An international border cannot be the territory of just the State into which the civilians enter, because that would mean, irrationally, that the border’s spatial location would change depending on which State — X or Y — was doing the deporting. But if an international border is dual territory, the OTP’s theory works: crossing an international border “between” the two states would take place on the territory of both State X and State Y.

There are, in short, two possibilities. The first is to assume that an international border is part of the territory of both of the states it divides. The second is to assume that an international border is part of the territory of neither of the states it divides. The first possibility means that the OTP is correct: the ICC has jurisdiction over the deportation of the Rohingya, because at least one “essential element” of deportation — crossing an international border — took place on the territory of a state party, Bangladesh. The second possibility means that the OTP is wrong: the ICC does not have jurisdiction over the deportation of the Rohingya, because no “essential element” of deportation took place on the territory of a state party, Bangladesh. The essential elements took place either in Myanmar or somewhere that does not qualify as either Myanmar’s territory or Bangladesh’s territory.

To be honest, I have no idea which possibility is correct. I simply do not know enough about the legal status of international borders. I just think the OTP’s assumption that the Rohingya crossing the border into Bangladesh necessarily means that an essential element of deportation took place in Bangladesh is less obvious than it might first appear.

I’m really glad I’m not a member of the Pre-Trial Division right now.

Why Al-Kibar Does Not Contribute to Pre-Emptive Self-Defence

by Kevin Jon Heller

Elena Chachko has an interesting post at Lawfare discussing Israel’s recent public acknowledgement of what the international community has long known: that it was responsible for the 2007 attack on the Al-Kibar nuclear reactor in Syria. Although I agree with much of Chachko’s post, I would take issue with what she says about how the failure of states to condemn the attack at the time and to react to Israel’s new acknowledgment of its responsibility might affect the customary status of pre-emptive self-defence:

It would be unwise to jump to the conclusion that the many states that did not protest the Al-Kibar strike instead acquiesced to it, thus indicating their support for a right to exercise preemptive self-defense to eliminate nuclear threats. Still, one could argue that the clandestine and military nature of the Al-Kibar reactor, its proximity to Israel, and the hostility between Israel and Syria rendered Israel’s “last opportunity to stop an existential threat” argument more plausible now than when it invoked it to justify the destruction of Osirak—a distant, declared, reactor built with French assistance. Under this reasoning, the relatively muted international response could suggest that members of the international community might be willing to entertain preemptive self-defense under such extreme circumstances.

In sum, the question of whether international law now recognizes a right to preemptive self-defense against nuclear threats remains highly contested. But the evolution of the international position from “Opera” to “Outside the Box,” even after Israel acknowledged its role in the latter, is telling. Both scholars and politicians will likely take this evolution into account in discerning state practice on this question going forward.

With respect to Chachko, this argument is problematic. As she acknowledges, Israel has still not articulated any legal justification for the Al-Kibar attack, much less claimed that it represented a legal act of pre-emptive self-defence:

It remains true, however, that we do not know what Israel’s legal position actually was. Israel has yet to provide a public legal justification for the Al-Kibar operation under jus ad bellum. The newly released interviews with members of Israel’s leadership at the time, including then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, did not explicitly address the legal aspects of the decision to carry out the strike. The only  I found in the reports about the strike to the role of lawyers in vetting the operation was a brief mention of then-attorney general Meni Mazuz’s involvement in drafting the government decision that authorized the operation.

Because Israel has not provided a legal justification for the attack, the attack cannot help establish the legality of pre-emptive self-defence. As the ICJ made clear in the Nicaragua case, practice unaccompanied by opinio juris does not contribute to modifying customary rules concerning the use of force (para. 207; emphasis mine):

The Court has no jurisdiction to rule upon the conformity with international law of any conduct of States not parties to the present dispute, or of conduct of the Parties unconnected with the dispute; nor has it authority to ascribe to States legal views which they do not themselves advance. The significance for the Court of cases of State conduct prima facie inconsistent with the principle of non-intervention lies in the nature of the ground offered as justification. Reliance by a State on a novel right or an unprecedented exception to the principle might, if shared in principle by other States, tend towards a modification of customary international law. In fact however the Court finds that States have not justified their conduct by reference to a new right of intervention or a new exception to the principle of its prohibition. The United States authorities have on some occasions clearly stated their grounds for intervening in the affairs of a foreign State for reasons connected with, for example, the domestic policies of that country, its ideology, the level of its armaments, or the direction of its foreign policy. But these were statements of international policy, and not an assertion of rules of existing international law.

For similar reasons, the “relatively muted” response by states to the Al-Kibar attack also cannot help establish the legality of pre-emptive self-defence. It is true that silence in the face of practice can count as acquiescence to a proposed customary rule. But that is only the case when — to quote the ILC’s new Draft Conclusion 3 regarding the formation of custom — “the circumstances called for some reaction.” No reaction is required when a state does not provide a legal justification for its actions. In 2007, Israel did not even acknowledge that it was responsible for the attack. And even now, in 2018, Israel is not claiming that it acted in self-defence. So it would not simply be “unwise” to read too much into the international community’s response to the Al-Kibar attack. It would be legally inappropriate to do so.

I also disagree with Chachko’s claim that silence “could suggest that members of the international community might be willing to entertain preemptive self-defense under such extreme circumstances.” I think it actually suggests the opposite: it is extremely likely that states — particularly those in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) — remained silent about the Al-Kibar attack precisely because Israel neither acknowledged that it was responsible for the attack nor claimed that the attack was a legitimate act of pre-emptive self-defence. As Chachko rightly points out — echoing the Spector/Cohen blog post  she links to — there were sound political and strategic reasons for states, particularly in the Middle East, not to get too worked up about the 2007 attack. In the absence of Israel claiming self-defence, NAM’s silence was legally costless. But it is difficult to believe that it would have remained silent in the face of a legal claim that pre-emptive self-defence is lawful. After all, NAM has consistently denounced pre-emptive self-defence as unlawful.

Israel’s acknowledgment that it was responsible for the Al-Kibar attack is politically important. But it has no legal implications whatsoever.

Five PhDs and One Postdoc at the University of Amsterdam

by Kevin Jon Heller

I am delighted to announce that my law school is advertising six new positions to start in September 2018 — five PhD and one postdoc. The postdoc will be public international law with a focus on international economic law:

The vacancy is for a Postdoctoral researcher in Public International Law. The researcher should have a background in International Economic Law (broadly understood) that allows her/him to possibly contribute to teaching tasks (see below on ‘tasks’).

The postdoctoral researcher should place her/his research within the programme on ‘Law and Justice Across Borders’, in which ACIL collaborates with the Amsterdam Center for European Law and Governance (ACELG) and the Center for the Study of European Private Law (CSECL). Preferably, the postdoctoral researcher should connect to one of ACIL’s research projects (available on the ACIL website).

Three of the PhD positions will focus specifically on international criminal law:

In September 2018 a five year research project will be launched, entitled ‘The Outer limits of Secondary Liability for International Crimes and Serious Human Rights Violations’. The research project is directed by Göran Sluiter, professor in International Criminal Law, and is financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), by means of a VICI-grant.

The project will be embedded within the Amsterdam Center for International Law (ACIL), one of the research priority areas of the University, and the department of Criminal Law.

One of the PhD positions will be devoted to public international law generally:

The PhD researcher will develop his or her project as part of the Amsterdam Center for International Law (ACIL). In principle, the PhD researcher may focus on any aspect of Public International Law. Preferably, the research should connect to one of ACIL’s projects (available on the ACIL website).

The researcher is also encouraged to embed her/his research within the programme on  ‘Law and Justice Across Borders’, though that is not strictly necessary. In that programme, ACIL collaborates with the Amsterdam Center for European Law and Governance (ACELG) and the Center for the Study of European Private Law (CSECL).

And one PhD position will focus on the intersection of public international law and EU law:

The PhD researcher will develop his or her project as part of the Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance (ACELG) and Amsterdam Center for International Law (ACIL). In principle, the PhD researcher may focus on any question that involves aspects of both European Union law and Public International Law.

ACELG and ACIL cooperate together with the Centre for the Study of European Contract Law (CSECL) within the framework of the research platform ‘Law and Justice Across Borders’. An interest in participating in this broader research community is a significant advantage.

Research at ACELG And ACIL employs legal-doctrinal methods of research as well as non-legal methods. An interdisciplinary dimension of research is encouraged.

I strongly encourage Opinio Juris readers to apply. The University of Amsterdam Law School is a great place to work, with a superb Dean in Andre Nollkaemper, a new building in a great location (by the zoo!), numerous excellent ICL/PIL scholars, and a fantastic current group of (relatively new) PhDs and postdocs. With six new additions, our academic culture will be even richer.

The deadline for all the positions is May 1.

The European Convention on Human Rights: the Draft Copenhagen Declaration and the Threat to the European Court

by Roisin Pillay

[Róisín Pillay is Director of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) Europe Programme.] 

The European Court of Human Rights is once more facing a political challenge to its role, in proposals for a new political declaration put forward by the Danish Presidency of the Council of Europe. 
That the Court’s extraordinary success in advancing human rights protection in Europe provokes the dissent of certain governments is nothing new. Neither is this the first time that the eight year long reform process – instigated by the Interlaken Declaration of 2010  in order to deal with the overwhelming caseload of the Court – has been the forum for political resistance to the Court’s perceived intrusion into national affairs.  The reform process has constantly navigated delicate questions of the respective powers of the Court and the Council of Europe Member States.   
Notably, the UK government’s initial proposals for the 2012 Brighton Declaration posed serious threats to the independence and role of the Court, and to the right of individuals to petition it. Ultimately, under pressure from some States as well as civil society, the most damaging of these proposals were not pursued. However they did result in, amongst other things, the enshrining of a reference to the principles of subsidiarity and the “margin of appreciation” that states are considered to enjoy in protecting certain of the Convention rights, in the preamble to Protocol 15  to the Convention. Since then, the Brussels Declaration of 2015 commendably re-directed attention to the problem that is the real root of the Convention system’s struggles: failings in effective national implementation of the Convention rights, which leave victims of human rights violations with no other recourse but to take their case to Strasbourg.
The Danish Government, which took on the rotating Presidency of the Council of Europe in 2017, has now proposed a new political declaration  on the Convention system, to be agreed at a high-level conference of Council of Europe Member States in Copenhagen in April. A draft of the Copenhagen Declaration was published in February. The text, while including some welcome re-affirmations of the need for enhanced national implementation measures and better execution of Court judgments, as well as strengthened selection processes for judges of the Court, also contains proposals that carry significant risks for the independence and role of the Court, and for the consistent protection of Convention rights across the Council of Europe region.  To assure the continued credibility and health of the Convention system, it needs to be significantly amended.
The draft Declaration has already faced sharp criticism, including from a coalition of  international NGOs (including the ICJ) which made detailed proposals for amendments; from Danish NGOs and from academic commentators.  The Court itself has responded cautiously refraining from strong criticism, but drawing attention to the governing framework for the role of the Court under the ECHR and to principles of judicial independence which it notes must be respected by the Declaration.

Three main elements in the Declaration are of particular concern.

First, the draft Declaration emphasises the need for “better balance” between the respective roles of the Court and Member States, based on “shared responsibility” for the protection of the Convention rights (para.11).  The Convention certainly envisages complementary roles and responsibilities for national authorities and the Court within the Convention system: it is the obligation of Member States to respect and protect the Convention rights (Article 1 ECHR) and the role of the Court to supervise this obligation. The Court’s role is clearly set out in Article 19 of the Convention, as “to ensure the observance of the engagements undertaken” by States under the Convention.  Article 32 establishes that the Court’s jurisdiction in doing so extends to “all matters concerning the interpretation and application” of the Convention rights.  The much contested doctrine of the “margin of appreciation” developed in the Court’s jurisprudence applied by the Court in respect of certain rights or aspects of rights only, does not in any way displace or diminish this jurisdiction.

The draft Declaration however, seems to allow for more qualified role, based on an unduly wide interpretation of principles of subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation. The draft emphasises that the Convention rights should not only be secured at national level, but also “determined” there (para.10) and that rights should be protected “predominantly at national level by State authorities in accordance with their constitutional traditions and in light of national circumstances,”  a proposition that appears to leave room for varying standards in the protection of the Convention rights, contrary to the principle of universality. Startlingly, given the only too evident, continuing occurrence of sometimes grave and systematic human rights violations within the Council of Europe region, the draft Declaration confidently asserts that this new emphasis on national adjudication is a “natural step in the evolution of the Convention system” given that the Convention is now well embedded in national legal systems (para.10).

The second aspect of the draft Declaration worthy of particular scrutiny is proposals addressing the “subsidiary rule of the Court”. The principle of the subsidiary nature of the Convention system is long established in the jurisprudence of the Court. It recognises that national authorities are best placed to evaluate local needs and conditions in the implementation of human rights, but also that such implementation must always be subject to the Court’s review. The draft Declaration posits a notion of subsidiarity that appears to restrict the Court’s role, however, stating (without qualification as to the nature of the rights or aspects of rights concerned) that: “the Court … should not take on the role of States Parties whose responsibility it is to ensure that Convention rights and freedoms are respected and protected at national level.” (para.22) Singling out asylum and migration cases, it asserts that where national procedures in these cases operate fairly and in respect for human rights, the court should only intervene “in the most exceptional circumstances”. (para.26) In the context of a political declaration, such language appears to question the scope of the Court’s role under Article 19 of the Convention.  It is all the more concerning because it is followed by direct calls on the Court to apply more “robustly” the principles of subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation.  These are principles of judicial interpretation, whose application should be a matter for the Court alone; in seeking to direct the Court as to their nature and scope, the draft Declaration fundamentally misconstrues the role of the judiciary under the rule of law.

Finally, the most disturbing passages of the draft Declaration are those that promote the idea of a “dialogue” between Member States and the Court. The draft declaration proposes “an ongoing constructive dialogue between States Parties and the Court on their respective roles in applying and developing the Convention” (para.31) and “an ongoing dialogue in which states and their populations are actively involved” (para.32).  Such dialogue would “give a clearer picture of the general views and positions of governments and other stakeholders, thereby solving some of the challenges of developing the Convention over time [and…] anchor the development of human rights more solidly in European democracies.” Although the draft also stipulates that such dialogue should take place “with respect for the independence of the Court and the binding character of its judgments”, this qualification rings hollow against the background of the proposals made; the risk that that they could facilitate inappropriate political pressure on the Court regarding specific cases, principles or standards, is clear, and is difficult to avoid.  

Of course, the Convention system already allows space for the views of Member States on regional human rights standards to be expressed – a “dialogue” of sorts – within the bounds of constitutionalism. First, Member States can continuously shape and develop Council of Europe human rights standards through standard setting in the Committee of Ministers.  In individual cases before the Court, they also have wide powers to put forward their views through third party interventions. “Dialogue” between governments and an independent court outside of these spheres is however no more appropriate than it would be within a national system.   The court’s proper interlocutors in any exchange of views between the national and regional levels are national courts, with which it has already established fruitful dialogues.

It is disappointing to see basic principles of the rule of law such as the independence of the judiciary being called into question within a regional human rights system designed precisely to defend such standards – and which has been so effective in upholding these standards in the region.  It is a cause for continuing concern that regional human rights systems – not only the European Convention system but also notably the Inter-American Court and Commission – increasingly face such challenges arising from the hyper-nationalist politics of their Member States.  

The draft of the Declaration is of course still in its early stages and it is to be hoped that the Member States will heed the warning voices and substantially amend the Declaration.  How should they transform it? The European Convention system undoubtedly needs the political support that a high level political declaration could bring.  First and foremost, it needs a Declaration that would contain clear, specific and practical commitments from the Member States on national implementation and on execution of judgements (drawing on the language in the Brussels declaration). This, combined with better national processes for the often complex exercises involved in executing European Court judgments, would considerably lessen the caseload of the Court.

Second, the Declaration should provide the elements the court needs to be effective in exercising its supervisory role: strong political re-affirmation of support for its role and independence; commitments for sufficient additional resources to deal with its caseload effectively, and improved judicial selection procedures that will ensure that the best candidates can be appointed to the Court and can carry forward its vital work.  It is this last point, as ICJ and OSJI have argued in a recent report on selection of judges for regional human rights courts, can truly ensure that future of the system is strengthened from within. 

These issues are already addressed by the Copenhagen Declaration – they should be placed at its heart, and the text that threatens the independence and role of the Court should be discarded.  As negotiations on the Declaration continue, there is still time for it to make a positive contribution to the future of the Convention system.

The PTC’s Bizarre Request for Additional Information About Afghanistan

by Kevin Jon Heller

As Patryk Labuda noted earlier today on twitter, the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) has ordered the OTP to provide it with additional information concerning the investigation in Afghanistan. Here are the key paragraphs of the order:

3. The Chamber observes that the Prosecutor seeks authorisation to initiate an investigation for crimes committed on the territory of Afghanistan from 1 May 2003 onwards, as well as crimes committed within the context of the situation in other States Parties from 1 July 2002 onwards.2 However, the supporting material provided, particularly in relation to the structure, organisation, and conduct of the Afghan Forces – collectively referred to by the Prosecutor as Afghan National Security Forces or Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (“ANSF”) – mostly falls within the time period 2011 to 2014. Further, little to no information has been provided regarding the structure and organisation of the Islamic State operating in Afghanistan, also refer red to as “Daesh” or “Islamic State Khorasan Province”3. Similarly, the information provided with respect to the structure of the United States of America (“US”) forces falls mainly within the period of 2001-2008, with regard to interrogation policies of the US forces within the period of 2001-2006 and with regard to the conduct of US forces within the period of 2003-2011.

4. The Chamber is of the view that further information is required for the Chamber’s determination under article 15(4) of the Statute. Accordingly, it orders the Prosecutor to submit to the Chamber the following:

a. Any publicly available report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (“UNAMA”) on the treatment of detainees, apart from the reports from 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017 already submitted;

b. Any publicly available report from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (“AIHRC”) on torture, apart from the report from 2012 already submitted;

c. The United Nations (“UN”) Secretary-General reports to the General Assembly on the topic: “The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security”, from the years 2003, 2004, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017;

d. Any publicly available report from the UN Secretary-General to the General Assembly on the topic “Children and armed conflict in Afghanistan”, apart from the report from 2008 already submitted;

e. Further clarification and information, to the extent possible, about the structure and organisation of the Islamic State operating in Afghanistan; and

f. Further clarification and information, to the extent possible, about the structure of the US forces for the time period after 2008; for the interrogation policies of the US forces for the time period after 2006; as well as for the conduct of the US forces for the time period after 2011.

This is actually the second time that the PTC has asked for more information. On 5 December 2017, it ordered the OTP to provide it with “media reports and article 15 communications concerning allegations attributed to special forces of a number of international forces operating in Afghanistan,” as well as as a list of incidents where, in the OTP’s view, “there is a reasonable basis to believe that crimes falling within the jurisdiction of the Court were committed during military operations conducted by international military forces.”

The first request made some sense, given that the PTC generally asked for information either possessed only by the OTP (the communications) or reflecting of the OTP’s internal analysis of the situation in Afghanistan (the list of incidents). The new request, however, is bizarre. To begin with, there is no reason that the PTC could not obtain the information in the first four categories itself, given that it specifically wants the OTP to provide it with “publicly available” information. I know for a fact that the judges have legal officers and access to google. Any reasonably competent researcher could obtain the relevant reports in an hour or so.

A similar criticism could be offered of category five — assuming that the request is not based on the PTC’s belief that the OTP has non-public information about the structure of IS — as well as of the first two requests in category 6. After all, the OTP’s information about interrogation policies comes largely from publicly available sources such as the summary of the Senate Torture Report.

The final request in category 6 — about the conduct of US forces after 2011 — makes some sense, given that the PTC is basically asking the OTP to justify its conclusion that there is a reasonable basis to believe US forces are responsible for mistreating detainees. But I share Patryk’s confusion about why the PTC thinks it needs that information to decide whether to authorize the Afghanistan investigation. Art. 15(4)’s “reasonable basis to proceed” standard is anything but onerous. Such a basis exists, according to Art. 53, as long as the available information (1) “provides a reasonable basis to believe that a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court has been or is being committed”; (2) admissibility is not an issue; and (3) there are no “substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve the interests of justice.” There is no question that the OTP’s request for authorization satisfies requirements 1 and 3, and it cannot seriously be argued that complementarity — the first aspect of the admissibility requirement — counsels against opening the Afghanistan investigation. As the request itself notes, none of the relevant parties (the Afghan government, the US government, and the armed groups) have have investigated or prosecuted those most responsible for international crimes in Afghanistan.

Which leaves gravity, the other aspect of admissibility. The only plausible interpretation of the PTC’s order is that it does not think it can assess the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan without the requested information. But that makes little sense. Can it be seriously maintained that the collective actions of the Afghan military between 2011 and 2014, the actions of the Taliban and IS since 2003, and the actions of US forces and the CIA between 2003 and 2011 are not sufficiently grave to warrant a proprio motu investigation? I dare anyone to read the OTP’s superbly argued and documented 181-page request for authorization and reach that conclusion. (Especially when Afghanistan is compared to, say, the Burundi investigation, which the PTC had no trouble authorizing.)

To be sure, that does not mean the OTP has provided sufficient information concerning the actions of all of the parties at all of the relevant times. But that is where the final clause of Art. 15(4) comes in (emphasis mine):

 If the Pre-Trial Chamber, upon examination of the request and the supporting material, considers that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation, and that the case appears to fall within the jurisdiction of the Court, it shall authorize the commencement of the investigation, without prejudice to subsequent determinations by the Court with regard to the jurisdiction and admissibility of a case.

If the OTP brings a case against an individual whose criminal responsibility cannot be properly assessed without additional information of the kind the PTC wants, it can demand that information when the defendant challenges admissibility or the OTP seeks confirmation of charges. There is no reason why the PTC should demand that information now.

I have little doubt that the OTP will quickly comply with the PTC’s order. But there is no legal or evidentiary reason why it should have to. The PTC already has more than enough information at its disposable to authorize the Afghanistan investigation.

Yes, the Rule of Law Must Remain Central to the Debate on Trumpism

by Ian Seiderman

[Ian Seiderman is the Legal and Policy Director, International Commission of Jurists]

Andrew O’Hehir, an ordinarily astute analyst of US political skullduggery, adopts a contrarian posture when it comes to Trump, Trumpism and the rule of law. He thinks that all the brouhaha about trampling on cherished rule of law traditions misses the point. What’s so precious anyway, he suggests, about mutable law written by corrupt, unprincipled or ideologically charged politicians? Writing in Salon recently, O’Hehir characterizes the rule of law as “a poorly defined principle”:

It seems ludicrous to claim that anyone, of any party or any ideology, actually sees the law as a neutral or abstract force rather than a naked instrument of power.

Nothing has traditionally been more central to Americans’ quasi-religious understanding of their democracy than the importance of the rule of law, which can be broadly defined as the notion that laws should govern people rather than the other way around. (Spoiler alert: There’s an enormous paradox baked into that from the beginning, since it’s always people with power who make the laws in the first place.) That was essentially the basis for the constitutional separation of powers laid out by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which was meant to ensure that the law itself would remain independent of those who enacted it, enforced it or interpreted it.

O’Hehir goes on to point out the obvious: that certain long discredited tenets like the absolute sacrosanctity of property rights and the natural order of slavery were once grounded in principles of law in the United States. He adds that it is in fact the contested political terrain of liberal democracies with their market economies that “produce [a] vision of the law as a neutral, independent and almost mystical force that stands outside the control of any person or any party.”

For those of us who consider the rule of law to be a near-universal principle that can operate comfortably within a broad – though hardly infinite – range of political and economic arrangements, O’Hehir’s arguments do not sit well. He is hardly the first commentator to assume that the “rule of law” is tantamount to “rule by law”: indeed there are advocates of this “thin” notion of the rule of law, epitomized by the writings of 19th century British jurist A.V. Dicey and the “Singapore model”. But this line of thinking ignores the now more dominant conception of the rule of law as not simply a value neutral construct addressed to forms and procedures, but a norm-laden overarching governance framework. (In fairness to O’Hehir, his point is ultimately that the rule of law is an elusive concept, not that it must mean rule by laws imposed by the powerful.)

While the normative concept of the rule of law has long antecedents, a watershed moment for its entrenchment in international law discourse was the Nuremberg and other legislation that emerged during the Third Reich. Thus the Justice Case (United States v- Alstoetter) before Military Tribunal III, the defendants that included judges, prosecutors and officials of the German Ministry of Justice could be held responsible for a criminal enterprise by the very fact that they enacted or enforced legal statutes and decrees, such as the Night and Fog decree. Respecting those perverse laws necessarily meant not respecting the rule of law.

The organization which I serve, the International Commission of Jurists, devoted the first 15 years of its existence during the 1950s and 60s, to defining what we then called the “dynamic” conception of the rule of law. The idea was that the rule of law is not an abstract notion, but necessarily tied to other legal and normative content, especially human rights principles. Rule of law was a broad organizing concept under which a range of correlatives principles could be grouped. And to O’Hehir’s point, those normative principles are quite apart from the underlying subject matter of particular statutory legislation or administrative rules at issue. This view has over time gained widespread international currency, promoted by leading judges, like the late Lord Tom Bingham, endorsed at the political level and serving the basis for major work from UN agencies such as UNDP and OHCHR.

A definitive enumeration of rule of law principles may have so far eluded universally accepted codification, but building on the historic work of the ICJ there have at least been attempts at enumeration. One example, where most of the elements are more or less uncontroversial, has the imprimatur of the States of the UN Rights Council. Its Resolution on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, adopted in 2012, highlights, among many other elements, the principles of the separation of powers; legality; equal protection before courts and under the law; non-discrimination; accountability, including criminal accountability for human rights and IHL violations; the independence and impartiality of the judiciary; the subordination of the military to civilian authorities; access to justice; gender equality; and the right to effective remedies for rights violations.

Whether adherence to rule of law in this kind of progressive framing is by itself sufficient to address the myriad transgressions by Trump and his acolytes, is questionable, but it is certainly part of the equation. For instance, the idea that a State’s prosecution services must be functionally independent of the political arms of the executive is a well entrenched rule of law principle which Trump and his subordinates have certainly run over rough shod, especially in respect of the FBI and Special Counsel investigations on “collusion” and obstruction of justice. The fact that some administered laws could themselves theoretically run afoul of the rule of law or constitute poor policy is a critical but distinct issue that should not blind one to the indispensability of the rule of law itself.

Activating the Crime of Aggression: A Response to Stürchler

by Kevin Jon Heller

Nikolas Stürchler, the Head of International Humanitarian Law and International Criminal Justice Section at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, has a new post at EJIL: Talk! discussing the ASP’s decision to completely exclude states parties from the crime of aggression unless they ratify the aggression amendments — the “opt-in” position advocated by a number of states, most notably the UK, Japan, and Canada. The post is very long and quite technical, so I won’t try to summarise it. Basically, Stürchler argues that the judges are still free to adopt the “opt-out” position, because the Resolution “confirming” the opt-in position, despite being adopted by consensus, conflicts with Art. 15bis(4) of the Rome Statute, which reflects the opt-out position. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

What remains is an operative paragraph 2 that, like the second sentence of paragraph 5 of article 121 of the Rome Statute which it seeks to leverage, stands in contradiction to paragraph 4 of article 15bis of the Rome Statute. Paragraph 4 of article 15bis literally asserts that the Court has jurisdiction over a crime of aggression “arising from an act of aggression 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.” In this sense, it is somewhat difficult to argue that operative paragraph 2 is simply a case of interpreting or clarifying the crime of aggression amendments. If the intended point of operative paragraph 2 is to revise paragraph 4 of article 15bis, the problem is that it was not passed pursuant to the Statute’s amendment provisions. One could argue that the Assembly did no more than clarify that the second sentence of paragraph 5 of article 121 fully applies, thus conditioning the application of article 15bis on a State Party’s ratification or acceptance, but this nonetheless would seem to imply a revision of the plain reading of article 15bis.

Be it as it may, with the Assembly having achieved activation, it is now up to the Court to determine the extent of its jurisdiction over acts of aggression committed by nationals or on the territory of non-ratifying States Parties. It is for this reason that the reference to the independence of the judges in operative paragraph 3 is so important. Pending a clear pronouncement by the Court, the only way for any State Party to legally ensure that its nationals fall outside the remit of the ICC’s jurisdiction continues to be to file an opt-out declaration in accordance with paragraph 4 of article 15bis of the Rome Statute.

I want to make three quick points here. The first is that, in fact, Operative Paragraph 3 (OP3) of the Resolution is completely irrelevant to the jurisdictional question. The judges are independent because of Art. 40 of the Rome Statute; OP3 simply reiterates their independence. So the judges would have the right to decide on the jurisdictional question even if OP3 was not included in the Resolution. (In that regard, I’m not sure why the states promoting the opt-in position were so opposed to OP3. A paragraph that tried to take away judicial independence concerning the interpretation of the new crime of aggression would have been patently ultra vires.)

The second — and more important — point is that Stürchler’s argument about the conflict between Operative Paragraph 2 (OP2) and Art. 15bis(4) is remarkably selective. The underlying principle is that the ASP cannot adopt a provision that conflicts with an article in the Rome Statute unless it formally amends the Rome Statute itself. As he writes, “[i]f the intended point of operative paragraph 2 is to revise paragraph 4 of article 15bis, the problem is that it was not passed pursuant to the Statute’s amendment provisions.” I agree with the principle! But here is the problem: Art. 15bis(4) was also not adopted pursuant to the Rome Statute’s amendment provisions. Art. 121(5)’s second sentence “literally asserts” that, “[i]n respect of a State Party which has not accepted the amendment, the Court shall not exercise its jurisdiction regarding a crime covered by the amendment when committed by that State Party’s nationals or on its territory.” Art. 15bis(4)’s requirement of an opt-out thus can only apply to a state that has ratified the aggression amendments. If a state does not ratify the amendments, Art. 121(5) — which pre-existed Art. 15bis(4) — controls, the unamended Rome Statute applies to that state, and the Court has no jurisdiction over an act of aggression committed by that state’s nationals or on its territory.

This is not — or should not be — a controversial point. Not even the opt-out positions’s most fervent defenders claim that the adoption of Art 15bis(4) was consistent with the amendment provisions in Art. 121(5). Instead, they argue that the ASP agreed by consensus to apply only the first sentence of Art. 121(5), excluding the inconvenient second sentence. Stürchler’s own principle, therefore, means that the judges are perfectly free to ignore Art. 15bis(4) and apply Art. 121(5) as written — thus ending up with the same opt-in provision that OP2 is designed to confirm. Stürchler and the other opt-out proponents cannot have it both ways: either both OP2 and Art. 15bis(4) are valid (in which case opt-in applies) or neither of them are (in which case opt-in applies).

The third and final point is that Stürchler’s principle — that the ASP cannot adopt a provision that conflicts with an article in the Rome Statute unless it formally amends the Rome Statute itself — supports what I argued a few weeks ago: that the new weapons amendments adopted by the ASP apply to non-states parties even though the ASP declared that they do not. As I noted in that post, the ASP did not amend the Rome Statute to exclude non-states parties, as it did with the crime of aggression. Instead, the ASP simply confirmed its understanding that the new war crimes (covering the use of biological, fragmenting, and blinding weapons) would not apply to non-states parties. According to Stürchler’s principle, therefore, the judges are free to ignore the ASP’s declaration and apply the Court’s normal jurisdictional regime in Art. 12(2) to the new war crimes — which means that the Court has every right to prosecute the national of a non-state party who uses a prohibited weapon on the territory of a state party.

No, There Is No International Legal Basis for the “Bloody Nose” Strategy

by Kevin Jon Heller

At Lawfare yesterday, two law professors at West Point defended the US’s right to attack North Korea if it tests another nuclear weapon or fires another missile into Japanese waters:

North Korea is extraordinarily close to becoming a . This very real possibility has reportedly resulted in the United States debating a limited military strike dubbed the “bloody nose” strategy. In effect,  would allow for a timely and proportional response against North Korean sites in the event of another nuclear test or missile launch. For , such a strike might include using force to target a North Korean missile site or a military base. The hope would be that such a strike would “” and “illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior” without “igniting an all-out-war on the Korean Peninsula.”

In the authors’ view, “[t]here is a strong argument such a strike would be lawful” either as collective self-defense of Japan or as individual self-defense by the US.

I disagree.

The fundamental problem is that “another nuclear test or missile launch” would not qualify as an armed attack sufficient to give rise to the right of either collective or individual self-defense. The authors make no attempt to explain how another nuclear test would be an armed attack — which is not surprising, given that previous tests have all been on North Korean territory (with terrible consequences for North Koreans). And here is their argument concerning another conventional missile launch:

More difficult is determining whether North Korea’s current behavior justifies the limited military strike proposed in the “bloody nose” strategy. Consider, for example, another North Korean test in which it launches an unarmed missile into Japanese sovereign territory. Arguably, a test rocket without armed explosives is merely a delivery system, not a “weapon.” On the other hand, such a rocket is capable of causing “” and thus could be construed as a “weapon.” According to the and the , a “[b]ombardment by the armed forces of a State against the territory of another State, or the use of any weapons by a State against the territory of another State” is an act of aggression. Such a North Korean missile launch would seem to fall within this definition and could  as an armed attack.

On the contrary, such an interpretation would not be reasonable — even if we accept the idea that an unarmed missile is a weapon. Tom Ruys has carefully analysed state practice concerning when a de minimis attack qualifies as an armed attack for purposes of self-defense. Here is his conclusion (p. 155; emphasis mine):

In the end, customary practice suggests that, subject to the necessity and proportionality criteria, even small-scale bombings, artillery, naval or aerial attacks qualify as ‘armed attacks’ activating Article 51 UN Charter, as long as they result in, or are capable of resulting in destruction of property or loss of lives. By contrast, the firing of a single missile into some uninhabited wasteland as a mere display of force, in contravention of Article 2(4) UN Charter, would arguably not reach the gravity threshold.

The attack that the authors imagine — an unarmed missile fired into Japan’s territorial sea — is precisely the kind of attack that is not “capable of resulting in destruction of property or loss of lives.” That attack thus cannot give rise to the right of self-defense. Indeed, even the source that the authors cite, Karl Zemanek’s entry “Armed Attack” in the Max Planck Encyclopedia of International Law, rejects their insistence that an unarmed missile fired into Japan’s territorial sea could “reasonably be interpreted as an armed attack.” Here is what Zemanek says about de minimis attacks (emphasis mine):

In sum, it is submitted that regardless of the dispute over degrees in the use of force, or over the quantifiability of victims and damage, or over harmful intentions, an armed attack even when it consists of a single incident, which leads to a considerable loss of life and extensive destruction of property, is of sufficient gravity to be considered an ‘armed attack’ in the sense of Art. 51 UN Charter.

The authors’ claim that the US would be entitled to act in “collective self-defense” in response to an “armed attack” in the form of an unarmed missile fired into Japan’s territorial waters is also problematic. Here is their argument:

The 1960  of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan states “[e]ach Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.” This treaty may provide a basis for the United States’ to engage in a limited retaliatory strike. One could argue that, pursuant to the 1986  out of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United States would have to obtain Japan’s affirmative consent before engaging in a strike against North Korea in collective self-defense. However, Article 51 certainly does not refer to any such prerequisite, and the ICJ’s conclusion in Nicaragua is . On a more practical note, it is highly unlikely  a collective self-defense strike by the United States.

It is not clear why the authors believe that Japan would not need need to specifically consent to “collective self-defense.” There are two possible interpretations of their argument: (1) the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation automatically provides the US with the consent it needs to “defend” Japan in case of an armed attack; (2) collective self-defense never requires the consent of the attacked state. The authors’ criticism of the Nicaragua judgment implies that they take position (2). As Ruys explains, however, state practice — from Jordan in 1958 to South Vietnam in 1965 to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 — indicates that collective self-defense is lawful only when the state with the right of individual self-defense requests it (pp. 88-89):

This brings us to the third and decisive reason why the conception of collective ‘defence of the other’, endorsed by the ICJ and a majority of legal scholars, holds the upper hand over the ‘defence of the self’ approach: customary practice provides virtually no support either for the requirement that a proximity relationship should exist, or for the idea that collective self-defence may be exercised absent the approval of the actual victim State. On the contrary, practice convincingly shows that a State which is the subject of an attack has a legal right to ask for military assistance.

[snip]

In sum, in each case, what was deemed crucial was whether the actual victim State had a right of individual self-defence, and whether it approved of the actions of the assisting State. Of course, the assisting State will most often have some sort of interest in responding to the victim’s request; States seldom engage in military action out of pure altruism. Yet, practice makes clear that a proximate relationship is not a legal criterion; only the victim State’s approval is.

The stronger argument, then, is that the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation would automatically provide the necessary consent for US to engage in “collective self-defense.” Aurel Sari raised this possibility on Twitter last night. I am not convinced that the Treaty eliminates the need for Japan’s consent to armed force being used on its behalf. In particular, Art. IV provides that “[t]he Parties will consult together… at the request of either Party, whenever the security of Japan or international peace and security in the Far East is threatened,” which seems to contemplate acts of self-defense being undertaken only with the specific agreement of both Japan and the US. But Aurel’s argument must still be taken seriously, and it provides the only coherent basis for the authors’ position on collective self-defense.

(As an aside, I find very unconvincing the author’s casual assertion that “it is highly unlikely  a collective self-defense strike by the United States.” On the contrary, I think Japan would be quite likely to oppose the US responding to a unarmed missile attack by using force — even relatively restrained force — directly against North Korea. A North Korean response would be more likely to target Japan than the US. So Japan would have every incentive not to consent to “collective self-defense” in such a situation.)

Finally, I find very unconvincing the author’s insistence that the US is close to having an individual right of self-defense against North Korea:

Even without another missile targeting Japan, the United States could arguably rely on its own Article 51 individual right of self-defense to justify a “bloody nose” strike. While somewhat controversial, the United States interprets the individual right of self-defense to allow for a preemptive-but-proportional  when the need to do so is . In other words, if the United States determines North Korea’s behavior indicates a forthcoming attack it can act in self-defense before absorbing the first blow.

North Korea’s recent activities help support a preemptive self-defense argument. Despite extensive efforts by the international community, including through , and , North Korea continues to defiantly test powerful nuclear weapons and launch ballistic missiles. Furthermore, it has gone to great lengths to conceal its nuclear testing program by creating underground facilities and intricate . This behavior, coupled with North Korea’s pattern of  and  against the United States and other nations, makes a preemptive use of force seem more and more . As the North Korean threat increases and non-military measures are exhausted, it becomes reasonable to believe that the last opportunity for the United States to act is fast approaching.

There is no question that the US would have the right to act in self-defense to prevent an imminent attack by North Korea — anticipatory self-defense. But the authors seem to adopt an understanding of self-defence’s necessity requirement that goes well beyond the traditional Caroline standard of imminence, according to which the need to act must be “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” They specifically argue for preemptive self-defense, a term that the US traditionally uses to describe self-defense against attacks that are not imminent.(The Bush doctrine is an example.) And they invoke the “last opportunity to act” test, which is not necessarily inconsistent with anticipatory self-defense, but can easily be interpreted to allow for preemptive self-defense, as Adil Haque nicely explains here.

If the authors are endorsing a view of self-defense that does not require an imminent attack, their position is clearly wrong. Here is Ruys again (pp. 336-38):

[T]here can be no doubt that even among States adhering to the “counter-restrictionist” view, support for self-defence against non-imminent threats is virtually non-existent. Apart from the fact that the sponsors of Operation “Iraqi Freedom” avoided this justification, it may be observed that many States, such as Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Uganda, Singapore or Liechtenstein, which professed support for anticipatory self-defence after 2002, nonetheless placed great weight on the imminence requirement. Germany, for instance, expressly denounced an erosion of the Charter framework and State practice via the notion of “preventive self-defence.” Likewise, the French politique de defense unequivocally “rejects… the notion of preventive self-defence.”

What is more, even the “traditional” adherents of the counter-restrictionist interpretation of Article 51 generally appear to uphold the imminence requirement. Despite bold statements by its Prime Minister on the need to adapt the UN Charter, Australia’s response to “In Larger Freedom” was rather cautious: it simply “[supported] reaffirmation by the Secretary-General that Article 51 of the Charter adequately covers the inherent right to self-defence against actual and imminent attack.” Israel called for an explicit recognition in the World Summit Outcome that States may use force in self-defence “in the event of both actual and imminent attacks.” As far as the British position is concerned, Attorney- General Lord Goldsmith in 2004 declared before the House of Lords that: “It is… the Government’s view that international law permits the use of force in self-defence against an imminent attack but does not authorize the use of force to mount a pre-emptive strike against a threat that is more remote.”…

[W]e may therefore conclude that the trend in State practice has been broadly similar to that in legal doctrine: support for anticipatory self-defence has increased, but has by and large restricted this concept to imminent threats.

By contrast, if the authors believe that an imminent attack is required but want to define “imminent” to include the “last opportunity to act” test,” they are not necessarily arguing for an unlawful version of self-defense. It depends on how broadly they interpret “last opportunity to act.” An acceptably narrow definition of the test does, however, seem inconsistent with the authors’ insistence that “[a]s the North Korean threat increases and non-military measures are exhausted, it becomes reasonable to believe that the last opportunity for the United States to act is fast approaching.” To begin with, although there is certainly cause for concern, North Korea does not seem particularly close to having the technology necessary to attack the US mainland with a nuclear missile. Moreover — and more importantly — despite its belligerence and bluster, there is little evidence that North Korea actually wants to attack the US, much less intends to do so as soon as possible. North Korea has long had the ability to launch a conventional attack against numerous US installations overseas — and probably now has the ability to reach the US mainland with a conventional missile. Yet no such attack has ever taken place.

Is it possible that, at some point, the US will have the legal right to attack North Korea in self-defense? Absolutely. But that time is not now — even if North Korea fires another unarmed missile into Japanese territorial waters. And there is little reason to believe that the “last opportunity for the United States to act is fast approaching.” Any argument at present for the “bloody nose” strategy, therefore, is both legally unsound and profoundly counterproductive.

A Problematic Take on the Lubanga Trial

by Kevin Jon Heller

Justice in Conflict has a guest post today from a scholar who has written a book about the Lubanga trial. I think the post makes some excellent points about the problems with the trial. But I have serious reservations — acknowledging that I have not read the book — about the author’s take on why the trial did not focus on sexual violence:

Another [serious flaw] was the Chamber’s embargo on sexual violence. The matter of sexual violence loomed large in the trial not by its presence but by its absence. It became the trial’s trademark shame, a conspicuous token of the Chamber’s failure to place the substance of the Ituri province’s tragedy above the Chamber’s perpetual legal jousting. For most of the trial the Chamber did what it could to hear as little as possible about how frequently young women were raped and enslaved.

This is both unfair and mistaken. There is one reason, and one reason only, that sexual violence did not figure more prominently in the trial: Luis Moreno-Ocampo decided not to charge Lubanga with the relevant war crimes or crimes against humanity, choosing instead to focus exclusively on the war crime of conscripting or enlisting child soldiers. Here, for example, is what Patricia Viseur Sellers, a former Legal Advisor for Gender and prosecutor at the ICTY has to say:

Crimes of sexual violence were not charged. Such accusations were certainly within the purview of the Prosecutor. The Prosecutor could have brought charges related to sexual violence. Under the ICC Statute, enslavement, rape, torture, sexual slavery and inhuman acts are defined as crimes against humanity. In the Lubanga case, charges were brought under Article 8, war crimes, and as such could have included charges of torture, rape, sexual slavery or outrages upon personal dignity.

The Trial Chamber noted that they chose not to amend the charges. The Prosecutor could have amended the indictment at anytime prior to trial or even at a reasonable moment during the presentation of the prosecution case [to include charges for crimes of sexual violence]. The Prosecutor has suggested that to do so would have been detrimental to the due process rights of the accused. However, in the event of granting the Prosecutor’s move to amend, the Trial Chamber could have allowed the accused whatever time he needed to prepare his case in light of additional charges. That is a fairly standard procedure at other international tribunals.

Given Moreno-Ocampo’s decision to charge Lubanga solely with conscripting or enlisting child soldiers, the Trial Chamber had no choice but to limit the amount of testimony the prosecution could introduce regarding sexual violence. The Chamber explained why in paras. 629 and 630 of its judgment:

629. Notwithstanding the conclusions set out above, and given the submissions made at various stages of the proceedings, the Chamber needs finally to address how the issue of sexual violence is to be treated in the context of Article 8(2)(e)(vii) of the Statute. It is to be noted that although the prosecution referred to sexual violence in its opening and closing submissions, it has not requested any relevant amendment to the charges. During the trial the legal representatives of victims requested the Chamber to include this conduct in its consideration of the charges, and their joint request led to Decisions on the issue by the Trial Chamber and the Appeals Chamber (viz. whether it was permissible the change the legal characterisation of the facts to include crimes associated with sexual violence). Not only did the prosecution fail to apply to include rape and sexual enslavement at the relevant procedural stages, in essence it opposed this step. It submitted that it would cause unfairness to the accused if he was tried and convicted on this basis.

630. In accordance with the jurisprudence of the Appeals Chamber, the Trial Chamber’s Article 74 Decision shall not exceed the facts and circumstances (i.e. the factual allegations) described in the charges and any amendments to them. The Trial Chamber has earlier pointed out that “[f]actual allegations potentially supporting sexual slavery are simply not referred to at any stage in the Decision on the Confirmation of Charges”.1810 Regardless of whether sexual violence may properly be included within the scope of “using [children under the age of 15] to participate actively in hostilities” as a matter of law,1811 because facts relating to sexual violence were not included in the Decision on the Confirmation of Charges, it would be impermissible for the Chamber to base its Decision pursuant to Article 74(2) on the evidence introduced during the trial that is relevant to this issue.

Moreover, I think the author’s claim that “[t]he matter of sexual violence loomed large in the trial not by its presence but by its absence” is considerably overstated. Not only did sexual violence figure prominently in both the prosecution’s opening and closing arguments, as the Trial Chamber notes in its judgment, there was also considerable testimony concerning sexual violence during trial. The judgment points out in a footnote (n. 54) that 30 different witnesses, 18 female, 12 male, “referred to acts of sexual violence which they either suffered or witnessed.” And it discusses testimony given by one witness, P-0046, at length. Here is just a snippet of P-0046’s testimony:

890. According to the evidence of P-0046, all the girls she met at the demobilisation centres, except for a few who had been protected by certain women in the camps, told the witness that they had been sexually abused, most frequently by their commanders but also by other soldiers. Some fell pregnant, resulting in abortions; and there were instances of multiple abortions. The witness gave evidence that the psychological and physical state of some of these young girls was catastrophic.

891. The youngest victim of this sexual abuse interviewed by P-0046 was 12 years old. The witness stated that some of those who became pregnant were thrown out of the armed group and ended up on the streets of Bunia. Others went to join their relatives, and although they may have felt they remained part of the UPC, the latter failed to provide them with support. It was difficult to reintegrate them into their families because the girls were stigmatised, and significant mediation was necessary. The witness stated that the children provided her with a clear account of systematic sexual violence in the camps.

Should the Lubanga trial have included specific crimes of sexual violence? Absolutely. But the absence of those charges and the (relatively) limited testimony concerning sexual violence cannot be attributed to the Trial Chamber. If you are looking for someone to blame — and you should be — blame Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

NOTE: I have not addressed the victims’ efforts to add sexual-violence charges in the middle of trial. If you want to blame the Chamber for rejecting that request, fair enough. But I have already explained why I think the Chamber was correct.