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Human Rights

Vargas Niño’s Mistaken Critique of My Position on Burundi

by Kevin Jon Heller

Spreading the Jam has a guest post today from Santiago Vargas Niño criticising my argument that the OTP was required to notify Burundi as soon as it decided to ask the OTP to authorize the investigation. Here is what he says:

Professor Heller cites Article 15(6) to argue that, by receiving information under articles 15(1) and 15(2) of the Statute, the Prosecution has initiated an investigation. An equally plain reading of Article 18 would suggest that a parallel duty to notify concerned States would arise as soon as a situation caught the Prosecutor’s eye. Yet he acknowledges that “notification cannot be required every time the OTP decides to advance a preliminary examination (…) The better interpretation of Art. 18 is that notification is required once the OTP has decided to ask the PTC to authorize an investigation.”

Not only is that moment different to the “initiation” of an investigation, both under articles 15 and 18, thus rendering any claims of “natural” interpretation of the Statute inane, but professor Heller’s amalgamation of preliminary examination and investigation flies in the face of Article 15(3). This provision orders the Prosecution to submit a request for authorisation if it concludes that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation. Years of unchallenged practice have led to the understanding that such conclusion can only be reached through the preliminary examination, a stage that precedes the opening of an investigation and that is described by Article 15(2) – not by Article 15(1). Professor Heller’s argument also discounts the significance of Article 15(4), which squarely attributes the power to authorise the “commencement” (i.e. “initiation”) of an investigation to the PTC, and which conditions it upon the Prosecution’s demonstration that there is a reasonable basis to proceed under Article 53(1).

Furthermore, equating the launch of a preliminary examination with the artificial “initiation” of an investigation under Article 15(1) is extremely risky. If that were the case, the Prosecution should not have rushed to apply for authorisation to commence an investigation in Burundi before 25 October 2017 because its preliminary examination would have constituted a “criminal [investigation] (…) which [was] commenced prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective” under Article 127. Such interpretation would also allow the Prosecution to exercise its powers under Article 54, as professor Jacobs puts it, since the moment: “an OTP investigator sitting in front of his computer in The Hague [starts] downloading HRW and Amnesty International reports.”

According to Vargas Niño, my argument “stems solely from [my] peculiar approach to Article 15.” Alas, it is his approach that is peculiar. And not just peculiar — wrong…

A Response to Dov Jacobs on the Burundi Investigation

by Kevin Jon Heller

At Spreading the Jam, Dov Jacobs defends the Pre-Trial Chamber’s conclusion in the Burundi situation that the OTP is not required to notify a state until after the PTC has authorized an investigation. Here are the critical paragraphs from his post:

Note the different language used [in Art. 18] depending on whether there is a referral under 13(a) (state referral) or 13(b) (proprio motu): in the former case, the notification must come when “the Prosecutor has determined that there would be a reasonable basis to commence an investigation”, in the latter the notification must come when “the Prosecutor initiates an investigation” pursuant to Article 15. This seems to mean that the initiation of an investigation is something different, in a proprio motu context, that the fact that the OTP considers that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation. For me, this means that all procedural steps of Article 15 need to have been followed (including the formal authorisation) before the notification obligation of Article 18 kicks in. The determination by the Prosecutor that “there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation” (Article 15(3)), which is sufficient to initiate an investigation under 13(a) is only one step of the procedure under article 15. Kevin seems to equate the authorisation under 15(4) and authorisation under 18(2). But I think these are two different “authorisations”. Under 15(4), a PTC authorises the initiation of a proprio motu investigation, while under 18(2), it is an authorisation to investigate despite the request for deferral by a State, irrespective of whether the investigation was initiated initially under 13(a) or 13(c).

I think the confusion comes from a possible misunderstanding on the scope of Article 18. Article 18 provides for a limited procedure to be followed for a preliminary ruling on admissibility which I think is self-contained within Article 18. Which means that in my view the notification requirement under Article 18 cannot be read in as a condition for the validity of the Article 15 procedure. I should add also that Article 18 does not lead to a formal challenge to admissibility, which will fall under Article 19. In this sense, I do not think Kevin is right (whether one agrees with his interpretation of Article 18 or not) in saying that Burundi will not be able to challenge admissibility before a case is brought. They will be able to do so at any time (especially given the ICC’s case law that “case” in the Rome Statute does not really mean “case” in the context of admissibility questions, which is why everybody assesses admissibility as early as the PE phase. I think that doesn’t make sense, but that is a different debate…).

In my view, though clever, Dov’s argument is problematic. The first problem concerns his claim that “all procedural steps of Article 15 need to have been followed (including the formal authorisation) before the notification obligation of Article 18 kicks in.” That position is irreconcilable with Art. 15. As I pointed out in my previous post, Art. 15 not only specifically distinguishes between the OTP initiating an investigation proprio motu (paragraph 1) and the PTC authorizing the commencement of that investigation (paragraph 4), it specifically deems the former but not the latter part of the preliminary-examination process (paragraph 6). Paragraph 6 makes no sense if “initiates” in paragraph 1 refers to all of the steps in Art. 15, including authorization.

The only way Dov can avoid that critique is to assert that “initiates” in Art. 15(1) does not mean the same thing as “initiates” in Art. 18(1). If they mean the same thing, Art. 18(1)’s notification requirement necessarily kicks in — as I previously argued — prior to the PTC authorizing the proprio motu investigation (because Art. 15(6) says initiating is part of the preliminary-examination process and authorization is not). Dov provides no evidence that “initiates” means different things in Art. 18(1) and Art. 15(1), and any such argument is difficult to reconcile with the fact that Art. 18(1) specifically refers to “the Prosecutor initiat[ing] an investigation pursuant to articles 13 (c) and 15,” thereby using “initiates” in Art. 15(1) to give meaning to Art. 18(1)’s notification requirement. Moreover, if the drafters of Art. 18 wanted the proprio motu notification requirement to kick in only after all of the steps in Art. 15 had been completed, why would they not simply have written “or the Court authorizes the commencement of the investigation” instead of “or the Prosecutor initiates an investigation”?

Equally problematic is Dov’s insistence that Burundi will be able to challenge the validity of the proprio motu investigation even though the PTC has already formally authorized it. Dov’s argument to that effect is strangely devoid of any reference to the actual language of Art. 19; he simply says that “’case’ in the Rome Statute does not really mean ‘case’ in the context of admissibility questions.” If Dov believes that Art. 19 allows a state to shut down an already-authorized proprio motu investigation by invoking complementarity, he should make the argument. In my view, nothing in Art. 19 permits such a challenge, given that the Article is limited — both in name and in terms of its specific provisions — to cases. Art. 19(2) is particularly revealing in that regard, as it specifically limits jurisdiction and admissibility challenges to “[a]n accused or a person for whom a warrant of arrest or a summons to appear has been issued under article 58” (subparagraph a) or “[a] State which has jurisdiction over a case, on the ground that it is investigating or prosecuting the case or has investigated or prosecuted” (subparagraph b).

Dov’s reading also makes a mishmash of the relationship between Art. 19 and Art. 15. If Dov is right, a state can use a complementarity challenge under Art. 19 to shut down a proprio motu investigation that has already been authorized by the PTC under Art. 15. Yet the PTC has to consider issues of complementarity in order to authorize a proprio motu investigation in the first place, because it has to find the OTP’s contemplated cases admissible in order to conclude that there is a “reasonable basis to proceed with [the[ investigation.” Dov’s position thus requires the PTC to consider complementarity twice in Burundi-like situations: once when the OTP asks it to authorize a proprio motu investigation ex parte (under Art. 15), and again when the affected state asks it  to defer the investigation (under Art. 18). When deciding to authorize the investigation, the PTC will hear only from the OTP; when deciding to defer the investigation, the PTC will hear from both the OTP and the PTC. Why would the drafters of the Rome Statute adopted such a duplicative and cumbersome process? My (textually sound) interpretation of Art. 18’s notification process makes much more sense, because it means that the PTC will only address complementarity once, before it authorizes a proprio motu investigation.

My interpretation is also superior to Dov’s in terms of the politics of proprio motu investigations. If Dov’s interpretation of the Rome Statute is correct, a state facing referral by another state can use Art. 18 to prevent the PTC from ever formally approving the OTP’s belief that an investigation is warranted, while a state facing proprio motu investigation cannot invoke Art. 18 until after the PTC has formally approved a similar belief. States are thus better off being referred by another state than being investigated proprio motu whenever the OTP can convince the PTC to grant the latter ex parte. It goes without saying, however, that states at the Rome Conference were far more concerned by proprio motu investigations than state referrals.

Dov’s defense of the PTC’s interpretation of Art. 18’s notification requirement is very clever. But I think it’s also clearly incorrect.

How the PTC Botched the Ex Parte Request to Investigate Burundi

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week I argued that the OTP’s failure to ask the Pre-Trial Chamber to authorize an investigation prior to Burundi’s withdrawal from the ICC becoming effective — 28 October 2017 — meant that the Court no longer had jurisdiction over crimes committed on Burundi’s territory prior to that date. I still think my legal analysis is correct, but my factual assumption was clearly not. As it turns out, the OTP filed an authorization request with the PTC on September 15, but did so ex parte and under seal — a possibility the ever-brilliant Sergey Vasiliev discussed a few days ago here at Opinio Juris. The PTC authorized the investigation on October 25, three days before Burundi’s withdrawal became effective, but only released a public redacted version of its decision yesterday, November 9. As it stands now, therefore, the ICC retains jurisdiction over crimes committed in Burundi prior to 28 October 2017.

Unfortunately, the PTC’s decision contains a critical legal flaw — one whose importance cannot be overstated. Because the OTP filed its request to open an investigation ex parte and under seal, Burundi was not informed that the request existed until after the PTC had already decided to grant the request and authorize the investigation. The PTC makes this clear in paragraph 11 of its decision:

11. In sum, the Chamber finds that, on the basis of a combined reading of articles 15(3), 18 and 68(1) of the Statute and rule 50(1) of the Rules, a procedure pertaining to a request for authorization of an investigation may, under certain circumstances, be conducted under seal, ex parte, with the Prosecutor only.

In fact, the OTP did not even inform Burundi about the investigation immediately after the PTC authorized it, because the PTC accepted the OTP’s argument that it needed 10 additional days to ensure that victims and witnesses were protected. (See paragraphs 16-19.)

Here is the problem: Art. 18 of the Rome Statute required the OTP to notify Burundi when it initiated the investigation into the situation there, not when the PTC authorized the investigation. Here is what the PTC says in paragraph 17 (emphasis mine)…

Initial Thoughts on the ICC’s Decision to Investigate Afghanistan

by Kevin Jon Heller

Very significant news out of the ICC today: after a decade-long preliminary examination, the OTP has finally decided to ask the Pre-Trial Chamber to authorize a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan. Here is a snippet from Fatou Bensouda’s announcement:

For decades, the people of Afghanistan have endured the scourge of armed conflict.  Following a meticulous preliminary examination of the situation, I have come to the conclusion that all legal criteria required under the Rome Statute to commence an investigation have been met.  In due course, I will file my request for judicial authorisation to open an investigation, submitting that there is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in connection with the armed conflict in Afghanistan.  It will be for the Judges of the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber, constituted by the Presidency, to decide whether I have satisfied them that the Statute’s legal criteria to authorise opening an investigation are fulfilled.

Given the limited temporal scope of the Court’s jurisdiction, my request for judicial authorisation will focus solely upon war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed since 1 May 2003 on the territory of Afghanistan as well as war crimes closely linked to the situation in Afghanistan allegedly committed since 1 July 2002 on the territory of other States Parties to the Rome Statute.  The Court has no jurisdiction respecting crimes alleged to have been committed before those cut-off dates.

Assuming the PTC grants the OTP’s request — which is basically a foregone conclusion — Afghanistan will become (following Georgia) the second ICC investigation outside of Africa.

It will be very interesting to see how the US reacts to the announcement. The OTP made it clear in its 2016 preliminary-examination report that it intends to investigate crimes committed by the US military and the CIA:

211. The information available provides a reasonable basis to believe that, in the course of interrogating these detainees, and in conduct supporting those interrogations, members of the US armed forces and the US Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) resorted to techniques amounting to the commission of the war crimes of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape. These acts are punishable under articles 8(2)(c)(i) and (ii) and 8(2)(e)(vi) of the Statute. Specifically:

  • Members of US armed forces appear to have subjected at least 61 detained persons to torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity on the territory of Afghanistan between 1 May 2003 and 31 December 2014. The majority of the abuses are alleged to have occurred in 2003-2004.
  • Members of the CIA appear to have subjected at least 27 detained persons to torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity and/or rape on the territory of Afghanistan and other States Parties to the Statute (namely Poland, Romania and Lithuania) between December 2002 and March 2008. The majority of the abuses are alleged to have occurred in 2003-2004.

212. These alleged crimes were not the abuses of a few isolated individuals. Rather, they appear to have been committed as part of approved interrogation techniques in an attempt to extract ‘actionable intelligence’ from detainees. According to information available, the resort to such interrogation techniques was ultimately put to an end by the authorities concerned, hence the limited time-period during which the crimes allegedly occurred.

213. The Office considers that there is a reasonable basis to believe these alleged crimes were committed in furtherance of a policy or policies aimed at eliciting information through the use of interrogation techniques involving cruel or violent methods which would support US objectives in the conflict in Afghanistan. Likewise, there is a reasonable basis to believe that all the crimes identified herein have a nexus to the Afghanistan conflict.

If the US formally challenges the investigation — a big if, because it would probably see doing so as an acknowledgment of the investigation’s legitimacy — it will no doubt rely on Mike Newton’s argument in the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law that the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Afghanistan and the United States precludes the ICC from exercising jurisdiction over American soldiers. (The SOFA presumably doesn’t apply to CIA operatives, who are not part of the US armed forces.) Oversimplifying a bit, Mike argues that Afghanistan has no jurisdiction that it can delegate to the ICC, because the SOFA provides that the US retains exclusive jurisdiction over crimes committed by American soldiers. I disagree with the argument, for reasons ably laid out by Roger O’Keefe and Carsten Stahn. But it is a serious argument that deserves serious consideration.

Like Dov Jacobs, I am also intrigued by the OTP’s stated intention to investigate crimes committed by the CIA in Romania, Lithuania, and Poland. There is no jurisdictional problem, because those states are all members of the ICC and the the SOFA that applies to NATO states is based on shared jurisdiction, not exclusive jurisdiction. And I don’t think anything in the Rome Statute prohibits the OTP from defining a situation to include territory of multiple states. But we have definitely never seen a situation like this before.

I doubt that we will see the ICC issue arrest warrants for an American soldier or CIA operative anytime soon. My guess is that the OTP will begin with crimes committed by the Taliban, which will be much easier to investigate and prosecute than American crimes. (If only because Donald Trump might be crazy enough to actually invade The Hague if the Court ever got its hands on an American.) But this is still a momentous — if long overdue — day for the ICC. Opening an investigation that could lead to Americans being prosecuted, even if only in theory, is a remarkable act of bravery for a Court that has proven largely impotent with regard to crimes committed by government officials.

Kudos to Fatou Bensouda and the OTP.

A Dissenting Opinion on the ICC and Burundi

by Kevin Jon Heller

As has been widely reported, Burundi has just become the first state to formally withdraw from the ICC. The OTP has been examining the situation in Burundi since April 2016, but it did not formally ask the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) to authorize an investigation prior to Burundi’s withdrawal becoming effective. So what does Burundi’s withdrawal mean for the OTP’s preliminary examination (PE)? Can the OTP still ask the PTC to authorize an investigation into crimes committed in Burundi prior to withdrawal? Or does Burundi’s withdrawal divest the Court of jurisdiction over the situation?

The relevant provision is Art. 127(2) of the Rome Statute (my emphasis):

A State shall not be discharged, by reason of its withdrawal, from the obligations arising from this Statute while it was a Party to the Statute, including any financial obligations which may have accrued. Its withdrawal shall not affect any cooperation with the Court in connection with criminal investigations and proceedings in relation to which the withdrawing State had a duty to cooperate and which were commenced prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective, nor shall it prejudice in any way the continued consideration of any matter which was already under consideration by the Court prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective.

The ICC is taking the position that Art. 127(2)’s bolded language means Burundi’s withdrawal does not affect the Court’s jurisdiction over crimes committed prior to the date the withdrawal became effective — 28 October 2017. It does not explain why, but the argument is relatively straightforward: (1) the PE in Burundi began prior to 28 October 2017; (2) a PE qualifies as a “matter”; (3) the OTP is part of the Court. Hence (4) the Burundi PE “was already under consideration by the Court prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective” and the Court continues to have jurisdiction over (“consider”) the situation.

A number of commentators agree with the ICC’s position, including Amnesty International and Beitel van der Merwe. The only dissenting voice is Dov Jacobs, who is skeptical about point (2) — whether a PE really qualifies as a “matter” for purposes of Art. 127(2). Here is what he says:

The key issue is what is covered by the expression “any matter already under consideration by the Court”. Alex Whiting makes the argument that this expression is broad enough to cover preliminary examinations by the OTP. Possibly, he is right from a linguistic point of view. However, I have a difficulty with the idea that such an informal phase as a preliminary examination (which might simply involve an OTP investigator sitting in front of his computer in The Hague downloading HRW and Amnesty International reports) might have such massive consequences as trumping the decision of a State to withdraw from the Rome Statute.

I agree with Dov. As is well known, the OTP divides the preliminary-examination process into four phases: (1) determining whether a situation falls “manifestly outside” of the ICC’s jurisdiction; (2) determining whether there is a reasonable basis to believe an international crime was committed in the situation; (3) assessing admissibility; (4) assessing the interests of justice. According to the OTP, a “formal” PE begins with Phase 2 (emphasis mine):

80. Phase 2, which represents the formal commencement of a preliminary examination of a given situation, focuses on whether the preconditions to the exercise of jurisdiction under article 12 are satisfied and whether there is a reasonable basis to believe that the alleged crimes fall within the subject-matter jurisdiction of the Court. Phase 2 analysis is conducted in respect of all article 15 communications that were not rejected in Phase 1, as well as of information arising from referrals by a State Party or the Security Council, declarations lodged pursuant to article 12(3), open source information, and testimony received at the seat of the Court.

Dov’s example of the OTP investigator downloading HRW or AI reports about a situation is thus spot on. Because such reports are “open source information,” the very act of looking at it means that a PE is at Phase 2 and a “formal” PE has commenced. Which means in turn that — according to the ICC’s interpretation of Art. 127(2) — the Court retains jurisdiction over the situation in the report. (And retains it in perpetuity, because there is no time limit on an OTP decision to advance a PE to a full investigation, as the 13 year-old Colombia PE indicates.)

Like Dov, I am not sure “matter” can or should be interpreted to include any formal PE, even one triggered by an OTP investigator (or even an intern?) downloading an NGO report (or even just reading it on the screen?). But I think there is a more important question about the ICC’s interpretation of Art. 127(2): whether a situation is under “consideration by the Court” simply by virtue of the OTP preliminarily examining it. Alex Whiting believes that it is (emphasis mine):

There is a decent but far from certain argument that jurisdiction should survive at least for any crimes that are the subject of a preliminary examination by the Office of the Prosecutor before the date of a State Party’s effective withdrawal. Following the broad first sentence of Article 127(2), the provision addresses two specific situations: (1) when an investigation or proceeding is underway before effective withdrawal, the departing State Party continues to have a legal duty to cooperate with the Court’s inquiry even after the State Party has left the Court, and (2) the State Party’s departure cannot prejudice the Court’s “consideration of any matter” that was already underway before departure. The “Court” in the Rome Statute refers to the entire ICC, including the Prosecutor, and not just the judges.

I disagree. There is no question that “the Court” sometimes refers to “the entire ICC,” such as when the Rome Statute is referring generically to the ICC’s location or international legal personality. Indeed, Art. 34 says that “the Court” is composed of the Presidency, the judiciary, the OTP, and the Registry.

But the Rome Statute also uses “the Court” in a more restrictive fashion — to refer specifically to the judiciary, excluding the OTP. Here are some examples:

[1] Art. 19(3) provides that “[t]he Prosecutor may seek a ruling from the Court regarding a question of jurisdiction or admissibility.”

[2] Art. 19(7) provides that “[i]f a challenge is made by a State referred to in paragraph 2 (b) or (c), the Prosecutor shall suspend the investigation until such time as the Court makes a determination in accordance with article 17.”

[3] Art. 19(10) provides that “[i]f the Court has decided that a case is inadmissible under article 17, the Prosecutor may submit a request for a review of the decision.”

[4] Art. 21(2) provides that “[t]he Court may apply principles and rules of law as interpreted in its previous decisions.” The OTP doesn’t issue decisions.

[5] Art. 65(5) provides that “[a]ny discussions between the Prosecutor and the defence regarding modification of the charges, the admission of guilt or the penalty to be imposed shall not be binding on the Court.”

[6] Art. 66(3) provides that, “[i]n order to convict the accused, the Court must be convinced of the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.”

[7] Art. 67(2) provides that, with regard to the rights of the defendant, “[i]n case of doubt as to the application of this paragraph, the Court shall decide.”

I could go on. The point is that, contra Alex, we cannot simply assume that Art. 127(2)’s reference to “the Court” includes both the judiciary and the OTP. It may well be that Art. 127(2) refers only to the judiciary. The distinction, of course, is critical in the context of Burundi’s withdrawal: if a matter must be “under consideration by” the judiciary for Art. 127(2) to apply, then the OTP’s failure to open an investigation into the situation means that the Court (writ large) no longer has jurisdiction over any crimes committed in Burundi — not even over those committed prior to the date Burundi’s withdrawal became effective.

I cannot claim with absolute certainty that the more restrictive reading of Art. 127(2) is correct, especially as Amnesty International says that the travaux preparatoires do not shed any light on the issue. But it seems like the much stronger position. Most importantly, the precise expression “under consideration by the Court” also appears in Art. 95, which deals with the postponement of requests in connection with admissibility challenges (emphasis mine):

Where there is an admissibility challenge under consideration by the Court pursuant to article 18 or 19, the requested State may postpone the execution of a request under this Part pending a determination by the Court, unless the Court has specifically ordered that the Prosecutor may pursue the collection of such evidence pursuant to article 18 or 19.

“Under consideration by the Court” in Art. 95 clearly means “under consideration by the judiciary.” Normal rules of treaty interpretation thus suggest that the same expression in Art. 127(2) is similarly restrictive.

This interpretation of Art. 127(2) is also supported by the problem Dov identifies — that deeming any PE a “matter” gives the OTP so much power that the withdrawal provision is a virtual nullity. A PE does indeed seem like a “matter,” but that does not mean a PE is a matter “under consideration by the Court.” The better view is that a situation is only “under consideration by the Court” once the OTP asks the PTC to authorize an investigation into that situation.

The upshot of all of this is that, in my view, the Court no longer has jurisdiction over crimes committed on the territory of Burundi prior to the state’s withdrawal from the ICC. If the OTP had wanted to keep alive the situation, it needed to ask the PTC before 28 October 2017 for permission to open an investigation. And it failed to do so.

New Essay: Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have just posted on SSRN a draft of a (very) long article entitled “Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom.” It represents my first real foray into both “classic” public international law and postcolonial critique. Here is the abstract:

Although the US has consistently relied on the ICJ’s doctrine of specially-affected states to claim that it and other powerful states in the Global North play a privileged role in the formation of customary international law, the doctrine itself has been almost completely ignored both by legal scholars and by the ICJ itself. This article attempts to fill that lacuna. In particular, by focusing on debates in a variety of areas of international law – with particular emphasis on the jus ad bellum and jus in bello – it addresses two questions: (1) what makes a state “specially affected”? and (2) what exactly is the importance of a state qualifying as “specially affected” for custom formation? The article concludes not only that the US approach to the doctrine of specially-affected states is fatally flawed, but also that a more theoretically coherent understanding of the doctrine would give states in the Global South power over the development of custom that the US and other Global North states would never find acceptable.

You can download the article here. As always, comments most welcome!

UK-Saudi Arabia Arms Trade before the High Court: Questions following the Judgment

by Riccardo Labianco

[Riccardo Labianco is a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London. His research focuses on state-to-state military assistance in times of conflict.]

On 10th July 2017, the High Court of Justice (HCJ) delivered its decision regarding the choice of the Secretary of State for International Trade not to halt the transfers of arms between the UK and Saudi Arabia (SA). The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), the claimant, requested judicial review of that choice, in light of the violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) committed by SA in the conflict in Yemen which likely occurred through UK-manufactured arms and weapons. Eventually, the judges accepted the government’s arguments and dismissed the request for judicial review. This decision was based on the fact that the UK government was the only actor able to assess the absence of a clear risk of IHL violations that could be committed with the transferred arms, due to its inside knowledge of the Saudi administration and its engagement with it. As shown below, the absence of a clear risk of IHL violations must be assessed before authorising any arms export.

Two aspects of the judgment are analysed here. First, the HCJ’s interpretation of the “Consolidated Criteria for Arms Export”, a piece of EU legislation incorporated in the UK legal system. Second, the choice to consider the UK’s “privileged position” within the Saudi administration as an essential element for the lawfulness of the arms transfers.

Symposium: Aeyal Gross’s “The Writing on the Wall”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the next three days we will be featuring an online discussion of my SOAS colleague and TAU law professor Aeyal Gross‘s new book for Cambridge University Press, The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017). The book develops ideas that Aeyal discussed on Opinio Juris — in a symposium on the functional approach to occupation — more than five years ago. So it’s fitting that we discuss his book on the blog now!

We are delighted to welcome a number of commenters, including Eliav Lieblich (TAU), Valentina Azarova (Koç) (who also contributed to the earlier symposium), Diana Buttu (IMEU), and Eugene Kontorovich (Northwestern). Aeyal will respond to the comments at the end of the symposium.

We look forward to the conversation!

Workshop CfP: Contingency in the Course of International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

I am delighted to release the call for papers for a workshop I am organising with Ingo Venzke, my fantastic colleague at the Amsterdam Center for International Law. The workshop is entitled “Contingency in the Course of International Law: How International Law Could Have Been” and will feature an opening address by Fleur Johns (UNSW) and a closing address by Sam Moyn (Yale). The workshop will be held over two half days and one full day from June 14-16 2018. Here is our description of the concept:

The workshop will ask a question that is deceptive in its simplicity: How might international law have been otherwise? The overarching aim will be to expose the contingencies of international law’s development by inquiring into international law’s past. Such inquiries may be of systematic purport – asking, for example, how a different conception of the sources of international law could have emerged. Or they may focus on specific areas of the law, asking questions like whether the idea of state crimes could have taken hold or whether the NIEO could have achieved greater success. International law’s past is almost certainly ripe with possibilities that we have forgotten. The workshop will seek to reveal and remember them.

The workshop will focus on trying to tell compelling stories about international law’s contingency. To be sure, those attempts may fail and claims to contingency may well turn out to be false. Either way, though, we will question the present state of international law by challenging its pretense to necessity and by better understanding the forces that have shaped it. Put simply with Robert Musil: ‘If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense for possibility’.

While the operation of the law is bound to gloss over any contingency in its course, we wish to draw out those contingencies to learn what could (not) have been. Some contributions will focus on the operation of international law itself, exploring the differential developments that could have taken place concerning seminal judicial decisions (eg, what if France had won the Lotus case?), key treaties (eg, what if states had failed to conclude the Second Additional Protocol in 1977?), or important institutions (eg, what if the International Clearing Union had been established in 1949?). Another set of inquiries will question the development of international law in light of more general historical events that might not have happened or might have happened differently, such as the outbreak of World War I, the processes of decolonization, or the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And yet other angles are welcome.

In the course of concrete inquiries into international law’s past, there are numerous opportunities for theoretical reflection about the nature of contingency itself, ranging from philosophies of legal history to questions about the narrator’s perspective. How should actor- and structure-centered accounts of the past be combined in probing the contingency of past events? How should we cope with possible tensions between pursuing interests in the present while avoiding undue anachronisms? And how can we contextualize legal developments without reducing law to its context only? Not the least, the question of how it could have been provides a renewed take on perennial questions of international law’s relationship with power, culture, and justice.

The workshop is open to everyone from PhD students to senior scholars — from law and from outside it — and the deadline for abstracts is December 1. You can download the full Call for Papers here. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me.

Saudi Arabia Threatens to Shoot Down a Qatari Airways Plane

by Kevin Jon Heller

Saudi-owned TV news network Al Arabiya aired a video simulation yesterday that shows a Saudi Arabian fighter shooting an air-to-air missile at a Qatari Airways plane. Here is the video:

That’s bad enough — but what is truly horrifying is the accompany voiceover, which intones the following:

International law permits states to shoot down any aircraft that violates a state’s airspace, classing it as a legitimate target, especially if flying over a military area.

No, it doesn’t. This is wrong on so many levels. To begin with, shooting down a Qatari Airways plane would categorically violate the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which Saudi Arabia ratified more than 50 years ago. Art. 3bis, which has been in force since 1998, provides as follows:

a) The contracting States recognize that every State must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight and that, in case of interception, the lives of persons on board and the safety of aircraft must not be endangered. This provision shall not be interpreted as modifying in any way the rights and obligations of States set forth in the Charter of the United Nations.

The second sentence recognises that Saudi Arabia would have every right under the UN Charter to defend it against armed attack — if, for example, the Qatar military decided to use a Qatar Airways plane for offensive military purposes. But although a civilian Qatar Airways plane would no doubt violate the principle of non-intervention if it intentionally entered Saudi airspace, thus giving rise to Qatari state responsibility (because Qatar owns Qatar airways), the mere fact of intentional entry would not remotely qualify as an armed attack — much less one that would justify the use of lethal force in self-defense.

The conclusion is no different under the jus in bello. A Qatar Airways plane would not become a legitimate target by flying over a Saudi “military area” — much less simply by entering Saudi airspace. Indeed, neither act would even be a use of force sufficient to create an international armed conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So IHL would not even apply.

We need to be clear about what the video represents. Quite simply, Saudi Arabia is threatening to engage in state terrorism — the use of violence to spread panic among Qatari civilians in order to persuade the Qatari government to supposedly stop supporting terrorist groups. (Something the Saudis know more than a little about.)

Saudi Arabia is a fundamentally lawless state. I’d like to think this horrific video could prove to be its Charlottesville moment, finally convincing the US and the UK that the Saudi government has no intention of complying with international law. But I’m not going to hold my breath. If routinely massacring civilians in Yemen isn’t enough, what’s casually threatening to blow up a civilian Qatari plane?

This Is Why People Think the ICC Is Unfairly Targeting Africa

by Kevin Jon Heller

Snapshot of two days in the life of the ICC.

On Tuesday, the ICC issued a new arrest warrant in the Libya situation — for Mahmoud al-Werfalli, a commander in the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), which defected from the Libyan army during the revolution and is currently vying for power with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The arrest warrant represents a new phase in the ICC’s completely unsuccessful investigation in Libya, as it is the first to focus on events that happened after the revolution. There is no reason to believe, however, that the warrant for al-Werfalli will be any more successful than the ones for Gaddafi and al-Senussi: the LNA has already made clear they will not surrender him to the ICC, and the GNA has zero prospect at present of capturing him.

On Wednesday, Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines, instructed his police to shoot human-rights activists who are “obstructing justice” by investigating his war against (alleged) drug dealers. That war has involved at least 7,000 extrajudicial killings in the past 13 months and has featured Duterte openly admitting not only that he has ordered the extrajudicial kilings, but that he has personally committed themHuman-rights groups and even a Philippine senator have called for the ICC to open an investigation into the situation.

There seems to be little question that al-Werfalli is guilty of ordering and participating in more than two dozen summary executions of captured soldiers — remarkably, there is video to that effect. But al-Werfalli is one military commander among hundreds responsible for horrific crimes in Libya. Duterte, by contrast, is the President of one of the only states in Southeast Asia that has ratified the Rome Statute. Even if he never ended up in the ICC’s dock, a formal investigation of the situation that he has almost single-handedly created in the Philippines would do more to deter the commission of international crimes than 500 arrest warrants for thugs like al-Werfalli. Yet despite issuing a strong statement making clear that the Court has jurisdiction over the situation and could prosecute individuals responsible for international crimes, there is no indication that the OTP has seriously contemplated opening a formal investigation in the Philippines.

The ICC fiddles in Benghazi while Manila burns. And yet the ICC claims not to understand why so many people think it’s obsessed with Africa.

Political Pressure Succeeds! (Update on My Student)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have happy news to report: after a groundswell of support, my student Tamara Tamimi has been granted a visa to attend her SOAS graduation. Apparently her Facebook post garnered more than 700 reactions, leading to letters and emails flooding into the Home Office. I want to thank each and every person who supported Tamara — whether through a letter, an email, or simply a retweet. And I want to give a specific shout-out to David Lammy MP, one of the brightest young stars in the Labour Party — and a graduate of SOAS law, I’m proud to say. His direct intervention on Tamara’s behalf was no doubt critical to Tamara receiving her visa.