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Human Rights

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.

The UK Is Preventing My Student from Attending Her Graduation

by Kevin Jon Heller

I opened Facebook just now to find the following post from my brilliant student at SOAS, Tamara Tamimi, whose MA dissertation — written under my supervision — received the law school’s award for the best MA dissertation of the year:

I am angry, frustrated and sad. I was denied entry clearance into the UK to attend my graduation from SOAS University of London. I finished my MA in Human Rights Law from SOAS, University of London ten months ago and returned to my homeland, Palestine. I decided to go through the trouble and expenses to attend my graduation for a number of reasons, including this burning desire to share the moment with my family and friends especially after I received the Sarah Spells Award by the SOAS School of Law for the best MA dissertation of the academic year. 

What was most exciting for me was that I was going to be standing on Thursday with the people I called family for a whole year and receiving my graduation certificate and celebrate the acknowledgment of the one hell of a work that bore fruits from the tediously long hours that I spent in the SOAS Library and UCL Main Library.

During the past couple of months I excitedly texted and talked to London friends and made plans for the five days my family and I were planning to spend in London. There were many things to be done: so many people to reconnect with in SOAS and the house I called home for a year and so many places to go to and take my family. I was getting more and more excited as my friends shared their plans: Amira and Giorgios were going to recreate another hellish night of cards against humanity at the ILSC and Scott was yet again hosting one of his crazy celebration milestone parties.

But the UK was “not satisfied” that I am “genuinely seeking entry for a purpose that is permitted by the visitor routes” and denied me entry clearance that would enable me to attend my own graduation, despite giving me two years ago a Chevening Scholarship to undertake my MA studies in SOAS. In doing so they are preventing me from spending time and celebrating my achievement with my family and friends. 

My graduation ceremony is Thursday the 27th… I will fight this injustice until the very end… fight with me and demand the UK to reverse this decision to deny me a visa to attend my own graduation by sharing my posts, writing to your MPs and mobilising the media… anything that you do will count.

This is appalling and unacceptable, but not surprising. Having ensured its increasing irrelevance on the world stage through the self-inflicted wound of Brexit, the UK is desperate to maintain good relations with any state that will trade with it, no matter how authoritarian or vicious — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the Philippines, Egypt, China… and, of course, Israel.

The UK can take away Tamara’s ability to attend her graduation. But they cannot take away her intelligence and passion. It was my honour to supervise her thesis, and SOAS was fortunate to have her as a student.

ICC Appeals Chamber Says A War Crime Does Not Have to Violate IHL

by Kevin Jon Heller

One of the most basic assumption of ICL is that an act cannot be a war crime unless it violates a rule of international humanitarian law (IHL). Article 6(b) of the London Charter criminalised “War Crimes: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war.” Article 3 of the ICTY Statute provides that “[t]he International Tribunal shall have the power to prosecute persons violating the laws or customs of war,” while Article 4 of the ICTR Statute provides that “[t]he International Tribunal for Rwanda shall have the power to prosecute persons committing or ordering to be committed serious violations of Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 for the Protection of War Victims, and of Additional Protocol II thereto of 8 June 1977.” And Article 8 of the Rome Statute criminalises “[g]rave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949”; “[o]ther serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict”; [i]n the case of an armed conflict not of an international character, serious violations of article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949″; and “[o]ther serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in armed conflicts not of an international character.” In each and every case, war crimes are limited to violations of IHL.

No more. The Appeals Chamber (AC) at the ICC has just unanimously held in Ntaganda that a perpetrator can be convicted of a war crime even if his act does not violate IHL. That decision is not simply “unprecedented,” as the AC openly acknowledges. It is simply incorrect — as this post will demonstrate.

The judgement itself addresses allegations that Ntaganda is criminally responsible for two war crimes — rape and sexual slavery — involving children forcibly recruited into his organised armed group, the UPC/FPLC. Ntaganda challenged that allegation, arguing that “crimes committed by members of armed forces on members of the same armed force do not come within the jurisdiction of international humanitarian law nor within international criminal law.” The Trial Chamber (TC) disagreed, in a judgment ably discussed and critiqued by Yvonne McDermott. Ntaganda appealed, giving rise to this judgment. Here is the AC’s “key finding”:

2. Having regard to the established framework of international law, members of an armed force or group are not categorically excluded from protection against the war crimes of rape and sexual slavery under article 8 (2) (b) (xxii) and (2) (e) (vi) of the Statute when committed by members of the same armed force or group.

Before turning to the logic of the judgment, it is important to be very precise about the terms of my quarrel with the AC. I completely agree with the AC that there are situations in which a member of an armed force can, in fact, commit the war crime of rape or the war crime of sexual slavery against a member of the same armed force. As the AC rightly notes, although the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions do not apply to acts committed by a combatant against someone from the same side of the conflict — whether by virtue of membership in that same armed force (GC III) or by nationality (GC IV) — the First and Second Geneva Conventions contain no such limitation:

59. In contrast, Geneva Conventions I and II, which protect the wounded and sick on land and the wounded, sick and shipwrecked at sea respectively, provide protection “in all circumstances […] without any adverse distinction founded on sex, race, nationality” and prohibit violence against them. Importantly, such protected status is not limited to persons belonging to enemy armed forces, but includes wounded, sick or shipwrecked members of a party’s own armed forces, a rule that corresponds to the understanding of the scope of protection since the first Geneva Convention was adopted in 1864. It follows from the above that the notion of grave breaches under Geneva Conventions I and II includes violations committed against the wounded, sick or shipwrecked committed by members of their own armed force.

Nothing in GC I or GC II suggests, however, that IHL protects all members of the armed forces against member-on-member violence. On the contrary, let’s take a look at the AC’s statement again, with the critical language in bold:

59. In contrast, Geneva Conventions I and II, which protect the wounded and sick on land and the wounded, sick and shipwrecked at sea respectively, provide protection “in all circumstances […] without any adverse distinction founded on sex, race, nationality” and prohibit violence against them. Importantly, such protected status is not limited to persons belonging to enemy armed forces, but includes wounded, sick or shipwrecked members of a party’s own armed forces, a rule that corresponds to the understanding of the scope of protection since the first Geneva Convention was adopted in 1864. It follows from the above that the notion of grave breaches under Geneva Conventions I and II includes violations committed against the wounded, sick or shipwrecked committed by members of their own armed force.

Under GC I and GC II, in other words, member-against-member violence violates IHL only if the victim is wounded, sick, or shipwrecked. If the victim is none of those things — if he or she is not hors de combat — that violence may well violate a state’s domestic criminal law, but it does not violate IHL.

If the AC had limited the scope of its judgment to rape and sexual slavery committed against child soldiers who were hors de combatdefined by the ICRC, in relevant part, as “anyone who is defenceless because of unconsciousness, shipwreck, wounds or sickness” — it would have been on firm ground. But that is not what it has done. On the contrary, the AC goes to great lengths to make clear that member-against-member rape and sexual slavery are war crimes even if the victim is an active combatant –– ie, one who is not hors de combat. Here is the relevant paragraph (emphasis mine):

64. With regard to the second issue – namely whether Status Requirements exist in international humanitarian law specifically for the war crimes of rape and sexual slavery – the Appeals Chamber observes that the prohibitions of rape and sexual slavery in armed conflict are without a doubt well established under international humanitarian law. As noted by the Trial Chamber, protection under international humanitarian law against such conduct generally “appear[s] in contexts protecting civilians and persons hors de combat in the power of a party to the conflict”. In this regard, the question arising before the Appeals Chamber is whether such explicit protection under international humanitarian law suggests any limits on who may be victims of such conduct. In the view of the Appeals Chamber, there is no conceivable reason for reaching such a conclusion.

Notice the bold language, because it’s critical — and wrong. IHL protection does not “generally” apply only to civilians and combatants hors de combat. On the contrary, each and every IHL convention applies only to those two categories of individuals. As we have seen, the AC itself acknowledges that limitation with regard to all four of the Geneva Conventions. It cites no other source of IHL, instead simply noting that the ICRC states in its new commentary to GC I “that Common Article 3 protects members of armed forces against violations committed by the armed force to which they belong.” But that statement is incomplete and misleading, because the ICRC makes unequivocally clear that CA3’s prohibitions apply only to individuals who are hors de combat:

518  Subparagraph (1) covers all ‘[p]ersons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause’. The article does not expand on these notions and this part of the article did not give rise to much discussion at the 1949 Diplomatic Conference. The protection afforded under this subparagraph requires that the person be in the power of a Party to the conflict (see section E.4).
519  The protection of persons not or no longer participating in hostilities is at the heart of humanitarian law. The persons protected by common Article 3 are accordingly described by way of explicit delimitations: ‘persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause’ (emphasis added). Parties to a non-international armed conflict are under the categorical obligation to treat these persons humanely, in all circumstances and without any adverse distinction.

The Trial Chamber’s judgment is no better. The TC rests its conclusion that member-against-member rape is a war crime even when the victim is an active combatant solely on two things: the Martens Clause and Art. 75 of the First Additional Protocol (AP I). Here is paragraph 47:

While most of the express prohibitions of rape and sexual slavery under international humanitarian law appear in contexts protecting civilians and persons hors de combat in the power of a party to the conflict, the Chamber does not consider those explicit protections to exhaustively define, or indeed limit, the scope of the protection against such conduct. In this regard, the Chamber recalls the Martens clause, which mandates that in situations not covered by specific agreements, ‘civilians and combatants remain under the protection and authority of the principles of international law derived from established custom, from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience’. The Chamber additionally notes that the fundamental guarantees provisions [in Art. 75] refer to acts that ‘are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever’ and as such apply to, and protect, all persons in the power of a Party to the conflict.

I don’t have time to get into a detailed discussion of the Martens Clause. Suffice it say here that it is very unlikely that the Clause can ever be relied upon to expand IHL not only beyond conventional law, but even beyond customary IHL — and as the AC itself acknowledges (para. 60), there is literally zero state practice indicating that member-against-member mistreatment is a war crime even when the victim is an active combatant. Even Antonio Cassese, no stranger to judicial activism, dismisses this “norm-creating” reading of the Martens Clause as “radical.” As he says, “[s]urely the Clause does not envisage — nor has it brought about the birth of — two autonomous sources of international law, distinct from the customary process.”

As for Art. 75 of AP I, the Protocol’s “fundamental guarantees” provision, the TC’s position is deeply problematic. Here is n. 111:

Article 75 of Additional Protocol I refers to ‘a Party to the conflict’ (emphasis added) and therefore does not limit the fundamental guarantees to persons in the power of the opposing party.

The TC conveniently fails to note that Art. 75 applies only to international armed conflict — and that Art. 4 of AP II, the “fundamental guarantees” provision in the NIAC Protocol, is specifically limited to “persons who do not take a direct part or who have ceased to take part in hostilities” (ie, civilians and combatants hors de combat).

Given that conventional IHL uniformly requires the victim of member-against-member mistreatment to be hors de combat, on what basis does the AC hold that the status of the victim is irrelevant? The answer comes from this paragraph (emphasis mine):

65. The Appeals Chamber agrees with the Trial Chamber’s finding that “there is never a justification to engage in sexual violence against any person; irrespective of whether or not this person may be liable to be targeted and killed under international humanitarian law”. Accordingly, in the absence of any general rule excluding members of armed forces from protection against violations by members of the same armed force, there is no ground for assuming the existence of such a rule specifically for the crimes of rape or sexual slavery.

This is simply incorrect. To begin with, there is a specific rule excluding active combatants from the war crimes of rape and sexual slavery in member-against-member situations: namely, the rule that says violence in member-against-member situations violates IHL only when the victim is hors de combat. The AC’s judgment suggests that states not only had to specify that rule in the various IHL conventions, they also had to add: “oh, and by the way, this limit means that mistreating active combatants doesn’t violate IHL.” But that’s silly: the former implies the latter. After all, expressio unius est exclusio alterius is a basic rule of treaty interpretation.

But even if that was not the case, there would still be a general rule excluding active combatants from the war crimes of rape and sexual slavery in member-against-member situations: the rule that says a war crime must involve a violation of IHL. As noted at the beginning of this post, that is one of the most basic assumptions of IHL. Not all violations of IHL are war crimes, but all war crimes are violations of IHL. So the burden of proof was not on Ntaganda to show that rape and sexual slavery cannot be war crimes in member-against-member situations if the victim is an active combatant. The burden was on the prosecution to prove that such acts actually violate IHL. Because if they don’t — and they don’t, as we have seen — the Court has no jurisdiction whatsoever over Ntaganda’s acts, at least insofar as they are legally characterised as war crimes.

In the end, the AC’s decision in Ntaganda is little more than the latest iteration of the Court’s willingness to rely on teleological reasoning when the Rome Statute does not protect victims as much as the judges think it should. No one is in favour of raping and sexually enslaving child soldiers. But the solution isn’t to detach the law of war crimes from its moorings in IHL by holding — if only implicitly — that an act can be a war crime even if it does not violate IHL. To do so is not only legally indefensible, it risks delegitimising both the Court and the law of war crimes itself.

Syria War Crimes Accountability Act — Now Revised!

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last month, I blogged about the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017, a bipartisan Senate bill “[t]o require a report on, and to authorize technical assistance for, accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Syria.” I praised the bill, but pointed out that Section 7(a) was drafted in such a way that it permitted the US to provide technical assistance to entities investigating international crimes committed by pro-Assad forces and “violent extremist groups,” but did not permit the US to support entities investigating international crimes committed by rebels.

I am delighted to report that Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), successfully introduced an amendment to the bill at last Thursday’s SFRC’s business meeting that corrects the asymmetry in Section 7(a). The new version reads as follows (emphasis in original):

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

This is a welcome change, because — as I pointed out in my original post — there is no reason to treat crimes committed by rebels any differently than crimes committed by Assad’s forces or by ISIS.

Kudos to Sen. Cardin! Let’s hope the revised version of the bill passes the full Senate soon.

States Are Failing Us in Syria — Not International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last month, Just Security published a long and thoughtful post by Rebecca Ingber with the provocative title “International Law is Failing Us in Syria.” The international law she is talking about is the jus ad bellum — the illegality of unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI) in particular. In her view, the failure of the international community to use force to end the humanitarian crisis in Syria indicates that an exception to Art. 2(4) for UHI is “the only means of preserving international law’s credibility in the use of force realm”:

The reality is that there will be times that states use force out of a sense of moral imperative and long-term strategic importance, and not out of a specific self-defense rationale. International law – and we international lawyers – can try to stand in the way, at times constraining morally imperative action, at times getting bulldozed; or we can look the other way and be sidelined, perhaps even tell policymakers and our clients to move forward without us. Or, we can engage and work with them to help craft the most sound, narrow, acceptable grounds possible, together with our allies. This view is not an acceptance that international law does not matter. It is an acceptance that international law – like so much public law – operates in a dynamic space that is inevitably interwoven with the reality of how states act and the widespread acceptance of its legitimacy.

I don’t want to focus here on the legal aspects of Ingber’s post, other than to note that when she claims “our allies… have become comfortable stretching the outer bounds of what international law has historically been thought to permit” with regard to the use of force, she links almost exclusively to UK practice. (The one exception is “unwilling or unable,” where she refers to the flawed Chachko/Deeks post that tries to categorise state positions on the doctrine.)

The legal questions are, of course, interesting. But what I find most problematic about Ingber’s post is its most basic assumption: namely, that the international community has failed to do more in Syria because UHI is not legal. That assumption, I think, is categorically false. If the King of International Law announced tomorrow that UHI was consistent with Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter, it would have no effect on the international response to the Syrian crisis. Literally none.

And that is because international law is not failing us in Syria. States are.

Or, more precisely, the self-interest of states is failing us. States have not intervened in Syria to end the humanitarian crisis because doing so would be immensely costly in terms of both blood and treasure, not because Art. 2(4) doesn’t permit UHI. There is no easy solution for states concerned about Syria, such as a Kosovo- or Libya-style airpower campaign. If they want to end the crisis, they will have to invade Syria and destroy the large and generally well-equipped Syrian army — a task that would make the invasion of Iraq look positively economical by comparison. And the sad truth is that the US is not going to spend billions of dollars and accept thousands of dead American soldiers to save a bunch of defenceless Syrian civilians. Nor is the UK. Or France. Or Germany. Or any other state.

Do intervention-minded scholars disagree? Does anyone really believe that there is a head of state out there — actual or even potential — who at this very moment is saying to herself “I could end the Syria crisis tomorrow if that damn Art. 2(4) didn’t prohibit unilateral humanitarian intervention”? The idea beggars belief. I am on record with my insistence that UHI is not only unlawful but criminal, but I’m not stupid. A successful UHI in Syria would result in a Nobel Peace Prize, not a confirmation of charges hearing.

What is most striking about Ingber’s post is that she barely attempts to defend her claim that international law is preventing the kind of UHI she believes is necessary in Syria. All she says is that “with respect to Syria alone, the fact that international law may have played a role in taking intervention off the table during the Obama presidency (and there are subtle indications that it did) should weigh heavily on us now.” I’ve read both of the documents to which she links, and the indications are subtle indeed. In the press conference, Obama openly acknowledges the real reason why the US did not intervene in Syria while he was President — it wasn’t worth the cost:

So with respect to Syria, what I have consistently done is taken the best course that I can to try to end the civil war while having also to take into account the long-term national security interests of the United States.

And throughout this process, based on hours of meetings, if you tallied it up, days or weeks of meetings where we went through every option in painful detail, with maps, and we had our military, and we had our aid agencies, and we had our diplomatic teams, and sometimes we’d bring in outsiders who were critics of ours — whenever we went through it, the challenge was that, short of putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, uninvited, without any international law mandate, without sufficient support from Congress, at a time when we still had troops in Afghanistan and we still had troops in Iraq, and we had just gone through over a decade of war and spent trillions of dollars, and when the opposition on the ground was not cohesive enough to necessarily govern a country, and you had a military superpower in Russia prepared to do whatever it took to keeps its client-state involved, and you had a regional military power in Iran that saw their own vital strategic interests at stake and were willing to send in as many of their people or proxies to support the regime — that in that circumstance, unless we were all in and willing to take over Syria, we were going to have problems, and that everything else was tempting because we wanted to do something and it sounded like the right thing to do, but it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap.

Obama takes the same position in the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Nothing in the interview suggests that the illegality of UHI had anything to do with Obama’s unwillingness to intervene more dramatically in Syria. On the contrary, as Goldberg explains by means of contrasting Obama with Samantha Power, he simply doesn’t believe in UHI:

Power is a partisan of the doctrine known as “responsibility to protect,” which holds that sovereignty should not be considered inviolate when a country is slaughtering its own citizens. She lobbied him to endorse this doctrine in the speech he delivered when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but he declined. Obama generally does not believe a president should place American soldiers at great risk in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States.

Goldberg recounts many of the factors underlying Obama’s realist view of American military power. The key one, though, is pragmatic, not legal — the disaster of NATO’s supposedly humanitarian intervention in Libya:

But what sealed Obama’s fatalistic view was the failure of his administration’s intervention in Libya, in 2011. That intervention was meant to prevent the country’s then-dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering the people of Benghazi, as he was threatening to do. Obama did not want to join the fight; he was counseled by Joe Biden and his first-term secretary of defense Robert Gates, among others, to steer clear. But a strong faction within the national-security team—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, who was then the ambassador to the United Nations, along with Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and Antony Blinken, who was then Biden’s national-security adviser—lobbied hard to protect Benghazi, and prevailed. (Biden, who is acerbic about Clinton’s foreign-policy judgment, has said privately, “Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.”) American bombs fell, the people of Benghazi were spared from what may or may not have been a massacre, and Qaddafi was captured and executed.

But Obama says today of the intervention, “It didn’t work.” The U.S., he believes, planned the Libya operation carefully—and yet the country is still a disaster.

The Libya fiasco is particularly important, because it is tempting to believe that collective UHI in Syria might be more successful than individual UHI. It probably would — except that the benefits of collective action would still not outweigh the reluctance of powerful states to spend blood and treasure for merely humanitarian concerns. Libya is a case in point: NATO countries were willing to drop bombs on the Libyan army, but they would never have committed soldiers to a ground invasion. They are not willing to put them in Libya now, when the risks are minimal. So even if Ingber is right that states have shown “widespread support for military action in response to humanitarian crises” (and I don’t think she is), she is still missing the fundamental point: they support military action by others, not by them. It’s not an accident, for example, that interventionists like John McCain and Lindsey Graham expect Arab soldiers to do the fighting for them in Syria.

And, of course, Syria is not Libya. Or even Kosovo. On the contrary: unlike in those situations, UHI in Syria, whether individual or collective, risks a shooting war with Russia, the second most powerful military in the world, and perhaps with Iran. That unpleasant possibility provides a far more effective deterrent to military action against Assad than the text of Art. 2(4) ever will.

What, then, is to be gained by “divining” or “crafting” an exception to Art. 2(4) for UHI, as Ingber suggests? The legality of UHI would not lead to humanitarian interventions in Syria or in any other comparable situation. But it would give powerful states like the US yet another pretext for using force to promote their national interests. Why invoke an inherently selfish rationale such as self-defence as a pretext for aggression when you could invoke humanitarian intervention instead? Who is opposed to helping innocent civilians? And if we take your land and oil and other resources along the way, well, we have to pay for our selflessness somehow, don’t we?

Legalising UHI, in short, will not lead to more humanitarian uses of force. It will lead to more aggression. And that is because international law is not the problem in Syria and elsewhere. States are.

Symposium on Israeli Settlements

by Kevin Jon Heller

AJIL Unbound has just posted the contributions to a symposium entitled “Revisiting Israel’s Settlements.” The contributors are all superb: Eyal Benvenisti, Pnina Sharvit Baruch, David Kretzmer, Adam Roberts, Omar M. Dajani, and Yaël Ronen. The true highlight, though, is the essay that accompanies the symposium and will be published in the next issue of the American Journal of International Law: Theodor Meron’s “The West Bank and International Humanitarian Law on the Eve of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Six-Day War,” which can be downloaded for free. Meron’s essay revisits the famous memo he wrote in 1967 as the Legal Adviser of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which he made clear, inter alia, that Israel was occupying the West Bank and that building settlements there would violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. Once again Meron painstakingly vivisects the frivolous legal arguments that Israel and its apologists have offered to excuse the occupation and the settlements. But it’s his conclusion that is particularly important:

But if the continuation of the settlement project on the West Bank has met with practically universal rejection by the international community, it is not just because of its illegality under the Fourth Geneva Convention or under international humanitarian law more generally. Nor is it only because, by preventing the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian territory, the settlement project frustrates any prospect of serious negotiations aimed at a twostate solution, and thus of reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is also because of the growing perception that individual Palestinians’ human rights, as well as their rights under the Fourth Geneva Convention, are being violated and that the colonization of territories populated by other peoples can no longer be accepted in our time.

It’s a shame that Israel didn’t listen to Meron in 1967. Israel might be geographically smaller if it had, but it would also be far more safe and secure. Instead, the settlements metastasise, Israel’s democracy deteriorates, and Palestinians continue to suffer.

Charlie Dunlap’s Defence of Israel’s Attacks on Hezbollah in Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, Asaf Lubin offered a compelling post at Just Security wondering why Israel’s repeated attacks on Hezbollah arms shipments in Syria have not received the same kind of jus ad bellum scrutiny as the US’s recent attack on a Syrian airfield. Today, Charles Dunlap provides his answer on the same blog: the Israeli attacks are clearly legal, so why would anyone scrutinise them? Here are the relevant paragraphs:

[I]t appears to me that the Israeli strike sought to destroy weapons in transit before Hezbollah can burrow them into densely-populated areas.  Of course, some JAB scholar might argue about the imminence of the threat as justifying anticipatory self-defense, but if one carefully reads the Obama administration’s “Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations” on that point (p. 9), it would be hard not to conclude that the strike would fit the criteria.

It is especially telling that the Obama administration concluded – correctly in my view – that it is “now increasingly recognized by the international community, the traditional conception of what constitutes an ‘imminent’ attack must be understood in light of the modern-day capabilities, techniques, and technological innovations of terrorist organizations.”

Along that line, this past January UK Attorney General Jeremy Wright gave a speech which echoed much of the Obama Administration’s approach.  Wright does caution that “remote threats or threats that have not yet materialized” would not fit the necessary criteria, but I don’t think in the case of Hezbollah those exclusions would apply.  Additionally, Wright endorsed – as does the Obama framework – Sir Daniel Bethlehem’s principles laid out in 2012 that included assessing whether there will be another “clear opportunity to act” defensively.

In other words, the analysis of “imminence” in this instance could properly take into account Hezbollah’s history of hostile actions against Israel, as well as its adaption of a “technique” which is “designed to exacerbate civilian risk.”  A strike on the Damascus warehouses makes sense as it could well be the last “clear opportunity to act” before the weapons could be embedded into civilian areas in easy range of Israel where they could be countered only at great risk to noncombatants.

Thus, the lack of JAB discussion about the reported Israeli bombings in Syria may simply reflect that the bulk of the international community finds that the use of force under these circumstances is an acceptable act in anticipatory self-defense.  We can’t ignore the fact that few nations other than Russia or Syria evinced much concern about the legality of the strike.

I don’t find Charlie’s argument convincing. The first problem concerns his claim that the lack of attention to Israel’s attacks “may simply reflect that the bulk of the international community finds that the use of force under these circumstances is an acceptable act in anticipatory self-defense.” He cites only two states in defence of the idea that the “international community” accepts this type of anticipatory self-defence: the US and the UK. Needless to say, two Global North states known for their aggressive interpretation of the jus ad bellum do not an “international community” make. Moreover, Charlie fails to acknowledge the repeated denunciations of anticipatory self-defence by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which represents 120 states. 120>2.

To be fair, Charlie seemingly tries to address this problem by implying that the failure of states (other than Russia and Syria) to specifically condemn the Israeli attacks indicates that they accept the US and UK understanding of imminence. But that clearly isn’t the case. As he acknowledges, Israel itself has not claimed that the attacks are legitimate anticipatory self-defence. Nor has any other state on Israel’s behalf — the US and UK included. The “silence” of the international community can thus hardly be interpreted as acquiescence — particularly in light of NAM’s repeated denunciation of anticipatory self-defence. States are not required to respond to scholarly interpretations of the use of force. When Israel claims its actions are legal because they represent anticipatory self-defence and NAM remains silent, we’ll talk.

It’s also worth noting that Charlie’s account of Israel’s attacks in Syria does not even bring them within the ambit of anticipatory self-defence — or at least not easily. According to him, “the Israeli strike sought to destroy weapons in transit before Hezbollah [could] burrow them into densely-populated areas.” Charlie finds such “burrowing” problematic — justifiably! — because it makes it more difficult for Israel to destroy the weapons caches without causing disproportionate civilian harm. But that is a jus in bello problem, not a jus ad bellum one. The fact that Hezbollah weapons are in a difficult to attack location does not mean that those weapons will be immediately used against Israel. And that is true even in light of Hezbollah’s “history of hostile actions,” which hardly indicates that Hezbollah attacks Israel whenever it has the material means to do so. The mere presence of the weapons in a location near to Israel thus seems to represent precisely the kind of “remote threat[] or threat[] that [has] not yet materialized” that Jeremy Wright, the UK Attorney General whom Charlie cites in defence of his position, says does not give rise to the right of self-defence.

I will say, though, that Charlie’s explanation of the Israeli attacks raises an interesting issue concerning the relationship between the  jus in bello and the jus ad bellum. We are accustomed to the idea that the two legal regimes are independent, and it is beyond doubt that failing to comply with the jus ad bellum does not affect the equal application of the jus in bello. But the converse is not true, as the ICJ specifically affirmed in the Nuclear Weapons case (para. 42):

[A] use of force that is proportionate under the law of self- defence, must, in order to be lawful, also meet the requirements of the law applicable in armed conflict which comprise in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.

The jus ad bellum requirement that self-defence comply with IHL does, in fact, suggest that the imminence of an attack should be assessed in light of the victim state’s ability to defend itself in a way that complies with IHL. So I don’t think we can reject the “last clear opportunity to act” understanding of imminence out of hand. On the contrary, if an attack will only become imminent under the traditional conception at a time when the victim state cannot defend itself in an IHL-compliant way, I think the victim state should be entitled to defend itself at a temporally earlier moment, when IHL compliance is still possible.

Even that “relaxed” idea of imminence, however, presupposes that the defended-against attack is more than merely hypothetical. So it’s difficult to see how Israel’s strikes on Hezbollah’s arms shipments could qualify as legitimate acts of self-defence. On the contrary: they are precisely the kind of anticipatory self-defence that international law prohibits.