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Human Rights

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.

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.