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International Criminal Law

The al-Senussi Admissibility Decision in Two Quotes

by Kevin Jon Heller

Libya’s Foreign Minister, 21 May 2014:

There is a complete absence of the army and the police [in Libya], which are responsible for the security of the state. Armed groups are not under control…. State-building needs to build security institutions first and foremost because with no security there can be no investments, building a real state, nor an effective criminal justice system to protect rights and freedoms.

ICC Appeals Chamber, 24 July 2014:

The Appeals Chamber concluded that there were no errors in the findings of the Pre-Trial Chamber that Libya is not unwilling or unable to genuinely prosecute Mr Al-Senussi.

Control Matters: Ukraine & Russia and the Downing of Flight 17

by Jens David Ohlin

The recent downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, apparently by an anti-aircraft missile fired from within rebel-controlled territory in the Ukraine, has raised the specter that Russia is covertly (or not so covertly) supplying arms and assistance to the pro-Russian separatists operating within eastern Ukraine. Obviously, the facts here are somewhat contested and I have no insider or independent information about the firing of the missiles. What I say here is based on news reports in The New York Times and elsewhere, and our understanding of the situation is rapidly evolving.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this story (or something similar) turns out to be true. Let’s assume that the “BUK” anti-aircraft missile system was either provided to the Ukrainian rebels by Russian operatives, or that it was stolen by the rebels from the Ukrainian military, and then operated with assistance from Russian operatives and military advisors. It seems more likely that the missile system was provided directly by Russia, but even if the rebels stole it from the Ukrainian military, it seems unlikely that the untrained militia-members would have been capable of deploying it without Russian assistance. (Again, let’s just take this as an assumption, because alternate hypotheses exist, including the contention that the militia members are trained in anti-aircraft missile deployment because they are local defectors from the Ukrainian military).

If this story is true, it reveals how important the debate is, in international jurisprudence, between competing theories of control. This might seem like an obvious point, but the current situation in the Ukraine (vis-à-vis Russian influence) may stand at precisely the fault line between “effective control” and “overall control” – the two competing doctrines of attribution in international law.

As most readers already know, the effective control test was articulated in the ICJ’s Nicaragua judgment and offers a fairly robust set of standards for attributing the actions of an armed group to a particular state, essentially requiring that the armed units are operating on the instruction, or at the direction of, the foreign state. In these circumstances, the actions of the armed group can be attributed to the foreign state.

In contrast, the ICTY in Tadic declined to follow the ICJ’s Effective Control Test, and instead formulated and applied the broader Overall Control Test. The test was originally designed to determine in Tadic whether the armed conflict was an international armed conflict or a non-international armed conflict. If the conduct was attributable to a foreign state, then the armed conflict was international in nature. Subsequently, Cassese argued (correctly) that the test was, in fact, a general test for state responsibility. The test allowed for state responsibility in situations where a foreign power helped to coordinate the actions of an organized and hierarchically structured armed group by equipping, financing, or training the paramilitary force.

The dispute between these two tests is crucial because they really do give different answers in important cases. It seems to me that the Ukrainian situation falls directly on the fault line between the overall and effective control tests. If the Effective Control test applies, then it is not clear whether the shooting down of the airliner can be directly attributed to the Russian government (although that conclusion depends on which facts are unearthed in the investigation). On the other hand, if the Overall Control test applies, then there is a plausible argument that the shooting of Flight 17 can be attributed to Russia because their operatives probably helped train and equip, and coordinate, the activities of the pro-Russian militia. The Overall Control test supports the attribution of responsibility to Russia, while the Effective Control test probably does not.

Either way, one important insight about both tests is their black-and-white nature. Instead of a spectrum of control yielding different degrees of responsibility, the tests act as an on-off switch. Either there is state responsibility or there is not; either the acts are attributed or they are not. There is no sliding scale of responsibility based on the degree of foreign involvement or entanglement in the local affairs of the militia or paramilitary organization.

A final note on a related but distinct topic. It also seems pretty clear that pro-Russian militia were acting incompetently in shooting down the plane, assuming incorrectly that they were shooting down a military aircraft. How should one understand their level of culpability here? Recklessness comes to mind as the appropriate mental state since they probably did not engage in the appropriate due diligence to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft.

Although it is unclear whether this should be treated as an international crime (killing of civilians during an armed conflict) or a domestic crime (murder), I have to say that I have never found international criminal law’s treatment of crimes of recklessness particularly satisfying. Under domestic law, reckless killings are either classified as manslaughter or as the lowest degree of murder (such as depraved indifference to human life) depending on the jurisdiction and depending on the severity of the recklessness. Domestic law therefore produces a grading of the offense based on the lower mental state. In contrast, international criminal law has no lower offense for crimes of recklessness. Unlike the distinction between murder and manslaughter, a defendant is either convicted or acquitted of the war crime of killing civilians (with nothing in between).

Feiglin Is Advocating Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes, Not Genocide

by Kevin Jon Heller

Twitter is abuzz with claims that Moshe Feiglin, the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset in Israel, has called for the commission of genocide against the Palestinians. Here is what he said, in relevant part:

Conquer – After the IDF completes the “softening” of the targets with its fire-power, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations.

Elimination- The GSS and IDF will thoroughly eliminate all armed enemies from Gaza. The enemy population that is innocent of wrong-doing and separated itself from the armed terrorists will be treated in accordance with international law and will be allowed to leave. Israel will generously aid those who wish to leave.

Feiglin’s comments are vile, horrifying, and unfortunately all too common in Israel’s increasingly toxic right-wing political culture. As awful as they are, though, they do not amount to incitement to genocide, because Feiglin is advocating the forcible transfer or deportation of the Palestinians — commonly referred to as ethnic cleansing — not genocide. There are five types of genocidal acts: (1) killing members of a group; (2) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group; (3) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (4) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and (5) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. The actions Feiglin advocates come closest to (3), but he makes clear that he is not advocating displacing Palestinians into a location where they could not physically survive, which would be genocide. (A pre-Genocide Convention example is the Armenian genocide, in which the Ottoman empire not only ethnically cleansed the Armenians, but drove them into the Syrian desert to die.) In short, Feiglin is advocating that Israel commit not genocide but crimes against humanity.

Feiglin is also, it’s worth noting, urging Israel to commit war crimes against the Palestinians. Here is another one of his suggestions:

Defense – Any place from which Israel or Israel’s forces were attacked will be immediately attacked with full force and no consideration for ‘human shields’ or ‘environmental damage’.

It is ICL 101 that it is a war crime to intentionally launch an attack knowing that it will — in the words of the Rome Statute — “cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians… which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.” In making that determination, an attacker must take into account any civilian who will be incidentally killed in an attack, even one who is serving as a human shield. Two wrongs do not make a right in ICL. By urging Israel to ignore the presence of civilians, therefore, Feiglin is urging Israel to launch attacks that are highly likely to be disproportionate.

Most Important Issues in International Criminal Justice Today?

by Kevin Jon Heller

That’s the question asked by the blog of Oxford University Press. All of the short answers, provided by scholars ranging from Ruti Teitel to Bill Schabas, are worth a read. Here’s mine:

In my view, it is time to begin to question whether the International Criminal Court will ever play a major role in the fight against impunity. This is not an issue of bad management, poor decision making, or anything else epiphenomenal and potentially fixable. Instead, it’s a question of institutional design: it is simply unclear whether the Court, by aiming to keep watch over both the victors and the vanquished, will ever be able to muster the kind of international support – from states, and most importantly from the Security Council – that it needs to conduct credible investigations and prosecutions. There is reason for scepticism, given the Court’s inability to prosecute both rebels and government officials in even one conflict. Indeed, it’s difficult to avoid wondering: for all its flaws, is victor’s justice the only international criminal justice possible? Is selectivity an inherent part of an international criminal tribunal that works?

You can find all of the answers here.

Why “Lawfare” Won’t Deter China in the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

Harry J. Kazianis, the managing editor of The National Interest, has a smart post discussing the risk that the U.S. is taking if it tries to take more aggressive action to counter China in the South China Sea.  Essentially, he argues the U.S. has no effective strategy to counter China’s “non-kinetic” strategy to subtly alter the status quo by using non-military assets to expand control and influence in the region.  I agreed with Kazianis all the way until he offered his own solution:

There only seems one solution to the various territorial disputes in the region—specifically, what some are calling “lawfare.” All of the various claimants that have disputes with China in the South China Sea should appeal collectively to any and all international bodies that could possibly hear their claims. Only together can they hope to get Beijing to halt its aggressive actions.

He goes on to cite the Philippines claim against China in the UN Law of the Sea arbitration system as a possible model for other nations.

“Lawfare” or international law litigation is not going to be an effective counter to China here for at least two reasons (one legal, one policy-based):

  • 1) China has opted out of any “compulsory” system of international dispute resolution that would rule on its territorial claims in the South China Sea (or anywhere, for that matter).  This “opt-out” is perfectly legal and may very well prevent the Philippines from even making their full case to the UNCLOS arbitration tribunal.  There are no other legal institutions that have jurisdiction.  So the only way “lawfare” can work here is if China consents to arbitration. But if Kazianis is right that this is a strategy by China’s neighbors to block its expansion, then why would China ever agree to arbitration?
  • 2) Even if compulsory jurisdiction were somehow found in one of these international bodies, there is very little chance that China would feel compelled to comply with any negative ruling.  This is not a China-specific problem, but rather a problem almost every country faces when considering arbitration over territorial disputes.  The effectiveness of tribunals in these contexts is highly limited since they depend for enforcement on the individual state-parties.  This is why voluntary arbitration tends to work better than compulsory arbitration in these kinds of territorial disputes.  The U.S. and Canada, for example, have managed to settle (most of) their often contentious land and maritime borders through a combination of non-arbitral commissions, and then special bilateral arbitrations.  In the famous “Gulf of Maine” case, the U.S. Senate actually approved a special treaty with Canada to send a maritime dispute to a special chamber of the ICJ.  Although clunky, this model is far more likely to succeed in getting state compliance.

So while I agree with Kanianis and other commentators that China needs to be deterred from its current strategy in the South China Sea, I am fairly confident the use of “lawfare” will not be a way to accomplish this goal.

Meanwhile, over at ABC News…

by Kevin Jon Heller

BsJXdWkCYAEhdi_Diane Sawyer had a hard-hitting report tonight at ABC News on the recent hostilities between Israel and Palestine. The segment opens with her saying, “We take you overseas now to the rockets raining down on Israel today as Israel tried to shoot them out of the sky.” As she speaks, a video box next to her shows explosions on an urban landscape. Sawyer then shows a still photo of two haggard men carrying clothes in front of a destroyed building and says, “here is an Israeli family trying to salvage what they can.”

There’s only one problem with Sawyer’s report: the explosions are in Gaza, the result of IDF airstrikes, and the men are Palestinian, not Israeli.

Welcome to the mainstream media’s even-handed coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Name That Pinko!

by Kevin Jon Heller

What Israel-hating, Hamas-loving lefty said the following on Facebook?

Dear friends: Take a few moments to read the following words and share them with others. I see the severe and rapid deterioration of the security situation in the territories, Jerusalem and the Triangle and I’m not surprised. Don’t be confused for a moment. This is the result of the policy conducted by the current government, whose essence is: Let’s frighten the public over everything that’s happening around us in the Middle East, let’s prove that there’s no Palestinian partner, let’s build more and more settlements and create a reality that can’t be changed, let’s continue not dealing with the severe problems of the Arab sector in Israel, let’s continue not solving the severe social gaps in Israeli society. This illusion worked wonderfully as long as the security establishment was able to provide impressive calm on the security front over the last few years as a result of the high-quality, dedicated work of the people of the Shin Bet, the IDF and the Israel Police as well as the Palestinians whose significant contribution to the relative calm in the West Bank should not be taken lightly.

However, the rapid deterioration we’re experiencing in the security situation did not come because of the vile murder of Naftali, Eyal and Gil-Ad, may their memories be blessed. The deterioration is first and foremost a result of the illusion that the government’s inaction on every front can actually freeze the situation in place, the illusion that “price tag” is simply a few slogans on the wall and not pure racism, the illusion that everything can be solved with a little more force, the illusion that the Palestinians will accept everything that’s done in the West Bank and won’t respond despite the rage and frustration and the worsening economic situation, the illusion that the international community won’t impose sanctions on us, that the Arab citizens of Israel won’t take to the streets at the end of the day because of the lack of care for their problems, and that the Israeli public will continue submissively to accept the government’s helplessness in dealing with the social gaps that its policies have created and are worsening, while corruption continues to poison everything good, and so on and so on.

But anyone who thinks the situation can tread water over the long run is making a mistake, and a big one. What’s been happening in the last few days can get much worse — even if things calm down momentarily. Don’t be fooled for a moment, because the enormous internal pressure will still be there, the combustible fumes in the air won’t diminish and if we don’t learn to lessen them the situation will get much worse.

The pinko in question would be Yuval Diskin, the director of Israel’s Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011. Further proof that being outside of government is conducive to honesty — especially when the government in question is overseen by someone like Netanyahu.

Why Did Katanga Drop His Appeal? And Why Did the OTP?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Many people are surprised that Germain Katanga has dropped his appeal, particularly given Judge Van den Wyngaert’s savage dissent. I’m not surprised in the least, because it locks in his sentence, which the OTP planned to appeal. Katanga’s 12-year sentence is even shorter than Lubanga’s, and he has already spent seven years in pre-trial detention. In fact, he’ll be eligible for sentence review in little more than a year.

To be sure, if Katanga thought he had a good chance of overturning his conviction on appeal, I’m sure he would have rolled the dice. But I think his assessment of that likelihood was spot-on. As I’ve noted before, the verdict was a disaster for the OTP — had the Trial Chamber majority not appointed itself backup prosecutors, Katanga would have walked. And despite Judge Van den Wyngaert’s impressive dissent, the Appeals Chamber was very unlikely to disapprove of the Trial Chamber’s unfair use of Regulation 55. After all, the Appeals Chamber has already issued two horrible decisions affirming its applicability.

The big question in my mind is why the OTP agreed to drop its appeal, which was obviously part of a quid pro quo. Unlike Katanga, the OTP had little to lose by appealing — there is no way the Appeals Chamber would have reduced Katanga’s sentence, and for the reasons above it’s equally unlikely it would have overturned his conviction.

If any readers know — or can intelligently speculate about — the OTP’s motivations, please weigh in below.

Syria and International Justice at the LSE

by Kevin Jon Heller

I will be participating in a roundtable about Syria and international justice next Monday night at the LSE. It’s free and open to the public, so I hope at least a few OJ readers will come. You can also send questions to the following hashtag: #LSESyriaICC. We will try to answer at least a few of them!

Here are the event details:

Syria and International Justice
LSE Centre for International Studies Dialogue
30 June 2014
6.30-8pm at LSE
Thai Theatre
New Academic Building

With a draft Security Council resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court vetoed, what, if anything, should the international community or other interested actors do to achieve justice in Syria?

SPEAKERS

Kevin Jon Heller, Professor of Criminal Law, SOAS. @kevinjonheller
Dov Jacobs, Asst Professor of Int’l Law, Grotius Centre. @dovjacobs
Mark Kersten, Researcher, LSE. Justiceinconflict.org. @MarkKersten
Jason Ralph, Professor of Int’l Relations, University of Leeds. @JasonRalph4
Leslie Vinjamuri, Senior Lecturer in IR, SOAS. @londonvinjamuri

CHAIR

Kirsten Ainley, Director of LSE CIS. @kirstenainley

The CIA and the Public Authority Justification: A Response to Orr

by Kevin Jon Heller

Jamie Orr has responded to my previous post on the drone memo, in which I argue that the OLC fails to adequately defend its conclusion that the CIA is just as entitled to the public-authority justification (PAJ) as the DoD. It’s a thoughtful response, and I appreciate Dean Orr taking the time to write it. But I don’t find his arguments convincing.

Orr begins by citing Art. 43 of the First Additional Protocol (AP I), which defines the armed forces as “all organized armed forces, groups and units which are under a command responsible to that Party for the conduct of its subordinates.” In Orr’s view, that means the CIA qualifies as “armed forces” under Art. 43, because the CIA is responsible to President Obama, the Commander in Chief:

The CIA may not be a part of the US military, not subordinate to the Secretary of Defense, but it is hard to claim it is not in any way an armed “group” or “unit” which is under the Command of the responsible party – the same person with responsibility for the military services, namely the Commander in Chief.

Orr’s argument, however, proves too much. By his logic, every armed organisation in the federal government that is ultimately responsible to Obama would qualify as the “armed forces” of the US — the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, even the US Marshals Service. That can’t possibly be correct.

To be fir, Orr recognises that it is not evident a “paramilitary” group like the CIA qualifies as the armed forces of the US and thus has the right to participate in hostilities. In particular, he acknowledges that, at a minimum, the CIA would have to comply with the four criteria set out in Art. 4 of the Third Geneva Convention (GC III): (1) responsible command; (2) a fixed distinctive sign; (3) open carry of arms; and (4) compliance with IHL. Here is his argument that it does:

(a) and (c) seem to apply (remotely piloted aircraft are operated in the open). The claim is made that (d) applies. Does (b)? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.

I don’t think it’s hard to say at all that (b) is not satisfied. CIA agents does not wear uniforms, nor do they wear anything that identifies them as CIA — particularly at a distance. And why would they? The CIA is an intelligence organisation that operates almost exclusively in secret; as noted by its own website, the CIA’s mission is “conducting effective covert action as directed by the President.” Fixed distinctive signs are the last thing CIA agents would ever wear.

Indeed, that’s almost certainly why Orr downplays the role of a fixed distinctive sign, saying that its “hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.” But that comment gives away the ballgame. Orr is not really arguing that the CIA is entitled to participate in hostilities because its members comply with the four criteria in GC III, art. 4. On the contrary, he is arguing that the CIA only has to comply with three of the four criteria — conveniently, the three with which it can comply. The inconvenient fourth criteria is simply wished out of existence. (And note that the question is not whether the CIA’s weapons have a fixed distinctive sign; it’s whether the CIA’s agents have one. Which they don’t.) Lex ferenda, not lex lata.

Jamie Orr has responded to my previous post on the drone memo, in which I argue that the OLC fails to adequately defend its conclusion that the CIA is just as entitled to the public-authority justification (PAJ) as the DoD. It’s a thoughtful response, and I appreciate Dean Orr taking the time to write it. But I don’t find his arguments convincing.

Orr begins by citing Art. 43 of the First Additional Protocol (AP I), which defines the armed forces as “all organized armed forces, groups and units which are under a command responsible to that Party for the conduct of its subordinates.” In Orr’s view, that means the CIA qualifies as “armed forces” under Art. 43, because the CIA is responsible to President Obama, the Commander in Chief:

The CIA may not be a part of the US military, not subordinate to the Secretary of Defense, but it is hard to claim it is not in any way an armed “group” or “unit” which is under the Command of the responsible party – the same person with responsibility for the military services, namely the Commander in Chief.

Orr’s argument, however, proves too much. By his logic, every armed organisation in the federal government that is ultimately responsible to Obama would qualify as the “armed forces” of the US and be entitled to participate in hostilities — the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, even the US Marshals Service. That can’t possibly be correct.

To be fair, Orr recognises that it is not evident a “paramilitary” group like the CIA qualifies as the armed forces of the US and thus has the right to participate in hostilities. In particular, he acknowledges that, at a minimum, the CIA would have to comply with the four criteria set out in Art. 4 of the Third Geneva Convention (GC III): (1) responsible command; (2) a fixed distinctive sign; (3) open carry of arms; and (4) compliance with IHL. Here is his argument that it does:

(a) and (c) seem to apply (remotely piloted aircraft are operated in the open). The claim is made that (d) applies. Does (b)? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.

I don’t think it’s hard to say at all that (b) is not satisfied. CIA agents does not wear uniforms, nor do they wear anything that identifies them as CIA — particularly at a distance. And why would they? The CIA is an intelligence organisation that operates almost exclusively in secret; as noted by its own website, the CIA’s mission is “conducting effective covert action as directed by the President.” Fixed distinctive signs are the last thing CIA agents would ever wear.

Indeed, that’s almost certainly why Orr downplays the role of a fixed distinctive sign, saying that its “hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.” But that comment gives away the ballgame. Orr is not really arguing that the CIA is entitled to participate in hostilities because its members comply with the four criteria in GC III, art. 4. On the contrary, he is arguing that the CIA only has to comply with three of the four criteria — conveniently, the three with which it can comply. The inconvenient fourth criteria is simply wished out of existence. (And note that the question is not whether the CIA’s weapons have a fixed distinctive sign; it’s whether the CIA’s agents have one. Which they don’t.)

It is important to recognize, though, that Orr’s argument concerning Art. 43 of AP I and Art. 4 of the GC III is ultimately beside the point. Orr may think that, as a matter of international law, the CIA is part of the US’s armed forces and thus has the right to participate in hostilities. But the US government doesn’t. Footnote 44 in the drone memo makes that exquisitely clear…

Let’s Call Killing al-Awlaki What It Still Is — Murder

by Kevin Jon Heller

As everyone on Twitter knows by now, the US government has released the notorious memorandum in which the OLC provides the supposed legal justification for killing Anwar al-Awlaki. I’m a bit disappointed not to get a mention in the memo; people in the know have suggested that a post I wrote in April 2010 led the OLC to substantially rewrite it. Vanity aside, though, I’m more disappointed by the memo’s failure to adequately address the most important issue regarding the “public authority justification,” which is at the heart of the memo’s conclusion that it would be lawful to kill al-Awlaki: how can the CIA be entitled to the public-authority justification when the CIA had no authority to use force against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)?

To understand why that’s a problem, let’s step back and consider what the memo says about whether the Department of Defense (DoD) had the legal authority to kill al-Awlaki. Remember, the memo was written before al-Awlaki was killed, at a time when it wasn’t clear which organisation — the DoD or the CIA — would actually kill him. (It was also written long after al-Awlaki was put on the kill list, as Hina Shamsi reminds us.)

The memo begins by emphasizing (p. 14) that its analysis — for both the DoD and the CIA — turns on whether 18 USC 1119, the foreign-murder statute, incorporates the “public authority justification” (PAJ). Indeed, it notes in n. 24 that the PAJ is the only defence it will consider. The memo then concludes (p. 20), after five pages of analysis, that in fact s 1119 does incorporate the PAJ. It’s an impressive analysis, and I find it convincing. So let’s grant that the PAJ potentially applies to the killing of al-Awlaki.

The question then becomes: who can invoke the public authority justification? The memo has little problem concluding that the DoD would be entitled to it, because (p. 20) “the operation would constitute the ‘lawful conduct of war’ — a well-established variant of the public authority justification.” In reaching that conclusion, the memo argues (1) that the AUMF covers AQAP, (2) that al-Awlaki qualifies as a targetable member of AQAP; (3) that the US is involved in a NIAC with AQ, making the laws of war applicable; and (4) that the DoD had pledged to obey the laws of war in any lethal operation.

I would quibble with much of the analysis, particularly the memo’s discussion of the scope of the non-international armed conflict between the US and “al-Qaeda.” But I’m prepared to accept that, in the abstract, the DoD would be entitled to invoke the PAJ. My problem is with the memo’s casual assertion that the PAJ applies equally to the CIA, which actually killed al-Awlaki. Here is its conclusion (p. 32)…

Analysing the US Invocation of Self-Defence Re: Abu Khattallah

by Kevin Jon Heller

Most of the discussion about Abu Khattallah’s capture in Libya has focused on the operation’s basis — or lack thereof — in domestic US law. Less attention has been paid to whether international law permitted the US to use force on Libyan soil. As Marty Lederman recently noted at Just Security, Abu Khattallah’s capture can potentially be justified on two different grounds: (1) Libya consented to the capture operation; or (2) the capture operation represented a legitimate act of self-defence under the UN Charter. The first justification does not appear open to the US; the available evidence indicates that the operation was conducted without Libya’s consent. So it’s not surprising that the US has claimed — in a letter submitted to the UN by Samantha Power on June 17 — that Article 51 permitted the operation:

The investigation also determined that [Abu Khattallah] continued to plan further armed attacks against U.S. persons. The measures we have taken to capture Abu Khattallah in Libya were therefore necessary to prevent such armed attacks, and were taken in accordance with the United States’ inherent right of self-defense. We are therefore reporting these measures to the Security Council in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

Power’s letter obscures far more than it reveals. In fact, the US’s invocation of self-defence raises four very difficult questions:

  • Can a non-state actor launch an “armed attack” that triggers the right of self-defence?
  • If so, must that armed attack be attributable in some fashion to the state whose territory is the object of “self-defensive” force?
  • Do all uses of armed force qualify as an “armed attack” for purposes of Article 51?
  • Does the right of self-defence permit force to be used anticipatorily?

In this post, I want to put aside the first two questions. I have no doubt that a non-state actor can launch an armed attack within the meaning of Article 51, and my views on the “unwilling or unable” test are well-known. It’s worth spending some time, though, on the third and fourth questions.

The third question is interesting because it’s not clear that all uses of force qualify as “armed attacks” for purposes of Article 51. The UN Charter itself distinguishes between the “use of force” (Art. 2(4)) and “armed attack” (Art. 51), and the ICJ has suggested in both Nicaragua and Oil Platforms that at least some uses of force may be so de minimis that they do not entitle the victim state to use force in self-defence. (As opposed to taking other countermeasures.) On the other hand, customary international law seems to indicate that the threshold of force for an armed attack is extremely low. Here is Tom Ruys’ conclusion in his magisterial book “Armed Attack” and Article 51 of the UN Charter (p. 155):

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

In sum, the following general conclusions can be made: (1) the travaux of the Definition of Aggression suggest that a minimal gravity is indeed required and seem to rule out the aforementioned Option 3; (2) ‘concrete’ customary evidence nonetheless makes clear that the gravity threshold should not be set too high and that even small-scale attacks involving the use of (possibly) lethal force may trigger Article 51.

If Ruys is right — and he has examined state practice and opinio juris far more carefully than any other scholar writing on the use of force — the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi almost certainly was, in fact, an “armed attack” for purposes of Art. 51.

What, then, about the fourth question? Here is where the US claim of self-defence regarding the Abu Khattallah operation becomes problematic. The US clearly cannot use the original Benghazi armed attack to justify the operation — although a state’s response to an armed attack may not have to be immediate, the prohibition on armed force in Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter would be meaningless if a state could “pocket” an armed attack and respond to it with armed force much later — nearly two years later, in the case of Benghazi. Indeed, Power seems to acknowledge as much when she emphasises that Abu Khattallah was planning further armed attacks. Does that planning mean the capture operation was a legitimate act of self-defence by the US?

Answering that question, of course, requires us to address the temporal limits of self-defence under Art. 51. Three basic positions on that issue are possible:

  • Self-defence permits the use of force only in response to an armed attack; force cannot be used pre-emptively or preventively (“responsive self-defence”)
  • Self-defence permits the use of force to pre-empt an imminent armed attack but not to prevent a temporally more remote armed attack (“pre-emptive self-defence”)
  • Self-defence permits the use of force to prevent even a temporally remote armed attack (“preventive self-defence”)

Unfortunately, because of the US’s typical lack of transparency concerning its use of force, Power’s letter says nothing about the time-frame of the armed attacks Abu Khattallah was supposedly planning. (Nor does it provide any evidence of that planning, but that’s another question.) The time-frame doesn’t matter, however, if responsive self-defence is the correct position – as noted, the capture operation cannot be justified as a response to the original Benghazi attack.

Most readers — at least those in the West — will no doubt be inclined to reject responsive self-defence as too narrow, even though it is the only position consistent with the text of Article 51, which permits self-defence “if an armed attack occurs.” Surely customary international law does not require a state to wait until an armed attack has already taken place to defend itself, no matter what the UN Charter says.

This issue is much more difficult issue than it may appear. Those interested should read the relevant section of Ruys’ book; I’ll just quote his bottom line (pp. 341-42):

In light of the available evidence, it can be concluded that there has indeed been a shift in States’ opinio iuris insofar as support for pre-emptive self-defence, fairly rare and muted prior to 2001, has become more widespread and explicit in recent years. At the same time, it seems a bridge too far to claim that there exists today widespread acceptance of the legality of self-defence against so-called “imminent” threats. Such assertion tends to forego the opposition of a considerable group of mainly Latin-American, north-African and Asian States. In the present author’s view, it would therefore be more appropriate to argue that the crack in opinio iuris among States has widened, without, however, identifying one approach or the other as the majority view. The implication is that, taking account of the Charter “baseline” and the absence of a concrete precedent in State practice which convincingly demonstrates the international community’s support for some form of anticipatory self-defence, it is impossible to identify de lege lata a general right of pre- emptive – and a fortiori preventive – self-defence.

Ruys’ reference to the UN Charter’s “baseline” is important, because Art. 51′s adoption of responsive self-defence indicates that states who support a more relaxed concept of self-defence, such as the US, have the obligation to find sufficient state practice and opinio juris to establish a broader rule. And such state practice and opinio juris is simply lacking — unless, as is too often the case with custom, we simply ignore the views of the Global South.

Even if responsive self-defence is too narrow, however, that does not mean the Abu Khattallah operation was a legitimate act of self-defence. If the US had evidence that Abu Khattallah was about to launch another armed attack, it is reasonable to assume Powers would have said so in her letter. That she failed to do so thus seems to indicate — though is clearly not dispositive — that the US did not believe another armed attack was imminent when it launched the capture operation. Power’s letter may well indicate, therefore, that the US is promoting the broadest understanding of self-defence possible — preventive self-defence instead of pre-emptive self-defence. If so, as Ruys notes (pp. 336-38), the US is on shaky ground indeed:

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

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

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

Again, in the absence of additional information, we cannot categorically reject the US’s insistence that the Abu Khattallah operation was a legitimate act of self-defence. But there is considerable reason to be skeptical. Indeed, the US’s lack of transparency concerning its understanding of Art. 51 of the UN Charter may well indicate it has adopted a position that even its closest allies formally disavow.