Archive of posts for category
International Criminal Law

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.

My UN Presentation on the Aggression Amendments

by Kevin Jon Heller

I had the great honour last week of giving a presentation to ICC member-states about Art. 15bis and Art. 15ter of the aggression amendments — the conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction. The presentation was sponsored by the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) and organised by Austria, part of a series of presentations designed to prepare delegations to participate in the December meeting of the ASP, where the amendments are likely to be adopted (again).

I had a great time at the UN — the first time I had ever set foot in the building! The presentation itself went very well, but it was the subsequent discussion that was the standout. I found the delegations impressively knowledgeable about the aggression amendments, although it’s clear that they remain deeply divided over a number of critical issues concerning their interpretation. My presentation focused on what is perhaps the most controversial issue of all: which acts of aggression will be within the ICC’s jurisdiction once the crime of aggression is activated. Many delegations believe that member-states have to formally opt-out of the aggression amendments to be completely insulated from the Court’s jurisdiction, while others insist that states need only decline to accept the amendments. I did not take a position on that issue in my presentation — although I did during the discussion afterward. Instead, I simply laid out the stakes in the debate as clearly as possible, following up on two blog posts (here and here) I wrote on the issue a few years ago.

I am posting all of my UN materials here, in case readers are interested. They include the text of my presentation, the accompanying Powerpoint slides, and two tables that lay out the jurisdictional consequences of the so-called “negative” and “positive” understandings of Art. 121(5) of the Rome Statute, the key provision in the dispute.

Thoughts most welcome!

Why Unilateral Humanitarian Intervention Is Illegal and Potentially Criminal

by Kevin Jon Heller

I read Jennifer Trahan’s post yesterday with great interest — but not surprisingly I disagree with it. Before I get to my disagreements, though, I think it’s bizarre that we are all debating the legality of unilateral humanitarian intervention in the context of the recent US missile attack on Syria. It simply beggars belief to think that the attack was in any way motivated by humanitarian concerns. Chemical weapons, which have killed perhaps 2,000 civilians, are not the problem in Syria; conventional weapons, which have killed hundreds of thousands, are the real threat. And the US has done absolutely nothing to protect Syrians from conventional weapons — it has simply funnelled even more into the country to support various rebel groups (including some that are allied with al-Qaeda) in their struggle against Assad. The US cares about protecting its own interests in Syria, such as preventing chemical weapons from being used against Americans. (The real message of the completely ineffectual attack.) It does not care about the lives of ordinary Syrians, as the ever mounting death-toll indicates.

But let’s put aside the context of the missile attack and focus on Trahan’s legal claims. The first is that unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI) — the qualifier, of course, is critical — can be legal in the right circumstances. The post, however, doesn’t even come close to establishing that claim. Just consider what Trahan cites in defence of it:

[1] NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, in which “all NATO members supported the intervention designed to stave off ethnic cleansing.” Trahan openly acknowledges that “many did not defend it as ‘humanitarian intervention’ per se, except Belgium” — but that gives away the ballgame. If the 26 other NATO states did not invoke UHI, the attack does not help establish UHI’s legality. As the ICJ pointed out in the Nicaragua case (para. 207), not even the Court itself has the “authority to ascribe to States legal views which they do not themselves advance.” So it doesn’t matter whether Trahan and other scholars would like to describe Kosovo as an example of UHI. All that matters is that NATO states could have invoked UHI but chose not to.

It is also telling that Trahan fails to point out that the Kosovo intervention met with significant international criticism. Here are Vaughan Lowe and Antonios Tzanakopoulos in the Max Planck Encyclopedia:

33  The response of other, non-NATO, States to arguments that there was a legal basis for the Kosovo bombing campaign and for a right of humanitarian intervention was overwhelmingly negative. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), numbering well over half of the Member States of the UN, unequivocally condemned the use of force against the (then) FRY, as did many other States, some of which are nuclear powers. In these circumstances, no right of unilateral forcible humanitarian intervention can be said to have emerged as a rule of customary international law.

[2] UK and US no-fly zones in Iraq. Once again opinio juris is lacking: the coalition initially provided no legal justification for the no-fly zones, and the US later justified them as self-defence (against threats to coalition aircraft, a wonderfully circular argument).

[3] ECOWAS’s interventions in Liberia in 1990 and Sierra Leone in 1998. Same problem: as Adam Roberts has pointed out, ECOWAS never invoked UHI to justify its actions. It relied instead on provisions in its own founding treaty.

[4] The UK’s endorsement of UHI in Syria, particularly in the context of the 2013 sarin gas attack that killed hundreds if not thousands. Unlike the other examples, this endorsement does, in fact, contribute opinio juris in favour of UHI.

So, there we have it: one state that explicitly and regularly endorses a right of UHI.  And against that, we have the unequivocal rejection of UHI by the 120 states that are part of the Non-Aligned Movement and the 134 states that are part of the Group of 77, which includes major powers like China, India, and South Africa. (The two groups obviously overlap.) How any scholar could conclude that customary international law nevertheless recognises a right of UHI, however limited, is simply beyond me.

For similar reasons, I also reject Trahan’s confident claim that UHI could never be criminal. Here is what she says:

Humanitarian intervention, narrowly construed, then clearly also would not constitute the crime of aggression, which is poised to activate this December 2017 before the International Criminal Court. (Anything in a legal “grey area” is excluded from that definition—and, at minimum, humanitarian intervention (sometimes supported and sometimes invoked) is within that legal grey area. The U.S., a non-State Party to the ICC’s Rome Statute, would be exempt from the crime’s jurisdictional reach, even if it does activate.)

I disagree. To begin with, during the Kampala Review Conference in 2010, states soundly rejected the US’s attempt to specifically exclude UHI from the crime of aggression. Here is the text of the US’s failed Understanding:

It is understood that, for purposes of the Statute, an act cannot be considered to be a manifest violation of the United Nations Charter unless it would be objectively evident to any State conducting itself in the matter in accordance with normal practice and in good faith, and thus an act undertaken in connection with an effort to prevent the commission of any of the crimes contained in Articles 6, 7 or 8 of the Statute would not constitute an act of aggression.

More importantly, the fact that scholars insist UHI can be legal does not make the legality of UHI fall into a “grey area.” On the contrary, it is difficult to imagine any issue that is more black and white given state practice. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter is clear: force is legal only when authorised by the Security Council or in self-defence. UHI does not involve the former by its very definition, and there is no argument de lege lata that UHI can be justified as a form of self-defence, because it does not involve an armed attack on the intervening state. Adil Haque made that point in response to Jens’s recent post, and here are Lowe and Tzanakopoulos again:

23  Humanitarian intervention in order to alleviate the suffering of a local population cannot, without more, be justified as self-defence. Self-defence under Art. 51 UN Charter requires that an armed attack occur against a State. In most cases, widespread violations of human rights will not reach the gravity threshold of an armed attack. Even if the oppression does reach the threshold of an armed attack, however, there will be no armed attack against a State, but at most an armed attack against the population of the State by or with the support or inaction of State authorities. The right to self-defence under international law vests in States and not in sub-State entities such as the local population. Moreover, the oppression will, ex hypothesi, not emanate from another State, but will be by the government upon its own people.

The illegality of UHI under Art. 2(4) is, of course, not set in stone. As Lowe and Tzanakopoulos rightly note, UHI could become legal through subsequent state practice that results in a new interpretation of the provision or (possibly) through the emergence of a supervening customary rule. But that has clearly not happened, given G77 and NAM’s ongoing and unwavering opposition to UHI.

It is unlikely, of course, that the ICC will ever prosecute a government official who is responsible for preparing, planning, initiating, or executing a UHI — and not simply because of the new crime of aggression’s crimped jurisdictional regime. But that does not mean UHI does not manifestly violate the UN Charter. It most certainly does.

An Important Absence in the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017

by Kevin Jon Heller

On Monday, my friend Beth van Schaack posted an excellent analysis at Just Security of 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.” Beth summarises the most important aspects of the bill; in this post I want to focus on Section 7, which authorises US technical assistance to certain non-US accountability mechanisms. The most important paragraph in Section 7 is this one (emphasis mine):

(a) IN GENERAL.—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 violent extremist groups in Syria beginning in March 2011—

(1) identify suspected perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; (2) collect, document, and protect evidence of crimes and preserve the chain of custody for such evidence; (3) conduct criminal investigations; (4) build Syria’s investigative and judicial capacities and support prosecutions in the domestic courts of Syria, provided that President Bashar al Assad is no longer in power; (5) support investigations by third-party states, as appropriate; or (6) protect witnesses that may be helpful to prosecutions or other transitional justice mechanisms.

There a very interesting — and potentially very important — absence in Section 7(a). As the bolded text indicates, the paragraph only authorises the US to provide technical assistance to entities that are investigating international crimes committed by pro-Assad forces and “violent extremist groups.” Note what is missing from that construction: Syrian rebel groups. The bill does not permit the US to support any entity investigating war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide committed by rebels.

Lest anyone think I am reading Section 7(a) too narrowly, consider the wording of Section 3(1), which summarises acts that the US “strongly condemns” (emphasis mine):

(A) the ongoing violence, use of chemical weapons, targeting of civilian populations with barrel, incendiary, and cluster bombs and SCUD missiles, and systematic gross human rights violations carried out by the Government of Syria and pro-government forces under the direction of President Bashar al-Assad; and (B) all abuses committed by violent extremist groups and other combatants involved in the civil war in Syria.

It is difficult to see who “other combatants involved in the civil war in Syria” might be if they are not rebels. Indeed, Section 5(a), which requires the Secretary of State to submit a report on international crimes to Congress, explicitly distinguishes between “violent extremist groups” and rebel groups (emphasis mine):

(b) ELEMENTS.—The reports required under subsection (a) shall include— (1) a description of alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated during the civil war in Syria, including— (A) incidents that may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide committed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and all forces fighting on its behalf; (B) incidents that may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide committed by violent extremist groups, anti-government forces, and any other combatants in the conflict.

In light of Section 5(a), it is clear that Section 7(a) does not authorise the US to support an entity that is investigating international crimes committed by rebels.

That said, the bill is unclear in one important respect: whether the US can support an entity that investigates international crimes committed by both pro-Assad forces and rebel groups. On a literal reading of Section 7(a), the answer would seem to be no. But the sponsors of the bill might disagree. Journalists?

I agree with Beth that the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017 is an important step forward for accountability in Syria. Unfortunately, it also reflects the US’s tendency to take international crimes committed by rebel groups much less seriously than those committed by Assad’s forces and by ISIS.

Symposium on the Nuremberg Trials

by Kevin Jon Heller

The Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Review has just published a special issue on the Nuremberg trials. It contains many excellent contributions, including articles by Hilary Earl, David Fraser, Greg Gordon, and Jonathan Bush. I have also contributed a short chapter, entitled “Taking a Consenting Part: The Lost Mode of Participation,” which discusses a mode of participation developed by the NMTs and then promptly forgotten — for better or for worse — by international criminal law.

All of the articles in the special issue are free to download here.

Bad Criminal Law in the Alexander Blackman Case (With Addendum)

by Kevin Jon Heller

In September 2011, Alexander Blackman, a Sergeant in the Royal Marines serving in Afghanistan, executed a Taliban fighter who had been incapacitated by his wounds.This was no spur-of-the-moment killing, as video recovered one year later makes clear. Here is the Court Martial’s summary of Blackman’s actions, as shown on the video:

[The insurgent] had been seriously wounded having been engaged lawfully by an Apache helicopter and when [Blackman] found him he was no longer a threat. Having removed his AK47, magazines and a grenade, [Blackman] caused him to be moved [because Blackman] wanted to be out of sight of [the] operational headquarters at Shahzad so that, to quote what [Blackman] said: ‘PGSS can’t see what we are doing to him.

He was handled in a robust manner by those under [Blackman’s] command clearly causing him additional pain and [Blackman] did nothing to stop them from treating him in that way. When out of view of the PGSS [Blackman] failed to ensure he was given appropriate medical treatment quickly and then ordered those giving him some first aid to stop.

When [Blackman was] sure the Apache helicopter was out of sight, [Blackman] calmly discharged a nine millimetre round into his chest from close range. [Blackman’s] suggestion that [he] thought the insurgent was dead when [he] discharged the firearms lacks any credibility and was clearly made up after [he] had been charged with murder in an effort to concoct a defence. It was rejected by the Board.

Although the insurgent may have died from his wounds sustained in the engagement by the Apache [Blackman] gave him no chance of survival. [Blackman] intended to kill him and that shot certainly hastened his death.

[Blackman] then told [his] patrol they were not to say anything about what had just happened and [Blackman] acknowledged what [he] had done by saying [he] had just broken the Geneva Convention. The tone of calmness of [his] voice as [he] commented after [he] had shot him were matter of fact and in that respect they were chilling.”

Not surprisingly, the Court Martial convicted Blackman of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. All of his fellow soldiers were acquitted.

Fast forward to last week — when the Court Martial Appeal Court (CMAC) allowed Blackman’s appeal, substituted a verdict of manslaughter for murder on the ground of diminished responsibility, and reduced his sentence to seven years imprisonment. Blackman will be a free man, with an honourable discharge from the Royal Marines, in a couple of weeks.

From a criminal law perspective, I find CMAC’s judgment profoundly unconvincing. I will explain why in this post.

CMAC’s reasoning proceeded in three steps. First, it found that Blackman had suffered from an “adjustment disorder” at the time of the killing…

IHL Does Not Authorise Detention in NIAC: A Response to Murray

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the past couple of years, a number of scholars — including me — have debated whether IHL implicitly authorises detention in non-international armed conflict (NIAC.) The latest intervention in the debate comes courtesy of Daragh Murray in the Leiden Journal of International Law. As the article’s abstract makes clear, Murray is firmly in the “IHL authorises” camp:

On the basis of current understandings of international law – and the prohibition of arbitrary detention in particular – it is concluded that international humanitarian law must be interpreted as establishing implicit detention authority, in order to ensure the continued regulation of armed groups.

I disagree that IHL cannot regulate non-state actor (NSA) detention in NIAC unless it authorises that detention, for reasons I will explain in this post. Before we get to Murray’s argument, however, it is important to remind ourselves of what is at stake in the debate. Put simply, if Murray is right and IHL authorises NSAs to detain, two significant consequences follow: (1) states have no right to prosecute NSAs who detain government soldiers, even if such detention would qualify as kidnapping or wrongful imprisonment under domestic criminal law; and (2) NSAs have the right to detain government soldiers for as long as they pose a “security threat” to the NSA — ie, essentially forever. In other words, FARC could detain a Colombian soldier for five decades and Colombia couldn’t prosecute the commander responsible for that detention as long as FARC complied with NIAC’s procedural restrictions on detention.

Now let’s turn to Murray’s argument. Here are the critical paragraphs in the article:

[I]nternational law cannot regulate activity that is subject to an absolute prohibition. For example, instances of torture cannot be regulated as torture is subject to an absolute prohibition. The same is true with respect to armed group detention in non-international armed conflict: the absolute prohibition of arbitrary detention precludes the possibility of regulating arbitrary detention (p. 9)

Two possibilities are open: either international humanitarian law establishes an implicit legal basis for detention, or it does not and the authority to detain must be established elsewhere. If international humanitarian law does not establish an implicit legal basis for detention then all instances of detention by armed groups will necessarily violate the prohibition of arbitrary detention as a legal basis for armed group detention does not exist under domestic law or elsewhere in international law. Yet, to interpret Common Article 3 and Article 5 Additional Protocol II in this way is to conclude that states have developed international treaty law to regulate detention operations by armed groups, despite the fact that all instances of armed group detention are illegal. This interpretation is incapable of giving effect to states’ intentions, and to the object and purpose of the provisions themselves. As discussed above, states cannot regulate that which is absolutely prohibited, and so the only means by which Common Article 3 and Article 5 Additional Protocol II can regulate detention by armed groups is if these provisions establish an implicit legal basis for that detention  (p. 14)

The first thing to note is that the torture analogy is misplaced. International law does indeed absolutely prohibit torture. But it does not absolutely prohibit detention — not even in NIAC. On the contrary, a state is free to detain as long as it adopts the necessary domestic legislation. It is even free to domestically authorise an NSA to detain, as well. (Which is not absurd. A state may well conclude that an NSA is more likely to treat captured government soldiers humanely if it does not prohibit the very act of detention.) So what Murray is actually arguing is that because most states choose not to authorise NSAs to detain, international humanitarian law (IHL) necessarily authorises it for them so they can regulate that detention. That’s a very puzzling claim, given that states are the authors of IHL.

The fundamental problem with Murray’s position, however, is that it is simply not the case that IHL can’t regulate a practice that international law absolutely prohibits. I will discuss in a minute the situation regarding detention in NIAC, in which the regulation and the prohibition come from different legal regimes — regulation from IHL, prohibition from international human rights law (IHRL). But before doing so, it is worth noting that Murray’s argument does not work even when the regulation and the prohibition come from the same legal regime — a situation in which you would think Murray’s argument would be even stronger…

The Disappearing UN Report on Israeli “Apartheid”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) sent shockwaves through the international community by issuing a report that — for the first time in UN history — claims Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amounts to the crime of apartheid. Here is ESCWA’s description of the report, entitled “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” which was officially commissioned by ESCWA but does not purport to represent the official opinion of the UN:

This report examines, based on key instruments of international law, whether Israel has established an apartheid regime that oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole. Having established that the crime of apartheid has universal application, that the question of the status of the Palestinians as a people is settled in law, and that the crime of apartheid should be considered at the level of the State, the report sets out to demonstrate how Israel has imposed such a system on the Palestinians in order to maintain the domination of one racial group over others.

A history of war, annexation and expulsions, as well as a series of practices, has left the Palestinian people fragmented into four distinct population groups, three of them (citizens of Israel, residents of East Jerusalem and the populace under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza) living under direct Israeli rule and the remainder, refugees and involuntary exiles, living beyond. This fragmentation, coupled with the application of discrete bodies of law to those groups, lie at the heart of the apartheid regime. They serve to enfeeble opposition to it and to veil its very existence. This report concludes, on the basis of overwhelming evidence, that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid, and urges swift action to oppose and end it.

Predictably, the ESCWA report enraged Israel and the United States. Both states pressured the UN to withdraw the report — and to his lasting shame, the Secretary General, António Guterres, quickly folded. (Claiming, truly beggaring belief, that the decision had nothing to do with the report’s content.) Although you can still find the press release on ESCWA’s website, the report has been scrubbed from the webpage containing all of ESCWA’s reports. Only the Executive Summary remains — and it can only be found by entering the title of the report into Google and looking for the ESCWA link.

As critical as I am of Israel’s unconscionable oppression of and violence toward Palestinians, I have never accused Israel of practicing apartheid. But there is absolutely no justification for the UN suppressing an official report issued by one of the regional offices of the Economic and Social Council — particularly in response to pressure from the object of that report (and its chief enabler). Nor is this the first time the UN has bowed to Israeli pressure: recall Ban Ki-moon’s indefensible decision in 2015 to remove Israel from the UN’s “list of shame” of children’s rights violators. Unfortunately, it appears his successor will be no less craven.

That said, at least one UN official has the courage of her convictions. Rima Khalaf, the UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of ESCWA, reacted to Guterres’ decision to scrub the report by immediately resigning.

You can find a copy of the 74-page report here. Do what the Israel, the US, and the UN don’t want you to do — read the report and decide the apartheid question for yourself.

America’s Hubris, Cambodia Version

by Kevin Jon Heller

It is difficult to overstate the horrors the US inflicted on Cambodia from the air during the Vietnam War: 230,000 sorties involving 113,000 different sites; 500,000 tonnes of bombs, as much as the US dropped in the entire Pacific theatre during WW II; at least 50,000, and probably closer to 150,000, innocent civilians killed. Even worse, that bombing campaign, along with the US-backed coup against Prince Sihanouk in 1970, is widely credited with helping bring Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to power, and we know how that turned out — at least 1.7 million Cambodians murdered, an auto-genocide of epic proportions.

The US has never apologized for its actions in Cambodia. President Obama didn’t even mention the Vietnam War when he became the first President to visit Cambodia in 2012. The Trump administration, however, is not afraid to discuss Vietnam. On the contrary, it is currently very interested in discussing US actions during the war — to demand that Cambodia pay back $500 million it owes the US for providing support to Lon Nol’s unpopular regime:

The debt started out as a US$274 million loan mostly for food supplies to the then US-backed Lon Nol government but has almost doubled over the years as Cambodia refused to enter into a re-payment program.

William Heidt, the US’s ambassador in Phnom Penh, said Cambodia’s failure to pay back the debt puts it in league with Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

“To me, Cambodia does not look like a country that should be in arrears…buildings coming up all over the city, foreign investment coming in, government revenue is rapidly rising,” Mr Heidt was quoted as saying by the Cambodia Daily.

“I’m saying it is in Cambodia’s interest not to look to the past, but to look at how to solve this because it’s important to Cambodia’s future,” he said, adding that the US has never seriously considered cancelling the debt.

Look forward, not backward. Where have we heard that before?

I have little doubt that Cambodia’s debt to the US is valid under international law. But that does not mean the US has the moral right to demand payment — much less to compare Cambodia to debt scofflaws like Zimbabwe. (How much does the US owe the UN right now? It was almost $3 billion at the end of 2015.) As James Pringle, Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh city during the Vietnam War, recently wrote in the Cambodia Daily, “Cambodia does not owe even a brass farthing to the U.S. for help in destroying its people, its wild animals, its rice fields and forest cover.”

But what do I know? Perhaps Donald Trump needs the $500 million to finance the US’s current bombing campaigns in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Or to build the wall between the US and Mexico.

Two Positions at PHAP

by Kevin Jon Heller

PHAP — Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection — is advertising two positions in Geneva that might be of interest to readers. The first is Policy Coordinator:

The International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) is looking for an experienced policy professional to support the association’s efforts to foster new perspectives on critical issues affecting the humanitarian sector through inclusive and objective discussion. This is a new position.

Building on the association’s trend monitoring efforts, the Policy Coordinator will analyze a variety of emerging and developing challenges affecting humanitarian work. When priority issues are identified, the Policy Coordinator is accountable for setting up and supporting issue-focused member committees, assisting in organizing their discussions and supporting the association’s efforts to engage on priority policy issues.

The second is Communications Officer:

The International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) is looking for a dynamic communications professional to join the association’s secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Communications Officer is accountable for implementing and further developing the association’s public and member communication strategies.

I have worked with PHAP for years, conducting IHL trainings all around the world. It is an exceptional organisation that does interesting and important work. Definitely apply if one of the positions sound right for you! The deadline is coming soon — this Sunday, March 12, for both positions.