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International Security

Parsing the Syrian-Russian Agreement Concerning Russia’s Deployment

by Chris Borgen

The Washington Post asks (and answers) the following:

When you are a major nuclear power and you want to make a secretive deployment to a faraway ally, what is the first thing you do? Draw up the terms, apparently, and sign a contract.

That’s what the Kremlin did with Syria in August, according to an unusual document posted this week on a Russian government website that details the terms of its aerial support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Among other revelations in the seven-page contract dated Aug. 26, 2015, the Kremlin has made an open-ended time commitment to its military deployment in Syria, and either side can terminate it with a year’s notice.

The “Agreement between the Russian Federation and the Syrian Arab Republic on deployment of an aviation group of the Russian Armed Forces on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic” is similar in purpose to status of forces agreements (SOFAs) that the U.S. signs with countries in which it has military bases. (For an overview of US SOFA practice, see this State Department document (.pdf). ) The agreement sets out issues concerning immunities, transit rights, the movement of property, and so forth.

However, every international agreement is a product of the political and strategic concerns in a particular bilateral relationship. Consequently, there can be a variety of SOFA practice even among the agreements drafted by a single country.  Concerning US practice, GlobalSecurity.org explains:

Status-of-forces agreements generally come in three forms. These include administrative and technical staff status under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Privileges, commonly referred to as A and T status; a “mini” status-of-forces agreement, often used for a short-term presence, such as an exercise; and a full-blown, permanent status-of-forces agreement. The appropriate arrangement is dependent upon the nature and duration of U.S. military activity within the host country, the maturity of our relationship with that country, and the prevailing political situation in the host nation.

To take one example from US practice, the 2008 Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq (the “2008 Iraq SOFA” (.pdf))  was made after the US was already in Iraq for five years; it was in part about responding to tensions between the Iraqi government and the US as well as the mechanics of withdrawal. By contrast, the Russian/Syrian agreement was made early in an intervention of undefined length and scope. responding to issues that already existed, the 2008 Iraq SOFA is twenty-four pages long, covering more topics and also with more provisions within each article. (The 2008 Iraqi SOFA is no longer in force, but I will use it as a comparator.)

By contrast, the Russian/Syrian agreement is a very brief seven pages. But, besides being quite short, the main characteristic of the agreement is that it maximizes Russian prerogatives and flexibility. Article 2 has the transfer “without charge” from Syria to Russia of  “Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province, with its infrastructure, as well as the required territory agreed upon between the parties” for the use of the Russian aviation group to be deployed in Syria.  Article 5 entitles Russia: (more…)

Autonomous Legal Reasoning: Legal and Ethical Issues in the Technologies of Conflict

by Duncan Hollis

One of the highlights of my Fall semester was the opportunity to host a one-day workshop at Temple Law on how autonomous technology may impact the future of international humanitarian law (IHL) and the lawyers who practice it.  With co-sponsorship from the International Committee of the Red Cross (specifically, Rob Ramey and Tracey Begley) as well as Gary Brown of Marine Corps University, we wanted to have an inter-disciplinary conversation on the way autonomy may implicate the practice of law across a range of new technologies, including cyberwar, drones, and the potential for fully autonomous lethal weapons.  Although these technologies share common characteristics — most notably their ability (and sometimes their need) to operate in the absence of direct human control — discursive silos have emerged where these technologies tend to be discussed in isolation.

Our workshop sought to bridge this divide by including experts on all three technologies from an array of disciplinary backgrounds, including IHL, political science, and ethics (see here for a list of participants).  Fortunately, the day itself lived up to the hype, with a detailed agenda that prompted a wide-ranging set of conversations on the nature of the technology, the ethical issues, as well as IHL’s current regulations and its likely future evolution.  Subject to the Chatham House Rule, the ICRC has published summaries of these conversations on their blog, Intercross.

In addition to those blog posts, the Temple International and Comparative Law Journal will publish a series of short (and often provocative) think-pieces written for the workshop.  My own contribution, Setting the Stage: Autonomous Legal Reasoning in International Humanitarian Law is now available on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract:

This short essay seeks to reorient — and broaden — the existing discourse on international humanitarian law (IHL) and autonomous weapons. Written for a conference co-sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross, it employs a contextual analysis to pose new questions (and reformulate others) regarding the relationship between IHL and autonomous weapon systems. It asks six questions: (1) Who should IHL regulate in this context? Does IHL only regulate States and individuals, or can it provide rules for autonomous weapon systems themselves? (2) What types of autonomous technology should IHL regulate? Should the current focus on kinetic weapons expand to encompass cyber operations? (3) Where should this discourse occur? How do the trade-offs involved in locating legal discourse in a particular forum impact the elaboration of IHL vis-à-vis autonomous systems? (4) When should IHL regulate autonomous weapons? Should IHL ban autonomous weapons now or allow its regulation to emerge incrementally over time? Can IHL only apply when an autonomous system’s operations constitute an attack, or should IHL’s application reach more broadly? (5) How should IHL regulate autonomous weapon systems? Are prohibitions better or worse than prescriptive authorities? Should IHL regulate via rules, standards, or principles? Finally, (6) why should IHL regulate autonomous weapons? How can IHL best prioritize among its foundations in military necessity, humanitarian values, and the practical reality that the development of such systems now appears inevitable. In asking these questions, my essay offers a critical lens for gauging the current scope (and state) of international legal discourse on this topic. In doing so, it sets the stage for new lines of inquiry that States and other stakeholders will need to address to fully understand the perils — and potential — of increasing autonomy in technology for IHL and the international lawyers who practice it.

Fans of Thomas Aquinas may be particularly interested in this piece since I ask these questions using the same analytical frame Aquinas deployed to delineate those circumstances that define human acts.  Otherwise, interested readers should keep an eye out for the Symposium volume itself, which should be out sometime later this Spring or early this coming Summer.

 

Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War

by Chris Borgen

Scientific American has published an article by John Wendle on how climate change has spurred the conflict in Syria. Wendle writes:

Climatologists say Syria is a grim preview of what could be in store for the larger Middle East, the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. The drought, they maintain, was exacerbated by climate change. The Fertile Crescent—the birthplace of agriculture some 12,000 years ago—is drying out. Syria’s drought has destroyed crops, killed livestock and displaced as many as 1.5 million Syrian farmers. In the process, it touched off the social turmoil that burst into civil war, according to a study published in March in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. A dozen farmers and former business owners like Ali with whom I recently spoke at camps for Syrian refugees say that’s exactly what happened.

He tells a story of environmental degradation, ill-conceived agricultural and water-management policies, and their effects:

“The war and the drought, they are the same thing,” says Mustafa Abdul Hamid, a 30-year-old farmer from Azaz, near Aleppo… “The start of the revolution was water and land,” Hamid says.

But the story Wendle writes is about more than Syria:

The refugee crisis will eventually subside, [Richard Seager,a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory] assumes, and the war in Syria will run its course. Nevertheless, he says, the region’s droughts will be more frequent and more severe for the foreseeable future. After closely studying dozens of climate models he and Kelley and their colleagues are convinced that continued greenhouse gas emissions will widen the Hadley cell, the band of air that envelops Earth’s tropics in a way that could further desiccate the lands of the eastern Mediterranean.

These past months many people have written about the Syrian civil war. Many have written about climate change. Wendle’s article considers both the perspectives of farmers who have become refugees and of scientists studying climate change. It is not only describes where we are, but how we got here, and what may be yet to come.

Highly recommended.

Weaponized Archaeology and Sovereignty Disputes

by Chris Borgen

Underwater archaeologist Peter B. Campbell has a very interesting opinion piece in the New York Times about how archaeological claims are being used as political weapons in sovereignty disputes. He explains:

For decades, global powers have been engaged in a race to exploit lucrative marine resources, from oil to fisheries to control of strategic waterways. But they have faced a challenge: How can a country claim new territory despite the restrictions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea? It turns out that “historical ties” to resource-rich regions can conveniently help to contravene international law.

At issue is how archaeological research is being injected into political rhetoric on issues such as claims of sovereignty in the Arctic, in the South China Sea, and over Crimea.  Campbell writes:

China’s deputy minister of culture, Li Xiaojie, put it bluntly: “Marine archaeology is an exercise that demonstrates national sovereignty.”

Russia has followed suit. In 2011, when he was prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin made headlines by retrieving two ancient ceramic jars from a shipwreck at Phanagoria, the ancient Greek city that is 10 miles from Crimea. The media cast it as a publicity stunt, but alarm bells sounded within the archaeological community. Mr. Putin’s political allies had invested $3.5 billion in research at Phanagoria, a submerged harbor with Roman-era shipwrecks. And while Phanagoria was the site of Greek colonies, Russian nationalists have adopted its ancient kings as proto-Russians.

For now, these archaeological findings are being used more as ostensible support of political rhetoric rather than as evidence, in the technical legal sense, of title.  Claims of sovereignty are most clearly based on specific treaties, such as boundary delimitation treaties, or broader treaties that set-forth rules for resolving disputes, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This does not deny that historical state practice can be a component in resolving a dispute. But there are standards for assessing such historical examples. As the Permanent Court of International Justice wrote in the Eastern Greenland case:

a claim to sovereignty based not upon some particular act or title such as a treaty of cession but merely upon continued display of authority, involves two elements each of which must be shown to exist: the intention and will to act as sovereign, and some actual exercise or display of such authority.

Another circumstance which must be taken into account by any tribunal which has to adjudicate upon a claim to sovereignty over a particular territory, is the extent to which the sovereignty is also claimed by some other Power.

The ICJ quoted this language at paragraph 134 in its Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan judgment. In the case of maritime sovereignty claims, the goal would be to turn old shipwrecks into evidence of a continued display of authority, also known as effectivite. Anneliese Guess wrote that Canada’s then-Minister of the Environment said in 2008 that, in regards to the search for shipwrecks in the Northwest Passage:

 We certainly think by establishing a long-standing presence in the Arctic that can enhance issues of sovereignty … Look at the strait (the Northwest Passage) not far from where this ship is….We think every bit of weight we can put behind our case for sovereignty is important. Adding history to that equation can only enhance that case.

While historic state practice can be important, the ICJ’s discussion in Pulau Ligitan is a good example of how difficult it can to make such a claim of effectivite. In that case, the ICJ wrote that the facts must “leave no doubt as to their specific reference to the islands in dispute as such.” (para. 136) In Pulau Ligitan, the ICJ was unmoved by many of the examples of naval activities as proof of claims of sovereignty. How much harder still, with archaeological shipwrecks from a century ago, let alone from Roman times.

Modern international law, with its focus on treaty obligations and effective dates (that draw a bright line making some historical facts less important than others) is not likely to accord much weight to  shipwrecks such as those mentioned by Campbell. (And probably no weight to some of them.) Nonetheless, politicians spin and deploy these archaeological finds in their wars of words. But in the end, as Campbell reminds us,

…archaeology rarely fits simple narratives. In fact, archaeology often demonstrates our shared human past.

Moreno-Ocampo Needs a Remedial Criminal Law Course

by Kevin Jon Heller

Here is Moreno-Ocampo’s latest doozy, concerning the possibility of Israelis being prosecuted for war crimes related to Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank:

Where the Israeli High Court of Justice has approved specific settlements as legal, this could provide a complete defense to any allegations that they are war crimes, former International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told the Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

Moreno-Ocampo is in Jerusalem lecturing at the The Fried-Gal Transitional Justice Initiative at the Hebrew University Law School.

Although Moreno-Ocampo has stepped down from his post, he was the boss of the current ICC chief prosecutor who will decide whether or not the settlements qualify as a war crime, is considered highly influential internationally and his statement could be a major coup in the debate over the issue.

Moreno-Ocampo did not by any means say that the settlements were legal under international law.

But he did say that “Israel’s High Court is highly respected internationally” and that anyone prosecuting Israelis regarding settlement activity would be incapable of proving criminal intent if those Israelis explained that they honestly believed their actions were legal once ratified by the country’s top court.

“At least they could show no intention” to commit a crime said the former chief ICC prosecutor.

Few ICL scholars are more sympathetic to mistake defences than I am (see this article), but Moreno-Ocampo’s statements simply make no sense. Most obviously, Art. 32(2) of the Rome Statute specifically recognises the principle ignorantia legis neminem excusat — ignorance of the law excuses no one:

A mistake of law as to whether a particular type of conduct is a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court shall not be a ground for excluding criminal responsibility.

Art. 32(2) applies regardless of whether a defendant was simply unaware that his actions were illegal (ignorance) or affirmatively believed that they were legal (mistaken belief). So if an Israeli was prosecuted for committing a settlement-related war crime — transfer of civilians into occupied territory, forcible transfer, pillaging, etc. — it would not matter that he either did not know international law criminalised his actions or believed that his actions were legal because the Israeli Supreme Court had approved the legality of settlements. The only question would be whether he committed the actus reus of the war crime in question with the necessary mens rea.

To be sure, some common-law systems provide an exception to the ignorantia legis principle where the defendant has reasonably relied on an official interpretation of the law. Moreno-Ocampo’s emphasis on the reputation of the Israeli Supreme Court suggests he might be thinking about that exception. But there are two significant problems here. First, no such exception exists in the Rome Statute, as the text of Art. 32(2) makes clear. Second, even if there was one, the ICC would be very unlikely to conclude that an Israeli defendant could reasonably rely on a statement by an Israeli court — even a supposedly “highly respected” one (which is questionable) — that settlements are legal. That would obviously be the case if the Israeli Supreme Court affirmed that the settlements were legal under Israeli law; no international tribunal has ever allowed such a “domestic legality” defence. And I seriously doubt that the ICC would find it any more reasonable for an Israeli defendant to rely on an Israeli court’s interpretation of international law, given the widespread international rejection of official Israeli positions on a variety of international-law issues.

Finally, we might be generous and assume that Moreno-Ocampo was actually thinking not about Art. 32(2) of the Rome Statute, but about Art. 32(1), which recognises mistakes that negative mens rea:

A mistake of fact shall be a ground for excluding criminal responsibility only if it negates the mental element required by the crime.

In this interpretation, Moreno-Ocamp is actually arguing that an Israeli defendant who knew the Israeli Supreme Court had approved the legality of the settlements would not have the mental states required by any of the various settlement-related war crimes. But that is a flawed argument, because none of those war crimes require a mens rea that would be negated by a belief in settlement legality. Consider, for example, the elements of the war crime of direct or indirect transfer, Art. 8(2)(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute:

1. The perpetrator: (a) Transferred, directly or indirectly, parts of its own population into the territory it occupies…

2. The conduct took place in the context of and was associated with an international armed conflict.

3. The perpetrator was aware of factual circumstances that established the existence of an armed conflict.

In terms of mens rea, Art. 8(2)(b)(viii) requires the prosecution to prove that the defendant (1) intentionally engaged in the acts that qualified as direct or indirect transfer; (2) knew that Israeli civilians were moving into occupied territory; and (3) knew that Israel exercised effective control over the West Bank at the time of the transfer. The defendant’s belief that settlements are legal would not negate either of those mental elements, so Art. 32(1) would not apply.

No matter how we interpret it, then, Moreno-Ocampo’s statement about the Israeli Supreme Court makes no sense as a matter of substantive international criminal law. Israel relies on the “expertise” of this “highly influential” former prosecutor at its own peril…

The International Criminal Court’s Assembly of States Parties Meetings: Challenges to the Work of the Court

by Jennifer Trahan

[Jennifer Trahan is Associate Clinical Professor, The Center for Global Affairs, NYU-SPS. She attended ICC ASP 14 on behalf of the American NGO Coalition for the ICC and the American Branch of the International Law Association International Criminal Court Committee. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of AMICC or the ABILA.]

From November 18-27, delegates of states that are parties to the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute, as well as NGOs and delegates of non-State Parties gathered in The Hague for the 14th annual Assembly of States Parties meetings.

While much of the ASP’s business carried on as usual, two threats to the Court’s work emerged.
The first came in the form of a Kenyan proposal seeking an interpretation or reaffirmation that Rule 68’s amendment made at the ASP in 2013 would not apply retroactively. On its face, the measure Kenya proposed looked harmless enough. The ASP is indeed the body before which amendments to the ICC’s Rome Statute and Rules of Procedure and Evidence are to be brought after prior presentation to the New York working group on amendments.

But the unstated purpose behind Kenya’s proposal appeared to relate to the pending cases against Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto, and Joshua Arap Sang. Each is charged with crimes against humanity in connection with post-election violence in Kenya’s 2007-8 presidential elections in which over 1,000 persons died. (The measure may also have been indirectly aimed at insuring that a prior case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta – as to whom the charges have been withdrawn without prejudice – will not be reinstated.) A likely goal is to ensure that prior recorded witness testimony of witnesses who subsequently became “unavailable” could not be used in evidence. Given serious and credible allegations of witness tampering and disappearances—there are pending proceedings related to attempts to corrupt ICC witnesses in the Kenya cases—the proposal could be aimed at keeping out information potentially relevant to pending trials. To make matters worse, the issue of whether the Rule 68 amendment applies retroactively is currently pending before the ICC’s Appeals Chamber in the Ruto & Sang case.

In oral remarks responding to Kenya’s proposal on Thursday November 19 and then again in the closing plenary session, various States made strong statements about the need to preserve the Court’s independence and not interfere in matters pending before the Court. Yet, it was disheartening to later see delegates willing to attempt to mollify the Kenyan delegation by negotiating language favorable to the Kenyan position. If a matter really is sub judice, there should be no ASP role, period. (The only bright spot is that the language negotiated was included in a final report summarizing discussions of the Assembly, and not in a formal assembly resolution.) What the Court will eventually make of all of this, is, of course, another matter – as the judges do not necessarily need to accept even Rule or Statutory amendments from the ASP if they deem them inconsistent with the Rome Statute or beyond the ASP’s authority. Moreover, judges would likely accord language from a report little weight, if any.

Kenya’s second proposal was to develop an ad hoc mechanism of independent jurists to advise the Prosecutor in her selection of Prosecution witnesses. There is absolutely no precedent for such a measure, which clearly is aimed at stymying the Prosecutor’s work. Such an attempt to interfere with Prosecutorial independence appropriately met with little enthusiasm from other state delegations.

The theatrics of Kenya’s presentation of these proposals on November 19 were amplified when the more than 80-person Kenyan delegation applauded loudly to all of Kenya’s statements. Most of the rest of the room then applauded the interventions by other states who insisted on the Court’s independence, and not interfering in matters pending before the Court. The effect was somewhat like an audience at a sporting event, cheering their two respective teams. It seemed unseemly to say the least, and one can only wonder at the choice of allowing a delegation to be that large. Most other States sent at most a handful of representatives.

Another threat to the Court’s work was far more ordinary and predictable but also serious: seven States Parties holding out not to give the Prosecutor the budget she requested as necessary to do her work. With the Court active in 8 situation countries, with 23 pending cases, and preliminary examinations across the globe, now is not the time to nickel and dime the Prosecutor of the world’s worst atrocity crimes. The Court has a bigger docket than it ever has had before. The blame here also should be extended to the U.N. Security Council, which referred two situations to the Court (those in Libya and Darfur) but refused to pay for them, and has failed to insure that any of the outstanding arrest warrants or other transfers related to the cases are executed. At the ASP, the Prosecutor had requested a budget increase of 17%, but only received a 7.1% increase. If she now has to curtail meritorious investigations, which is anticipated, we have only States to blame, and not the Prosecutor.

These ASP gatherings of NGO’s and State delegates from around the world are in some ways heartening – to see a global network of individuals committed to international criminal justice, and the prosecution of the worse atrocity crimes through the ICC. Complementing the formal sessions are numerous “side events” that range the gamut from attempting to ensure justice locally in Africa, to strengthening the ICC’s work related to victims, and attempting to ensure accountability for crimes in Syria. Yet, the ASP meetings are also disheartening to see such attempts at political interference in the Court’s work (and budgetary shortsightedness). It is also disappointing, although perhaps understandable, to see States attempting to pacify delegates in order to avoid having their State potentially withdraw from the Rome Statute. One wonders whether that Faustian bargain is worth striking.

On the Legitimacy of the Settlements: A Legal and Historical Perspective

by Lorenzo Kamel

[Dr Lorenzo Kamel is Senior Fellow at IAI and Research Fellow at Harvard’s CMES]

It would seem unnecessary in 2015 to refer to the League of Nations or the Mandate for Palestine when discussing the legal status of the Palestinian territories. Yet, in recent years several scholars are resorting to these issues to provide a legal justification for the construction/enlargement of outposts/settlements and the indirect denial of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. This article aims to deconstruct these approaches and to shed light on the selective use of history and international law that underpins them.

The 89 pages of the Levy Report, released on 9 July 2012 by a special committee appointed in late January 2012 by PM Netanyahu to investigate whether the Israeli presence in the West Bank is to be considered an occupation or not, clarified that “with the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, the principle of recognizing the validity of existing rights of states acquired under various mandates, including of course the rights of Jews to settle in the Land of Israel by virtue of the above documents, was determined in article 80 of its charter”.

In a video entitled “the Legal Case for Israel,” international lawyer Eugene Kontorovich pointed out that “up to 1948 all this area [present-day Israel and the Palestinian territories] was Palestine reserved as a Jewish State by the League of Nations Mandate […] the legality of the Mandate jurisprudence cannot be changed.” More in general and according to an interpretation held by a growing number of scholars and by most of Israel’s right-wing parties, the preamble as well as Article 2 of the Mandate secured the establishment of the Jewish National Home on, in Howard Grief’s words, “the whole country of Palestine, not a mere part of it.” (H. Grief, The Legal Foundation and Borders of Israel under International Law (Jerusalem: Mazo, 2008), p. 106.) It would follow that, as argued by the late Eugene Rostow, “the Jewish right of settlement in the whole of western Palestine – the area west of the Jordan – survived the British withdrawal in 1948”.

But to resort to the League of Nations and the British Mandate for Palestine might be counterproductive for those committed to finding legal justifications for the construction of outposts, or the enlargement of settlements, in the Palestinian territories. The term “national home,” in fact, had no mutually agreed-upon meaning or scope and the British government was under no definite obligation, since the Mandate made any Jewish immigration subject to “suitable conditions” and contained safeguards for the rights and position of the non-Jewish communities.

True, in 1919 prominent British official Jan Christiaan Smuts, a leading figure in Lloyd George’s War Cabinet and an open supporter of racial segregation, envisaged the rise of “a great Jewish State.” Lloyd Gorge himself pointed out that “it was contemplated that when the time arrived for according representative institutions in Palestine, if the Jews had meanwhile responded to the opportunity afforded them by the idea of a National Home and had become a definite majority of the inhabitants, then Palestine would thus become a Jewish Commonwealth”.

On the other hand, the first Attorney General of Palestine, “lifelong Zionist” Norman Bentwich, contended that “a national home, as distinguished from a state, is a country where a people are acknowledged as having a recognized legal position and the opportunity of developing their cultural, social and intellectual ideals without receiving political rights”.

This position was also consistent with the one expressed a few years earlier by the general secretary and future President of the Zionist Organization Nahum Sokolov. He represented the Zionist Organization at the 1919’s Paris Peace Conference, where made it clear that the

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Apparently, I’m a 9/11 Truther (Al-Bahlul Revisited)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Only a “truther” who denies that al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11 could doubt the international law basis for holding al Bahlul accountable for his role in this completed war crime.

So Peter Margulies argues in his latest attempt to defend the indefensible: al-Bahlul’s conviction for the non-existent war crime of conspiracy as an inchoate offence. To describe the accusation as offensive is an understatement, given that it accuses not only me and Steve Vladeck of being 9/11 truthers, but Judge Tatel and Judge Rogers, as well.

Even worse, though, Margulies’ arguments seem to have gotten even more problematic over time. Let’s take an in-depth look at his post. Here is how it opens:

Our amicus brief argued that upholding al Bahlul’s conviction would permit military commissions to try only a “narrow class” of cases outside commissions’ accepted jurisdiction…

Points for openly admitting that the military commissions’ “accepted jurisdiction” does not include jurisdiction over non-existent war crimes such as conspiracy. But no points for the claim that we shouldn’t hold courts to their actual jurisdiction as long as we are only letting them exceed their actual jurisdiction occasionally, in a “narrow class” of cases. You know, when it’s really, really important to let them exceed their actual jurisdiction. Last time I checked, jurisdiction wasn’t just a suggestion about the kind of cases a court can hear.

Margulies:

Al Bahlul challenged his conspiracy conviction on Article III grounds because international tribunals such as Nuremberg have generally declined to try defendants for engaging in an inchoate, stand-alone conspiracy (e.g., an agreement without a completed crime).

Note the fudge: “generally.” Not generally. Always. No international tribunal has ever convicted a defendant of conspiracy to commit a war crime. Not one…

A Short Response to Ilya Somin: Does Self-Defense Mean the U.S. Can Invade and Occupy Syria?

by Julian Ku

Ilya Somin has updated his post at the Volokh Conspiracy to include my critique, and his response to my critique. I just want to add two more points to our little debate on the domestic legal effect of the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article V collective self-defense clause before we put it to rest. (For those of you looking for a broader discussion on the Paris attacks than our legal parsing, I recommending joining this Federalist Society teleforum today here at 2 p.m. EST).

1) Ilya argues that “[w]hile the use of force is discretionary under Article 5, treating an attack on an ally within the designated area as if it were an attack on the US itself is not… And in the event of an enemy attack on the US itself, the president has the legal authority to use force of his own volition, without additional congressional authorization”.

This is an interesting point, and I agree with Ilya that the President can use military force to defend the U.S. without going back to Congress.  So Ilya is reading Article V as a pre-authorization to the President to defend treaty allies with military force as if it were an attack on the United States.But this reading calls into question how much military force the President can use under this “pure” self defense rationale.  Surely, President Bush was authorized to defend U.S. territory on 9/11 and its immediate aftermath.   But did the 9/11 attacks also authorize the President to start bombing, and then to invade Afghanistan, without going back to Congress?  In other words, does the self-defense rationale allow all offensive actions against the attacker up to and including invasion and occupation of another country?

Similarly, do the Paris attacks(assuming Article V were invoked) allow President Obama to launch military strikes (and maybe invade and occupy) Syria?  Surely, the President could have ordered U.S. forces to defend France without Congress. But I’m just not sure the Article V self-defense rationale gets Ilya all the way to a full-scale war on ISIS.

2) On a historical note, Ilya takes issue with my characterization of the legal rationale for Article V as allowing the U.S. and its allies to comply with the UN Charter’s rules on the use of military force.  He argues that “[t]he true main purpose of Article 5 is to commit the signatories to a system of collective defense against attack…”

I don’t disagree that this was Article V’s “main” purpose, but my original post was focused on the legal purpose of Article V.  On that front, I think it is safe to say Article V was about ensuring NATO was in compliance with the then-new UN Charter, and much less about re-allocating war powers under the U.S. Constitution.

I should hasten to add that I am in favor of a robust military response to the Paris attacks (actually, I was in favor of a robust response before the Paris attacks too).  And unlike Ilya, I think the President has broad powers under the Constitution to use military force without explicit congressional authorization.  I just don’t think collective self-defense treaties like Article V are needed to authorize unilateral presidential action against ISIS.

The Daily Caller and Alan Dershowitz’s Dishonest Attack on MSF

by Kevin Jon Heller

It was only a matter of time before the far right began to attack Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) for being in league with the Taliban — and thus implicitly (nudge nudge, wink wink) the actual party responsible for the US’s notorious assault on its hospital in Kunduz. And the attack has now begun. Here is a snippet from an article today in the Daily Caller:

International law experts are blasting Doctors Without Borders for forcibly removing civilian patients from the aid group’s Kunduz, Afghanistan, hospital and replacing them with wounded Taliban fighters when the city fell to the rebel control in late September.

Alan Dershowitz, an acclaimed Harvard constitutional lawyer and authority in international law, said that he was not surprised that the group, known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, favored Taliban fighters over civilian patients, telling The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview that he regards Doctors Without Borders as “Doctors Without Morals.”

Dershowitz charged the group with having a long history of anti-Western political stances and of not being neutral. He says MSF “is a heavily ideological organization that often favors radical groups over Western democracies and is highly politicized.”

The lawyer said the doctors also were hypocritical. “What they violate is their own stated mandate and that is of taking no political ideological position and treating all people in need of medical care equally. It’s just not what they do.”

[snip]

Yet MSF itself may have violated a whole host of humanitarian laws by its own admission that Kunduz hospital administrators agreed to discharge Afghan civilian patients at the behest of Taliban officials and replace them with wounded rebel soldiers.

The acknowledgement was buried inside a Nov. 5 “interim” report released by MSF that traced the internal activities at their hospital leading up to the attack.

MSF disclosed in its report that on Sept. 28, the day the city fell to rebels, hospital administrators “met with a Taliban representative to discuss the need to free beds for other critical patients due to the ongoing fighting, and therefore for some patients to be discharged.”

On Sept. 30, MSF passively reported that “a large number of patients discharged from the hospital, including some against medical advice. It is unclear whether some of these patients discharged themselves due to the discussion to free some beds between MSF and the Taliban representative.”

I want to focus here on the claim that MSF “admitted” in its November 5 report that it “agreed to discharge Afghan civilian patients at the behest of Taliban officials and replace them with wounded rebel soldiers.”

Quite simply, that is a lie. MSF makes no such admission in the report.

We can begin with September 28. Prior to that date, most of the wounded combatants in the MSF hospital in Kunduz were government soldiers and police officers. As of September 28, however, the balance shifted to Taliban combatants:

As was the case since the opening of the Trauma Centre, the vast majority of the wounded combatants were observed to be government forces and police. In the week starting 28 September, this shifted to primarily wounded Taliban combatants… As far as our teams are aware, after this time [the afternoon of the 28th], no more wounded Afghan government forces were being brought to the Trauma Centre.  (p. 4).

The next day, faced with an excessive number of patients, MSF met with the Taliban:

MSF met with a Taliban representative to discuss the need to free beds for other critical patients due to the ongoing fighting, and therefore for some patients to be discharged and for those who required nursing follow-up to be referred to the MSF Chardara medical post (p. 5).

At this point — September 29 — half of the wounded in the hospital were wounded Taliban fighters (p. 5). Patients then began to leave the hospital the next day, September 30:

Starting this same day a large number of patients discharged from the hospital, including some against medical advice. It is unclear whether some of these patients discharged themselves due to the discussion to free some beds between MSF and the Taliban representative or whether there were general concerns about security as rumours were circulating of a government counter-offensive to reclaim Kunduz city. At the same time as patients were being discharged from the hospital, new patients were being admitted (p. 5).

The MSF report is careful not to identify whether the discharged patients were civilians or combatants. But there is no indication in the report that MSF agreed with the Taliban “to discharge Afghan civilian patients”; that MSF actually discharged civilian patients because of any such agreement; or that discharged civilian patients were replaced by “wounded rebel soldiers.” Literally none.

Indeed, everything in the report points to precisely the opposite conclusion: namely, that MSF convinced the Taliban to remove wounded rebel fighters from the hospital to open beds for new patients. The patients that left the hospital were not “removed by MSF”; the report makes clear that they “discharged themselves,” in some cases “against medical advice.” Are we supposed to believe that MSF ejected civilian patients against the advice of its own doctors and then dishonestly claimed the patients left voluntarily? That’s Ben Carson conspiracy land.

Did some civilians voluntarily leave the hospital because fear of the fighting? Perhaps. But it’s difficult to imagine why civilians would trade the relative security of a well-marked civilian hospital for the uncertainty of weathering intense urban fighting in their homes — especially if leaving was “against medical advice.” It is far more likely that the wounded who discharged themselves were Taliban fighters worried about their safety — even in a civilian hospital, and despite their wounds — given the possibility of a “government counter-offensive.” After all, as noted above, more than half of the patients in the MSF hospital were Taliban on September 30.

To be clear, because of MSF’s commitment to neutrality, it is impossible to state categorically that most of the patients who left the hospital on September 30 were Taliban fighters, not civilians. But it is fundamentally dishonest for the Daily Caller and Alan Dershowitz to claim that MSF “agreed to discharge Afghan civilian patients at the behest of Taliban officials and replace them with wounded rebel soldiers.” MSF admitted no such thing.

When Is a “Plain Meaning” Not Plain?

by Kevin Jon Heller

In my post on biological and chemical weapons yesterday, I rejected the idea that Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) “squarely appl[ies]” (Ralf Trapp) or “plainly applies” (Alex Whiting) to chemical and biological weapons by arguing that the drafters of the Rome Statute intended Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii), the war crime of “[e]mploying asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases,” to have precisely the kind of “special meaning” that Art. 31(4) of the VCLT requires us to take into account when interpreting that provision.

After the post went up, Alex and I had a heated but typically friendly exchange on Twitter concerning “plain meaning” treaty interpretation. Interested readers can start with this tweet. Our debate did not focus on the applicability of Art. 31(4) of the VCLT. Instead, we argued about whether simply reading the text of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) makes it plain that it criminalises chemical and biological weapons. Alex thinks it’s evident that it does; not surprisingly, I disagree.

The problem with the debate is both obvious and timeless: if two people disagree about the correct interpretation of a text, how do they determine whose interpretation is correct? Alex rightly rightly pointed out that we should not reject a particular “plain meaning” simply because one person disagrees with it; any such standard would deny the possibility of plain meaning altogether. (Which, to be clear, I’d be happy to do on other grounds, because I follow the neo-pragmatic approach to interpretation associated with Stanley Fish. See, for example, this fantastic essay.)

But if one person’s disagreement cannot render a “plain meaning” not plain, how many people is enough? Five? 10? 100? At some point disagreement over the meaning of a text has to negate the possibility of any particular interpretation being considered “plain.” Alex and I went around and around on this, and he finally advocated what is essentially a procedural solution to the problem: the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) is whatever the ICC’s judges ultimately say it is.

As a descriptive matter, Alex is absolutely correct. But unless we believe the ICC’s judges are legally infalliable — and I certainly don’t! — we have to accept the possibility that they could be wrong about the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii). So we are right back where we started: trying to determine how much disagreement over the interpretation of a text has to exist before we conclude the text has no plain meaning.

I have no easy answer. But I would still maintain that it strains credulity to believe that the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) indicates that it criminalises chemical and biological weapons. To see why, we don’t even have to return (as I think we should) to the drafting history of Art. 8. It is sufficient to note that a significant number of states still believe that Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) does not criminalise chemical or biological weapons. How do we know that? Because 14 states formally proposed amending Art. 8 to criminalise those weapons at the ICC’s Review Conference in 2010: Argentina, Belgium, Bolivia, Burundi, Cambodia, Cyprus, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Mexico, Romania, Samoa and Slovenia. Here, in relevant part, are the provisions the 14 states wanted to add to Art. 8(2)(b):

xxvii) Using the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment and means of delivery as defined by and in violation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, London, Moscow and Washington, 10 April 1972.

xxviii) Using chemical weapons or engaging in any military preparations to use chemical weapons as defined by and in violation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction, Paris, 13 January 1992.

These proposed amendments make no sense if the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) already criminalises chemical and biological weapons. So how can that interpretation be considered the “plain meaning,” given that at least 11% of the States Parties to the Rome Statute do not understand Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) in the supposedly plain manner? Surely such disagreement indicates that there is no “plain meaning” of the war crime.

Does that mean the 14 states are right? Of course not. Perhaps Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) really does criminalise chemical and biological weapons. All I’m saying is that we cannot reach that conclusion by looking to Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii)’s “plain meaning.” The meaning of the war crime is at best ambiguous or obscure.

But that, of course, is a critical realisation. Because it means that we have to look to the drafting history of the Rome Statute to determine the correct interpretation of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) even if we accept a plain-meaning approach to treaty interpretation. (Which we should not.) Here is Art. 32 of the VCLT:

Recourse may be had to supplementary means of interpretation, including the preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion, in order to confirm the meaning resulting from the application of article 31, or to determine the meaning when the interpretation according to article 31:

(a) Leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure.

Even though my understanding of the VCLT accords with Julian Davis Mortenson’s, I am willing to entertain the idea that the meaning of some provisions of the Rome Statute is so plain that we have no practical need to examine their drafting history. Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii), however, is not such a provision. Given the widespread disagreement among states concerning whether the war crime criminalises chemical and biological weapons, the best interpretation of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) is that it has no plain meaning.

The Rome Statute Does Not Criminalise Chemical and Biological Weapons

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the past week, two posts at Just Security have argued that the ICC can prosecute the use of chemical and biological weapons as a war crime, even though they — unlike other types of weapons — are not mentioned in Article 8 of the Rome Statute. The first post was written by Ralf Trapp, who argued as follows:

Furthermore, there are the provisions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Even though it does not use the terminology of the CWC (“chemical weapons”), there is no doubt that the terms “employing poison or poisoned weapons” and “employing asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquid, materials or devices” found in the list of war crimes under the statute’s Article 8 would squarely apply to the use of chlorine or mustard gas as a weapon of war. Any such use would consequently come under the jurisdiction of the ICC.

Trapp does not even acknowledge any other interpretation of Article 8. By contrast, the second post, written by Alex Whiting, admits that a different interpretation is possible. But Whiting nevertheless sides with Trapp, citing an earlier post by Dapo Akande at EJIL: Talk!:

The Rome Statute originally included a direct ban on chemical and biological weapons, but it was dropped at the same time as a ban on weapons causing unnecessary suffering was narrowed to apply only to those weapons listed in an annex (which does not exist because the States Parties never adopted one). This narrowing was done to avoid having the broader provision apply to nuclear weapons. The direct chemical and biological weapons prohibition was then dropped, apparently because some negotiators thought that there should be parity in approach to nuclear weapons (possessed by wealthy nations) and chemical and biological weapons (the more likely option for poorer countries). The claim that that the Statute therefore does not cover chemical and biological weapons was reinforced by Belgium’s efforts at the ICC Review Conference in Kampala in 2010 to amend the Statute to include a ban on chemical and biological weapons, indicating that there was an understanding among at least some States Parties that the Statute as written did not already do so.

But Akande persuasively argues (reinforcing what Trapp intuits) that the language in the Statute prohibiting poisonous and asphyxiating gases and analogous liquids, materials, and devices plainly applies on its own terms to most — if not all — chemical and biological weapons. Since the treaty text is clearly written, there is no need to consider the history of its drafting, per the Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties. In this case, the difficulty with relying on the negotiation history in the first instance is that it is highly indeterminate: Assessing what 120 countries “intended” when they adopted the Rome Statute is nearly impossible, and therefore the plain language of the treaty should govern when it is clear, as it is here.

I disagree with Trapp and Whiting. I won’t rehash the arguments I made in response to Dapo’s post; interested readers can see our exchange in the EJIL: Talk! comments section. But I do want to flag three critical problems with the argument advanced by Trapp and Whiting: one factual, one theoretical, and one political.

The factual problem is that this is simply not a situation in which the drafting history is “highly indeterminate.” Few drafting disputes are as well known as the dispute over the criminalisation of nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and biological weapons. And as Whiting’s own account makes clear, we know with absolute certainty that not enough states favoured criminalising the use of chemical and biological weapons — because the proposal to criminalise them failed. The reason why states opposed criminalising their use is irrelevant; I’m quite sure that some may have wanted to reserve the right to use them, while others were happy to criminalise their use but did not want to alienate the nuclear states. All that matters is that it is undisputed states tried and failed to criminalise the use of chemical and biological weapons.

It does not matter, then, whether “[a]ssessing what 120 countries ‘intended’ when they adopted the Rome Statute is nearly impossible.” What matters is whether we know how 120 states understood Art. 8 of the Rome Statute. And we do…