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International Security

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…

My Talk on the ICC’s Investigation into the Situation in Georgia

by Kevin Jon Heller

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I’m in the middle of a week-long trip to Georgia, where I’m giving nine lectures in five days to the military and university students. (Thanks, Anna Dolidze, Deputy Minister of Defence and friend-of-OJ!) I’m talking about perfidy a couple of times, but most of the lectures — not surprisingly — are about the OTP’s request to open a formal investigation into the situation in Georgia. I’ve greatly enjoyed the lectures I’ve given so far, at Free University Tbilisi and at the Ministry of Defence. The questions have been uniformly intelligent and challenging. Today I’m heading to Gori to give lectures at the National Defence Academy.

In any case, a reader emailed me and asked whether I could send her the notes of my talk and the accompanying PowerPoint slides. I was happy to oblige, and I thought I might upload both to Opinio Juris, in case anyone else would like to see them. The notes are here, and the accompanying PowerPoint slides are here.

Chase Madar on the Weaponisation of Human Rights

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, the inestimable Chase Madar gave a fascinating talk at SOAS entitled “The Weaponisation of Human Rights.” More than 100 people showed up, and I was privileged — along with Heidi Matthews, a British Academy postdoc at SOAS — to respond to Chase’s comments. Here is Chase’s description of the talk:

Human rights, once a rallying cry to free prisoners of conscience and curb government abuses, is now increasingly deployed as a case for war, from Yugoslavia to Iraq, from Libya to Afghanistan. Human rights lawyers in and out of government are weighing in on how wars should be fought: in the United States, the phrase “human rights-based approach to drones” passes without much comment in the legal academy and mainstream media. As the grandees of the human rights movement enter high office throughout North America and Western Europe, what is the effect of this legal doctrine on warfare–and vice versa?Will this blossoming relationship bring about more humanity in warfare? Or is human rights being conscripted into ever more militarized foreign policy?

SOAS has now made the video of the event available on YouTube; you can watch it below:

 

 

The video contains Chase’s talk, along with my response and Heidi’s response. We apologize for the middle section, where the lighting is bad; I don’t know why that happened. But the audio is excellent throughout.

Please watch!

Why Is the Lieber Prize Ageist?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Yesterday, my colleague Chris Borgen posted ASIL’s call for submissions for the 2016 Francis Lieber Prize, which is awarded annually to one monograph and one article “that the judges consider to be outstanding in the field of law and armed conflict.” I think it’s safe to say that the Lieber Prize is the most prestigious award of its kind.

But there’s a catch: you are not eligible for consideration if you are over 35. Which led Benjamin Davis to make the following comment:

For the record, the Lieber Prize criteria discriminates against persons like myself who at the ripe young age of 44 entered academia and was therefore nine years passed the upper limit in 2000. It particularly is galling when one realizes that Lieber WROTE his famous order at the age of 65.

If one wanted to correct this obvious and repugnant ageist requirement and one took the generous position that at 25 one could enter academia, then the criteria should suggest ten years maximum in academia. I still would be far passed the time-limit, but it would provide encouragement to those intrepid souls who decide later in life that being a legal academic is a noble calling for them and focusing on the laws of armed conflict is a wonderful arena in which to develop one’s research agenda.

I think Ben is absolutely right. The Lieber Prize’s hard age requirement obviously skews in favour of the kind of scholar who never spent considerable time outside of academia. Scholars who have had previous careers — whether in private practice, in government, in the military, or even working for organisations that do precisely the kind of law covered by the Prize, such as the ICRC — are simply out of luck if they worked for a number of years before becoming an academic.

If there was some sort of intellectual justification for limiting the Lieber Prize to academics under 35, the age limit might be okay. But, like Ben, I don’t see one. The most obvious rationale for some kind of limit is that ASIL wants to encourage and reward individuals who are newer to academia. But that rationale would suggest an eligibility requirement like the one that Ben suggests — a requirement that excludes submissions from individuals who have been in academia for a certain number of years, regardless of their chronological age. Some 34-year-olds have been in academia for nearly a decade! (I’m looking at you, Steve Vladeck.) And some 40-year-olds have been in academia only a few years. (Such as Chris Jenks, who was a JAG for many years before becoming a professor.) Yet only individuals in the latter category are excluded from the Lieber Prize — and they are excluded categorically.

Personally, I think Ben’s suggestion of 10 years from the time an individual entered academia is too long. I would still be eligible to submit with that limit! I would go with six years, like the Junior Faculty Forum for International Law. And also like the Junior Faculty Forum, I would permit the judges to wave the six-year requirement in exceptional circumstances — such as a woman or man who interrupted an academic career to take care of children.

What do you think, readers?

Freedom of Navigation Operations and the South China Sea

by Chris Borgen

The BBC charts the latest back-and-forth between China, the U.S. over the Spratly Islands and, especially, navigation in the South China Sea. Much of the discussion of this issue has focused on the increased pace of China construction and land reclamation on series of islands and reefs, changing the “facts on the ground” to bolster its territorial and maritime claims. Other countries have also built on various islands and reefs, positioning for their own claims. But the scope of China’s activities had brought the issue back to the forefront.

The current flurry has been about the U.S.’s reaction and, in particular, whether the U.S. will use of “freedom of navigation” (FON) operations (previously discussed by Julian, here) in the midst of all this activity in the Spratlys.

According to the BBC, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry stated:

“We will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight.”

On Tuesday, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter expressed “strong concerns” over island-building, and defended Washington’s plans.

“Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception,” he said at a news conference with the Australian foreign and defence ministers.

“We will do that in the time and places of our choosing,” he added, according to Reuters news agency.

According to the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. has undertaken such freedom of navigation (FON) operations since 1983 to “exercise and assert its navigation and overflight rights and freedoms on a worldwide basis in a manner that is consistent with the balance of interests reflected in the Law of the Sea (LOS) Convention.” This is a topic where one can see the U.S. refer explicitly and repeatedly to international law:

The FON Program since 1979 has highlighted the navigation provisions of the LOS Convention to further the recognition of the vital national need to protect maritime rights throughout the world. The FON Program operates on a triple track, involving not only diplomatic representations and operational assertions by U.S. military units, but also bilateral and multilateral consultations with other governments in an effort to promote maritime stability and consistency with international law, stressing the need for and obligation of all States to adhere to the customary international law rules and practices reflected in the LOS Convention.

Emphases added.

A year-by-year summary of Freedom of Navigation operations by the U.S. can be found on the U.S. Department of Defense website, here.

However, the BBC notes that:

The US might have mounted sea patrols in this area, but not for several years, our analyst says – and not since China began its massive building programme in the South China Sea.

A US military plane that flew near one of the islands in May was warned off – eight times.

The US now has to decide whether to send in its ships and risk confrontation, or back down and look weak, our analyst says.

How the situation evolves from here will depend in part on the reactions of other states that border the South China Sea or use its sea lanes.  Stay tuned…

OTP Formally Requests First Non-African Investigation

by Kevin Jon Heller

Fatou Bensouda has just formally asked the Pre-Trial Chamber to authorise an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by South Ossetian and Georgian forces between 1 July 2008 and 10 October 2008. Here are the relevant paragraphs from the ICC’s press release:

The Situation in Georgia has been under preliminary examination by the Office of the Prosecutor since August 2008, when armed clashes between the breakaway region of South Ossetia and Georgia degenerated into an armed conflict, which also involved the Russian Federation.

The Prosecutor finds a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed during in the context of the armed conflict. This includes alleged crimes committed in the context of a campaign to expel ethnic Georgians from South Ossetia as well as attacks on peacekeepers by Georgian forces, on the one hand, and South Ossetian forces, on the other.

The information available to the Office of the Prosecutor indicates that between 51 and 113 ethnic Georgian civilians were killed as part of a forcible displacement campaign conducted by South Ossetia’s de facto authorities, with the possible participation of members of the Russian armed forces. Between 13,400 and 18,500 ethnic Georgians were forcibly displaced and more than 5,000 dwellings belonging to ethnic Georgians were reportedly destroyed as part of this campaign. The Office of the Prosecutor alleges, based on the information in its possession, that these offences, together with attendant crimes of looting and destruction of civilian property, were committed on a large scale as part of a plan and in furtherance of a policy to expel ethnic Georgians from the territory in South Ossetia. As a result, the Prosecutor estimates that the ethnic Georgian population living in the conflict zone was reduced by at least 75 per cent.

The Prosecutor also finds a reasonable basis to believe that both South Ossetian and Georgian armed forces committed the war crime of attacking personnel or objects involved in a peacekeeping mission.  Georgian peacekeepers were reportedly heavily shelled from South Ossetian positions, killing two Georgian peacekeepers and injuring five more.  In a separate incident, ten Russian peacekeepers were reportedly killed and 30 wounded as a result of the attack against their facility by Georgian forces. The Russian peacekeeping force’s base was reportedly destroyed, including a medical facility.

The OTP’s formal request is 162 pages long, not counting the numerous annexes, so I won’t have substantive thoughts on the investigation for a while. I will just note that the request, as summarised by the Court’s media office, generally tracks the OTP’s 2014 Preliminary Examination Report, with one notable exception: the Georgian attack on the Russian peacekeepers. Given that the 2014 Report concluded that information about the attack was “inconclusive,” the OTP’s preliminary examination must have uncovered enough additional evidence of Georgian responsibility that Bensouda felt comfortable including it in her request for a formal investigation.

Assuming that the PTC approves Bensouda’s request, which seems highly likely, Georgia will obviously become the first non-African situation to be formally investigated by the ICC. The timing of the request is, of course, more than a little propitious, given that the ANC has been threatening to withdraw South Africa from the ICC because of its supposed anti-African bias. I doubt that the mere act of opening a non-African investigation will mollify the ANC and other African leaders; I imagine nothing short of actual charges against a suspect will have much impact. But the Georgia investigation is clearly a step in the right direction.

More soon!

PS: It’s worth noting that the Georgia request is almost four times as long as the request the OTP filed in 2009 with regard to Kenya — and that isn’t counting the numerous annexes in the Georgia request. It would seem that the OTP has learned its lesson from the Kenya fiasco. Recall that, with regard to Kenya, the PTC immediately asked the OTP to provide it with a great deal of supporting information. That kind of information appears to already be included in the Georgia request, which is smart prosecutorial practice.

France Fails to Adopt “Unwilling or Unable” in Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last month, Ashley Deeks claimed that France appeared “to be prepared to invoke the ‘unwilling or unable’ concept in the Syria context.” France did indeed attacks ISIS targets in Syria. And it reported those strikes to the Secretary-General of the UN, claiming self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter as a rationale for violating Syria’s sovereignty. But then something funny happened on the way to the Forum: France did not invoke the “unwilling or unable” theory. Here is its Art. 51 letter:

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Looks like the “broad consensus” in favour of “unwilling or unable” now stands at three states — the US, UK, and Australia — not four.

Hat-Tip: Thierry Randretsa, author of the blog Dommages civils.

Defending the FSA Against Russia — the Jus ad Bellum Perspective

by Kevin Jon Heller

It’s been widely reported over the past few days that Russia has been bombing the Free Syrian Army under the pretext of joining the fight against ISIS. That development spurred an interesting post at Lawfare by Bobby Chesney about whether Art. II of the Constitution — the Commander-in-Chief Clause — would permit the US to defend the FSA, which it has been equipping and training. As Bobby points out, rather skeptically I think, the USG seems to believe it would (internal block quote omitted):

[I]t is an interesting legal question, especially in light of recent testimony from Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Wormuth to the effect that Article II could be invoked to permit U.S. forces to defend DOD-trained Syrian forces in the event of an attack on them by Assad regime forces.  Wormuth’s position was repeated by an unnamed “senior administration official” a few days ago.

Given this position, is there any reason to think the answer would be different if we are talking instead about Russian forces attacking those same DOD-trained units?  I see no reason why that would be the case, though the policy stakes obviously are immensely different.  Next, is there anything different if instead we are talking about CIA-trained, rather than DOD-trained, Syrian forces.  Again, I can’t see why this would alter the analysis; under the apparent theory of the Obama administration, the government already possesses whatever legal authority would be needed to use force to prevent Russian jets from striking U.S.-sponsored Syrian units.

I have no doubt Bobby’s right — as I said on Twitter, he has forgotten more about Art. II than I ever knew. I just want to point out that invoking Art. II to defend the FSA against Russia would be more than a little perverse given the status of such an attack under international law — the jus ad bellum, in particular.

Let’s start with Russia. Although its attacks on the FSA might have violated the jus in bello — I certainly wouldn’t be surprised — they did not violate the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force with regard to Syria, because they were conducted with the Syrian government’s consent. Nor is there any plausible argument for viewing the Russian actions as an armed attack on the US — whatever the Art. II argument about the US’s “national interest” (see this skeptical Jack Goldsmith post), an attack on the FSA is not a use of force against the US’s “territorial integrity or political independence.”

What this means, of course, is that the US could not invoke self-defense under Art. 51 to justify using force against Russia to defend the FSA — say, by destroying a Russian bomber. Not only would such a use of force create an international armed conflict between the US and Russia, it would itself qualify as an armed attack under Art. 2(4), thereby permitting Russia to use force against the US in self-defense. Russia would simply be responding to an unlawful act of aggression by the US.

(To be sure, the same analysis would apply to any US use of force against Syria in defense of the FSA. But it would obviously be a much bigger deal for the US to commit an aggressive act against a major Western power — one that is also a permanent member of the Security Council.)

Again, I have no idea how these jus ad bellum considerations affect the Art. II analysis. Knowing the US, the fact that attacking Russia would qualify as an unlawful act of aggression might be irrelevant. The optics of using Art. II to justify such an attack would nevertheless be deeply troubling, to say the least.

The U.S. Embargo on Cuba May Be a Bad Idea, But It Doesn’t Violate the UN Charter

by Julian Ku

The UN General Assembly is set to vote once again (for the 24th consecutive year) on a Cuba-sponsored resolution condemning the United States’ economic, commercial, and financial embargo against Cuba.  This resolution will probably get near majority support, and perhaps even unanimous support.  Indeed, there are rumors that the U.S. government itself may abstain from voting against the resolution, which is certainly odd and perhaps unprecedented.  Cuban President Raul Castro’s speech at the UN reiterated his demand that the U.S. end its embargo and sanctions on Cuba.

I don’t want to get into the merits of whether the U.S. should have an embargo on Cuba here, but I am baffled by the implication that the embargo violates international law.  The GA resolution doesn’t quite condemn the US embargo as illegal, but it comes close.  From last year‘s resolution:

2. Reiterates its call upon all States to refrain from promulgating and applying laws and measures of the kind referred to in the preamble to the present resolution, in conformity with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and international law, which, inter alia, reaffirm the freedom of trade and navigation;

Now Cuba has long called the U.S. embargo a “blockade”, which would be illegal under international law.  But despite some economic penalties on third-party countries trading with Cuba (largely never applied and always suspended), the U.S. does not actually prevent, militarily or otherwise, other countries from trading with Cuba.

I am heartened to see that the GA thinks the UN Charter reaffirms the freedom of trade and navigation, but I am not aware of any authority for the proposition that a country’s choice not to trade with another country is a violation of the Charter’s non-existent textual references to the freedom of trade and navigation.

Here’s the problem with U.S. (and other nations’) acquiescence with the Cuba resolution’s language.  It strongly suggests that a country cannot impose a unilateral embargo on another country without somehow violating its UN Charter obligations.  This can’t possibly be something the EU or Canada can or should sign onto as a matter of principle.  And it is even odder for the U.S. administration to agree to this idea, when its main policy for dealing with foreign aggression (e.g. Russia in Ukraine) is the unilateral imposition of sanctions.

So I think it would be perfectly appropriate (and indeed necessary) for the U.S. and other countries that impose unilateral sanctions to oppose this resolution on principle.  They won’t of course, but they should.

Why It’s Counterproductive to Discuss an MH17 Tribunal

by Kevin Jon Heller

States whose nationals died in the attack on MH17 were understandably upset when Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have created an ad hoc tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the attack. Their idea to create a treaty-based court, however, is simply not helpful:

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, will meet with her counterparts from Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine on Tuesday during the annual United Nations general assembly meeting.

One of the proposals is for a tribunal similar to that established to prosecute Libyan suspects over the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland.

Nations that lost some of the 298 passengers and crew in the MalaysiaAirlines disaster over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 are also looking at launching separate prosecutions.

A report by the Dutch led-investigation team, set to be published on 13 October, is understood to include evidence the plane was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from separatist territory in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has denied any involvement but in July used its veto power at the UN to block a resolution that would have formed a tribunal to bring the perpetrators to justice.

There is no question the victim states could create a tribunal via treaty — they would simply be delegating their passive-personality jurisdiction to the tribunal. The ICC is based on similar pooling of jurisdiction.

But what would creating such a tribunal accomplish? A treaty-based tribunal might have some ability to investigate the attack, given that MH17 was flying over non-Crimea Ukraine when it was shot down. But how would it get its hands on potential defendants? Pro-Russian separatists are almost certainly responsible for the attack, which means that the suspects are likely to be either in Russia-annexed Crimea or in Russia proper. Either way, the tribunal would have to convince Russia to surrender potential defendants to it — and Russia would have no legal obligation to do so as a non-signatory to the treaty creating the tribunal. That’s the primary difference between a treaty-based tribunal and a tribunal created by the Security Council: the latter could at least impose a cooperation obligation on Russia and sanction it for non-compliance. The tribunal being contemplated by the victim states could do no more than say “pretty please.” And we know how that request would turn out.

There is also, of course, that little issue of the ICC. Earlier this month, Ukraine filed a second Art. 12(3) declaration with the Court, this one giving the Court jurisdiction over all crimes committed on Ukrainian territory since 20 February 2014 — which includes the attack on MH17. So why create an ad hoc tribunal that would simply compete with the ICC? To be sure, the Court would also have a difficult time obtaining potential defendants, given that Russia has not ratified the Rome Statute. But it seems reasonable to assume, ceteris paribus, that an international court with 124 members is more likely to achieve results than a multinational court with five members. Moreover, there would be something more than a little unseemly about Australia, Belgium, and the Netherlands creating a treaty-based tribunal to investigate the MH17 attack. After all, unlike Russia, those states have ratified the Rome Statute.

The problem, in short, is not that the international community lacks an institution capable of prosecuting those responsible for the attack on MH17. The problem is that the international community has almost no chance of getting its hands on potential defendants. So until they can figure out how to get Russia to voluntarily assist with an investigation, victim states such as Australia and the Netherlands would be better off remaining silent about the possibility of a treaty-based tribunal. Discussing one will simply raise the hopes of those who lost loved ones in the attack — hopes that will almost certainly never be realised.

A “Broad Consensus” — of Between Two and Four States

by Kevin Jon Heller

Yes, the “unwilling or unable” test marches on. The latest step forward is a Just Security blog post by Kate Martin, the Director of the Center for National Security Studies, that cites absolutely nothing in defense of the test other than another scholar who cites almost nothing in defense of the test. Here is what Martin says in the context of the UK’s recent drone strikes in Syria (emphasis mine):

Some issues raised by the UK Article 51 legal theory are less controversial than others. The US and other states understand customary international law to include the right to use military force in self-defense against armed attacks, and claim the right to use military force under Article 51 outside of an armed conflict. As Lubell has noted, there is support for reading Article 51 as justifying the use of military force against non-state actors. There is broad consensus that there is a right to use military force in self-defense when the host country is unable or unwilling to stop the attack.

And what does Martin offer in support of this “broad consensus”? A link to a blog post at Lawfare by Ashley Deeks, in which Deeks (1) correctly points out that the US and UK both support “unwilling or unable,” (2) claims that “France appears to be prepared to invoke the ‘unwilling or unable’ concept in the Syria context,” and (3) states that Australia is “apparently relying on a collective self-defense of Iraq/unwilling and unable theory.”

So at most there is a “broad consensus” of four states in support of “unwilling or unable.” And perhaps there are only two. That’s quite a consensus.

This isn’t even instant custom. This is custom by scholarly fiat.