Archive of posts for category
International Security

The Seemingly Inexorable March of “Unwilling or Unable” Through the Academy

by Kevin Jon Heller

How does an international-law doctrine become conventional wisdom without actually having support in the practice of states? It starts with one article asserting the doctrine, but failing to defend it. Then another article makes the same claim, citing only the first article. And then another. And another. And so on — until no one remembers that the first article did not actually identify any state practice at all.

So it is with the “unwilling or unable” test, as indicated by an otherwise quite good new article in the Journal of Conflict & Security Law entitled “Jus ad Bellum and American Targeted Use of Force to Fight Terrorism Around the World.” Consider (p. 228):

With regard to the use of self-defence against private actors located in another state, two consequences flow from the requirement of necessity. First, state practice indicates that the exercise of self-defence against the private actor is conditioned on the inability or unwillingness of the authorities in the host state to stop the private actor’s activities.98 Obviously, if the host state both can and will stop the activities in question, it will not be necessary for the victim state to resort to the use of force.

I’ve left the footnote number in, because it refers to precisely one source: Ashley Deeks’ essay “Unwilling or Unable: Toward an Normative Framework for Extra-Territorial Self-Defense.” An essay in which, as I have pointed out, the author openly admits that she “found no cases in which states clearly assert that they follow the test out of a sense of legal obligation.” (The US and UK have formally endorsed the unwilling or unable test since Deeks’ article was published.)

To be sure, the new article elaborates a bit on the “support” for the unwilling or unable test. But none of that support involves the practice of states — nor does the article acknowledge the inconvenient fact that the Arab League (22 states) has formally rejected the test (post-9/11, even). Instead, it simply says this (p. 229):

The test is widely supported in the literature, and it is also mentioned in two 2013 UN reports by, respectively, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. It also features among a series of “Principles Relevant to the Scope of a State’s Right of Self-Defense Against an Imminent or Actual Armed Attack by Nonstate Actors” proposed by the former legal adviser of the United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Daniel Bethlehem.

“Instant custom”? How passé. Who needs state practice at all? And please don’t bore us by pointing out contrary practice by a bunch of benighted states in the Global South. All we really need are enough scholars, special rapporteurs, and former legal advisors in the Global North willing and able to endorse a particular doctrine and poof — customary international law.

CMCR Voids David Hicks’ Conviction for Material Support

by Kevin Jon Heller

Big news — and news I wasn’t expecting:

A former prisoner at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from Australia on Wednesday won a legal challenge to his terrorism conviction before a military court.

The U.S. Court of Military Commission Review struck down the March 2007 conviction of David Hicks in a unanimous ruling that reverses what had been one of the government’s few successes in prosecuting prisoners at Guantanamo.

Attorney Wells Dixon said he immediately called Hicks’ attorney in Australia, where it was the middle of the night, to pass on the news to his client.

“David is aware of the decision and he is thrilled,” Dixon said. “He is free to live his life without this conviction hanging over his head.”

Hicks, 39, pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorism. It was a plea bargain in which all but nine months of his seven-year sentence was suspended and he was allowed to return home by the end of that year.

In 2014, an appeal’s court ruled that material support was not a legally viable war crime for the special wartime court at Guantanamo known as a military commission. Prosecutors argued his conviction should still stand because he agreed not to appeal as part of the plea deal, an argument rejected by the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review.

Quite a journey for Hicks. When he was first charged, he was one of the most hated men in Australia. By the time the military-commission farce was through with him, he was a national hero.

Kudos to the CMCR for doing the right thing.

Guest Post Part II: The Chilcot Inquiry–The Publication Saga of an Official History

by Charlotte Peevers

[Charlotte Peevers is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Technology, Sydney and author of ‘The Politics of Justifying Force: the Suez Crisis, the Iraq War, and International Law‘ (Oxford University Press: 2013). Part one of this guest post can be found here.]

Legal-Political Authority and International Law

Any review of the inquiry hearings would be incomplete without a word from Tony Blair. In this extract from his so-called ‘recall’ to the inquiry on 21 January 2011 Sir Roderick Lyne asks him about his statement to the House of Commons in February 2003. The statement referred to the apparent exercise of an “unreasonable veto” in relation to a second resolution – that is, beyond 1441 – a subject upon which Lord Goldsmith had already advised was not a justifiable legal position to take against the French or Russian postures within the Security Council.

Video clip begins at 109.26 and ends at 116.05

Transcript (line 11 page 71 – line 6 page 75)

In this extract, Blair’s rather tortured distinction between legal and political arguments highlights a particularly interesting aspect of the relationship between international law and politics. His is an attempt to parse political and legal authority, to justify his deployment of legalistic language as a pure political exercise that was not only permissible, but that his audience would have appreciated and known was not premised upon legal authority. This parsing of authority highlights the difficulty faced by those who might oppose government policy or at least question its bases: without the contemporary knowledge as to the legal advice proffered by government experts, there is no way of holding statements such as Blair’s to account. The ambiguity of his articulation – that encompasses the possibility of legal justification, but not necessarily being explicit about it – leaves him able to claim ex post facto that he was merely making a political point. If this was interpreted the ‘wrong way’ by his audience, or indeed by Sir Roderick Lyne in his questioning, that that was not his fault, nor was it his intention.

In addition, this parsing can be seen as an attempt at making a representation of legal authority in the absence of having political authority. In other words, in the absence of majority public support – a democratic mandate – for using force without UN backing. And this is particularly problematic when, as Roderick Lyne seeks to point out, the government had been advised explicitly that there was no legal authority for such a claim. Blair’s evidence therefore seeks to claim an excessive sovereign right to wage war on the premise of an internationalized legal authority, avoiding the strictures of democratic mandates, or indeed international authority vested in the UN Security Council’s authorization of force. The boundaries of that legal authority were, at the time, entirely subject to secrecy and could therefore be publicly represented in any way deemed justifiable by the government; and then later as merely a political argument that did not in fact rely upon legal authority!

The Chilcot Inquiry as International Legal Archive

These two brief extracts from the present Chilcot Inquiry archive illustrate the wealth of material that can be analysed now, regardless of when the final report will be published together with the promised publication alongside it of 1,500 or so declassified documents. (See the video of Sir John Chilcot’s evidence before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 4 February 2015 at 27.05 where he discusses the publication of declassified material alongside the final report, available here.) Perhaps the most important thing we have learnt is that there is still a huge amount to learn from secrecy. Secrecy as a structural, structuring force on the generation of public policy and the place of law – not just international law – in the exercise of sovereign power.

In addition, we have learnt more of the ‘inner life’ of international law – how international law actually works in policy-making. It exists not just in formal sources, or texts, but behind closed doors, in corridors of extreme power. It is given life in memoranda, letters and meeting records. In order to understand how international law works, we need to consider the processes of advice-giving, the means by which decisions are taken in government – sofa government, ad hocism, inner war cabinets, limited disclosures to Cabinet and to Parliament, and the like – and the production of a government archive.

The archive disclosed through the Chilcot Inquiry, like any archive, is already constructed, is incomplete and partial. Reflecting, by way of comparison, on the Suez Crisis archive is particularly instructive (see Charlotte Peevers The Politics of Justifying Force: the Suez Crisis, the Iraq War, and International Law (OUP: 2013): despite the existence of an Israeli copy of the Protocol of Sèvres – the document proving collusion and that the Anglo-French occupation of the Suez Canal in late October 1956 was a pretext for invading Egypt following the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company – it has never surfaced in the British archive, in any form. Collusion was suspected for many years before the Israeli copy finally surfaced, but was always denied by the British government and no amount of archival material could have resolved the question of collusion one way or another – evidence had been destroyed and all reference to it expunged from the records (including presumably the direction that all reference be expunged!).

Despite the ‘constructedness’ of any archive, the ability to rake back over documents and oral evidence in relation to the Iraq War ought to be considered a hugely rich potential source for us as international lawyers, and of course as historians and political scientists. The danger with the saga generated over the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry report is that in all the dramatic distraction we miss the opportunity for reading the current archive for ourselves. An official history, however critical or otherwise, will act as the final word over the Iraq Affair, framing our future treatment of the archive and guiding our interpretations of it, whether in opposition or affirmation of the Inquiry’s final conclusions.

Again, the Suez Affair gives pause for thought. There was never an official inquiry into or official history of the Suez Crisis, its scandalous nature rumbling on in Parliament, behind-closed-doors in Whitehall, and in the public imagination without any final word being drafted. Whilst the absence of any holding to account of Anthony Eden’s government is not necessarily something to celebrate, one lesson that might be learned is this: an official history would not have been able to substantiate collusion – which went to the very heart of the question of accountability. In the absence of an official accounting, Suez has become the mythologized nail in the coffin of the British Empire, a supreme act of folly that was, unquestionably, illegal. We can continue to discover the lessons to be learned from Suez, particularly in relation to how international law was used to justify military action, by reading the archive for ourselves. I hope we will continue to quarry the mine of material produced by the Inquiry process, going beyond the limiting – and limited – question of whether the Iraq War was legal or illegal, instead proposing unofficial histories of the place of international law in domestic and international politics.

The Absence of Practice Supporting the “Unwilling or Unable” Test

by Kevin Jon Heller

Regular readers of the blog know that one of my hobbyhorses is the “unwilling or unable” test for self-defense against non-state actors. As I have often pointed out, scholars seem much more enamored with the test than states. The newest (regrettable) case in point: my friend Claus Kress, who is one of the world’s best international-law scholars. Here is what he writes in an otherwise-excellent contribution to Just Security about the use of force against ISIL in Syria (emphasis mine):

It therefore follows not only from the right of self-defense’s general requirement of necessity, but primarily from the respect for the sovereignty of the territorial State that the right of self-defense in case of a non-State armed attack is of a subsidiary nature. It presupposes that the territorial State is either unwilling or unable to end the non-State armed attack – or, as it should be added for the sake of completeness, fails to exercise due diligence to that effect. State practice is remarkably consistent with these principles. As Professor Ashley Deeks has demonstrated in a formidable article, the legal claims to a right of collective self-defense in cases of non-State armed attacks have generally included the statement that the territorial State is unwilling or unable to deal with the non-State threat.

In terms of what the “unable or unwilling” test might look like if it represented customary international law, Deeks’s article is indeed excellent. But the article is anything but “formidable” in terms of state practice that supports the test. Indeed, the non-state actor section of the article spans all of two pages (pp. 501-03) — and cites precisely two states that officially endorse “unwilling or unable”: the United Kingdom and the United States. That’s it. And those are the same two states that Claus discusses in his post.

Simply put, there is simply no “consistent practice” that supports the “unwilling or unable” test, and scholars need to be careful not to put states in the “unwilling or unable” camp simply because they are willing to use armed force against a non-state actor. Deeks has been particularly prone to this kind of overinclusiveness, most recently arguing that Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Iraq support the “unwilling or unable” test because they have attacked ISIL in Syria — this despite the fact that all five states are members of the Arab League, which has specifically rejected the test in the context of Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon. (Actual opinio juris.)

I have the utmost respect for Claus, and I have no desire to pick on Deeks. But methodological rigor is particularly critical when it comes to doctrines like “unwilling or unable,” because its actual adoption by states would open the floodgates to the extraterritorial (ie, sovereignty-infringing) use of force against non-state actors. There may well come a time when the “unwilling or unable” test reflects customary international law, but that time is not now. Two states do not a customary rule make, however powerful those states may be. And we cannot simply ignore the states in the Global South, however inconvenient powerful states in the Global North may find their views.

Guest Post Part I: The Chilcot Inquiry–The Publication Saga of an Official History

by Charlotte Peevers

[Charlotte Peevers is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Technology, Sydney and author of ‘The Politics of Justifying Force: the Suez Crisis, the Iraq War, and International Law‘ (Oxford University Press: 2013).] 

In the past few weeks we have learned, though we have suspected for quite some time, that the Chilcot Inquiry will not be in a position to publish its final, wide-ranging, ‘lessons learned’ report until after the next General Election, in June 2015. Media commentators and numerous Members of Parliament have decried the “scandalous” delays that have plagued publication, blaming at turns the civil service, Tony Blair, and/or the American Administration.

But this drama over publication delay – the latest in the saga of producing an official history of the Iraq War that has played out in the media – is something of a distraction from the real value of the Chilcot Inquiry, at least for scholars and students of international law. I argue that through its process of declassifying previously secret documents, holding public, oral hearings and receiving written testimony, the Inquiry has already informed our understanding of the operation of international law in the justification to use force.

During the course of oral evidence between 2009 and 2011 we heard more international legal debate than ever before, certainly than during the original debates of 2002/2003. We also heard about what I have come to think of as the ‘inner life’ of international law: revelations of back room disagreements – jousting, even – between figures such as Sir Michael Wood, then Senior Legal Adviser at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary, over the “vagueness” and consequent interpretive latitude of international law. We also saw the careful, self-conscious production of numerous memos between the Foreign Office, Attorney General’s Office, Ministry of Defence and No 10. And of course memos within those departments, documenting and recording for history the disagreements amongst officials and politicians. In addition we saw how law, evidence and intelligence related to policy demands.

The production and accessibility of this rich textual and testimonial archive has already generated a map for us to navigate how international law and its users – including advisers, government policy-makers, and politicians – actually work. How did people such as Sir Michael Wood conceive of their role as expert authority on the interpretation of the prohibition on the use of force? How did politicians such as Jack Straw or Tony Blair view and use international law as a body of rules to justify their commitment to military action? And how did these politicians and their policy officials interact with in-house experts such as Wood, or his deputy Elizabeth Wilmshurst, not to mention the government’s chief legal adviser, the Attorney General ,Lord Goldsmith?

The rich archive – all available at – fleshes out a detailed map of how international legal rules are navigated, are traced into routes for action or inaction, or demarcate the boundaries of certain policy decisions. This map allows us to traverse beyond the restrictive self-imposed boundaries of strict doctrine or bare textual analysis of the prohibition on the use of force, and instead navigate the extent of international law’s scope, impact on and relationship with domestic and international politics.

As scholars and students of international law we ought not be deterred from engaging with an already rich archive created by the Inquiry simply because there will be yet more delay in the publication of the final report.   Indeed, we ought to revel in the exploratory freedom that delay provides: there is yet to be a final word on the Iraq War, evidence is yet to be marshaled to support the drawing of particular conclusions or interpretations. This continued delay is, therefore, a prime opportunity to read and digest the current raw material produced through the inquiry process. Two examples from the oral and documentary evidence illustrate the richness of the existing archive.

Lawyers and International Law

To give a fuller sense of some of the rich detail of the ‘inner life’ of international law the following links detail an extract from Sir Michael Wood’s evidence to the Inquiry:

Video clip (begins at 53.10 and ends at 62.35)

Transcript (line 16 p28 – line 20 p.34)

First off, Wood’s comments are so interesting for a range of reasons which are not necessarily limited to international law. For instance, the comment that Jack Straw was used to pushing the boundaries of law whilst at the Home Office, even when faced with clear legal advice that what he was doing went against existing legal opinion and precedent domestically, tells an intriguing, partial tale of the political relationship to law, to courts and to cases more generally. This tells us something incredibly rich and perhaps disturbing about the way law works, stripping away the mythologised notion of a separation of powers, and making us think more about the institutional deference manifest in courts faced with government policies and actions that run counter to existing law. And that is just an example from the domestic realm.

For scholars and students of international law, Wood’s comments are particularly revealing when we consider the role of a government legal adviser – acting much in the way that Harold Koh and the transnational legal process school might envisage – as a benign (or enlightened) adviser to princes. Wood considers his overriding duty to international law in the absence of a court. Wood expresses a deep commitment to international law precisely because of its horizontal interpretive nature; it is for government legal advisers to demarcate the acceptable boundaries of policy versus international law, providing apparent ‘clear bright lines’ beyond which policy cannot traverse without incurring international illegality.

Not so, according to the government, if instructing Independent Counsel. In a document declassified and released by the Attorney General’s Office dated 13 March 2003 (ie on the eve of formal invasion) the legal secretary to the Attorney General, David Brummell, considered the difficulty with the government’s legal position – in particular highlighting the position vis à vis revival in the absence of a further resolution and therefore on the sole basis of Security Council Resolution 1441 – and advised that the position would have to be bolstered by obtaining formal legal opinion of Christopher Greenwood, David (he meant Daniel) Bethlehem, and Sam Wordsworth – three of the leading international lawyers at the English bar. (Bethlehem was to go on to be Wood’s successor at the FCO.) It seems that faced with intransigence from in-house Counsel, the government wanted to turn to the independence of senior international lawyers who they felt, given their lack of ties to government policy-making, might have been more able to express an opinion, if asked, in support of the government legal position (in the event none of the three were in fact approached to provide a legal opinion).

In these contrasting roles we see the distinction between advisory capacities and advocating positions: Wood was clearly deeply uncomfortable with the prospect of advocating on behalf of government in relation to a legal position he could not support, because he held a special position as expert adviser to government, acutely aware of the need to police the boundary of forceful intervention. Whereas independent Counsel could more freely take on the role of advocate for government as would be taken on for any other client looking for a legal position to support its policy choices.

Interestingly, we also learn from Wood’s evidence that the Attorney General appeared to take on both of these distinct roles at different times: he adopted an advisory role very early, though was careful to avoid documenting this in the immediate run up to war in the Autumn of 2002 (presumably to avoid hamstringing any later need to justify government policy in legal terms); but when war became inevitable, in around February 2003, he moved to advocate’s role, documenting the possible legal justifications that could be made in support of the government’s use of force.

In addition, the disagreement evidenced in the oral testimony between Sir Michael Wood and Jack Straw is particularly enlightening for us if we are to try to interpret an archive that is already self-consciously (re)constructed. We learn from Wood that Straw was careful to document his insistence on the ambiguity of international law and that reasonable difference of opinion could be had on the issue of the using force, even where opinion emanated from the apparent government expert, the Senior Legal Adviser’s office in the FCO. This recording of, and thereby justification of, an opposing legal view is significant from at least two perspectives.

The first is as an articulated understanding of what international law means to a politician in government such as Jack Straw. We learn that there is a high degree of self-awareness as to the power – and latitude – afforded to state actors in international legal doctrine. This self-awareness appears to translate as authority to speak to what international law actually is, or could be as interpreted by such a state actor. In a sense, this gives a behind-the-scenes affirmation of what scholars and students of international law already superficially recognize as ‘custom’ formation. Here, we learn that state actors know the force they command over international law, even in an area that is apparently so black and white: the prohibition on the use of force.

Secondly, we see the self-conscious fashioning of an archive; the production of official documentation that will, it is known by its author(s), represent government decision-making once it is categorized into the various filing systems of the National Archives (filed under ‘Iraq War’ within the FCO Ministerial and Legal Adviser’s records as sender and recipient respectively).

China’s Overbroad (Draft) Definition of Terrorism

by Kevin Jon Heller

Today’s a travel day, so I don’t have time to write a full post. But I thought I’d flag a very interesting article in The Diplomat about China’s new draft anti-terrorism bill, which seems to have a strong chance of becoming law. Here’s a snippet:

Obviously owing to the worrisome escalation of terrorist acts since the Tiananmen Square attack in October 2013, Chinese authorities decided to enact a comprehensive anti-terrorism law to address the new situation. Such a law requires, first and foremost, a well-reasoned definition of terrorism. Surprisingly, the draft law did not take up the terrorism definition that had been offered by the anti-terrorism Decision in 2011. According to Article 104 of the draft law, “terrorism” means “any thought, speech, or activity that, by means of violence, sabotage, or threat, aims to generate social panic, influence national policy-making, create ethnic hatred, subvert state power, or split the state.”

Article 104 goes on to flesh out the keyword “terrorist activity” as referred to in the “terrorism” definition. Accordingly, “terrorist activities” include (a) propagating, inciting, or instigating terrorism; or (b) forming, leading or participating in an terrorist organization; or (c) organizing, plotting, or implementing a terrorist action; or (d) supporting, assisting, or facilitating a terrorist organization or individual through the provision of information, funds, material, equipment, technologies or venues; or (e) other terrorist activities.


Absent a comprehensive and universal definition of terrorism, individual countries, including China, are left with the authority to interpret the term for themselves. Compared with Western liberal countries, China has greater discretion to combat terrorism in an effective – albeit repressive – manner. However, whenever China resolves to address the scourge of terrorism, it must also face the challenge of how to strike a proper balance between security and liberty.

Before passing the anti-terrorism law, Chinese law-makers need to overhaul the definition of terrorism to guarantee that terrorism is described as a serious crime with an additional quality that calls both for international concern and harsh treatment. In addition, proper procedural safeguards regarding terror lists should be introduced to ensure that the definition of terrorism does not capture an unreasonably wide range of persons, or, if this happens, that the affected persons will not be subject to unreasonable consequences.

The article contains a nice comparison of the draft Chinese law with the elements of most international conventions on terrorism. It’s well worth a read.

What Exactly Is the ICRC’s Position on Detention in NIAC?

by Kevin Jon Heller

I still need to write Part 2 of my response to Ryan Goodman, but it’s worth noting that he and I actually agree about detention in NIAC much more than we disagree. We both agree that IHL itself does not authorize such detention. We both agree that the standard governing detention in NIAC is that it must be non-arbitrary. We both agree that, in practice, it is non-arbitrary to detain individuals in NIAC for (something like) imperative reasons of security. So we seem to disagree only on one substantive point: where the requirement of non-arbitrariness comes from. Ryan says it comes from IHL itself. I argue that it comes from IHRL.

In my previous post, I took issue with Ryan’s claim that an ICRC Background Paper and Rule 99 of the ICRC’s study of customary law supported his position. I argued that neither clearly supports the idea that IHL requires detention in NIAC to be non-arbitrary, because both the Paper and the Rule rely on both IHL and IHRL for the substantive detention rules they endorse — and do not adequately disentangle the two legal strands. In response, Ryan accused me on Twitter — in a friendly manner — of arguing that he and the ICRC don’t understand the law of war.

Ryan and I obviously do disagree about whether IHL itself requires detention in NIAC to be non-arbitrary or whether its silence on that issue means IHRL’s requirement of non-arbitrariness applies as lex specialis. But I was not trying to claim that the ICRC was wrong, because I did not believe that Ryan was accurately characterizing its position. So I spent more time than than I expected after our exchange combing through the ICRC’s statements on the arbitrariness issue. I won’t bore readers with the twists and turns, but I do want to flag the ICRC’s most recent statement, an Opinion Paper dated November 2014. If the Opinion Paper does indeed reflect the ICRC’s current position on detention in NIAC, it turns out that  the ICRC disagrees with both me and Ryan, as well as with Dapo Akande and Lawrence Cawthorne-Hill at EJIL: Talk!, because it believes that IHL does, in fact, authorize detention in one kind of NIAC — extraterritorial NIAC. Here is what the ICRC says (p. 7):

In a “traditional” NIAC occurring in the territory of a State between government armed forces and one or more non-State armed groups, domestic law, informed by the State’s human rights obligations, and IHL, constitutes the legal framework for the possible internment by States of persons whose activity is deemed to pose a serious security threat. A careful examination of the interplay between national law and the applicable international legal regimes will be necessary. The right to judicial review of detention under human rights law will, of course, continue to apply; there are, however, differing views on whether this obligation may be derogated from.

Identifying the legal framework governing internment becomes particularly complicated in NIACs with an extraterritorial element, i.e. those in which the armed forces of one or more State, or of an international or regional organization, fight alongside the armed forces of a host State, in its territory, against one or more organized non-State armed groups.

The fact that Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions neither expressly mentions internment, nor elaborates on permissible grounds or process, has become a source of different positions on the legal basis for internment by States in an extraterritorial NIAC. One view is that a legal basis for internment would have to be explicit, as it is in the Fourth Geneva Convention; in the absence of such a rule, IHL cannot provide it implicitly. Another view, shared by the ICRC, is that both customary and treaty IHL contain an inherent power to intern and may in this respect be said to provide a legal basis for internment in NIAC. This position is based on the fact that internment is a form of deprivation of liberty which is a common occurrence in armed conflict, not prohibited by Common Article 3, and that Additional Protocol II – which has been ratified by 167 States – refers explicitly to internment.

In short, according to the ICRC, IHL does not authorize detention in “traditional” NIACs, those fought solely on the territory of one state, but does authorize detention in extraterritorial NIACs. Indeed, the Opinion Paper specifically cites Serdar Mohammed as an example of the first view of extraterritorial NIAC — the one that the ICRC rejects. The ICRC’s position thus seems to be closest to Aurel Sari in the comments to my previous post, as well as to Kubo Mačák at EJIL: Talk!. Then again, the ICRC doesn’t completely agree with them, either, because the Opinion Paper quite specifically limits IHL’s inherent power to detain to extraterritorial NIAC — thus seeming to agree with me, Ryan, Dapo, and Lawrence that the authority to detain in at least traditional one-state NIACs comes from domestic law, not from IHL itself.

I confess that I find the ICRC’s traditional/extraterritorial distinction rather confusing. I don’t understand how the conventional and customary IHL of NIAC could contain “an inherent power to intern” in extraterritorial NIAC but not in traditional NIAC; doesn’t it have to be both — or neither? After all, each of the factors the ICRC cites in defense of its position apply equally to traditional NIAC. Internment is indeed a “common occurrence in armed conflict,” but it is common in both traditional and extraterritorial NIACs. Common Article 3 does not prohibit detention in either traditional or extraterritorial NIAC. And Additional Protocol II is capable of applying to some traditional NIACs and of not apply to some extraterritorial NIACs. In fact, it is probably more likely to apply in a traditional NIAC.

To be clear, I’m skeptical the Opinion Paper is correct even concerning extraterritorial NIAC. Nothing in conventional IHL suggests an inherent power to detain in any kind of NIAC: as Ryan, Dapo, and Lawrence have all pointed out, international law often recognizes and regulates a practice without authorizing it. And although there could in principle be an asymmetric customary rule that says IHL authorizes detention in extraterritorial NIAC while domestic authorization is required in a traditional NIAC, there seems to be no evidence that such a rule exists. As Dapo and Lawrence point out in their post, “[e]ven in the context of extraterritorial NIACs, states have looked elsewhere for authorisation [to detain] (see, e.g., Iraq and Security Council Resolution 1546).”

My point, then, is simply that I don’t think the ICRC can have it both ways. Either there is an inherent power in IHL to detain in NIAC or there isn’t.

One thing is clear: the ICRC really needs to clarify its position on detention in NIAC.

Responding to Ryan Goodman About Serdar Mohammed — Part I

by Kevin Jon Heller

At Just Security, my friend Ryan Goodman has posted a long analysis of Serdar Mohammed v. Ministry of Defense, in which the UK High Court held that IHL neither authorizes nor regulates detention in non-international armed conflict (NIAC). That decision will soon be considered by the Court of Appeal.

In his post, which is a must-read, Ryan states that he agrees with the High Court that IHL does not authorize detention in NIAC but disagrees that IHL does not regulate such detention. I share Ryan’s position on the first point, but I disagree with him — and agree with Justice Leggatt in Serdar Mohammed — on the second. In a subsequent post, I will address Ryan’s argument that “whatever is permitted in international armed conflict is permitted in noninternational armed conflict.” I have described that argument in a forthcoming book chapter as “reasoning by analogy”; Ryan rejects that description and says he is engaging in “reasoning by structure.” I will try to show in the next post that the “whatever is permitted” argument is problematic no matter how we describe its underlying reasoning.

In this post, I want to focus Ryan’s argument that, contrary to Justice Leggatt, IHL does in fact regulate the permissible grounds for detention in NIAC. Here is what he says (emphasis mine):

So far we have discussed the permissive boundaries of detention in NIAC but what about limitations on states in these contexts? IHL also imposes a set of prohibitions on the grounds for detention in internal armed conflict. That is, multiple sources conclude that IHL prohibits arbitrary deprivation of liberty in NIAC (see footnote 12 of the AJIL article, for example). Subsequent to that law review article, several important states through the Copenhagen Process—including “specially affected” states which is a significant category for customary international law purposes—explicitly accepted such restrictions on detention in NIAC.  Consider also the ICRC’s statement in a Background Paper on detention for the regional consultations 2012-2013: “In terms of grounds for internment, the ICRC, along with a growing international consensus of experts considers that ‘imperative reasons of security’ is an appropriate standard for internment in NIAC.” And a Report by a group of experts convened by the ICRC and Chatham House “quite easily” reached a consensus that in NIACs “parties to a conflict may capture persons deemed to pose a serious security threat and that such persons may be interned as long as they continue to pose a threat.” (See also the ICRC’s customary international humanitarian law Rule 99: Deprivation of Liberty).

To begin, it’s worth noting that Ryan does not seem to be “reasoning by structure” here — he seems to be arguing that, as a matter of customary international law, IHL prohibits arbitrary detention in NIAC. After all, he specifically mentions custom and “specially affected” states in the context of the Copenhagen Process. Moreover, he refers to the ICTY’s jurisdiction decision in Tadic both here and in his superb law-review article on security detention — and Tadic specifically based its (methodologically dubious) extension of IAC-based rules of IHL to NIAC on customary international law. As it said with regard to those rules (para. 127), “it cannot be denied that customary rules have developed to govern internal strife.”

If Ryan is claiming that IHL prohibits arbitrary detention in NIAC as a matter of customary international law, I have no theoretical objection to his argument. Indeed, as I’ll explain in my next post, my position is that international human rights law (IHRL) governs the regulation of detention in NIAC precisely because there are no contrary customary rules of IHL that can serve as the lex specialis of detention. If there are such customary rules, IHL may well displace IHRL (depending on how we understand the lex specialis principle).

That said, I take issue with Ryan’s claim that (as a matter of custom?) IHL prohibits arbitrary detention in NIAC — a standard that has no basis in the conventional IHL of NIAC and is normally associated with IHRL

The CIA Violated the Terrorist Bombing Convention

by Kevin Jon Heller

The Washington Post has a long article today about how Mossad and the CIA collaborated to blow up Hezbollah’s chief of international operations in 2008. Here are the key paragraphs:

On Feb. 12, 2008, Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s international operations chief, walked on a quiet nighttime street in Damascus after dinner at a nearby restaurant. Not far away, a team of CIA spotters in the Syrian capital was tracking his movements.

As Mughniyah approached a parked SUV, a bomb planted in a spare tire on the back of the vehicle exploded, sending a burst of shrapnel across a tight radius. He was killed instantly.

The device was triggered remotely from Tel Aviv by agents with Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, who were in communication with the operatives on the ground in Damascus. “The way it was set up, the U.S. could object and call it off, but it could not execute,” said a former U.S. intelligence official.

The United States helped build the bomb, the former official said, and tested it repeatedly at a CIA facility in North Carolina to ensure the potential blast area was contained and would not result in collateral damage.

“We probably blew up 25 bombs to make sure we got it right,” the former official said.

The extraordinarily close cooperation between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence services suggested the importance of the target — a man who over the years had been implicated in some of Hezbollah’s most spectacular terrorist attacks, including those against the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.

The United States has never acknowledged participation in the killing of Mughniyah, which Hezbollah blamed on Israel. Until now, there has been little detail about the joint operation by the CIA and Mossad to kill him, how the car bombing was planned or the exact U.S. role. With the exception of the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the mission marked one of the most high-risk covert actions by the United States in recent years.

The article touches on the legality of Mughniyah’s killing, with the US arguing that it was a lawful act of self-defense under Art. 51 of the UN Charter and Mary Ellen O’Connell claiming that it was perfidy. Regular readers will anticipate my skepticism toward the former claim, and there is simply no support in IHL for the latter claim. Perfidy is an act “inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with intent to betray that confidence.” Mossad and the CIA did nothing of the kind.

Mossad and the CIA did, however, violate the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, which Israel ratified on 10 February 2003 and the US ratified on 26 June 2002. I don’t want to dwell on Mossad in this post; the analysis is the same as the one I provided here with regard to its assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Instead, I want to focus on the US’s complicity in Mughniyah’s death.

To begin with, there is no question that the bombing itself qualifies as a prohibited act of terrorism under the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Here is the relevant definition, Art. 2(1):

1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person unlawfully and intentionally delivers, places, discharges or detonates an explosive or other lethal device in, into or against a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system or an infrastructure facility:

(a) With the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or

(b) With the intent to cause extensive destruction of such a place, facility or system, where such destruction results in or is likely to result in major economic loss.

Mughniyah’s killing satisfies this definition. The attack involved an “explosive device” and it was clearly intended to “cause death.” It also took place on a public street, which qualifies as a “place of public use” under Article 1(5) of the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Article 1(5) defines a place of public use as “those parts of any building, land, street, waterway or other location that are accessible or open to members of the public, whether continuously, periodically or occasionally.”

The CIA was also complicit in that prohibited act of terrorism, pursuant to Art. 2(3):

3. Any person also commits an offence if that person:

(a) Participates as an accomplice in an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2; or

(b) Organizes or directs others to commit an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2; or

(c) In any other way contributes to the commission of one or more offences as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2 by a group of persons acting with a common purpose; such contribution shall be intentional and either be made with the aim of furthering the general criminal activity or purpose of the group or be made in the knowledge of the intention of the group to commit the offence or offences concerned.

The language of Art. 2(3) easily encompasses the CIA’s involvement in Mughniyah’s death, given that the US admits the CIA built the bomb, helped track Mughniyah’s movements, and had the power to call off the attack.

The US will no doubt object to this analysis by arguing that the Terrorist Bombing Convention is intended to apply to bombings by terrorists, not bombings of terrorists. That objection would be valid had the US military been involved in the operation instead of the CIA. Justifiably or not, Article 19(2) of the Convention specifically permits acts that would otherwise qualify as terrorist bombing when they are committed by the military forces of a state:

2. The activities of armed forces during an armed conflict, as those terms are understood under international humanitarian law, which are governed by that law, are not governed by this Convention, and the activities undertaken by military forces of a State in the exercise of their official duties, inasmuch as they are governed by other rules of international law, are not governed by this Convention.

The CIA, however, does not qualify as the US’s “military forces” under the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Art. 1(4) specifically defines “military forces of a State” as “the armed forces of a State which are organized, trained and equipped under its internal law for the primary purpose of national defence or security, and persons acting in support of those armed forces who are under their formal command, control and responsibility.” The second provision does not apply, because there is no evidence the CIA was acting under the “formal command, control and responsibility” of the military when it participated in Mughniyah’s killing. And neither does the first provision: although there is no question that the CIA contributes to the US’s “national defence or security,” it is not an “armed force” under US “internal law.” According to 10 USC § 101, “[t]he term ‘armed forces’ means the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.”

The bottom line: the CIA committed an act of terrorism — actual terrorism, not figurative terrorism — when it participated in blowing up Mughniyah. The US military has the right to kill terrorists with bombs; the CIA does not. There is no doctrine of “close enough” in the Terrorist Bombing Convention.

No, Going to the ICC Is Not “Lawfare” by Palestine

by Kevin Jon Heller

Just Security has published two long guest posts (here and here) on the ICC and Palestine by Nimrod Karin, a J.S.D. candidate at New York University School of Law who was previously Deputy Legal Adviser to Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. There is much to respect about the posts, which are careful, substantive, and avoid needless hyperbole. And I agree with Karin on a surprising number of issues, particularly concerning the institutional reasons why (for better or worse) the ICC is likely to avoid opening a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine.

I disagree, though, with Karin’s insistence that Palestine has engaged in “lawfare” by ratifying the Rome Statute and using Art. 12(3) to accept the Court’s jurisdiction retroactive to 13 June 2014 — the day after the kidnapping and murder of the three young Israelis. Here is what he says in his second post (emphasis in original):

To readers who are utterly unsurprised by the dating of the ad hoc declaration I would simply add – likewise. It’s an example illustrating the strategic nature of the Palestinian multilateral maneuvering, which is squarely within their prerogative, acting as any other self-interested political entity would. But then maybe we should dial down the discourse depicting this as an idealistically motivated move – striking a blow for international criminal justice, or placing a conflict under the umbrella of law – and come to terms with the fact that the Palestinians are practicing lawfare by any other name, even at the expense of the values supposedly guiding their march to the ICC.

I wince whenever I see the term “lawfare,” because it is normally just short-hand for “I disagree with X’s legal actions.” Even if the concept has meaning, though, I don’t see how it can be used to describe what Palestine has done. To begin with, as Karin acknowledges, Palestine did not pluck the June 13 date out of thin air — it’s the same date that the Human Rights Committee selected for the beginning of the Schabas Commission’s mandate. Perhaps that was a political decision by the HRC, but Palestine can hardly be faulted for following its lead, especially given that it could have gone much further back in time (its first Art. 12(3) declaration purported to accept jurisdiction from 1 July 2002) — something for which Karin curiously gives Palestine no credit whatsoever.

I also don’t understand what is so troubling about the June 13 date. To be sure, the kidnap and murder of the three young Israelis was a horrific act. But it’s anything but clear whether Hamas leadership was responsible for their kidnapping and murder. It’s not even clear whether they were killed late on June 12 or early June 13 — the latter date within Palestine’s grant of jurisdiction. So how can Palestine’s choice of June 13 be some kind of devious move to maximise Israel’s criminal exposure while minimising its own?

More fundamentally, though, I simply reject the basic premise of Karin’s argument: namely, that taking a dispute to an international criminal tribunal with general jurisdiction can be seen as lawfare. Perhaps it’s possible to view tribunals with a one-sided mandate (de jure or de facto) as lawfare — the IMT prosecuting only Nazis, the ICTR prosecuting only Hutus. But the ICC? The ICC investigates situations, not specific crimes. By ratifying the Rome Statute and filing its Art. 12(3) declaration, Palestine has taken both Israel and itself to the ICC, not Israel alone. Palestine thus no longer has any control whatsoever over which individuals and which crimes the OTP investigates. That’s not lawfare, that’s bravery — especially given that, as I’ve pointed out time and again on the blog, the OTP is quite likely to go after Hamas crimes before it goes after Israeli crimes. In fact, the only lawfare being practiced in the context of Operation Protective Edge would seem to be by Israel, which has responded to the OTP’s preliminary investigation — which it opened as a matter of situation-neutral policy, not because of some kind of animus toward Israel — by condemning the ICC as a “political body” and launching a campaign to convince member states to stop funding it (which would be a clear violation of their treaty obligations under the Rome Statute).

I have little doubt that Palestine would be delighted if the ICC prosecuted only Israelis for international crimes. But it has to know how unlikely that is. Instead of condemning its decision to ratify the Rome Statute and submit an Art. 12(3) declaration as “lawfare,” therefore, we should be celebrating its commitment to international criminal justice. Indeed, if a state can practice lawfare by giving an international criminal tribunal the jurisdiction to investigate its own crimes as well as the crimes committed by its enemy, the concept has no meaning at all.

Why the Palestinian Authority Should Avoid Arafat’s Death

by Kevin Jon Heller

So this is a well-intentioned but problematic idea:

The Palestinians want the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch an investigation into the death of Yasser Arafat, a senior Fatah official announced on Sunday.

Jamal Muheissen, member of the Fatah Central Committee, claimed that Israel was responsible for the death of Arafat, who died in November 2004.

“This file will be presented to the International Criminal Court,” Muheissen told the Palestinian Shms News Agency. “We want to bring the Israeli occupation to trial for every crime it committed against our people.”


Arafat, who signed the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords with Israel but then led an uprising after subsequent talks broke down in 2000, died aged 75.

His death came four weeks after he fell ill following a meal, suffering from vomiting and stomach pains, in his Ramallah compound while surrounded by Israeli tanks.

To begin with, even if the Court had jurisdiction, it is unlikely that the OTP would investigate Arafat’s death. There are indeed significant questions about his death, and it would not surprise me if Israel is responsible for it. But the case is far from clear, and the OTP would be hard-pressed to investigate it effectively. So the OTP would almost certainly choose — if it ever opened a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine, which I continue to strongly doubt — to focus on much more obvious crimes committed by Palestine and Israel.

The jurisdictional issue, however, is the real kicker. Arafat died in 2004, so in principle his death is within the ICC’s temporal jurisdiction. And unlike my friend Dov Jacobs, I don’t think Palestine is categorically prohibited from accepting the Court’s jurisdiction earlier than 13 June 2014 through a second Art. 12(3) declaration. But does Palestine really want to force the Court to determine whether it was a state in 2004? The first declaration was very smart — although the judges will still have to decide at some point on Palestinian statehood, the fact that the declaration does not purport to accept jurisdiction prior to UNGA Resolution 67/19 makes it very unlikely the judges will second-guess the OTP. All bets would be off, though, with a second declaration that looked back to 2004. There would be no conflict between the judiciary and the OTP if the judges refused to conclude that Palestine was a state when Arafat died; on the contrary, the OTP seems to believe that Palestine was not a state — at least for purposes of ICC membership — until the UNGA upgraded its status. Moreover, the judges can’t exactly relish having to determine not only when Palestine became a state, but also the proper test for making that determination. So we can expect them to take a very conservative approach to Palestinian statehood.

There is little question that the case for Palestine’s statehood has received a significant boost by its membership in the ICC. The last thing Palestine should do now is risk undoing all of its good work by pushing the Court to investigate an unclear event committed more than a decade ago.

Unfortunately, the ICC Doesn’t Work the Way Palestine Wants It To

by Kevin Jon Heller

According to this report in the Times of Israel, the Palestinian Authority would be willing to forego the ICC if Israel agreed to freeze its settlement activity:

RAMALLAH — A senior Palestinian official said Sunday that the first subject to be brought before the International Criminal Court at The Hague in the Palestinian Authority’s legal campaign against Israel would be settlement construction.

The official told The Times of Israel that land seizures in occupied territory constituted a clear violation of international law. Still, he noted that the appeal to the ICC would be withdrawn if Israel were to freeze settlement construction, and added that the Palestinian Authority had conveyed to Israel an official message to that effect, through Jordan and Egypt.

Unfortunately, the Rome Statute does not allow Palestine to pursue this kind of bargaining strategy. To begin with, now that Palestine has submitted an Article 12(3) declaration and ratified the Rome Statute, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has no say in what, if anything, the OTP decides to investigate. If the OTP wants to investigate only Hamas’s rocket attacks, it can. If it wants to investigate only Israeli and Palestinian crimes in Gaza, ignoring the settlements entirely, it can. If it wants to investigate the settlements but only after dealing with all of the crimes in Gaza, it can. The PA needs to understand that. If it wanted to ensure that the OTP investigated settlements, it needed to avoid ratifying the Rome Statute and submit an Article 12(3) declaration that was limited to the West Bank. I don’t think the OTP would have acted on such a declaration, but that route would have at least limited the OTP to accepting or rejecting the PA’s terms — the OTP would not have had jurisdiction to examine events in Gaza. Once Palestine ratified the Rome Statute, however, it lost even that limited control. Now investigative and prosecutorial decisions are in the hands of the OTP.

For similar reasons, the PA could not “withdraw… the appeal to the ICC” if Israel froze the settlements. The OTP could investigate and prosecute settlement-related activity even if the PA was completely opposed to it doing so. (Just as Israel’s opposition to the Court is legally irrelevant.) The PA could not even prevent the OTP from investigating settlement activity by immediately withdrawing from the ICC — its Article 12(3) declaration would still be in effect, and Palestine would remain a member of the Court for another year. At best such a dramatic act would simply force the OTP to make investigative decisions more quickly.

The ICC might have been an effective bargaining chip with Israel (and Israel’s client state, the US) before the PA submitted the Article 12(3) declaration and ratified the Rome Statute. Once the PA took those steps, though, its leverage ended. Now the fate of the investigation into the situation in Palestine lies solely in the hands of the OTP.