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International Security

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

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

Quote of the Day: Tony Abbott on the Rule of Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

Here he is, defending General Sisi, the new President of Egypt:

This is a general, but a general who has studied in both the United States and the United Kingdom, so he is certainly someone who is familiar with the rule of law.

Because everyone knows that you can’t learn about the rule of law outside the West. Duh.

PS. Abbott made his silly comment as a way of explaining why he was confident Egypt would not be unfair to Peter Greste, the Australian Al-Jazeera journalist accused — with no evidence whatsoever — of “spreading false news” and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

Greste was just sentenced to seven years in prison. I guess Sisi didn’t pay enough attention in his US and UK classes.

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

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bensouda Accuses UNAMID of Covering Up Sudanese Crimes

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m not sure how I missed this, but these are very strong — and atypically blunt — allegations by Fatou Bensouda:

The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda urged the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to investigate reports that the UN peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID) deliberately contributed in covering up crimes in the restive region.

In reference to US-based Foreign Policy (FP) magazine reports, Bensouda asked the council to authorize a “thorough, independent and public inquiry” probe into allegations that UNAMID being subject to “manipulation” through acts committed “with the intentional effect of covering up crimes committed against civilians and peacekeepers”.

FP obtained confidential internal UN memos from UNAMID ex-spokesperson Aicha ElBasri that asserts how the UN peacekeeping force suppressed negative information on violations that occurred in Darfur by Sudanese government and other parties.

The ICC prosecutor said that the responsibility for the “cover-up” may lie “with a handful of individuals” but warned that it undermines the credibility of the peacekeeping mission.

Africa Review adds some additional detail to ElBasri’s disturbing allegations:

Last April, former Unamid spokeswoman Aicha Elbasri, revealed that the unit had misinformed the UN by withholding important details about Darfur.

Unamid has observed the government forces indiscriminately bombing entire villages, targeting civilian and military targets alike. However, these observations are never publically reported in the regular updates by the UN Secretary General to the UNSC,” Ms Elbasri claimed.

She reported that the UN peacekeeping mission did not tell the world that the Khartoum government failed to disarm the Janjaweed militias; that it, conversely, reintegrated them into paramilitary forces under new names, and let them continue committing their widespread, systematic attacks directed against the civilian population in Darfur.

The UNAMID situation obviously requires a UN investigation, so it’s encouraging to see that Bensouda request was quickly supported by both Australia and Rwanda. The UK’s statement, however, is disappointingly tentative, suggesting that the Secretariat — and not the Security Council — should investigate. Given the seriousness of the allegations, that’s simply not good enough.

A Problematic Study of Drone Strikes in Pakistan (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Lawfare reports today on a study published in Political Science Quarterly about how ordinary Pakistanis view US drone strikes in their country. According to the post, the study “[c]hallenge[s] the conventional wisdom” that there is “deep opposition” among Pakistanis to drone strikes and that “the associated anger [i]s a major source of the country’s rampant anti-Americanism.”

I don’t have access to the study itself, but the polling questions quoted in the Lawfare post seem seriously flawed. Here are the three primary questions about drone strikes:

How much, if anything, have you heard about the drone attacks that target leaders of extremist groups – a lot, little, or nothing at all?

Please tell me whether you support or oppose the United States conducting drone attacks in conjunction with the Pakistani government against the leaders of extremist groups.

Now I’m going to ask you a list of things that the United States might do to combat extremist groups in Pakistan. For each one, please tell me whether you would support or oppose it. [The respondent is then offered]: Conducting drone attacks in conjunction with the Pakistani government against leaders of extremist groups. 

There are two significant problems with these questions. First, it seems like a major stretch to describe the US drone program in Pakistan as being carried out “in conjunction with the Pakistani government” — a formulation that implies that Pakistan and the US are working together. I accept reports that say Pakistan has tacitly or secretly endorsed the US drone program. But the Pakistani government’s public position has always been that the drone program is being conducted without its consent. The “in conjunction with” language is thus seriously misleading — especially given that the ordinary Pakistani will likely be far more familiar with the government’s public position than with the private one revealed in secret cables. Indeed, the second and third questions could easily be interpreted to be asking a hypothetical question (“would you like drone strikes more if they were conducted in conjunction with your government?”), instead of as an assertion of a past and present state of affairs.

The second problem, however, is even more serious. All three questions assert — and assume — that drone strikes in Pakistan target “leaders of extremist groups.” But that is almost certainly not the case. Here, for example, is what the Stanford/NYU “Living Under Drones” report says:

National security analysts—and the White House itself— have found that the vast majority of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan have been low-level alleged militants. Based on conversations with unnamed US officials, a Reuters journalist reported in 2010 that of the 500 “militants” the CIA believed it had killed since 2008, only 14 were “top-tier militant targets,” and 25 were “mid-to-high- level organizers” of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other hostile groups. His analysis found that “the C.I.A. [had] killed around 12 times more low-level fighters than mid-to-high- level” during that same period. More recently, Peter Bergen and Megan Braun of the New America Foundation reported that fewer than 13% of drone strikes carried out under Obama have killed a “militant leader.” Bergen and Braun also reported that since 2004, some 49 “militant leaders” have been killed in drone strikes, constituting “2% of all drone-related fatalities.”

Unless all of these reports are incorrect, the US drone program in Pakistan has never focused on “leaders of extremist groups.” It is thus extremely misleading for the study to ask ordinary Pakistanis whether they support drones strikes that target such leaders. Would the results be the same if the study had asked participants whether they “supported or opposed the United States conducting drone attacks against low-level fighters believed to be members of extremist groups”? I doubt it.

It is a truism of the polling business that poll results are only as good as the questions participants are asked. In the case of the drone study reported in Lawfare, there is reason to be skeptical of both the questions and the answers.

UPDATE: After an email exchange with one of the authors, I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that the questions were formulated and asked by Pew, not by the research team. That said, I still question how useful the answers are, given the problems discussed above.

How Does a Hybrid Tribunal for Iraq and Afghanistan Sound?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Colum Lynch reports today at FP.com that the United States is pushing for the creation of a hybrid international criminal tribunal for Syria by… the UN General Assembly:

[P]eople familiar with the matter say that the United States is already engaged in informal discussions with foreign governments over a plan to seek a mandate from the U.N. General Assembly to establish such a court, which would be comprised of Syrian, regional, and international judges, lawyers, and prosecutors. The two likeliest homes for the tribunal are Jordan and Turkey, these people said.

The plan currently under consideration is for the U.N. General Assembly to adopt a resolution inviting one of Syria’s neighbors, probably Jordan or Turkey, to work with the U.N. Secretary General to establish a so-called hybrid court, comprised of local, international, and Syrian prosecutors and judges. The court would be funded by voluntary contributions from governments that support the effort.

Lynch notes that a hybrid tribunal for Syria would be a first for the UNGA, because — unlike the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia — it would need to be created without the consent of the territorial state. (Syria would obviously never consent to such a court.)

In a recent post, Derek Jinks questions whether the UNGA has the authority to create a hybrid tribunal without Syria’s consent. I find his analysis compelling. But here is what I want to know: does the US really want to lead the charge for such a nonconsensual hybrid tribunal? After all, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: if the US endorses the UNGA creating a nonconsensual hybrid tribunal for Syria, it will hardly be able to complain if the UNGA later creates, say — just spitballing here — a nonconsensual hybrid tribunal to deal with crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Either states need to consent to international criminal tribunals or they don’t. So does the US really want to give its blessing to what is an obvious attempt to circumvent P-5’s stranglehold over the Security Council?

Inquiring minds want to know…

Guest Post: Foreign Official Immunity and the Chinese Cyberespionage Indictments

by Chimene Keitner

[Chimène Keitner is Harry & Lillian Hastings Research Chair and Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and an Adviser on Sovereign Immunity for the American Law Institute’s Fourth Restatement of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States.]

As Duncan has pointed out, if a U.S. court sought to exercise jurisdiction over the five Chinese officials indicted by a Pennsylvania grand jury for computer fraud, identity theft, economic espionage, and trade secret theft, the officials would likely claim entitlement to foreign official immunity because they acted on behalf of China. While state action is not a required element of any of the alleged crimes, it permeates the facts of this case, which Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized “represents the first ever charges against a state actor for this type of hacking.”

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act provides the sole basis for obtaining jurisdiction over foreign states and their agencies or instrumentalities, see 28 U.S.C. § 1604, although it remains unsettled whether the FSIA applies to criminal proceedings against entities. The FSIA does not apply to individual foreign officials, see Samantar v. Yousuf, except for the section creating a limited private right of action for state sponsored terrorism, 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(c). Rather, the immunity of current and former foreign officials is governed by applicable treaties (such as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, implemented by the Diplomatic Relations Act) and, in the absence of a statute, the common law.

As Duncan indicates and Jack Goldsmith also notes, the question of foreign official immunity will only arise as a practical matter if the Chinese defendants come within the personal jurisdiction of a U.S. court. The officials could not claim status-based immunity unless they were heads of state, diplomats, or members of special diplomatic missions at the time of the legal proceedings. Instead, they would claim conduct-based immunity on the grounds that their acts were all performed on behalf of the Chinese state.

The decision to bring charges suggests that the USDOJ does not view the defendants as lawfully entitled to assert immunity for their alleged conduct. This could be for one of several reasons: (more…)

Guest Post: Cullis on Iran Sanctions

by Tyler Cullis

[Tyler Cullis is a Policy Associate at National Iranian American Council.]

Introduction

We’ll soon find out whether the decade-old nuclear dispute with Iran can be resolved diplomatically, as the parties return to Vienna next month to hammer out a comprehensive agreement. So far, negotiations have been deftly handled by both US and Iranian negotiators – the positive atmosphere, so critical to staving off domestic opposition, having been maintained over several months. But still, the most difficult issues remain on the table, including the number (and type) of centrifuges Iran will be permitted, the duration of a final agreement, and the timing of sanctions relief. Successfully concluding a nuclear deal will require compromise from both parties on each of these issues.

While much attention has zeroed in on Iran’s obligations under a final deal, few have discussed the specific modes by which the US will comply with its own commitments. This is troubling, especially insofar as the White House’s ability to provide Iran measurable sanctions relief, absent an affirmative act of Congress, is not assured. In fact, relieving the sanctions will involve difficult questions of law and policy that deserve far more extensive discussion than received at present. Below, I discuss a few of these issues, posing as they do hurdles perhaps as sizeable as Iran’s own centrifuges.

Treaty or Not to Treaty?

Soon after the Joint Plan of Action was inked in Geneva last November, questions arose as to the legal nature of the preliminary agreement: Was it binding as a matter of international law? If so, would it need to be submitted to the Senate (or, in Iran’s case, to the Majles) for approval?

Consensus, here and elsewhere, said no: the interim deal was left unsigned by the parties and had couched its commitments as “voluntary measures,” not mandatory ones. This, it was argued, signified that the P5+1 and Iran did not intend for the document to be either binding on the parties nor governed by international law. Drawbacks to this approach were obvious, but the upside was that each of the parties avoided the need for legislative approval at home (Iran, too, has constitutionally-mandated procedures to follow before an international agreement can be entered into and take domestic effect). Now that we are more than halfway through the interim period and both parties remain in full compliance with their “voluntary” obligations, the choice of informal agreement looks to have been the correct one.

Going forward, however, the central question will be whether the parties replicate this model in a final deal or instead cement a binding international agreement (i.e., a treaty). While the White House remains keen on insulating Congress as much as possible from playing spoiler and is thus unlikely to submit a final deal to the Senate for approval, there are several factors that ward against replicating the “soft law” nature of the Joint Plan of Action.

First, because the US will be required to offer more lasting sanctions relief than that provided under the Joint Plan of Action and, as of now, the President is limited in the kind of sanctions relief he can provide, Congress will be called upon to lift the sanctions at some point in this process. Whether to include Congress at the front- or back-end of a final deal remains a strategic question for the White House, but avoiding Congress altogether is no longer a plausible scenario. (Nor is more aggressive action from the White House likely. It is improbable that the White House will attempt to conclude a sole executive agreement with Iran that overrides contrary federal law and gives the President the authorities he needs to provide Iran the requisite sanctions relief. Such a step would prove a legal leap beyond that of Dames & Moore — the President not acting pursuant to Congressional authorization or acquiescence but rather in ways contrary to Congress’s clear direction.)

Second, unlike the interim deal, which was intended as both a confidence-building measure and a place-holder to allow the parties time to negotiate a final deal, the final agreement will be one where the obligations actually matter. (more…)

The Security Council Won’t Even Go Dutch with the ICC on Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

There are many reasons to be skeptical of the Security Council referring the situation in Syria to the ICC, not the least of which is that an ICC investigation is unlikely to accomplish anything given the ongoing conflict. (One that Assad is almost certainly going to win.) But just in case that’s not enough, take a gander at this provision in the draft referral:

[The Security Council] recognizes that none of the expenses incurred in connection with the referral, including expenses related to investigations or prosecutions in connection with that referral, shall be borne by the United Nations and that such costs shall be borne by the parties to the Rome Statute and those States that wish to contribute voluntarily and encourages States to make such contributions.

In other words, the UN just wants to refer the situation; it doesn’t want to pay for the ICC’s investigation. So much for Art. 115 of the Rome Statute, which provides that “[t]he expenses of the Court and the Assembly of States Parties… shall be provided by the following sources… Funds provided by the United Nations, subject to the approval of the General Assembly, in particular in relation to the expenses incurred due to referrals by the Security Council”…

I have previously urged the Prosecutor to refuse to open an investigation into the situation in Syria unless the Security Council is willing to fund it. The draft referral makes clear that the Security Council has no intention of doing so. In the unlikely event that the referral ever passes, I hope the Prosecutor will consider my suggestion.

Guest Post: Al Nashiri and the Existence of an Armed Conflict

by David Frakt

[David J. R. Frakt, Lt. Col., USAFR, is a legal scholar and former lead counsel, Office of Military Commissions-Defense.]

I wanted to weigh in on the debate between my esteemed colleagues Steve Vladeck, Peter Margulies and Kevin Jon Heller at Just Security, Lawfare and Opinio Juris, on the issue of the existence of an armed conflict at the time of Mr. Al Nashiri’s alleged offenses and the critical questions of who should decide this issue, and when.  Peter argues that this is a question of fact best decided by the panel of military officers who will serve as jurors in the military commissions.  Al Nashiri’s defense team asserts that this is a question of law and they are asking the D.C. District Court to rule that the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 was not part of an armed conflict.  As there was no armed conflict ongoing, so goes their argument, the law of armed conflict does not apply and his actions could not be considered a violation of the law of war; further, because military commissions are courts of limited jurisdiction with power only to try and punish violations of the law of war, the federal court should enjoin any further proceedings at Guantanamo.  It should be noted that Al Nashiri has already raised this matter in a pretrial motion in the military commission, seeking to have the charges dismissed by the military judge on the grounds that the commission lacks jurisdiction over his alleged offenses because they did not take place in the context of an armed conflict.  Judge Pohl declined to dismiss the charges, characterizing the issue as primarily a question of fact for the jury (Ruling AE104F).  Judge Pohl also acknowledged that the question was a “jurisdictional question subject to purely legal determination” but claimed that he must make this determination using a “wide deference” standard.”  Applying this standard, he found that the Congressional authorization to try offenses that occurred prior to 9/11, coupled with the fact that charges had been filed by the prosecutor, referred to trial by the Convening Authority, and not withdrawn by the Secretary of Defense or the President was sufficient to establish the existence of an armed conflict at the time of the offenses for jurisdictional purposes.  This determination is essentially tantamount to a finding that he considered there to be sufficient evidence to submit the question to a jury.  However, he left open the possibility of reconsideration at a later time, presumably in the form of a motion for a directed verdict at the close of the prosecution’s case.

(more…)

Did You Know Hazarding a Vessel Was a War Crime? Me Neither.

by Kevin Jon Heller

We have a new challenger in the competition for worst decision by a military commission ever! Judge Pohl has now issued an order in al-Nashiri concluding that Charge IX, Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft, states a violation of the international laws of war. Here is the definition of that “war crime,” 10 U.S.C. § 950t(23):

(23) Hijacking or hazarding a vessel or aircraft.— Any person subject to this chapter who intentionally seizes, exercises unauthorized control over, or endangers the safe navigation of a vessel or aircraft that is not a legitimate military objective shall be punished, if death results to one or more of the victims, by death or such other punishment as a military commission under this chapter may direct, and, if death does not result to any of the victims, by such punishment, other than death, as a military commission under this chapter may direct.

Hijacking or hazarding a vessel is not a grave breach of either the Geneva Conventions or the First Additional Protocol. The Rome Statute does not criminalise hijacking or hazarding a vessel. No international tribunal has ever prosecuted the hijacking or hazarding a vessel as a war crime — not the IMT, not the ad hocs, not the ICC. The ICRC’s study of customary IHL does not mention hijacking or hazarding a vessel — although it does note that both the US Naval Handbook (Vol. II, p. 3893)  and The Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States (Vol. II, p. 3938) specifically distinguish between hijacking and war crimes. And so on.

How, then, does Judge Pohl somehow conclude that hijacking or hazarding a vessel is a war crime — as opposed to attacking civilians or civilian objects, both of which are war crimes and are both of which are also detailed in al-Nashiri’s charge sheet? By citing the widespread ratification of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.

Seriously. By citing the widespread ratification of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.

Here is what Judge Pohl says (emphasis mine):

The M.C.A. prohibits conduct that “endangers the safe navigation of a vessel.” The similarity between the M.C.A. and the SUA Convention is plain and unambiguous. The SUA Convention proscribes the same conduct the M.C.A. proscribes and of which the Accused is charged… The Commission finds by a preponderance of the evidence the Prosecution has demonstrated the crime of Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft is based on norms firmly grounded in international law and can be plainly drawn from established precedent. Therefore, the Commission concludes the offense of Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft was an international law of war crime at the time the Accused allegedly engaged in the conduct, thus conferring jurisdiction over the offense.

That’s it. That’s Judge Pohl’s entire argument. Never mind that the SUA Convention says nothing about the laws of war, applying equally in armed conflict and peacetime. Never mind that the SUA Convention does not even purport to create an international crime — it is, of course, a suppression convention that simply obligates States Parties to domestically criminalise certain acts. Never mind that, even if it is possible to argue that the widespread ratification of the SUA Convention somehow creates a customary rule prohibiting hijacking or hazarding a vessel (difficult in itself), such a customary rule would still not create “an international law of war crime.”

I hope I don’t need to explain in more detail why the widespread ratification of a suppression convention doesn’t create a war crime. But let’s take Judge Pohl’s methodology seriously. Want to know what other kinds of acts are also war crimes prosecutable in a military commission?

  • Nuclear proliferation (NPT — 190 ratifications)
  • Threatening civilian aviation (Safety of Civilian Aviation Convention – 188 ratifications)
  • Drug trafficking (Illicit Traffic in Narcotics Convention – 188 ratifications)
  • Manufacturing hallucinogenic drugs (Psychotropic Substances Convention – 182 ratifications)
  • Using child labor (Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention – 177 ratifications)
  • Transnational organised crime (Transnational Organized Crime Convention – 176 ratifications)
  • Kidnapping diplomats (Internationally Protected Persons Convention – 176 ratifications)
  • Corruption (Anti-Corruption Convention – 167 ratifications)
All of those conventions are suppression conventions — and each has been much more widely ratified than the SUA Convention. According to Judge Pohl’s logic, therefore, all of those acts are also violations of the international laws of war.In the off chance you needed additional proof that the military commissions are a joke, Judge Pohl’s decision is Exhibit A.

No, the Attack on the USS Cole Did Not Take Place in Armed Conflict

by Kevin Jon Heller

I argued more than three years ago that the US decision to prosecute Abd al-Rahim Abdul al-Nashiri in a military commission was illegitimate, because the attack on the USS Cole did not take place during an armed conflict. (I also pointed out that al-Nashiri was systematically tortured, including through the use of mock executions and waterboarding.) Peter Margulies takes a whack at the contrary position today at Lawfare, and the results aren’t pretty. Here, for example, is what he says about the Tadic test:

Under international law, the existence of a noninternational armed conflict depends on the intensity and duration of violence and the existence of an organized armed group (OAG) responsible for the violence. The OAG criterion is readily met: “core” Al Qaeda ordered the Cole attack and used it as a basis for recruiting more terrorists. The geographic distance between Yemen and Afghanistan is irrelevant given the centrality of Al Qaeda’s planning, which placed Osama bin Laden and Al-Nashiri in the same OAG.

The duration and hostility factors also break against Al-Nashiri. In the MCA, Congress gave military commissions jurisdiction over acts committed before September 11, recognizing that Al Qaeda’s military efforts against the US predated that event. The conduct of the US prior to the Cole bombing buttresses Congress’s finding. In August, 1998, President Clinton responded to the Al Qaeda-planned East African Embassy bombings, which killed over 250 persons, with a wave of Cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan. That sounds pretty intense to me, although the intensity seems lost on Al-Nashiri’s advocates.

Margulies gets the NIAC test right, and he is even likely right that al-Nashiri was part of “core” al-Qaeda at the time of the attack on the USS Cole. But his discussion of the duration and intensity factors is deeply flawed. To begin with, as I have pointed out before (numerous times), the existence of a NIAC is a purely objective question, one determined by the facts on the ground, irrespective of the subjective perception of the parties to the hostilities. The MCA’s jurisdictional provisions are thus irrelevant to whether the US was involved in a NIAC with core al-Qaeda when the USS Cole was attacked.

More importantly, it is clear that no such NIAC existed at the time of the attack…