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Law of War

The PTC’s Bizarre Request for Additional Information About Afghanistan

by Kevin Jon Heller

As Patryk Labuda noted earlier today on twitter, the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) has ordered the OTP to provide it with additional information concerning the investigation in Afghanistan. Here are the key paragraphs of the order:

3. The Chamber observes that the Prosecutor seeks authorisation to initiate an investigation for crimes committed on the territory of Afghanistan from 1 May 2003 onwards, as well as crimes committed within the context of the situation in other States Parties from 1 July 2002 onwards.2 However, the supporting material provided, particularly in relation to the structure, organisation, and conduct of the Afghan Forces – collectively referred to by the Prosecutor as Afghan National Security Forces or Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (“ANSF”) – mostly falls within the time period 2011 to 2014. Further, little to no information has been provided regarding the structure and organisation of the Islamic State operating in Afghanistan, also refer red to as “Daesh” or “Islamic State Khorasan Province”3. Similarly, the information provided with respect to the structure of the United States of America (“US”) forces falls mainly within the period of 2001-2008, with regard to interrogation policies of the US forces within the period of 2001-2006 and with regard to the conduct of US forces within the period of 2003-2011.

4. The Chamber is of the view that further information is required for the Chamber’s determination under article 15(4) of the Statute. Accordingly, it orders the Prosecutor to submit to the Chamber the following:

a. Any publicly available report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (“UNAMA”) on the treatment of detainees, apart from the reports from 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017 already submitted;

b. Any publicly available report from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (“AIHRC”) on torture, apart from the report from 2012 already submitted;

c. The United Nations (“UN”) Secretary-General reports to the General Assembly on the topic: “The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security”, from the years 2003, 2004, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017;

d. Any publicly available report from the UN Secretary-General to the General Assembly on the topic “Children and armed conflict in Afghanistan”, apart from the report from 2008 already submitted;

e. Further clarification and information, to the extent possible, about the structure and organisation of the Islamic State operating in Afghanistan; and

f. Further clarification and information, to the extent possible, about the structure of the US forces for the time period after 2008; for the interrogation policies of the US forces for the time period after 2006; as well as for the conduct of the US forces for the time period after 2011.

This is actually the second time that the PTC has asked for more information. On 5 December 2017, it ordered the OTP to provide it with “media reports and article 15 communications concerning allegations attributed to special forces of a number of international forces operating in Afghanistan,” as well as as a list of incidents where, in the OTP’s view, “there is a reasonable basis to believe that crimes falling within the jurisdiction of the Court were committed during military operations conducted by international military forces.”

The first request made some sense, given that the PTC generally asked for information either possessed only by the OTP (the communications) or reflecting of the OTP’s internal analysis of the situation in Afghanistan (the list of incidents). The new request, however, is bizarre. To begin with, there is no reason that the PTC could not obtain the information in the first four categories itself, given that it specifically wants the OTP to provide it with “publicly available” information. I know for a fact that the judges have legal officers and access to google. Any reasonably competent researcher could obtain the relevant reports in an hour or so.

A similar criticism could be offered of category five — assuming that the request is not based on the PTC’s belief that the OTP has non-public information about the structure of IS — as well as of the first two requests in category 6. After all, the OTP’s information about interrogation policies comes largely from publicly available sources such as the summary of the Senate Torture Report.

The final request in category 6 — about the conduct of US forces after 2011 — makes some sense, given that the PTC is basically asking the OTP to justify its conclusion that there is a reasonable basis to believe US forces are responsible for mistreating detainees. But I share Patryk’s confusion about why the PTC thinks it needs that information to decide whether to authorize the Afghanistan investigation. Art. 15(4)’s “reasonable basis to proceed” standard is anything but onerous. Such a basis exists, according to Art. 53, as long as the available information (1) “provides a reasonable basis to believe that a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court has been or is being committed”; (2) admissibility is not an issue; and (3) there are no “substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve the interests of justice.” There is no question that the OTP’s request for authorization satisfies requirements 1 and 3, and it cannot seriously be argued that complementarity — the first aspect of the admissibility requirement — counsels against opening the Afghanistan investigation. As the request itself notes, none of the relevant parties (the Afghan government, the US government, and the armed groups) have have investigated or prosecuted those most responsible for international crimes in Afghanistan.

Which leaves gravity, the other aspect of admissibility. The only plausible interpretation of the PTC’s order is that it does not think it can assess the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan without the requested information. But that makes little sense. Can it be seriously maintained that the collective actions of the Afghan military between 2011 and 2014, the actions of the Taliban and IS since 2003, and the actions of US forces and the CIA between 2003 and 2011 are not sufficiently grave to warrant a proprio motu investigation? I dare anyone to read the OTP’s superbly argued and documented 181-page request for authorization and reach that conclusion. (Especially when Afghanistan is compared to, say, the Burundi investigation, which the PTC had no trouble authorizing.)

To be sure, that does not mean the OTP has provided sufficient information concerning the actions of all of the parties at all of the relevant times. But that is where the final clause of Art. 15(4) comes in (emphasis mine):

 If the Pre-Trial Chamber, upon examination of the request and the supporting material, considers that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation, and that the case appears to fall within the jurisdiction of the Court, it shall authorize the commencement of the investigation, without prejudice to subsequent determinations by the Court with regard to the jurisdiction and admissibility of a case.

If the OTP brings a case against an individual whose criminal responsibility cannot be properly assessed without additional information of the kind the PTC wants, it can demand that information when the defendant challenges admissibility or the OTP seeks confirmation of charges. There is no reason why the PTC should demand that information now.

I have little doubt that the OTP will quickly comply with the PTC’s order. But there is no legal or evidentiary reason why it should have to. The PTC already has more than enough information at its disposable to authorize the Afghanistan investigation.

No, There Is No International Legal Basis for the “Bloody Nose” Strategy

by Kevin Jon Heller

At Lawfare yesterday, two law professors at West Point defended the US’s right to attack North Korea if it tests another nuclear weapon or fires another missile into Japanese waters:

North Korea is extraordinarily close to becoming a . This very real possibility has reportedly resulted in the United States debating a limited military strike dubbed the “bloody nose” strategy. In effect,  would allow for a timely and proportional response against North Korean sites in the event of another nuclear test or missile launch. For , such a strike might include using force to target a North Korean missile site or a military base. The hope would be that such a strike would “” and “illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior” without “igniting an all-out-war on the Korean Peninsula.”

In the authors’ view, “[t]here is a strong argument such a strike would be lawful” either as collective self-defense of Japan or as individual self-defense by the US.

I disagree.

The fundamental problem is that “another nuclear test or missile launch” would not qualify as an armed attack sufficient to give rise to the right of either collective or individual self-defense. The authors make no attempt to explain how another nuclear test would be an armed attack — which is not surprising, given that previous tests have all been on North Korean territory (with terrible consequences for North Koreans). And here is their argument concerning another conventional missile launch:

More difficult is determining whether North Korea’s current behavior justifies the limited military strike proposed in the “bloody nose” strategy. Consider, for example, another North Korean test in which it launches an unarmed missile into Japanese sovereign territory. Arguably, a test rocket without armed explosives is merely a delivery system, not a “weapon.” On the other hand, such a rocket is capable of causing “” and thus could be construed as a “weapon.” According to the and the , a “[b]ombardment by the armed forces of a State against the territory of another State, or the use of any weapons by a State against the territory of another State” is an act of aggression. Such a North Korean missile launch would seem to fall within this definition and could  as an armed attack.

On the contrary, such an interpretation would not be reasonable — even if we accept the idea that an unarmed missile is a weapon. Tom Ruys has carefully analysed state practice concerning when a de minimis attack qualifies as an armed attack for purposes of self-defense. Here is his conclusion (p. 155; emphasis mine):

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.

The attack that the authors imagine — an unarmed missile fired into Japan’s territorial sea — is precisely the kind of attack that is not “capable of resulting in destruction of property or loss of lives.” That attack thus cannot give rise to the right of self-defense. Indeed, even the source that the authors cite, Karl Zemanek’s entry “Armed Attack” in the Max Planck Encyclopedia of International Law, rejects their insistence that an unarmed missile fired into Japan’s territorial sea could “reasonably be interpreted as an armed attack.” Here is what Zemanek says about de minimis attacks (emphasis mine):

In sum, it is submitted that regardless of the dispute over degrees in the use of force, or over the quantifiability of victims and damage, or over harmful intentions, an armed attack even when it consists of a single incident, which leads to a considerable loss of life and extensive destruction of property, is of sufficient gravity to be considered an ‘armed attack’ in the sense of Art. 51 UN Charter.

The authors’ claim that the US would be entitled to act in “collective self-defense” in response to an “armed attack” in the form of an unarmed missile fired into Japan’s territorial waters is also problematic. Here is their argument:

The 1960  of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan states “[e]ach Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.” This treaty may provide a basis for the United States’ to engage in a limited retaliatory strike. One could argue that, pursuant to the 1986  out of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United States would have to obtain Japan’s affirmative consent before engaging in a strike against North Korea in collective self-defense. However, Article 51 certainly does not refer to any such prerequisite, and the ICJ’s conclusion in Nicaragua is . On a more practical note, it is highly unlikely  a collective self-defense strike by the United States.

It is not clear why the authors believe that Japan would not need need to specifically consent to “collective self-defense.” There are two possible interpretations of their argument: (1) the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation automatically provides the US with the consent it needs to “defend” Japan in case of an armed attack; (2) collective self-defense never requires the consent of the attacked state. The authors’ criticism of the Nicaragua judgment implies that they take position (2). As Ruys explains, however, state practice — from Jordan in 1958 to South Vietnam in 1965 to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 — indicates that collective self-defense is lawful only when the state with the right of individual self-defense requests it (pp. 88-89):

This brings us to the third and decisive reason why the conception of collective ‘defence of the other’, endorsed by the ICJ and a majority of legal scholars, holds the upper hand over the ‘defence of the self’ approach: customary practice provides virtually no support either for the requirement that a proximity relationship should exist, or for the idea that collective self-defence may be exercised absent the approval of the actual victim State. On the contrary, practice convincingly shows that a State which is the subject of an attack has a legal right to ask for military assistance.


In sum, in each case, what was deemed crucial was whether the actual victim State had a right of individual self-defence, and whether it approved of the actions of the assisting State. Of course, the assisting State will most often have some sort of interest in responding to the victim’s request; States seldom engage in military action out of pure altruism. Yet, practice makes clear that a proximate relationship is not a legal criterion; only the victim State’s approval is.

The stronger argument, then, is that the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation would automatically provide the necessary consent for US to engage in “collective self-defense.” Aurel Sari raised this possibility on Twitter last night. I am not convinced that the Treaty eliminates the need for Japan’s consent to armed force being used on its behalf. In particular, Art. IV provides that “[t]he Parties will consult together… at the request of either Party, whenever the security of Japan or international peace and security in the Far East is threatened,” which seems to contemplate acts of self-defense being undertaken only with the specific agreement of both Japan and the US. But Aurel’s argument must still be taken seriously, and it provides the only coherent basis for the authors’ position on collective self-defense.

(As an aside, I find very unconvincing the author’s casual assertion that “it is highly unlikely  a collective self-defense strike by the United States.” On the contrary, I think Japan would be quite likely to oppose the US responding to a unarmed missile attack by using force — even relatively restrained force — directly against North Korea. A North Korean response would be more likely to target Japan than the US. So Japan would have every incentive not to consent to “collective self-defense” in such a situation.)

Finally, I find very unconvincing the author’s insistence that the US is close to having an individual right of self-defense against North Korea:

Even without another missile targeting Japan, the United States could arguably rely on its own Article 51 individual right of self-defense to justify a “bloody nose” strike. While somewhat controversial, the United States interprets the individual right of self-defense to allow for a preemptive-but-proportional  when the need to do so is . In other words, if the United States determines North Korea’s behavior indicates a forthcoming attack it can act in self-defense before absorbing the first blow.

North Korea’s recent activities help support a preemptive self-defense argument. Despite extensive efforts by the international community, including through , and , North Korea continues to defiantly test powerful nuclear weapons and launch ballistic missiles. Furthermore, it has gone to great lengths to conceal its nuclear testing program by creating underground facilities and intricate . This behavior, coupled with North Korea’s pattern of  and  against the United States and other nations, makes a preemptive use of force seem more and more . As the North Korean threat increases and non-military measures are exhausted, it becomes reasonable to believe that the last opportunity for the United States to act is fast approaching.

There is no question that the US would have the right to act in self-defense to prevent an imminent attack by North Korea — anticipatory self-defense. But the authors seem to adopt an understanding of self-defence’s necessity requirement that goes well beyond the traditional Caroline standard of imminence, according to which the need to act must be “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” They specifically argue for preemptive self-defense, a term that the US traditionally uses to describe self-defense against attacks that are not imminent.(The Bush doctrine is an example.) And they invoke the “last opportunity to act” test, which is not necessarily inconsistent with anticipatory self-defense, but can easily be interpreted to allow for preemptive self-defense, as Adil Haque nicely explains here.

If the authors are endorsing a view of self-defense that does not require an imminent attack, their position is clearly wrong. Here is Ruys again (pp. 336-38):

[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.

By contrast, if the authors believe that an imminent attack is required but want to define “imminent” to include the “last opportunity to act” test,” they are not necessarily arguing for an unlawful version of self-defense. It depends on how broadly they interpret “last opportunity to act.” An acceptably narrow definition of the test does, however, seem inconsistent with the authors’ insistence that “[a]s the North Korean threat increases and non-military measures are exhausted, it becomes reasonable to believe that the last opportunity for the United States to act is fast approaching.” To begin with, although there is certainly cause for concern, North Korea does not seem particularly close to having the technology necessary to attack the US mainland with a nuclear missile. Moreover — and more importantly — despite its belligerence and bluster, there is little evidence that North Korea actually wants to attack the US, much less intends to do so as soon as possible. North Korea has long had the ability to launch a conventional attack against numerous US installations overseas — and probably now has the ability to reach the US mainland with a conventional missile. Yet no such attack has ever taken place.

Is it possible that, at some point, the US will have the legal right to attack North Korea in self-defense? Absolutely. But that time is not now — even if North Korea fires another unarmed missile into Japanese territorial waters. And there is little reason to believe that the “last opportunity for the United States to act is fast approaching.” Any argument at present for the “bloody nose” strategy, therefore, is both legally unsound and profoundly counterproductive.

A Problematic Take on the Lubanga Trial

by Kevin Jon Heller

Justice in Conflict has a guest post today from a scholar who has written a book about the Lubanga trial. I think the post makes some excellent points about the problems with the trial. But I have serious reservations — acknowledging that I have not read the book — about the author’s take on why the trial did not focus on sexual violence:

Another [serious flaw] was the Chamber’s embargo on sexual violence. The matter of sexual violence loomed large in the trial not by its presence but by its absence. It became the trial’s trademark shame, a conspicuous token of the Chamber’s failure to place the substance of the Ituri province’s tragedy above the Chamber’s perpetual legal jousting. For most of the trial the Chamber did what it could to hear as little as possible about how frequently young women were raped and enslaved.

This is both unfair and mistaken. There is one reason, and one reason only, that sexual violence did not figure more prominently in the trial: Luis Moreno-Ocampo decided not to charge Lubanga with the relevant war crimes or crimes against humanity, choosing instead to focus exclusively on the war crime of conscripting or enlisting child soldiers. Here, for example, is what Patricia Viseur Sellers, a former Legal Advisor for Gender and prosecutor at the ICTY has to say:

Crimes of sexual violence were not charged. Such accusations were certainly within the purview of the Prosecutor. The Prosecutor could have brought charges related to sexual violence. Under the ICC Statute, enslavement, rape, torture, sexual slavery and inhuman acts are defined as crimes against humanity. In the Lubanga case, charges were brought under Article 8, war crimes, and as such could have included charges of torture, rape, sexual slavery or outrages upon personal dignity.

The Trial Chamber noted that they chose not to amend the charges. The Prosecutor could have amended the indictment at anytime prior to trial or even at a reasonable moment during the presentation of the prosecution case [to include charges for crimes of sexual violence]. The Prosecutor has suggested that to do so would have been detrimental to the due process rights of the accused. However, in the event of granting the Prosecutor’s move to amend, the Trial Chamber could have allowed the accused whatever time he needed to prepare his case in light of additional charges. That is a fairly standard procedure at other international tribunals.

Given Moreno-Ocampo’s decision to charge Lubanga solely with conscripting or enlisting child soldiers, the Trial Chamber had no choice but to limit the amount of testimony the prosecution could introduce regarding sexual violence. The Chamber explained why in paras. 629 and 630 of its judgment:

629. Notwithstanding the conclusions set out above, and given the submissions made at various stages of the proceedings, the Chamber needs finally to address how the issue of sexual violence is to be treated in the context of Article 8(2)(e)(vii) of the Statute. It is to be noted that although the prosecution referred to sexual violence in its opening and closing submissions, it has not requested any relevant amendment to the charges. During the trial the legal representatives of victims requested the Chamber to include this conduct in its consideration of the charges, and their joint request led to Decisions on the issue by the Trial Chamber and the Appeals Chamber (viz. whether it was permissible the change the legal characterisation of the facts to include crimes associated with sexual violence). Not only did the prosecution fail to apply to include rape and sexual enslavement at the relevant procedural stages, in essence it opposed this step. It submitted that it would cause unfairness to the accused if he was tried and convicted on this basis.

630. In accordance with the jurisprudence of the Appeals Chamber, the Trial Chamber’s Article 74 Decision shall not exceed the facts and circumstances (i.e. the factual allegations) described in the charges and any amendments to them. The Trial Chamber has earlier pointed out that “[f]actual allegations potentially supporting sexual slavery are simply not referred to at any stage in the Decision on the Confirmation of Charges”.1810 Regardless of whether sexual violence may properly be included within the scope of “using [children under the age of 15] to participate actively in hostilities” as a matter of law,1811 because facts relating to sexual violence were not included in the Decision on the Confirmation of Charges, it would be impermissible for the Chamber to base its Decision pursuant to Article 74(2) on the evidence introduced during the trial that is relevant to this issue.

Moreover, I think the author’s claim that “[t]he matter of sexual violence loomed large in the trial not by its presence but by its absence” is considerably overstated. Not only did sexual violence figure prominently in both the prosecution’s opening and closing arguments, as the Trial Chamber notes in its judgment, there was also considerable testimony concerning sexual violence during trial. The judgment points out in a footnote (n. 54) that 30 different witnesses, 18 female, 12 male, “referred to acts of sexual violence which they either suffered or witnessed.” And it discusses testimony given by one witness, P-0046, at length. Here is just a snippet of P-0046’s testimony:

890. According to the evidence of P-0046, all the girls she met at the demobilisation centres, except for a few who had been protected by certain women in the camps, told the witness that they had been sexually abused, most frequently by their commanders but also by other soldiers. Some fell pregnant, resulting in abortions; and there were instances of multiple abortions. The witness gave evidence that the psychological and physical state of some of these young girls was catastrophic.

891. The youngest victim of this sexual abuse interviewed by P-0046 was 12 years old. The witness stated that some of those who became pregnant were thrown out of the armed group and ended up on the streets of Bunia. Others went to join their relatives, and although they may have felt they remained part of the UPC, the latter failed to provide them with support. It was difficult to reintegrate them into their families because the girls were stigmatised, and significant mediation was necessary. The witness stated that the children provided her with a clear account of systematic sexual violence in the camps.

Should the Lubanga trial have included specific crimes of sexual violence? Absolutely. But the absence of those charges and the (relatively) limited testimony concerning sexual violence cannot be attributed to the Trial Chamber. If you are looking for someone to blame — and you should be — blame Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

NOTE: I have not addressed the victims’ efforts to add sexual-violence charges in the middle of trial. If you want to blame the Chamber for rejecting that request, fair enough. But I have already explained why I think the Chamber was correct.

Don’t Forget About Hors De Combat — Shovel Version

by Kevin Jon Heller

On January 9, Command Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, posted a rather incendiary statement on Facebook about the future of ISIS:

ISIS needs to understand that the Joint Force is on orders to annihilate them. So, they have two options should they decide to come up against the United States, our allies and partners: surrender or die!

If they surrender, we will safeguard them to their detainee facility cell, provide them chow, a cot and due process.

HOWEVER, if they choose not to surrender, then we will kill them with extreme prejudice, whether that be through security force assistance, by dropping bombs on them, shooting them in the face, or beating them to death with our entrenching tools.

The statement has provoked horror in many quarters — particularly concerning Troxell’s colourful endorsement of beating ISIS members to death with shovels. That horror, in turn, has elicited a long post at Lawfare from Laurie Blank explaining that, in fact, beating ISIS members to death with a shovel is completely lawful. As Blank explains, IHL permits lethal force to be used against combatants, a shovel is neither an indiscriminate weapon nor one that necessarily causes superfluous injury and/or unnecessary suffering, and there is no obligation not to attack a combatant who has not affirmatively surrendered. Blank thus concludes that “[i]n fact, though gruesome, the use of a shovel to kill an enemy in combat is entirely within the bounds of the law.”

As far as it goes, Blank’s analysis of IHL is absolutely correct. Her conclusion, however, overlooks one of the most basic principles of IHL: namely, that it is categorically unlawful to intentionally attack — or continue to attack — a combatant who is hors de combat because he is unconscious or incapacitated by wounds. As Jonathan Horowitz pointed out a few days ago at Just Security, essentially anticipating Blank’s post, once an ISIS fighter was rendered unconscious or incapacitated with a shovel, it would violate IHL and be a war crime to continue to hit him:

Someone who surrenders is only one of three types of fighters that the laws of war protect from attack, known as hors de combat. The other types are 1) anyone who is in the power of an adverse party (such as an unwillingly captured ISIS fighter) and 2) anyone who is defenceless because of unconsciousness, shipwreck, wounds or sickness. What this means is that, similar to ISIS fighters who surrender, these others types of people hors de combat also can’t be legally bombed or “beaten to death with entrenching tools.” If an ISIS enemy fighter is wounded and unconscious, he surely can’t surrender. But U.S. soldiers equally can’t then legally shoot that unconscious fighter in the face. Doing so would be a war crime.

Blank knows  all three prongs of the hors de combat rule (Art. 41(1) of the First Additional Protocol) as well as anyone, which is what makes her failure to discuss that critical limitation on the lawfulness of using a shovel as a weapon all the more odd. Words don’t just matter in war, as Jonathan powerfully notes. They also matter in popular discourse. It would be very unfortunate if a reader not particularly familiar with IHL came away from Blank’s post thinking it is “entirely within the bounds of the law” to beat an ISIS fighter — or any combatant — to death with a shovel. That isn’t the law, nor should it be. Just as you can’t beat an ISIS fighter to death with a shovel after he has surrendered or been captured, you can’t beat him to death with a shovel after he is unconscious or incapacitated.

Trump’s Threat of Destruction of North Korea and Proportionate Defensive Force: An Assessment of Similar Observations in Legal Scholarship and US Practice

by Sina Etezazian

[Sina Etezazian serves as Digest of State Practice Regional Coordinator for the Journal on the Use of Force and International Law. He recently completed his PhD at Monash University. His doctoral thesis was titled “Ambiguities Regarding the Necessity and Proportionality Criteria for the Exercise of Self-Defense in International Law”. In 2017, he won the 2016 Monash Law School Students’ Publication Prize for his article providing a detailed reappraisal of proportionate self-defense].

On 19 September 2017, President Donald Trump stated in the UN General Assembly that if the US is “forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea”. This assertion appears to have constituted one of the most expansive positions the United States has taken during the UN era with regard to the scope of the right of self-defense in international law. The predominant academic view (see footnotes 84–5 and accompanying text) is that, like physical acts, individual statements that can be attributed to states may amount to evidence of state practice for the purpose of identifying and modifying a rule of customary international law. Trump’s threat of force against North Korea can thus be understood to provide evidence of US practice concerning the right of self-defense.

Of course, it is difficult to argue that Trump’s statement only applies to North Korea’s army. In contrast, this statement appears to extend to the whole country, including the North Korean civilian population, while it is clear that the law governing the use of force does not underpin such a broad reading of proportionate self-defense. However, Let us suppose for the sake of argument that President Trump only meant the destruction of North Korea’s army, rather than that of the whole country. This post clarifies why even this possible interpretation of Trump’s statement would run counter to the nature of the self-defense proportionality requirement.

It is worth emphasizing at the outset that – setting aside domestic criminal and constitutional law – the conduct of targeted killing and US officials’ legal arguments, as will be discussed in this post under the section “Drone strikes and non-compliance with proportionality since 2002”, implicate three distinct regimes in international law: international humanitarian law (IHL), international human rights law (IHRL) and international law on the use of force (the jus ad bellum regime) (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. See also here and here). However, this post will focus only on the last; it does not entail a discussion of IHL and IHRL. Similarly, as this post aims to discuss the relevant practice exclusively in the context of the proportionality requirement, it does not address the content of the two other principal requirements for taking forcible self-defensive measures: “necessity” and “armed attack”. Nor does it aim to consider the concepts of “consent” and “intervention by invitation” and their applicability to the given situation.

Trump’s statement and Dinstein’s formula

Trump’s reliance on possible annihilation of North Korea’s army as being lawful defensive force, when examined through the lens of jus ad bellum proportionality, appears consonant with Yoram Dinstein’s observation that, in the event of a “war of self-defense”, the victim state not only is allowed to halt the large-scale attack that provoked the response but is permitted to engage in forceful measures to seek the “the destruction of the enemy’s army” (p 262). It is, however, noteworthy that Dinstein distinguishes small-scale armed attacks from an unlawful forcible action that prompted a “war of self-defense”. Accordingly, in relation to a minor forceful action, which typically occasions an “on-the-spot-reaction”, proportionality requires that the responding state must use force such that it causes harm only to the same degree as the initial attack. Yet, when a “war of self-defence” begins as a lawful response to an “all-out” aggression, Dinstein argues, the victim state is entitled to pursue the absolute military defeat of the attacker – that is, “the destruction of the enemy’s army”. This is because, in Dinstein’s view, there is no foundation in state practice for the idea that jus ad bellum proportionality continues to exist in a situation involving war, and that it has to be monitored constantly throughout the entire conflict. For this reason, Dinstein reiterates that, once a “war of self-defense” lawfully commences, given that a state is responding to a large-scale armed attack, that response need not be halted before the attacker is defeated except when the Security Council issues a binding resolution calling for the termination of hostilities (p 262). Dinstein’s characterisation of the destruction of the attacker’s army as being proportionate defensive force may thus be equated with Trump’s statement on 19 September 2017 with respect to the annihilation of North Korea’s army and the US’s right of individual and collective self-defense.

The nature of the self-defense proportionality requirement and Trump’s statement

As I have argued elsewhere, despite arguments to the contrary (see, for example, here p 235, 237, 240, 258, 262, 282; see also here), a detailed analysis of state practice concerning the self-defense proportionality requirement makes it possible to identify that states have mostly discussed this requirement in the context of the defensive aim of halting and repelling an attack. In other words, while in many instances of claimed self-defense actions, such as the 1964 UK aerial raid against Yemen, the 1965 US intervention in the Dominican Republic, Israel’s 1972 incursion of Lebanon and Russia’s 2008 action against Georgia, the reacting states have found the extent of the response and the level of casualties to be a relevant factor in measuring proportionality (see, for example, UN Doc S/PV.1108 (6 April 1964) pp 7–8, 10; “The Situation in the Dominican Republic”, Yearbook of the United Nations (1965) p 142; UN Doc S/PV.1644 (27/28 February 1972) p 19; UN Doc S/PV.1643 (26 February 1972) pp 3, 15; UN Doc S/PV.5953 (10 August 2008)), it appears that they have, to a certain degree, done so in the context of the purpose of halting the initial attack. This is demonstrated – at least to some extent – by the reaction of several states to the Israeli measures allegedly aimed at Hezbollah bases in Lebanon in 2006. Most of the states rejecting Israel’s assertion of self-defense highlighted the disproportionate nature of the action by reference to the extent of the harm inflicted on the infrastructure of the Lebanese state and the number of civilian victims. However, when the matter was addressed more thoroughly, it became clear that some states were underscoring the gravity of Israel’s action to argue that it had been disproportionate to the objective of self-defense, being the mere repelling of the initial attack (and possibly the impending attacks). Thus, the Russian representative expressed the view that “the scale of the use of force, the casualties and the destruction demonstrate that the actions stated for achieving this purpose go far beyond a counterterrorist operation” (UN Doc S/PV.5493 (Resumption 1) (21 July 2006)). Qatar took a similar stance, stating:

Everyone is fully aware of the grave situation in the Middle East; it has suddenly deteriorated as a result of the excessive use of military force by Israel against Lebanon on the pretext of self-defence. However, the greatest majority of the targets of the Israeli military aggression have been civilian targets, including the international airport, residential buildings, factories, power plants, bridges, highways and even grain silos and houses of worship. This leaves no doubt that the aim of this war goes beyond its stated objective (UN Doc S/PV.5493 (21 July 2006) 14).

Moreover, when reflecting on the definition of aggression during 1970–71, many states likewise clarified that jus ad bellum proportionality requires an action undertaken in self-defense to be weighed against the purpose sought by that action (See, for example, UN Doc A/AC. 134/SR. 67–78 (19 October 1970) pp 88, 89, 90, 89; UN Doc A/AC.134/SR. 79–91, (7 June 1971) pp 43–44). Similarly, Uganda, in the Armed Activities case in 2005, evaluated the proportionality of its response with respect to the objective of defense in the circumstances (Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo v Uganda) rejoinder submitted by the Republic of Uganda, pp 121, 124–25. See also ibid, memorial of the Democratic Republic of Congo, para 5.26; ibid, reply of the Democratic of Republic of Congo, para 3.159). It is worth noting that this position was shared by the states parties in the Oil Platforms case (Oil Platforms (Iran v US) counter-memorial submitted by the United States of America, p 141; ibid, rejoinder submitted by the United States of America, para 174–76), although Iran ultimately shifted to a more quantitative approach. Furthermore, in 2008, Panama employed the same reasoning when contending that Russia’s response against Georgia was “disproportionate” to what had been stated as the legitimate aim of self-defense in the given case, namely “protecting Russian citizens” from the initial attack by Georgian troops (UN Doc S/PV.5953 (10 August 2008) p 15). It therefore appears that, based on an assessment of customary international law, a precise equivalence between the magnitude of the attack and the harm done is a not a necessary aspect of the proportionality criterion for defensive force. Nevertheless, a response that has brought about much greater loss and damage than the initial attack is unlikely to be viewed as proportionate self-defense, as it has clearly gone beyond the mere halting of the attack.

Returning to Trump’s threat of force against North Korea and his self-defense justification in the General Assembly, it thus seems clear that the overthrowing of the attacker’s regime or defeating its army would not constitute a proportionate response unless it could be demonstrated that, under the exceptional circumstances of the case, this was the only way to achieve the objective of halting the forceful activities that accounted for the necessity of defense. However, while the destruction of a state’s army might be proportionate to the aim of repelling a nuclear attack by that state, as Kevin Jon Heller observes, it is clear that Trump has threatened to destroy North Korea in response to “any attack” by this country against the US or its partner nations; any such possible forcible action by the US would clearly be disproportionate under the law governing self-defense.

Drone strikes and non-compliance with proportionality since 2002

President Trump explicitly clarified – at least concerning response to a possible attack by North Korea – that the US’s version of proportionate defensive action is predicated upon the notion of the destruction of the attacker’s army. An examination of its recent practice relating to the exercise of the right of self-defense against both states and non-state actors, however, reveals that the US has engaged in disproportionate forcible measures since 2002, when it initiated its first drone strikes beyond the Afghan combat zone.

This can be seen – at least in part – from the position taken by then-Legal Advisor for the US Department of State Harold Koh, who claimed in 2010 that the United States was permitted to carry out drone attacks outside Afghanistan because it was still involved in self-defense operations against the al-Qaeda and Taliban groups in a continuation of Operation Enduring Freedom, which had begun on 7 October 2001. In a similar vein, then-Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan argued in 2012 that because the United States is engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, “it takes the legal position that – in accordance with international law – we have the authority to take action against al-Qa’ida and its associated forces without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time”.

However, the US managed to overthrow the Taliban regime and install an interim government, soon after it claimed defensive force in October 2001 to intervene in Afghanistan. Thus, even assuming that the removal of the Taliban government of Afghanistan could be regarded as proportionate self-defense, because it was necessary to effectively respond to al-Qaeda (for support of this view, see Lindsay Moir, Reappraising the Resort to Force: International Law, Jus ad Bellum and the War on Terror (Hart Publishing, 2010)), the aim of the defensive action had been achieved in the circumstances; this suggests that a separate series of unilateral forcible measures at least against the Taliban had required a separate justification based on Article 51 of the UN Charter. Despite this, the United States has extended its self-defense operations against the Taliban militants based in Pakistan since 2004, without providing a renewed self-defense assertion. It has continued to do so under the Trump administration.

Like Trump’s threat of force against North Korea, Koh’s and Brennan’s reasoning would appear to be based upon Dinstein’s formula of a “war of self-defense”, which maintains that “[t]here is no support in the practice of States for the notion that proportionality remains relevant – and has to be constantly assessed – throughout the hostilities in the course of war”. (For a similar viewpoint concerning John Brennan’s argument and its resemblance to Dinstein’s theory of the “war of self-defense”, see Kevin Jon Heller, “The Use and Abuse of Analogy in International Humanitarian Law” in Jens D Ohlin (ed), Theoretical Boundaries of Armed Conflict & Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2016) pp 252–4.) As regards the proportionality requirement in the exercise of self-defense, Trump’s statement cannot therefore be regarded as a total departure from the manner in which the US has invoked Article 51 to explain its drone strikes targeting alleged terrorists outside Afghanistan.


Trump’s reference to the possible destruction of North Korea’s army as permissible defensive action, coupled with the self-defense justifications advanced for the US’s wide-scale extraterritorial drone program since 2010, may reflect serious attempts to reinterpret and loosen the well-accepted rules on the principle of proportionality to the point of irrelevance. These expansive readings of self-defense, however, have never been endorsed by the rest of the international community or even the majority of them. On the contrary, the requirement of halting and repelling an armed attack still represents the only primary benchmark for the application of jus ad bellum proportionality. As noted above, this position is underpinned by an extensive reexamination of customary international law concerning proportionate defensive force, and such a reexamination provides a convincing rebuttal to the doctrine of a “war of self-defense”.

Some Thoughts on Negotiating a Treaty on Autonomous Weapon Systems

by Maziar Homayounnejad

[Maziar Homayounnejad is currently a PhD researcher at the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London. His research primarily focuses on law of armed conflict aspects of autonomous weapon systems, with a secondary focus on arms control and non-proliferation.]

On November 13-17, 2017, the UN, acting under the auspices of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), convened its first Group of Governmental Experts meeting (GGE) on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS). After three detailed but informal meetings in 2014, 2015, and 2016, there were strong sentiments that mere informative discussion had run its course, and that the time was right to proceed with a more formal mandate, to “explore and agree on possible recommendations on options related to emerging technologies in the area of LAWS”.

Once confirmed, this raised expectations amongst some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that a ban on ‘killer robots’ may follow. However, as other commentators noted at the time, the formal mandate made no reference to negotiating a LAWS treaty, and this was clearly a result of divergent views within the CCW’s membership over how best to deal with LAWS. So, it may have been over-optimistic to expect anything other than continued talks, as a result of this move.

Fast-forward to the first GGE last November, and it remains clear that sharp divisions between States still bedevil the diplomatic process. As Denise Garcia explained in a recent piece, there are at least three groups of States with divergent positions.

  • Those, like China, Russia, and the US, which oppose a ban or any specific regulation in the near-term, but instead want continued talks on more basic issues, like arriving at a proper definition of LAWS.
  • A group consisting mainly of EU States, which advocates a path towards a politically binding agreement where the concepts of ‘autonomy’ and ‘human control’ serve as a foundation for future discussion.
  • The so-called Non-Aligned Movement, which consists of a large number of diverse States, and which tends towards either a ban treaty, or at least moratoria on the production and use of LAWS.

With significant States taking one position, and a group of smaller but much more numerous States going the opposite way, it is difficult to imagine any binding solution in the near-future.

Making matters worse is the rapid and unpredictable pace of technological change, which makes conventional attempts to regulate weapons particularly problematic when applied to LAWS; akin to trying to pin down a moving target. As Paul Scharre writes, much of the technology of AI and autonomy has gone from science-fiction to viable concept, just in the three years since the CCW began informal talks. On the one hand, this should not be a complete surprise, as the “perfect storm of parallel computation, bigger data, and deeper algorithms”, which is giving rise to stronger AI, was apparent even in 2014. Yet, the precise level of success and its sheer speed of arrival was not easily foreseeable back then. Now, neural networks can beat humans at poker and Go, and a genetic algorithm has triumphed over a human fighter pilot in a simulated aerial dogfight. The Report of the GGE also acknowledged this instability (see paragraph 16e of the main Report, and paragraph 29 of Annex II), which formed part of its reasoning for extending formal talks into 2018 (paragraph 17a).

Looking ahead, there are still some significant weaknesses in AI, but the pace and unpredictability of technological progress will very likely accelerate, and this may or may not resolve these shortcomings. In particular, developments in neuroevolution and newer applications of quantum physics in the defense and national security sphere seem set to create major technological disruption. Not surprisingly, this has raised legitimate questions on how best to approach a lagging (and somewhat divided) diplomatic process for regulating LAWS. The question is all the more important, now that the first week of the 2018 GGE has been confirmed and brought forward to February.

One solution – suggested by Scharre, and also several State delegations at the November GGE – is to move the focus away from the technology, and back to the one constant in war: the human. Namely, even if the technology was able to perform every task in the targeting process, what decisions do we believe still require uniquely human judgment, and why? Hence, what role would we still want humans to play in the application of lethal force? This argument is not necessarily new, but was advanced in various forms throughout the earlier informal meetings, not least by London-based NGO Article 36 in its ‘meaningful human control’ concept. The difference now is that it carries greater weight and urgency because of the bewildering pace of technological change, which will likely render any tech-specific instrument obsolete by the time it comes to be ratified.

On the other hand, Rebecca Crootof is less sanguine about a purely tech-neutral approach to LAWS regulation. In a recent Twitter discussion, she noted there are pros and cons to both tech-specific and tech-neutral approaches, and that a robust regime should incorporate both, to address known and unknown issues alike. Conversely, Crootof argued, if we restrict our focus to tech-neutral questions, we lose the opportunity to address the specific known problems.

Accordingly, the dual LAWS problem at the CCW would seem to be a) a deeply divided membership, and b) rapid technological change, which causes uncertainty over the continued viability of any negotiations, and over the extent to which there should be a tech-focus. This arguably calls for a departure from the standard CCW approach to weapons regulation.

In a recent paper published by the Transnational Law Institute at King’s College London, I examine various ways to ensure that LAWS can be developed, deployed and used in compliance with international humanitarian law. Specifically in relation to development (at pages 40-48), I argue in favor of an approach modelled on the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). This imposes a strict and unambiguous ban in Article 1, with a very wide scope of application that appears to spell the death knell for ‘cluster munitions’. Interestingly, the CCM proceeds in Article 2(2)(c) to allow for technical developments, which the chapeau to the Sub-Paragraph presumes will “avoid indiscriminate area effects and the risks posed by unexploded submunitions”. This it does by excluding from the definition of the (prohibited) ‘cluster munition’ weapons that cumulatively possess five specific technical characteristics aimed at improving their reliability and accuracy (see technical criteria). According to the CCM Commentary, these criteria should avoid or sufficiently reduce the likelihood that (sub)munitions will create significant humanitarian problems.

The dual humanitarian problem of cluster munitions (as also gleaned from the second preambular clause) is understood to be “indiscriminate area effects” at the time of use; as well as the “risks posed by unexploded submunitions” when they fail to function as intended, or when they are left abandoned. By articulating these two problems that the subsequent technical characteristics are intended to avoid, the chapeau to Sub-Paragraph (c) serves an important dual role. It provides:

  • A justification for the exclusion of weapons that meet the five technical criteria; and
  • A potential mechanism for determining if these technical criteria function as intended (paragraph 2.120, CCM Commentary).

Namely, the chapeau links the definition of what is prohibited to the humanitarian effects that are the basis for prohibition and, as such, is an important legal innovation. While cluster munitions are not designed to create these humanitarian problems, Paragraph (2)(c) stipulates that (sub)munitions must be deliberately designed to avoid such effects if they are to escape prohibition. Accordingly, the Sub-Paragraph as a whole takes both a design-led and an effects-based approach, via inclusion of the technical criteria and the chapeau, respectively.

Importantly for the 2018 GGE, this turns out to be the most ‘LAWS-relevant’ part of the CCM. To transplant it into a LAWS treaty would enable lawyers to define the legal and humanitarian standards that autonomous technologies must reach to fully comply with IHL, leaving the programmers and engineers to try to build those systems. Should the state of technology fail to reach the prevailing legal standards, there will be a de facto ban on LAWS. Conversely, if and when the relevant technologies are able to perform to those standard, they will potentially be lawful. Accordingly, this approach may also help to allay some of the fears of the ban proponents, while also affording the more hesitant States an opportunity to demonstrate what specific technologies may be consistent with humanitarian standards, while offering genuine military utility; consistent with the well-established precautionary principle.

Thus, by drafting a rule similar to Article 2(2)(c), CCM, a LAWS regulation treaty could bring clarity in several ways.

  • Firstly, it can articulate the humanitarian risks posed by LAWS that are poorly designed, or otherwise not fit for purpose (similar to the CCM’s chapeau). These might include, for example, the ‘risk of indiscriminate attack’, ‘distinction failure’ and ‘insufficient civilian risk mitigation’, amongst others. In turn, this would provide a legal basis for the presumed permissibility of LAWS that are deliberately designed not to pose such risks.
  • Secondly, the rule can set specific technical criteria. Mainly, these will consist of baseline technical requirements for sensory, processing and computational capabilities, which are deemed necessary to obviate the humanitarian risks identified (similar to the CCM’s technical design criteria). However, it can also lay down specific context-based programming requirements (such as ‘conservative use of lethal force’); stipulate appropriate shut-off capabilities; and it can mandate intelligent reversion to remote piloting, where appropriate.
  • Finally, as LAWS are yet to be used in battle, the technical requirements and capabilities can be periodically compared with the statement of humanitarian risks, to ensure that they function as intended (similar to the second role of the Article 2(2)(c) chapeau). If they do not, it may be possible to amend the technical criteria at regular intervals, for example, using evidence-based data presented to a Meeting of State Parties or Review Conference (paragraph 2.38, CCM Commentary). Arguably, even in the intervening periods, there can be a duty on State Parties to do everything feasible to gauge the humanitarian effects of a given LAWS (using onboard sensors), and to refrain from continuing deployments in the face of clear evidence of humanitarian harm.

Of course, another compelling reason for periodic review and amendment of the technical criteria is the rapid and unpredictable rate of change of technical progress, outlined above. It is not inconceivable that the current state-of-the-art in LAWS-relevant technologies might appear relatively basic in five years’ time. Thus, it would be beneficial for the continuous improvement of humanitarian standards to keep the state of technology under review, and to update the technical criteria accordingly; notwithstanding the possibility that extant criteria may already meet the chapeau’s humanitarian standards.

Why the New Weapons Amendments (Should) Apply to Non-States Parties

by Kevin Jon Heller

Although aggression received most of the attention at the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) last month, the ASP also adopted a series of amendments to Art. 8 of the Rome Statute, the war-crimes provision, prohibiting the use of three kinds of weapons in both international armed conflict (IAC) and non-international armed conflict (NIAC):

[W]eapons, which use microbial or other biological agents, or toxins, whatever their origin or method of production.

[W]eapons the primary effect of which is to injure by fragments which in the human body escape detection by X-rays.

[L]aser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision, that is to the naked eye or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices.

Because the weapons amendments were adopted pursuant to Art. 121(5) of the Rome Statute, they will only apply to state parties that ratify the amendments. This is, of course, the effect of the second sentence of Art. 121(5), which caused so much controversy in the context of aggression: “In respect of a State Party which has not accepted the amendment, the Court shall not exercise its jurisdiction regarding a crime covered by the amendment when committed by that State Party’s nationals or on its territory.”

Art. 121(5), however, applies only to states parties. It does not apply to states that have not ratified the Rome Statute. In the context of aggression, that limitation raised the possibility of the Court prosecuting an act of aggression committed by a non-state party on the territory of a state party — something the Court’s normal jurisdictional regime permits for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. To avoid that possibility, the ASP amended the Rome Statute to include a new provision, Art. 15bis(5), that specifically (and also controversially) completely excludes non-states parties from the crime of aggression:

In respect of a State that is not a party to this Statute, the Court shall not exercise its jurisdiction over the crime of aggression when committed by that State’s nationals or on its territory.

I had assumed that no such jurisdictional limitation applied to the new weapons amendments. As Patryk Labuda recently pointed out on twitter, however, the ASP appears to believe otherwise. Here is the second preambular paragraph to the amendments (emphasis mine):

Noting also article 121, paragraph 5, of the Statute which states that any amendment to articles 5, 6, 7 and 8 of the Statute shall enter into force for those States Parties which have accepted the amendment one year after the deposit of their instruments of ratification or acceptance and that in respect of a State Party which has not accepted the amendment, the Court shall not exercise its jurisdiction regarding the crime covered by the amendment when committed by that State Party’s nationals or on its territory, and confirming its understanding that in respect to this amendment the same principle that applies in respect of a State Party which has not accepted this amendment applies also in respect of States that are not parties to the Statute.

The bolded language is intended to exempt non-states parties from the normal jurisdictional regime of the Court. Clause 2 states that if a state party does not ratify the weapons amendments, the Court cannot prosecute the use of a prohibited weapon either when committed by a national of that state or on the territory of that state. Clause 3 then puts non-states parties in the same position as a state party who has not ratified the amendments.

This limitation regarding non-states parties is very odd, because the ASP had every right to make the new weapons amendments applicable to non-states parties. Non-states parties are currently prohibited from using certain weapons on the territory of a state party — those that are criminalized by the Rome Statute as adopted in 1998. The new weapons amendments thus fragment the Court’s jurisdiction over non-states parties: although they cannot use poisoned weapons, asphyxiating gases, and expanding/flattening bullets on the territory of a state party, they are still permitted to use biological, fragmentation, and blinding laser weapons — even on the territory of a state party that has ratified the new weapons amendments.

I see no persuasive rationale for this asymmetry. Exempting non-states parties from the crime of aggression is one thing: aggression is a sui generis crime and was not previously within the Court’s (active) jurisdiction. But the drafters of the Rome Statute had no problem making non-states parties subject to the original war crimes involving prohibited weapons, nor did the 124 states who ratified the Rome Statute have a problem accepting the potential criminal liability of non-states parties. So why should things be any different for the new war crimes? If Russia cannot use napalm (an asphyxiating gas) on Georgian territory, why should it be able to use ricin (a biological weapon) on it?

To be sure, the same exclusion of non-states parties was included in the war-crimes amendments adopted at Kampala in 2010, which criminalized the use of poisoned weapons, asphyxiating gases, and expanding or flattening bullets in NIAC. But that limitation was largely superfluous regarding non-states parties, because the Rome Statute already criminalized the use of those weapons in IAC, the primary type of conflict in which a non-state party can be subject to the Court’s war-crimes jurisdiction. (Transnational NIACs aside.) The limitation is anything but superfluous for the new weapons amendments, because they are specifically designed, inter alia, to criminalize the use of certain weapons in IAC.

I also believe — and this is the reason I have written this post — that the exclusion for non-states parties included in the preamble to the new weapons amendments has no legal effect. The argument is a complicated one, and I have made aspects of it at length in a JICJ article on the legal status of the aggression “Understandings” that were adopted at Kampala in 2010. The basic problem is this: nothing in the amended Rome Statute excludes non-states parties from the new war crimes. That limitation exists solely in the preamble. So it is difficult to see why or even how the judges could enforce it, given that Art. 21(1)(a) of the Rome Statute specifically provides that “[t]he Court shall apply… [i]n the first place, this Statute, Elements of Crimes and its Rules of Procedure and Evidence.” If the judges simply apply the Rome Statute, the Court has jurisdiction over every war crime in Art. 8 that is committed by a non-state party on the territory of a state party — including the new ones.

To be sure, one could fashion a fancy argument for applying the limitation based on Art. 31 of the VCLT, which provides that “[a] treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose” and deems a preamble to be part of a treaty’s context. I would be sympathetic to such an argument, because I think the point of treaty interpretation is to give effect to the intent of the drafters. But that is by no means the dominant approach to treaty interpretation. Most international-law scholars favour a “plain meaning” approach — and the Court seems to, as well. (At least when doing so expands the ambit of criminal responsibility. When it doesn’t, object and purpose tend to take over.)

Moreover, all of the other parts of the Rome Statute also qualify as “context” under Art. 31. And here the aggression amendments are, in my view, not only relevant but dispositive: if non-states parties could be excluded from the normal jurisdictional regime of the Court simply by saying as much in a preamble to an amendment, why did the ASP specifically amend the Rome Statute to exclude non-states parties from the crime of aggression? Perhaps the ASP was just being overly cautious, but that seems unlikely given how carefully almost every word of the aggression amendments was negotiated and drafted. It seems far more likely that the ASP realized — correctly, in my view — that the exclusion had to be included in the text of the Rome Statute to be given force by the judges.

In short, despite what the preamble to the new weapons amendments says, I believe that the OTP now has have every right to charge a national of a non-state party who uses (say) a biological weapon on the territory of a state party that has ratified the amendments — and the judges would have every right to convict the perpetrator of the relevant war crime. The ASP exclusion of non-states parties from the amendments has no legal effect.

NOTE: Dapo Akande has posted at EJIL: Talk! an excellent analysis of the relationship between the new war crimes and customary international law. I completely agree with him — including with his statement that, in practice, excluding non-states parties from the crimes will solve some tricky immunity problems.

Cyber Operations and GCII Obligations to “Respect and Protect”

by Jeffrey Biller

[Jeffrey Biller, Lt Col, USAF, is the Associate Director for the Law of Air, Space and Cyber Operations at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, US Naval War College.]

The use of hospital ships in wartime has always been a contentious issue. Although serving a humanitarian need recognized by most parties, profound suspicion of their misuse led to many attacks against these protected vessels, particularly during the First and Second World Wars. Although some attacks resulted from misidentification, many were quite intentionally targeted. Unrestricted submarine warfare campaigns often included deliberate attacks on hospital ships. One such example was the Soviet hospital ship, the Armenia. On 7 November 1941, a German torpedo bomber attacked the Armenia, sinking her without warning. All but 8 of the 7,000 on board died in the attack.

Although a tragedy by any measure, there were several questions as to her status as a hospital ship. The Armenia was clearly marked with large Red Cross symbols and was certainly being used appropriately at the time. However, she also had light anti-aircraft weapons on board, was under armed escort, and had been previously used in the conflict to transport military supplies. This incident, and many others like it, demonstrated the need to clarify and progress the rules related to the protection of hospital ships in the Second Geneva Convention (GCII). This post, the fourth in a series (see here, here, and here) examining the impact of cyber on the law of naval warfare through the lens of the updated commentary to GCII, analyzes the obligation to “respect and protect” hospital ships and coastal rescue craft, found in Articles 22, 24 and 27, in the light of cyber operations.

First, it should be stated that Article 22’s obligation to respect and protect includes the more specific language that protected vessels “in no circumstances be attacked or captured.” Although the obligation to respect and protect is broader than these specific terms, it is helpful nonetheless as “attack” is an IHL term of art that has been frequently analyzed in the cyber context. Para 1985 explicitly states that the prohibition on attack includes “the use of means and methods that, by whatever mechanisms or effects, severely interfere with the functioning of the equipment necessary for the operation of a military hospital ship, such as so-called ‘cyber-attacks’.” Given that the commentary references the Tallinn Manual’s Rule 70 here, it is helpful to follow the reference for further analysis.

The black letter rule in the Tallinn Manual states that medical personnel and transports, including those vessels identified in GCII, “may not be made the object of a cyber attack.” Recall, cyber attack is the exact phrase used in para 1985. Although not defined in the commentary, Tallinn’s Rule 30 defines cyber attack as “a cyber operation, whether offensive or defensive, that is reasonably expected to cause injury or death to persons or damage or destruction of objects.” It is well understood that the Tallinn Manual is only the opinion of a group of experts and therefore not primary law. However, Rule 30’s definition tracks with the Additional Protocol (I) definition of attack, requiring “acts of violence against the adversary.” Thus, the commentary and the Tallinn Manual appear to agree that cyber operations resulting in injury or death, and (at least) physical damage and destruction, to a protected crew or vessel are prohibited. The logical follow-on question is whether “damage” to a network system includes the pure loss or degradation of functionality. The law here is unsettled and thus the loss of functionality, on its own, cannot be read definitively to qualify as an attack.

However, both the updated commentary and the Tallinn Manual agree the requirement to respect and protect goes beyond attacks. The commentary summarizes the extended obligation to respect and protect in para 1996 as the obligation “to refrain from all actions that interfere with or prevent such ships from performing their humanitarian tasks.” Therefore, cyber operations are prohibited that result in loss or degradation of network functionality necessary to a protected vessel’s performance of its humanitarian function.

Para 1996 does include a qualifier to that protection, referencing the Article 31 allowance for parties to the conflict to “control and search the vessels mentioned in Articles 22, 24, 25 and 27.” This includes the right to “control the use of their wireless and other means of communication” and “put on board their ships neutral observers who shall verify the strict observation of the provisions contained in the present Convention.” These “control and search” provisions are in place “to verify whether their employment conforms to the provisions of Articles 30 and 34 and to the other provisions of the Convention,” as para 2276 puts it. Recognizing that a physical presence in no longer required to verify compliance, para 2277 suggests “innocent employment of these vessels can often be ascertained by other means, at least to some extent, in particular by satellites and other means of reconnaissance.” This could indicate that cyber intelligence operations are appropriate that, while not affecting the functionality of the vessel, are used to verify its compliance with the convention. Indeed, this was the conclusion drawn by the Tallinn Manual’s group of experts in the commentary to Rule 71, governing the requirement to respect and protect computer systems related to medical units and transports.

This analysis leaves open questions regarding several potential categories of cyber operations. For example, cyber intelligence operations not for the purpose of compliance verification, but rather the collection of intelligence regarding associated forces. Another potential is the use of protected naval vessels as a pass through to levy cyber effects against non-protected enemy systems. These and other examples may not explicitly violate the terms of protection in GCII, but nevertheless open the possibility of protected vessels becoming a cyber-battleground. This could divert protected vessels from focus on their missions and raise the likelihood of unintentional damage to network systems vital to the performance of their humanitarian mission. Given the ambiguity present in this aspect of the law, and the importance of protecting humanitarian missions, perhaps the obligation to respect and protect is an area where nations can work together to develop ever-elusive cyber norms.

Cyber Operations and GCII Article 18’s “End of Engagements” Clause

by Jeffrey Biller

[Jeffrey Biller, Lt Col, USAF, is the Associate Director for the Law of Air, Space and Cyber Operations at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, US Naval War College.]

On 27 May 1941, the British battleships King George V and Rodney engaged the German battleship Bismarck, which had been previously disabled by a torpedo attack from aircraft belonging to the British carrier Ark Royal. After almost two hours of fighting, the Bismarck and her 2200 man crew were sunk. As the Bismarck’s escort ship, the Prinz Eugen, had previously detached, the shipwrecked crew was entirely dependent on the Royal Navy for rescue. The British ships Dorsetshire and Maori, acting in accordance with Article 16 of the Convention (X) for the Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of the Geneva Convention, began rescue of the German crew. However, after 110 sailors were rescued a U-boat alarm was sounded, forcing the Royal Navy to break off the rescue. All but five of the remaining German crew were lost at sea.

The obligation under which the British acted to rescue the crew of the Bismarck was expanded in Article 18 the Second Geneva Convention (GCII). In an earlier post, Lt Cdr Peter Barker, RN, analyzed the extent of the obligation placed upon warship commanders to search for and collect the shipwrecked, sick, and wounded following a naval engagement. He correctly identified that the law, contained primarily in Article 18 of GCII, is ambiguous and in need of clarification. This post, the third in a series (see here and here) examining the impact of cyber on the law of naval warfare through the lens of the updated commentary to GCII, examines how the advent of cyber operations introduces an additional element of ambiguity.

Article 18 requires “[a]fter each engagement, Parties to the conflict shall, without delay, take all possible measures to search for and collect the shipwrecked, wounded and sick, to protect them against pillage and ill-treatment, to ensure their adequate care, and to search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled.” Para 1617 of the updated commentary to GCII rightly recognizes that “Article 18(1) is among the most important provisions in the Second Convention,” and that it sets out the obligations flowing from the protections accorded in Article 12. Therefore, a detailed understanding of each element in this article is key to a proper understanding of the entire convention. Here, we look solely at the first element in the light of cyber operations.

The first element makes plain that, unlike land operations, the requirement to tend to the sick and wounded does not arise until following the engagement. This is understandable in the naval context given the increased risk of harm a commander would endure by breaking off an engagement to collect the shipwrecked, wounded and sick. Keep in mind this obligation applies “without discriminating between their own and enemy personnel.” (Para 1618) Furthermore, at the time of GCII’s drafting, naval engagements tended to be very violent, but short-lived affairs. In the case of the Bismarck, the engagement was clearly ended when the ship, her ensign never struck, went under the sea after two hours of fighting. However, for modern navies equipped with advanced long-range weapon systems, including cyber capabilities, the end of the engagement may be more difficult to discern.

In the updated commentary, para 1648 discusses the article’s post-engagement limitation, stating that “unlike in land warfare, there is no requirement to undertake search and rescue activities during an engagement.” The commentary then argues that whereas this element may limit the obligation temporally, it may expand the obligation’s material scope. It reasons that “since the particular engagement will have ceased, this may limit the extent to which a Party to the conflict may invoke security or military considerations as a justification for not undertaking search and rescue activities.” Thus, determining the exact scope of the temporal requirement is vital.

Fortunately, the updated commentary provides guidance on interpreting the temporal clause of Article 18. Para 1655 provides that “the term ‘engagement’ is ‘a battle between armed forces’, i.e. involving the use of methods and means of warfare between military units of the Parties to the conflict.” Pre-empting the question of whether the methods and means are limited to the naval forces, the commentary suggests it “covers any kind of engagement, including from the air or from land but inflicting casualties at sea.” Cyber operations are not explicitly mentioned here, so it is worth discussing whether the cessation of cyber operations, in addition to the conclusion of more traditional kinetic operations, is required to “end the engagement” and initiate potential Article 18 obligations.

First, the commentary’s suggestion that “inflicting casualties at sea” is required for an engagement is most likely poorly worded. It is easy to imagine that ships may be engaged prior to actually inflicting casualties. Prior to her own sinking, the Bismarck sunk the HMS Hood in large part by achieving the “weather gage,” gaining an advantageous position in relation to the enemy prior to opening fire. Therefore, simply because a cyber-operation does not inflict casualties, this should not signal that operations is not part of the overall engagement.

Although the commentary to Article 18 does not refer to cyber operations, they are discussed in relation to the scope of application provisions of Article 2. Specifically, the question asked is whether cyber operations alone can constitute “armed force,” making the Geneva Conventions applicable. Para 277 states that “[i]t is generally accepted that cyber operations having similar effects to classic kinetic operations” would suffice. However, para 278 recognizes the current reality that cyber operations falling beneath this threshold are legally unsettled. It is safe to say that cyber operations achieving a kinetic effect, therefore, would continue the engagement. But what of those cyber operations that effect network systems without achieving kinetic effects?

Until such time as the jus in bello develops more fully in this area, it may be necessary to leave the legal reasoning to a good faith assessment by the ship’s commander. Although this seems initially unsatisfying, it is consistent with the new commentary’s understanding of Article 18. Para 1655 states that “[w]hat constitutes an engagement in any given case will remain context-specific,” and that “those acting on behalf of the Party to the conflict, each at his or her own level of decision-making, will need to make a good-faith assessment as to the moment it becomes possible to take one or more of the measures referred to in Article 18.” Such “good faith assessments” are a common and necessary part of IHL, even if open to occasional abuse.

Given the potential for abuse, what are nations employing cyber operations as part of naval conflicts to do? Parties to a conflict still have a vested interest in ensuring that the shipwrecked, sick, and wounded are recovered and cared for as quickly as possible. The commentary once again provides a potential solution. Para 1651 suggests that opposing commanders reach a “special agreement” on the rescue of those shipwrecked in the sense of Article 6, allowing parties to fulfill Article 18 obligations without fear of attack, adding that “such an agreement may be concluded orally, between commanders on the spot.” Alert commanders will be sure to add prohibitions on cyber-attacks as part of any such agreement.

A Potentially Serious Problem with the Final Decision Concerning Comoros

by Kevin Jon Heller

A couple of days ago, the OTP finally announced what we all expected: that it would not reconsider its refusal to open a formal investigation into Israel’s attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. Dov Jacobs has already offered some thoughts on the lengthy document the OTP has filed with the Court explaining its reasoning — what the OTP nicely calls the Final Decision. I fully concur with Dov’s thoughts (except with his position on retroactive acceptance of jurisdiction), and I write here simply to add one of my own.

To begin with, I think this is the most impressive OTP brief I have ever read — especially given the complexity of the procedural issues that it addresses. It is exceptionally well written and argued. I don’t know who the author is, but she would have made an excellent analytic philosopher. Fatou Bensouda should promote her immediately.

That said, I strongly believe that the Final Decision’s understanding of when the OTP is required to investigate a situation is fundamentally flawed — and will almost certainly come back to haunt the OTP in future preliminary examinations. I have argued, as have most scholars, that situational gravity is a function of all the potential cases in a situation that would be admissible before the Court: the greater the number of prosecutable crimes and the greater their individual gravity, the more situationally grave the situation. To be sure, it is not an easy task to compare the situational gravity of different situations. But I don’t think there a practical alternative, given that the OTP can only investigate a very small percentage of the situations in which admissible crimes have been committed.

The Final Decision, however, appears to take a very different approach. Instead of deciding whether to open an investigation based on the gravity of all the potentially admissible cases in a situation, the OTP seems to believe that it is required to open an investigation as long as even one potential case within a situation would be sufficiently grave to prosecute. Consider the following paragraphs (emphasis mine):

11. Although the Prosecution maintains its view that no potential case arising from this situation would be admissible before this Court—which is the only issue in dispute with the Comoros—this does not excuse any crimes which may have been perpetrated.

332. Consistent with article 53(3)(a) of the Statute and rule 108(3), and based on the above reasoning and the information available on 6 November 2014, the Prosecution hereby decides to uphold the disposition of the Report. There remains no reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation, since there is no reasonable basis to conclude that any potential case arising from the situation would be of sufficient gravity to be admissible before the Court.

This approach, it is worth noting, appears to represent a retreat from the position the OTP took in its initial explanation of why it would not investigate the Comoros situation. Here is paragraph 24 of that document (emphasis mine):

Having carefully assessed the relevant considerations, the Office has concluded that the potential case(s) that would likely arise from an investigation of the flotilla incident would not be of sufficient gravity to justify further action by the Court, in light of the criteria for admissibility 8 provided in article 17(1)(d) and the guidance outlined in article 8(1) of the Statute.

It is possible, of course, that the Final Decision refers to the gravity of “any potential case” instead of “the potential case(s)” not because the OTP’s approach to situational gravity has changed, but because there is only one potential case in the Comoros situation: the attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. But the difference of language is striking — and given the legal and analytic precision of the Final Decision, I find it difficult to believe that its emphasis on whether any individual case would be admissible is simply a slip of the keyboard.

I assume, therefore, that the Final Decision means what it says: the OTP believes it has to investigate any situation in which there is at least one potential case that is grave enough to be admissible. But that is a very problematic position.

To begin with, it leads to precisely the kind of unhelpful dispute we have seen in Comoros situation, where the OTP believes a specific case is not sufficiently grave to be admissible and the Pre-Trial Chamber disagrees. Both the OTP and the PTC have spent a great deal of time during their “judicial dialogue” (Dov’s apt expression) comparing the Mavi Marmara case to the Abu Garda and Banda cases. Here, for example, is how the Final Decision critiques the PTC’s insistence that the Mavi Marmara case is sufficiently grave to be admissible:

77. However, the Request does not address the basis on which the Prosecution considered that “the total number of victims of the flotilla incident reached relatively limited proportions as compared, generally, to other cases investigated by the Office”—in particular, the circumstances of the Abu Garda and Banda cases (which are, in relevant part, identical). Although the majority likewise referred to these cases, it did not consider those particular characteristics.

78. As the Report expressly states, Abu Garda likewise concerned the allegation of “a single attack involving a relatively low number of victims”—but it was “distinguishable” because of “the nature and impact of the alleged crimes”, which were committed against international peacekeeping forces. Accordingly, the attack alleged in Abu Garda differed in nature from the identified crimes aboard the Mavi Marmara. Crimes against international peacekeepers strike at the heart of the international community’s mechanisms for collective security, and thus their direct and indirect victims include not only the peacekeepers and their families, but also the large number of civilians deprived of protection more widely because of the disruption to the peacekeepers’ operations. The Request does not address this distinction. [130]

n. 130 Likewise, the recent Al Mahdi case—solely concerning attacks on property protected under article 8(2)(e)(iv) of the Statute—was considered sufficiently grave to be admissible before the Court, resulting in a conviction. In the context of sentencing, the Trial Chamber stressed that the charged conduct was of “significant gravity”, among other reasons, because 1) the destroyed mausoleums were “among the most cherished buildings” in Timbuktu, an “emblematic city” which “played a crucial role in the expansion of Islam in the region” and which is “at the heart of Mali’s cultural heritage”; 2) the destroyed mausoleums were of proven significance to the inhabitants of Timbuktu not only as a matter of religious observance but also as a symbol and focus of community activity and unity; and 3) all the destroyed sites but one were designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, whose destruction also directly affects “people throughout Mali and the international community.” This same reasoning is applicable, mutatis mutandis, to the question of admissibility.

I don’t find the OTP’s efforts to distinguish the Mavi Marmara case from Abu Garda, Banda, and Al Mahdi particularly convincing. Its selection of factors to highlight strikes me as completely subjective and result-driven. Indeed, when faced with the PTC’s insistence that the message the Mavi Marmara attack sent to the international community — that Israel is willing to use force to maintain an illegal blockade that is causing a massive humanitarian crisis in Gaza — it simply retreats to “well, we disagree, and there is nothing you can do about it”:

80. Indeed, the majority appears simply to disagree with the Prosecution’s view of the weight to be given to… the significance of any ‘message’ sent by the interception of the flotilla itself. Given the Prosecution’s understanding of the proper standard of review under article 53(3)(a), and the absence of a reasoned conclusion that the Report was in these respects incorrect or unreasonable, the Prosecution does not consider it appropriate to depart from its original determination in the Report.

My point is not that the PTC’s gravity analysis is right and the OTP’s is wrong. (Though I do think the PTC has the stronger argument.) My problem is with the OTP’s position that it must investigate any situation in which at least one case is grave enough to be admissible. Debates over case gravity are inevitable when that is the standard for opening an investigation. But they are easily avoided if the OTP takes a more holistic approach to situational gravity, comparing the gravity of different situations by examining all of the potentially admissible cases within them. Even if we assume (as I do) that the attack on the Mavi Marmara is sufficiently grave to be admissible, the overall situational gravity of the Comoros situation (which involves only one case) still pales in comparison not only to numerous other situations under preliminary examination, but even — and more importantly — to the situational gravity of the Palestine situation as a whole. As I have argued previously, the last thing the OTP should do is investigate one very small part of the much larger conflict between Israel and Palestine. If it ever takes the Palestine situation on, it needs to look at crimes committed by both sides throughout Palestinian territory.

There is, however, an even more significant problem with the Final Decision’s standard for opening an investigation: if taken seriously, it will simply overwhelm the OTP’s resources. There may not be even one admissible case in the Comoros situation (because there is only one case), but how likely is it that larger situations, which are the norm, will not contain even one case sufficiently grave to prosecute? Just think about the situations currently at Phase 2 or Phase 3 of the preliminary-examination process: Burundi, Gabon, Iraq, Palestine, Ukraine, Colombia, Guinea, and Nigeria. There may well be complementarity issues in some of those situations that counsel not opening an investigation, but it seems exceptionally likely that each contains at least one admissible case. The Final Decision’s standard would thus seem — barring complementarity concerns — to require the OTP to open a formal investigation in all eight situations. Which is, of course, practically impossible.

Nor is that all. If the existence of even one admissible case is enough to require the OTP to investigate a situation, states will have little problem using referrals (self or other) to achieve nakedly partisan ends. Palestine, for example, could simply refer a single day during Operation Protective Edge in which Israel flattened an entire neighbourhood in Gaza or destroyed a UN school sheltering displaced civilians. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for the OTP to plausibly maintain that those acts are not grave enough to prosecute. So it would have to open an investigation. That makes little sense. Far better for the OTP to simply say that, however grave those specific attacks might be, the overall gravity of the gerrymandered “situation” is not sufficient to investigate in light of the gravity of other situations.

I hope I am wrong about when the OTP believes it is required to open an investigation into a situation. If so, the OTP needs to clarify its position immediately. Because the standard articulated in the Final Decision — the existence of even one case sufficiently grave to be admissible — is simply unworkable.

Cyber POWS and the Second Geneva Convention

by Jeffrey Biller

[Jeffrey Biller, Lt Col, USAF, is the Associate Director for the Law of Air, Space and Cyber Operations at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, US Naval War College.]

Those familiar with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubry-Maturin series of novels (brought to film in Master and Commander starring Russel Crowe) will know that the boarding and seizure of ships was a common feature of naval warfare in the Age of Sail. However, modern naval conflicts rely more on the sinking of ships than their capture. Although the standoff range of most modern weapons weighs against an imminent change of this feature, there is one modern method of warfare that raises the question of capture once again: cyber warfare. This post is the second in a series examining the impact of cyber on the law of naval warfare through the lens of the updated commentary to the Second Geneva Convention (GCII). This first of this series examined the question of whether a crew can be “shipwrecked” within the meaning of GCII for purposes of Article 12 protections. This post takes that scenario one-step further and examines the status of a crew on a ship commandeered by cyber means.

Although indeed more difficult from a technical standpoint, it stands to reason that if a ship could be completely disabled through an offensive cyber operation, those same networked systems could also be controlled by an outside entity. With a high enough level of control, it would functionally turn the ship into a remotely operated vessel, similar to other drone-type vehicles. The first question to ask is whether the analysis differs from a ship disabled by cyber means. This could simply be a situation where the crew is “in peril” and, if they refrain from hostilities, must be afforded Article 12 protections. However, if someone is in control of the ship and could choose to pilot the crew to safety, is it really in peril?

Assuming the crew, for whatever reasons, chooses to stay onboard the ship and not disable it through mechanical means, it is fair to ask if they must be afforded Article 16 protections as prisoners of war (POW), which states that “…the wounded, sick and shipwrecked of a belligerent who fall into enemy hands shall be prisoners of war, and the provisions of international law concerning prisoners of war shall apply to them.” Breaking that article down into its parts, we first examine the phrase “wounded, sick and shipwrecked of a belligerent.” It may be tempting to suggest that, at this point, the crew is not wounded, sick or shipwrecked, so Article 16 would not apply. However, para 1575 of the updated commentary states that:

Although in setting down who is a prisoner of war Article 16 uses the looser formulation ‘the wounded, sick and shipwrecked of a belligerent’ rather than the more technical terms used in Article 13, the definition of prisoners of war in the Second Convention is not meant to diverge from that in the Third Convention.

The Third Geneva Convention (GCIII), Article 4, clearly states that “[p]risoners of war, in the sense of the present Convention, are persons belonging to one of the following categories, who have fallen into the power of the enemy,” and covers those “soldiers who became prisoners without fighting.” Essentially, this means that in whatever manner the sailor comes into the power of the enemy, regardless of being wounded, sick, or shipwrecked, they are now a POW.

The next element is the crux of the analysis, the phrase “who fall into enemy hands.” The obvious difficulty is deciding whether this is possible when the enemy is not physically present. The updated commentary, in para 1568, states that “the phrase ‘fall into enemy hands’ is sufficiently broad to cover capture or surrender.” Here, let us assume the crew has neither chosen to leave the ship nor made an affirmative action of surrender. Although para 1571 of the updated commentary suggests “[n]o active ‘capture’ is necessary,” the enemy certainly seems to have captured the ship, and if the crew is unwilling or unable to abandon the captured ship, are they also captured? The updated commentary makes no further definition, which is understandable. Capture without the physical presence of the enemy is a novel concept with few, if any, analogies.

One analogy is the case of unmanned combat systems, such as drones. If the operator of an attack drone witnesses a group of enemy combatants with weapons dropped and waving a white flag, should those soldiers be considered hors de combat and no longer subject to attack? The lack of ground forces to process as POWs those who surrender has made this question a matter of some debate due to the potential for misuse. The difference in the current situation is the greater potential degree of control exercised over those aboard a ship at sea as opposed to soldiers on the ground. The crew of a ship for which they no longer have effective control is subject to the whims of their controllers while they remain onboard the ship. The crew could potentially be driven into a perilous situation or perhaps even internally detonated if the weapon systems have been accessed.

Given the difficulty of defining what is required for capture without the presence of enemy soldiers, it may be instructive to turn a separate, but related, body of law: international human rights law (IHRL) for assistance. Although unlikely to apply in the current scenario, IHRL can offer a useful insight into what level of control is required for certain protective obligations to attach under international law. For example, the European Convention of Human Rights held in Al Skeini, paras 133 – 140, that the Convention applies extra-territorially either through the exercise of effective control over an area or through the exercise of control over a person by a State agent. In an earlier case, the Court had also held that human rights obligations attach to civilians on board a ship when military forces placed the crew under guard and gained control of the ship’s navigation, thereby exercising “full and effective” control. In Al-Skeini, the court ruled that the “exercise of physical power and control over the person in question” was critical in establishing jurisdiction.

Although “full and effective control” is a human rights concept, it illustrates that physical power and operational control of a ship’s navigational functions are potential factors in determining what level of power is required by enemy forces before obligations are placed upon them under that legal regime. It may be that this level of control can be obtained by the use of cyber means and if it is, then the crew should be considered as POWs with the attendant protections. This brings us to the third element of Article 16: “the provisions of international law concerning prisoners of war shall apply to them.”

What would be the obligations towards a crew on a warship over which they no longer have control? Although these requirements are primarily contained in GCIII, the updated commentary to GCII does spell out certain provisions. Of note, it states in para 1579 that “the time a person is held on board is limited to the absolutely necessary.”

If the potential for POWs to be taken under such circumstances exists, what must navies do to prepare? First, navies looking to employ cyber operations involving gaining control over ships should formulate a plan of what to do with the crew if they remain onboard. The Geneva Conventions place certain obligations on how they are to be treated and States must understand how they will transfer that crew to a more appropriate facility. Second, navies that employ networked systems would be wise to ensure there is a mechanism to revert to mechanical control or formulate clear plans as to their operating procedures in the event of a successful cyber-attack.

Call for Submissions / Nominations: The Francis Lieber Prize

by Chris Borgen

The American Society of International Law’s Lieber Society on the Law of Armed Conflict awards the Francis Lieber Prize to the authors of publications that the judges consider to be outstanding in the field of law and armed conflict.  Both monographs and articles (including chapters in books of essays) are eligible for consideration — the prize is awarded to the best submission in each of these two categories.
Criteria:         Any work in the English language published during 2017 or whose publication is in final proof at the time of submission may be nominated for this prize.  Works that have already been considered for this prize may not be re-submitted.  Entries may address topics such as the use of force in international law, the conduct of hostilities during international and non‑international armed conflicts, protected persons and objects under the law of armed conflict, the law of weapons, operational law, rules of engagement, occupation law, peace operations, counter‑terrorist operations, and humanitarian assistance. Other topics bearing on the application of international law during armed conflict or other military operations are also appropriate.
Eligibility:       Anyone may apply for the article or book prize.  For those in academia or research institutions, the prize is open to those who are up to 8 years post-PhD or JD or those with up to 8 years in an academic teaching or research position. Membership in the American Society of International Law is not required.  Multi-authored works may be submitted if all the authors are eligible to enter the competition.  Submissions from outside the United States are welcomed.
Submission:     Submissions, including a letter or message of nomination, must be received by 10 January 2018.  Three copies of books must be submitted.  Electronic submission of articles is encouraged. Authors may submit their own work.  All submissions must include contact information (e‑mail, fax, phone, address) and relevant information demonstrating compliance with eligibility criteria.  The Prize Committee will acknowledge receipt of the submission by e‑mail. 
Printed submissions must be sent to:
Professor Laurie Blank
Emory University School of Law
1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, Georgia  30322
Electronic submissions must be sent to:
Please indicate clearly in the subject line that the email concerns a submission for the Lieber Prize.
Prize:   The Selection Committee will select one submission for the award of the Francis Lieber Prize in the book category and one in the article category. The Prize consists of a certificate of recognition and a year’s membership in the American Society of International Law.  The winner of the Lieber Prize in both categories will be announced at the American Society of International Law’s Annual Meeting in April 2018. 
In 2017, the winners were:
Book prize:
— Kenneth Watkin, “Fighting at the Legal Boundaries: Controlling the Use of Force in Contemporary Conflict” (OUP 2016)

Article prize:

— Tom Dannenbaum, “Why Have We Criminalized Aggressive War?,” 126 Yale Law Journal (2017)