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Law of War

A Response to Bobby Chesney — Part I

by Kevin Jon Heller

My friend Bobby Chesney has responded at Lawfare to my previous post arguing that Title 50 does not provide the CIA with a public-authority justification to kill Americans overseas. He disagrees with both of the limits on presidential authority to authorise covert action I discussed. I will address the Article II question in a separate post; in this post I want to discuss the “traditional military activity” (TMA) exception to Title 50’s definition of “covert action.” Here is what Bobby writes:

CIA Drone Strikes Don’t Qualify as TMA: As an initial matter, I think one part of his argument depends on a mistaken assumption regarding the meaning of TMA, and that drone strikes do indeed constitute covert action within the meaning of Title 50. The TMA exception to covert action has a complicated and often-misunderstood history, which I recount in detail in this paper (pp. 592-601 especially). The concept was the subject of extensive negotiations between the White House and Congress, ultimately resulting in the following agreement. An activity that otherwise would qualify as covert action would instead count as TMA, thus avoiding the requirement of a written presidential finding and reporting to SSCI and HPSCI, if the following conditions were met.

The operation:

1) was commanded and executed by military personnel, and

2) took place in a context in which overt hostilities either were

(a) ongoing, or

(b) “anticipated (meaning approval has been given by the National Command Authorities for [i] the activities and for [ii] operational planning for hostilities).”

The CIA drone strike program as a general matter almost certainly does not satisfy this test, especially the first prong. This is why it has been long considered by both the Bush and Obama administrations to be covert action, not TMA. If the covert-action statute is capable of conferring the benefits of the public-authority justification, then, it does so here.

I think this response elides the difference between two different situations: (1) where the military wants to use force covertly against al-Qaeda; and (2) where the CIA wants to use force covertly against al-Qaeda. As Bobby’s article brilliantly explains, the TMA language was included in Title 50 because neither President Bush nor the military wanted a presidential finding — with its attendant reporting requirements — to be required every time the military engaged in a covert action. They wanted, in other words, the military to have the right to covertly engage in its traditional warfighting activities without having to acknowledge it was doing so. After much negotiation, Congress ultimately agreed to carve out a category of military actions that would not qualify as “covert actions” for purposes of Title 50, even when not acknowledged: namely, actions that satisfied the two requirements Bobby quotes. The TMA exception thus permits the military to use force covertly against al-Qaeda without a presidential finding as long as the action in question is commanded and executed by the military (check) and takes place in the context of ongoing hostilities (check).

The TMA functions very differently in the context of covert action by the CIA. There is no question that the military is authorised to engage in the kind of activities against al-Qaeda that, when done covertly, may fall under 50 USC 3093.  The military is always authorised to use force against enemy combatants in an armed conflict. The AUMF is simply the latest example of such authorisation. The CIA, however, is in a completely different situation. For all the reasons I discussed in an earlier post, the AUMF does not authorise the CIA to use force against al-Qaeda at all. So the primary question is not whether the CIA can use force against al-Qaeda covertly, but where the CIA gets its authority to use force against al-Qaeda in the first place.

The most obvious answer is, of course, 50 USC 3093

Why Title 50 Does Not Provide the CIA with a Public Authority Justification

by Kevin Jon Heller

As I noted in my previous post, my co-blogger Deborah Pearlstein has suggested that a covert operation authorised by the President under Title 50 of the US Code could function as the CIA’s equivalent to the AUMF in terms of its authority to kill an American citizen overseas. Here is what she has argued:

Here, even if the AUMF was not meant to authorize the CIA to do anything, the CIA has broad authority under Title 50 of the U.S. Code to engage in operations overseas, provided it has relevant Presidential approval and complies with requirements of congressional notification. In other words, I can imagine a straightforward explanation for why such an exception would apply to the CIA as well. That it is not evident from the memo is, I suspect, far more a function of redaction than absence of legal authority.

With respect to Deborah, I don’t think the Title 50 argument works. There is no question that 50 USC 3093 provides the President with considerable authority to authorise “a covert action by departments, agencies, or entities of the United States Government” that he determines “is necessary to support identifiable foreign policy objectives of the United States and is important to the national security of the United States.” But the President’s authority is not unlimited; indeed, Title 50 contains two important restrictions that very strongly suggest the President could not legally have authorised the CIA to kill an American citizen overseas, and particularly not Anwar al-Awlaki.

The first limit is provided by 50 USC 3093(e), which defines “covert action” for purposes of Title 50 generally (emphasis mine):

As used in this subchapter, the term “covert action” means an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly, but does not include 

(1) activities the primary purpose of which is to acquire intelligence, traditional counterintelligence activities, traditional activities to improve or maintain the operational security of United States Government programs, or administrative activities;

(2) traditional diplomatic or military activities or routine support to such activities;

(3) traditional law enforcement activities conducted by United States Government law enforcement agencies or routine support to such activities; or

(4) activities to provide routine support to the overt activities (other than activities described in paragraph (1), (2), or (3)) of other United States Government agencies abroad.

The US government has consistently argued that its drone program, both in Yemen and elsewhere, only targets combatants who are involved in a non-international armed conflict between the US and al-Qaeda. While serving as the State Department’s Legal Advisor, for example, Harold Koh claimed that “as a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda and its associate forces,” and that “in this ongoing armed conflict, the United States has the authority under international law, and the responsibility to its citizens, to use force, including lethal force, to defend itself, including by targeting persons such as high-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks.” Indeed, the new White Paper, like the previous memorandum, emphasizes (p. 12) that “the frame of reference” for whether the CIA is entitled to the public-authority justification regarding Anwar al-Awlaki “is that the United States is currently in the midst of an armed conflict, and the public-authority justification would encompass an operation such as this one were it conduct by the military consistent with the laws of war.”

There is no question, then, that the US government views the use of lethal force against an American citizen who is “a senior leader of al-Qaida or its associated forces” — such as al-Awlaki — as a “traditional military activity.” But if that’s the case, 50 USC 3093(e)(2) specifically prohibits the President from relying on Title 50 to authorise the CIA to engage in such targeting.

Moreover, even if it could somehow be argued that targeting “a senior leader of al-Qaida or its associated forces” in the “armed conflict” between those forces and the US is not a “traditional military activity,” 50 USC 3093(a)(5) would still prohibit the President from authorising the CIA to kill any such leaders who is an American citizen. Section 3093(a)(5) provides that a Presidential finding “may not authorize any action that would violate the Constitution or any statute of the United States.” The foreign-murder statute, 18 USC 1119, is undeniably a “statute of the United States.” The President thus has no authority whatsoever to authorise the CIA to violate section 1119.

That conclusion, it is important to note, is not affected by whether 18 USC 1119 incorporates the public-authority justification — which I believe it does. In order to claim the justification as a defence to a violation of section 1119, the defendant must obviously have the requisite public authority to kill an American overseas. And 50 USC 3093(e)(2) and 50 USC 3093(a)(5) each independently deny the President the right to bestow that authority on the CIA via a covert-action finding under Title 50.

In short, and contrary to the new White Paper, neither the AUMF nor Title 50 provide the CIA with a get-out-of-jail-free card with regard to 18 USC 1119. So unless there is some other source of the CIA’s supposed public authority to kill Americans overseas — and I can’t imagine what it could be — Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing by the CIA is indeed properly described as murder.

NOTE: Marcy Wheeler offers some similar thoughts here.

Guest Post: Possible Responsibility of Palestinian Authority’s Leadership for the Al Aqsah Martyrs’ Brigade Actions During the Gaza Conflict

by Liron A. Libman

[Col. (reserve) Liron A. Libman is the former head of the International Law Department in the Israel Defense Forces. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and teaches criminal law at Ono Academic College.]

Recently, there has been extensive discussion regarding a possible Palestinian application to the ICC, and the various complex legal issues that would arise from such a move. Most commentators have cited internal Palestinian politics as the main reason for Abbas’ foot-dragging with regard to approaching the ICC. In essence, the claim is that since Hamas is committing war crimes against Israel, any Palestinian initiative at the ICC would expose Hamas officials to proceedings before the ICC. In fact, the Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council Ibrahim Khraishi has explicitly stated that Hamas’ launching of missiles at civilian objects constitutes a crime against humanity, warning that this makes an application to the ICC problematic for Palestinians (See here).  What is largely overlooked is the commission of similar acts by armed factions of the Fatah party, particularly the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. This post will briefly explore evidence of Fatah’s involvement in firing rockets at Israeli civilians, and the possible criminal liability of Palestinian Authority (PA) or PLO officials for those attacks.

The Fatah movement dominates the PA. Palestinian President Abbas is also the political leader of Fatah, which is the largest faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Evidence indicates that the Fatah-affiliated Al Aqsah Martyrs’ Brigade, like Hamas, intentionally directs rocket attacks at Israeli civilians and civilian centers. These attacks are not occasional shootings, attributable to a rogue group of militants – they are regular occurrences. This faction does not try to hide its involvement in these incidents; on the contrary, it takes pride in the attacks and even posts videos of them on its official YouTube channel. See also various reports here and here. For example, on July 25th the Brigades claimed responsibility for targeting Beersheba and Ashdod, two Israeli large cities, with three grad missiles. On July 30th, they claimed responsibility for firing 7 rockets into Israeli cities.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note, that the Fatah Al Aqsah Martyrs’ Brigade was supposedly dismantled following President Abbas’s decree in 2007. Now it has re-emerged, declaring an “open war against the Zionist enemy [Israel]” not just in Gaza but also in the West Bank and Israel within the green line. This declaration was accompanied by a list of attacks carried in the West Bank, mostly against military targets but some against civilian settlements. Until now, no response to this development by President Abbas or the PA leadership was recorded [for more details see: here].

From a criminal law point of view, it is clear that those actually firing rockets towards civilians and into civilian centers, whether they are connected to Hamas, Fatah or other Palestinian factions, are committing war crimes enshrined in article 8(2) of the Rome Statute, inter alia intentionally targeting civilians; since these acts were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population, it is also possible that they were committing crimes against humanity.

A more complex and interesting question is that of other persons who may be held responsible for these crimes, most particularly among senior PA officials.  Both factual and legal issues would have to be explored in this regard. (more…)

Who Knew Al-Qassam Was the Most Moral Army in the World?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Today’s Jerusalem Post features an article discussing testimony by a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan that purports to demonstrate the IDF takes more care in avoiding civilian casualties than any other army in the world. Here is a snippet:

Israel’s ratio of civilian to military casualties in Operation Protective Edge was only one-fourth of the average in warfare around the world, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan Col. (res.) Richard Kemp told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Wednesday.

Kemp pointed out that, during the operation, there was approximately one civilian casualty for ever terrorist killed by the IDF, whereas the average in the world is four civilians for every combatant, and that, when taking into consideration Hamas’s use of human shields, this shows how careful the IDF is.

“No army in the world acts with as much discretion and great care as the IDF in order to minimize damage. The US and the UK are careful, but not as much as Israel,” he told the committee.

Kemp, who has long openly admired the IDF’s military tactics and testified in Israel’s favor to the Goldstone Commission following Operation Cast Lead in 2009, visited Israel during Operation Protective Edge.

If this is the metric we should use to determine how much “care” a military takes in its operations, it’s worth noting that the IDF actually runs a distant second in the care department to Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Brigades have killed 65 IDF soldiers and four Israeli civilians during Operation Protective Edge — a staggering 16-1 combatant:civilian kill ratio. According to Col. Kemp’s logic, therefore, the al-Qassam Brigades are at least 4X more careful than the IDF regarding collateral damage to civilians — and 16X more careful than the world army average. Amazing!

NOTE: I do not actually believe that al-Qassam is the most moral army in the world. I provide the analysis to illustrate that absolutely nothing can be learned about how much care a military takes by comparing — in an utterly decontextualised way —  the combatant:civilian kill ratio in one of its operations to the combatant:civilian kill ratios in different conflicts fought by different militaries. To begin with, the jus in bello concept of proportionality is operation-specific: we determine whether an attack is proportionate by comparing anticipated military advantage to expected civilian damage. Inter-conflict comparisons are irrelevant. Moreover, the proportionality of an attack tells us very little about whether that attack was indiscriminate: an indiscriminate attack can involve low civilian casualties, or even none at all, because the concept of discrimination focuses on methods, not on outcomes. Indeed, were it otherwise, it would be difficult to condemn Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli civilians as indiscriminate, given that more than 12,000 rockets have killed fewer than 30 Israelis in the past 13 years. Those rocket attacks are indiscriminate because they cannot distinguish between legitimate military objectives and civilians, not because they have led to high civilian casualties.

It’s Time to Reconsider the Al-Senussi Case. (But How?)

by Kevin Jon Heller

As readers are no doubt aware, Libya has descended into absolute chaos. As of now, there is quite literally no functioning central government:

Libya’s newly elected parliament has reappointed Abdullah al-Thinni as prime minister, asking him to form a “crisis government” within two weeks even as the authorities acknowledged they had lost control of “most” government buildings in Tripoli.

Senior officials and the parliament, known as the Council of Representatives, were forced last month to relocate from the capital to Tubruq in eastern Libya after fighting broke out between the Dawn of Libya coalition, led by brigades from the city of Misurata, and rival militias based at the city’s international airport.

Since then the airport has fallen to the Islamist-affiliated coalition and Tripoli appears to have slipped almost completely out of the government’s grip.

Mr Thinni’s administration said in a statement posted on its Facebook page late on Sunday night that it had lost control of Tripoli and that its officials had been unable to access their offices, which had been occupied by opposition militias.

“We announce that most ministries, state agencies and institutions in Tripoli are out of our control,” said the government. Some state buildings had been occupied by armed groups and staff, including ministers and undersecretaries, had been threatened and prevented from entering, it said.

“It has become difficult for them to go to their offices without facing either arrest or assassination, especially after several armed formations announced threats against them, attacked their homes and terrorised their families,” the statement added.

The collapse of the Libyan government comes less than five weeks after the ICC Appeals Chamber unanimously decided that the case against Abdullah al-Senussi was inadmissible. In its view at the time — to quote the summary of the admissibility decision — “the case against Mr Al-Senussi is being investigated by Libya and… Libya is not unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation.”

Whatever the merits of the Appeals Chamber’s decision at the time — and they’re limited — the situation on the ground in Libya has obviously rendered it obsolete. It is now impossible to argue that the Libyan government is “able” to effectively prosecute al-Senussi, no matter how willing it might be. The Court thus needs to reconsider the admissibility of his case sooner rather than later.

Fortunately, the drafters of the Rome Statute anticipated just such a situation. Art. 19(10) specifically provides that  “[i]f the Court has decided that a case is inadmissible under article 17, the Prosecutor may submit a request for a review of the decision when he or she is fully satisfied that new facts have arisen which negate the basis on which the case had previously been found inadmissible under article 17.” The OTP should submit such a request as soon as possible; whatever hesitation it once had about forcefully asserting the admissibility of the case, there is now no possible justification for not trying to take control of it.

But what about al-Senussi? Can he challenge the inadmissibility decision? It’s a very complicated issue — but I think the best answer, regrettably, is that he cannot…

Israel’s Indiscriminate Attack on Shujaiya

by Kevin Jon Heller

On the record, US officials invariably defend even the most indefensible IDF uses of force in Gaza, most often parroting the Israeli line that the IDF does everything it can to spare civilian lives and that Hamas’s use of human shields is responsible for any innocent civilians the IDF does kill.

When speaking anonymously, however, those same officials tell a very different story.

Exhibit A: an absolutely devastating new article in Al Jazeera America about Israel’s destruction of Shujaiya in Gaza, which involved 258 IDF artillery pieces firing 7,000 high-explosive shells into the neighborhood, including 4,800 shells in seven hours. I’m not sure I’ve ever read quite such damning statements about the IDF’s tactics, going far beyond John Kerry’s widely reported sarcastic comment that the attack was “a hell of a pinpoint operation.” Here is a snippet from the article:

Artillery pieces used during the operation included a mix of Soltam M71 guns and U.S.-manufactured Paladin M109s (a 155 mm howitzer), each of which fires three shells per minute. “The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible,” said the senior U.S. military officer who spoke with me about the report. “It’s not mowing the lawn,” he added, referring to a popular IDF term for periodic military operations against Hamas in Gaza. “It’s removing the topsoil.”

“Holy Bejesus,” exclaimed retired Lt. General Robert Gard when told the numbers of artillery pieces and rounds fired during the July 21 action. “That rate of fire over that period of time is astonishing. If the figures are even half right, Israel’s response was absolutely disproportionate.” A West Point graduate, who is veteran of two wars and now the Chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Gard added that even if Israeli artillery units fired guided munitions, it would have made little difference.

[snip]

Senior U.S. officers who are familiar with the battle and Israeli artillery operations, which are modeled on U.S. doctrine, assessed that, based on the rate of artillery fire into Shujaiya overnight Sunday, IDF commanders weren’t precisely targeting Palestinian military formations, as much as laying down an indiscriminate barrage aimed at “cratering” the neighborhood. The cratering operation was designed to collapse the Hamas tunnels discovered when IDF ground units came under fire in the neighborhood. Initially, said the senior U.S. military officer who spoke with me about the military summaries of IDF operations, Israel’s artillery had used “suppressing fire to protect their forward units, but then poured in everything they had — in a kind of walking barrage. Suppressing fire is perfectly defensible — a walking barrage isn’t.”

The Israelis’ own defense of their action reinforced the belief among some senior U.S. officers that artillery fire into Shujaiya had been indiscriminate. That’s because the Israelis explained the civilian casualty toll on the basis that the neighborhood’s non-combatant population had been used as “human shields” because they had been “ordered to stay” in their homes by Hamas after the IDF had warned them to leave.

“Listen, we know what it’s like to kill civilians in war,” said the senior U.S. officer. “Hell, we even put it on the front pages. We call it collateral damage. We absolutely try to minimize it, because we know it turns people against you. Killing civilians is a sure prescription for defeat. But that’s not what the IDF did in Shujaiya on July 21. Human shields? C’mon, just own up to it.”

As I said, stunning stuff. And utterly damning of the IDF — the “most moral army in the world.” It’s just a shame the US government won’t be more open with what it really thinks about the IDF’s actions. Perhaps then Israel wouldn’t feel free to use force against Palestine with impunity.

NOTE: After reading the article in Al Jazeera America, make sure to read Shane Darcy’s important post at EJIL: Talk! discussing a recent decision by Israel’s Supreme Court that upholds the legality of collective punishment.

IHL’s Era of Application?

by Duncan Hollis

Today marks the 150th Anniversary of the signing of the first Geneva Convention — the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.  12 States signed it on August 22, 1864, and the treaty went on to have 57 parties before being replaced by later Geneva Conventions in 1906, 1929 and 1949.  The ICRC is using the occasion to make a call for more action on international humanitarian law and to spread knowledge about that law more generally (including a 4 minute video on the Rules of War in a Nutshell).  

It’s interesting to think about the full arc of IHL that this anniversary represents. It seems we’ve gone from decades of iteration — where States and others worked to hammer out what rules actually exist — to what is now much more an era of application.  Today’s IHL debates (many of which we’ve hosted here in recent weeks) regularly revolve around where, when and how specific rules apply to particular cases.  Or, they debate which rules exist only in treaty form versus those that have the status of customary international law.  Even in areas of new technology, the prevailing effort is to explain how existing rules govern by analogy (see, e.g., the Tallinn Manual).  These are all important and even laudatory causes.  But it does leave me with a question:  Is the corpus of IHL now largely complete, or should we expect another round of law generation akin to the Geneva Convention projects of 150 and 75 years ago?  Simply put, is there any new IHL to be made, and, if so, what should it be?   

Okay, This Time Britain Really Has Killed Terrorism (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last November, I wrote a post entitled “Terrorism Is Dead, and Britain Has Killed It.” I chose that title because I couldn’t imagine a conception of terrorism more absurd than the one argued by the British government and accepted by a Divisional Court: namely, that David Miranda’s mere possession of documents illegally obtained by Edward Snowden qualified as terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2000.

I obviously need to expand my imagination.

Why? Because the British government’s is now arguing that merely watching the video of James Foley’s execution is terrorism. From the Telegraph:

Viewing or sharing the harrowing video of James Foley’s beheading online could be regarded as a terrorist offence, Scotland Yard has warned.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said specialists from the Counter Terrorism unit were continuing to examine the footage in order to look for clues as to the identity of the suspected British jihadist but said the public should refrain from viewing the video.

In a statement a spokesman said: “We would like to remind the public that viewing, downloading or disseminating extremist material within the UK may constitute an offence under Terrorism legislation.”

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe explained that while viewing the video was technically a crime, his officers would be more focused on tracking down those who shared the footage or glorified it.

Um, no — viewing the Foley video is not “technically a crime.” Foley’s execution is a horrific act by a horrific organisation. But there is absolutely no plausible argument that merely watching a video of it qualifies as terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2000 — not even in light of the awful Miranda judgment. We can see why by quoting the UK Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation‘s summary of that case:

What the Miranda judgment reveals is that the publication (or threatened publication) of words may equally constitute terrorist action. It seems that the writing of a book, an article or a blog may therefore amount to terrorism if publication is “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”, “designed to influence the government” and liable to endanger life or create a serious risk to health or safety.

There are two obvious problems with considering the mere act of watching the Foley video an act of terrorism. First, watching the video is not “liable to endanger life or create a serious risk of health or safety,” as required by s 1(2) of the Terrorism Act 2000 — unless, of course, we think that anyone who watches it will somehow magically be transformed into an ISIS terrorist. Second, although I don’t understand why anyone would want to watch the savage murder of an innocent person, individuals are clearly not watching the video “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” or because they intend “to influence the government.” So no, watching the Foley video does not qualify as a terrorist act under s 1(1).

Nor does merely watching the Foley video violate any of the substantive offences in either the Terrorism Act 2000 or the Terrorism Act 2006. (Section 1(1) is not an offence in itself; it provides the definition of terrorism for the substantive offences.) In terms of the Terrorism Act 2000, it’s not “support” under s 12, because that section requires the defendant to have “invite[d] support for a proscribed organisation.” It’s not “use and possession” under s 16, because that section, like s 1(1), requires the specific intent to promote terrorism. It’s not “possession for terrorist purposes” under s 57, because merely having the Foley video on a computer (which streaming does not even involve) does not “give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.” And it’s not “collection of information” under s 58, because an execution video, though disgusting, is not “a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”

Merely watching the Foley video also does not run afoul of the Terrorism Act 2006. Section 1 criminalises “encouragement of terrorism,” but it applies only to those who “publish” a statement that encourages “the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism.” Watching a video is not publication. For similar reasons, watching a video does not qualify as “dissemination of terrorist publications” under s 2 — not even in light of s 2(2)(f), which criminalises possessing a terrorist publication “with a view to its” dissemination.

In his most recent report, the Independent Reviewer wrote that “[a] statutory definition [of terrorism] so broad that the enforcement authorities resort to their own rules of thumb in order to make sense of it is unhelpful.” I think the Metropolitan Police’s argument about the Foley video makes his point.

NOTE: I have updated the post in response to Adrian Hunt‘s excellent comment below, which deserves to be read in full.

Guest Post: Attacks on Schools–What about International Law?

by Kristin Hausler and Robert McCorquodale

[Kristin Hausler is an Associate Senior Research Fellow in Public International Law and Robert McCorquodale is the Director of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law. The views expressed here are those of the authors and not of BIICL.]

On 30 July, a school operated by a UN agency in the Jabalia refugee camp, north of Gaza City, was shelled by the Israeli army, killing at least 16 people and injuring more than 100.On 3 August, the Israeli army bombed another Gaza school run by the UN, this time in Rafah, where over 2,000 displaced Palestinians were sheltering. This attack reportedly killed at least 10 individuals. There have also been reports that Hamas has been storing weapons in schools. Can attacks on schools, teachers and students ever be legitimate under international law?

International humanitarian law applies, in its entirety, to international armed conflicts, while some of its key principles apply also to non-international (internal) armed conflicts. All the parties to the current armed conflict in Gaza and other armed conflicts, no matter if they qualify as state or non-state actors, are, at the very least, legally bound by the rules of customary international humanitarian law. The key rules are the distinction between civilians and those taking a direct part in hostilities, and between civilian and military objects. Deliberate attacks on civilians are prohibited. Therefore, students, teachers and all other civilians who may be located in a school are protected as long as they do not take an active part in the hostilities. In addition to deliberate attacks, indiscriminate attacks, which do not distinguish between civilian and military targets, such as those consisting of area bombardments over densely populated areas or those conducted with imprecise weapons that are not able to target military objectives with sufficient precision, are prohibited. Disproportionate attacks which cause excessive harm to civilians are also prohibited.

In the same way as individuals are protected if they do not take part in hostilities, schools are protected from attacks because they do not serve a military function. While some buildings, such as hospitals, benefit from special protection under international law, this is not the case for schools. The protection of schools from attacks ceases if they become military objectives, which occurs when they are used for military purposes and effectively support military action, such as to store weapons or to station troops. Such use should be discouraged.

Deliberately placing civilians in or around military objects amounts to using civilians as ‘human shields’, which is prohibited under customary international law. If schools are used solely as shelters for civilians, they remain civilian objects. In case of doubt about the military nature of an object, the building in question must be presumed to be civilian. At all times, any party to a conflict must minimize the risks of civilian casualties and injuries, as well as minimize the risks of damage or destruction of civilian objects by taking all possible precautionary measures in the conduct of military actions.

In addition, parties to a conflict also have a duty to respect human rights within their borders, as human rights continue to apply during armed conflicts. States exercising effective control over territories beyond their borders are also bound by their human rights obligations on those territories. Both Israel and Palestine are parties to human rights treaties that protect the right to education and protect children’s rights. Therefore, the use of schools for military purposes, which is likely to threaten the provision of education, may also amount to a human rights violation on the part of the state responsible to provide education.

Through the application of international criminal law and after appropriate investigation, the perpetrators of international crimes may be held individually responsible. In relation to both international and non-international armed conflicts, the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) establishes that intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population, as well as intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to education, are war crimes. However, the ICC can only prosecute crimes if the alleged perpetrator is a national of one of its State Parties, if the crime was committed on the territory of a State Party, or if the matter is referred by the UN Security Council. While Israel has signed the ICC Statute, it has never ratified it, and Palestine’s declaration accepting the ICC jurisdiction was not accepted when it was made.

It is also important that those, including the injured and the relatives of the victims, who have suffered harm as a result of those attacks are provided with adequate reparations. States responsible for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law are under an obligation to provide adequate reparation, even if their actions were committed extra-territorially. For example, the schools that have been destroyed must be repaired so that the right to education continues to be provided.

Elsewhere, schools, pupils and teachers have been the objects of acts of violence in recent times, including, for example, in Nigeria, where Boko Haram conducted targeted shootings at schools and abducted female students, and in Pakistan, where the Taliban attempted to kill student and activist Malala Yousafzai. All of these attacks highlight the need to uphold the international legal provisions protecting education, as has been shown by BIICL’s research on Protecting Education in Insecurity and Armed Conflict. If a state and a people are to have long-term sustainable peace and development after an armed conflict, then there is a great need for education now and in the immediate future. Furthermore, the right to education is an enabling right, empowering access to other human rights and to meaningful participation in society. It is a right deserving of all our protection, at all times.

 

MH17 Should Be Framed as Murder, Not as a War Crime

by Kevin Jon Heller

It has become quite common to describe the downing of MH17 as a war crime. In late July, for example, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that “[t]his violation of international law, given the prevailing circumstances, may amount to a war crime,” More recently, William Burke-White has said that, for framing purposes, “[t]he time has come for governments and international organizations to call the attack on MH17 a probable war crime.” 

[I]f whoever launched the missile did so with the intent of killing the civilian passengers aboard MH17, the act was unmistakably a war crime.

Even if the objective was to strike a Ukrainian transport aircraft, the act likely constitutes a war crime. Fundamental to the law of war, including the law applicable in non-international armed conflicts, is the principle of distinction – the requirement that fighting parties distinguish between civilian and military targets. In the words of the International Committee of the Red Cross, that duty of care includes doing “everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives.”

In this case, many steps could easily have been taken to differentiate MH17 from a military-transport plane, including visual identification (perhaps with binoculars), radar-signature analysis, and a check of the civilian aircraft transponder-code broadcast. If, as seems likely, these basic steps were not taken, even an accidental strike on MH17 would constitute a war crime.

If the Ukrainian separatists did indeed intend to kill civilians, Bill and Navi Pillay are absolutely right to describe the attack as a war crime — in this case, murder and/or intentionally directing attacks at civilians or civilian objects (to use the Rome Statute’s terminology). But everything we know to date about the attack indicates that the separatists honestly believed MH17 was a Ukrainian military transport, not a civilian airplane. If so, that changes the legal assessment of the attack considerably. The attack would still qualify as murder under domestic law — but it would not qualify as a war crime, under either the Rome Statute or the jurisprudence of the ICTY. (The latter likely representing the customary definition of the war crimes of murder and attacking civilians or civilian objects, which most states would apply in a prosecution based on universal jurisdiction.)

Let’s go in order. The problem with describing the attack on MH17 as a war crime under the Rome Statute is Article 32(1), which provides that “[a] mistake of fact shall be a ground for excluding criminal responsibility only if it negates the mental element required by the crime.” The actus rei of the war crime of murder and the war crime of intentionally directing attacks at civilians or civilian objects each include a circumstance element: the individuals attacked must qualify as civilians (or as otherwise protected persons). The relevant mens rea for circumstance elements is knowledge, pursuant to Art. 30(3) of the Rome Statute: “For the purposes of this article, ‘knowledge’ means awareness that a circumstance exists.” Black-letter criminal law provides that an honest mistake of fact negatives any mens rea that requires subjective awareness. So if the separatists honestly believed they were attacking a Ukrainian military transport, they were not aware that they were attacking civilians. In which case they could not be convicted of either the war crime of murder or the war crime of intentionally directing attacks at civilians or civilian objects.

The result is no different under the ICTY’s jurisprudence, even though the ICTY applies a lower mens rea to the war crimes of murder and attacking civilians. A complete discussion of the issue is beyond the scope of this post; suffice it to say here that an accused will be responsible for either war crime only if he was reckless toward the possibility that the objects of his attack qualified as civilian. (Dolus eventualis in civil-law terminology.) Recklessness is a subjective mental state in the ICTY’s jurisprudence; as the Trial Chamber noted in Brdjanin, specifically in the context of murder, “the threshold of dolus eventualis entails the concept of recklessness, but not that of negligence or gross negligence.”” Like the ICC, the ICTY recognizes mistakes of fact. As a result, the separatists could not be convicted of either the war crime or murder or the war crime of attacking civilians under ICTY jurisprudence if they honestly believed they were attacking a Ukrainian military transport: although that belief might have been negligent, even grossly negligent, its honesty meant that they were not subjectively aware they were attacking civilians.

The bottom line is that the accidental downing of civilian airplane based on an honest belief that the airplane was a military objective is not a war crime. Failing to take adequate precautions may violate IHL, but it is not criminal. The downing of MH17, therefore, should be framed not as a war crime but as murder.

Final Thoughts on the Bar Human Rights Committee’s Letter

by Kevin Jon Heller

Kirsty Brimelow QC, the chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) — and a colleague of mine at Doughty Street Chambers — has responded to my position on the 2009 Declaration, as recounted by Joshua Rozenberg in this Guardian article. Here is the relevant paragraph:

Neither Rozenberg’s opinion piece nor academic he relies upon, Kevin Heller, cite the text of the 2012 decision in support of their positions. This is hardly surprising given that the decision does not in fact “formally reject” the 2009 declaration.

Although I stand behind my claim that the OTP “formally rejected” the 2009 Declaration in its 2012 decision, Kirsty correctly points out that I did not cite the text of the decision. So I think it’s useful to summarise the text and quote it where appropriate:

[1] The 2009 Declaration purported to accept the Court’s jurisdiction over the situation in Palestine on an ad hoc basis, retroactive to 1 July 2002 (para. 1).

[2] Per Art. 15 of the Rome Statute, the OTP initiated a preliminary examination “in order to determine whether there was a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation” (para. 2).

[3] The OTP stated that the first step in that inquiry was to determine whether it had jurisdiction over the events in Palestine. In that regard, it noted that “only when such criteria are established will the Office proceed to analyse information on alleged crimes as well as other conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction” (para. 3)

[4] The OTP pointed out that only a “State” can accept the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis under Art. 12(1) of the Rome Statute (para. 4), which meant that the key issue with regard to the Declaration was whether Palestine qualified as a State (para. 5).

[5] The OTP concluded that it did not have the authority to decide whether, as a matter of law, Palestine was a State; that responsibility was “for the relevant bodies at the United Nations or the Assembly of States Parties” (para. 6).

[6] The OTP acknowledged that numerous states had acknowledged Palestine’s statehood and that Palestine had applied for membership as a State in the UN, but insisted that although the UN application was relevant, “this process has no direct link with the declaration lodged by Palestine” (para. 7).

[7] The OTP said it “could in the future consider allegations of crimes committed in Palestine” if the statehood issue was “eventually” resolved by the UN or ASP (para. 8).

Although the decision is not the picture of clarity, I still think it qualifies as a “formal rejection” of the 2009 Declaration. The Declaration formally requested the OTP accept jurisdiction and investigate the situation in Palestine. The OTP opened a preliminary examination, as required by the Rome Statute, but then ended that examination at the first step, concluding that it did not have jurisdiction over the events in question because Palestine could not establish that it was a State. That’s a rejection, even if the OTP — to use a common-law phrase — dismissed the Declaration without prejudice.

My guess is that paragraph 8 is the crux of the disagreement between the BHRC experts and me. They are reading it as a statement that the OTP would essentially hold onto the Declaration until the UN or ASP clarified Palestine’s status as a state, at which point it could then advance the preliminary examination. It’s possible — but I think the OTP would have said as much if that’s what paragraph 8 meant. I read the paragraph as making clear the OTP was rejecting the Declaration without prejudice to a later ad hoc declaration — a reading, not incidentally, that seems to square with Fatou Bensouda’s recent statement that the OTP won’t act without a new Declaration or Palestine’s ratification of the Rome Statute.

I also want to make clear that I disagree with Rozenberg’s statement that the BHRC “is at best naive, and at worst misleading, for suggesting [the] legal situation is beyond doubt.” I don’t think there is anything naive or misleading about the letter, even though I disagree with it. These are very difficult issues, over which reasonable people can disagree. And there is, of course, nothing wrong with advocates advocating.

Finally, I want to sincerely apologise to the BHRC for revealing that I had been asked to sign the letter. Although I waited for the letter to appear publicly before commenting on it, I should not have mentioned that I had been approached.

Guest Post: More on Morsi’s Shadow on Palestine’s ICC Efforts

by Eugene Kontorovich

[Eugene Kontorovich is a Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law.]

Rumors and speculation about a Palestinian ICC bid continue to abound. However, news accounts about the process behind the PA’s consideration of the issue underline the point I made in a prior post that based on the Morsi precedent, Abbas could not accept the Court’s jurisdiction. I will elaborate on that here, and address some comments about my argument (partly concurred in by Kevin) about the relevance of the Morsi matter to a Palestinian referral.

In a meeting last week Abbas sought “written consent to join the ICC” from other Palestinian factions. According to another account Abbas has a draft acceptance letter, and is “waiting for signature from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.” If the PA needs the written consent - not just a political nod- from the Gaza–based factions, it strongly supports the view that the PA government does not have full power to accept jurisdiction on behalf of Palestine, especially for Gaza.

Some might say that if the government is divided and both possible claimants to full powers agree, then any defect is cured (this may be why Abbas wants written authorization).  The argument does not work: the sum of governmental authority is greater than its parts. To accept ICC jurisdiction, especially after the Morsi matter, it must be clear which particular government is in control, and it must be that government that accepts jurisdiction.

The reason to require government control over a state for ICC jurisdiction is it is that government that will be responsible for enforcing the treaty. A joint signature raises myriad intractable problems. Who will ultimately be carrying out the obligations of the treaty? Abbas would presumably not mind signing over authority over Israeli crimes, but then not cooperate with the court in investigating Hamas crimes, saying he has no control there.

If all factions give written consent to join, who has authority to terminate membership?

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