Archive of posts for category
Law of War

Remembering Mike Lewis

by Chris Borgen

We are very sorry to mark the passing of Professor Michael W. Lewis of Ohio Northern University.

Mike spoke and wrote with rare authority as someone who was not only a leading international law and national security scholar who engaged in broader public discourse (see his many debates, presentations, and interviews), but also as a former Naval aviator and TOPGUN graduate, who had flown F-14’s in Desert Shield and enforced no-fly zones over Iraq.

More than most, Mike appreciated how international law was actually operationalized.

We at Opinio Juris benefited from Mike’s frequent contributions to the discussion, with posts and comments on issues such as the relationship between Additional Protocols I and II,  on various aspects of drone warfare (see, for example, 1, 2, and 3), and on  “elongated imminence” and self-defenseBobby Chesney and Peter Margulies have also posted remembrances about Mike Lewis at Lawfare.

On a more personal note, I remember the first time I met Mike in person, perhaps ten years ago, at a dinner at a national security law conference. He was a great conversationalist, speaking about the need to crystallize key principles of international law in a manner that would be immediately usable by the pilots and flight crews who were actually flying sorties.

His voice was unique and it will be missed.

Is Law Losing Cyberspace?

by Duncan Hollis

The ALL CAPS headline of the last few hours involves news that social security and other identifying information for some 4 million U.S. federal workers was compromised in a cyber exploitation that, if one believes the unofficial finger pointing, came at the behest of the Chinese government.  Of course, it was just yesterday, that the Council on Foreign Relations’ Adam Segal was reporting how China was crying foul over “OceanLotus” a cyber exploitation that counted various Chinese governmental agencies and research institutes among its victims (and where the fingers were pointed back at the United States). And that’s to say nothing of the Snowden disclosures or the tens of millions of people whose personal data has been compromised via data breaches of an ever-expanding list of private companies (e.g., in February 2015 the U.S. health insurer Anthem admitted that up to 80 million people in its databases had their personal data compromised).  Now, maybe such data breach stories are hyperbolic, offering big numbers of potential losses that do not necessarily mean actual data compromises, let alone consequences for the associated individuals.  Nonetheless, the current zeitgeist seems to be the normalization of cyber insecurity.

As someone who believes international law has an (imperfect) role to play in preserving international peace and stability, I find the current scenario increasingly worrisome.  The level and breadth of cyber exploitations suggests a world in which actors are engaged in a race to the bottom of every data well they think might be useful for their own purposes, on the theory that their adversaries (and their allies) are all doing the same.  In such a world, law seems to be playing a diminishing role.

To be clear, domestic law certainly may constrain (or facilitate) a State’s cyber operations, as all the anxiety associated with the expiration of the PATRIOT Act and this week’s passage of the USA FREEDOM Act suggest. For those of us who care about international law, however, it seems increasingly marginalized in the current environment.  We’ve spent much of the last several years, focused on how international law applies to cyber-operations with huge efforts devoted to questions of line-drawing in what constitutes a prohibited use of force in cyberspace under the jus ad bellum or where the lines are for an attack under the jus in bello.  The Tallinn Manual is the paradigmatic example of this (often quite good) work.  More recently, States and scholars have moved on to cyber operations below these lines, with attention shifting in Tallinn and elsewhere to which cyber operations may generate counter-measures and defining when cyber operations violate the duty of non-intervention.

Such efforts have (so far) had relatively little to say on the question of a cyber exploitation that is best characterized as espionage.  With the exception of U.S. efforts to decry “economic” cyber espionage (as opposed to national security cyber espionage), most international lawyers have shrugged their shoulders on the legality of governments (or their proxies) stealing data from other governments or their nationals.  The conventional wisdom suggests intelligence agencies will be intelligence agencies and we should let this play out via diplomacy or power politics.  To the extent international law has long failed to prohibit espionage, the thinking goes, by analogy it should also leave cyber espionage alone.  And if that’s true, international law has little to say about China taking whatever data it can on employees of the U.S. federal government.

Of course, conventional wisdom is often conventional for good reasons.  From a national security perspective, there are important interests that militate against regulating or constraining data collection from abroad.  Yet, I worry that we’re reaching a tipping point where in conceding international law can do little to nothing for the problem of cyber exploitations, we are effectively conceding the rule of law in cyberspace.  It’s understandable that, from a rational perspective, States will want to do as much of this activity as their technical capacity allows.  But, such self-centered policies have generated a dramatic collective action problem.  The current cyber system is certainly sub-optimal, whether you consider it in economic, humanitarian, or national security terms. The economic costs of the status quo are by all accounts growing, whether in terms of losses of data and IP, or the costs of cleaning up after exploits occur.  Similarly, the ability of individuals to preserve their privacy is rapidly diminishing, and the right to privacy along with it.  And, of course, national governments are fighting, and losing, the battle to keep their own data (and secrets) secure.

All of this leads me to ask whether it’s time to revisit the question of how international law deals with data breaches?  I recognize some may say “no” or that after long and careful thought the answer may remain the same.  But, the rising importance and success rates of data breaches across the globe suggests it’s high time for international law to at least engage these questions more closely.

What do others think?  Is international law losing in cyberspace or is there still a chance that it can play a regulatory role over modern cyberthreats, even if only an imperfect one?


Appeals Chamber Fails To See the Forest — Complementarity Edition

by Kevin Jon Heller

Earlier this week, the Appeals Chamber rejected Cote d’Ivoire’s challenge to the admissibility of the case against Simone Gbagbo. The challenge was based on Gbagbo’s 20-year sentence for disturbing the peace, forming and organising armed gangs, and undermining state security. Like the Pre-Trial Chamber, the Appeals Chamber concluded that Gbagbo’s domestic convictions failed to satisfy Art. 17’s “same conduct” requirement, making her case admissible. Here are the key paragraphs:

99. The Pre-Trial Chamber found that the conduct underlying the alleged economic crimes was “clearly of a different nature” from the conduct alleged in the proceedings before the Court, and therefore “irrelevant”.171 The Pre-Trial Chamber further found that according to the documentation provided by Côte d’Ivoire, in particular Annex 8 to the Admissibility Challenge, the alleged conduct was characterised as [REDACTED].172 In view of the description of the alleged acts provided in the material submitted by Côte d’Ivoire, the Appeals Chamber finds that it was not unreasonable for the Pre-Trial Chamber to find this conduct to be of a different nature to Ms Gbagbo’s alleged conduct in relation to the crimes against humanity of murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, persecution and other inhumane acts, on the basis of which the Warrant of Arrest was issued against her by the Court. In addition, Côte d’Ivoire does not explain why “excessively rigid distinction” between the crimes allegedly investigated domestically and those before the Court is erroneous.

100. As regards crimes against the State, the Pre-Trial Chamber noted that in the domestic proceedings it is alleged that Ms Gbagbo [REDACTED].173 The Pre-Trial Chamber further noted that, in the domestic proceedings, “there are references to, inter alia, the allegations of [REDACTED].174 The Pre-Trial Chamber observed that the provisions criminalising such alleged conduct are included in the section of the Ivorian Criminal Code concerning felonies and misdemeanours against the safety of the State, the national defence and the public security.175 The Pre-Trial Chamber concluded that the alleged conduct only includes [REDACTED] and therefore the domestic proceedings in question “do not cover the same conduct” that is alleged in the case before the Court.176 The Appeals Chamber finds that it was not unreasonable for the Pre-Trial Chamber to find, on the basis of the description of the alleged conduct contained in the documents provided by Côte d’Ivoire, read in light of the applicable provisions of the Ivorian Criminal Code, that this conduct, characterised as infringing [REDACTED], is not the same as that alleged before the Court. In addition, as indicated earlier, Côte d’Ivoire does not explain why “excessively rigid distinction” between the crimes allegedly investigated domestically and those before the Court is erroneous.

I have no doubt that the Appeals Chamber’s application of the “same conduct” requirement is correct. But I think it is important to once again ask a basic question about the requirement: what does the ICC gain by insisting that Cote d’Ivoire surrender Gbagbo to the Court to face a second prosecution? 20 years is a significant sentence — five years longer than Lubanga’s, and eight years longer than Katanga’s. Even if the OTP manages to convict Gbagbo, she is very unlikely to receive a substantially longer sentence. So why should the ICC waste the OTP’s precious and overstretched resources by trying Gbagbo again?

My answer, not surprisingly, remains the same: it shouldn’t. The ICC simply cannot afford the kind of hyper-formalism that underlies the “same conduct” requirement. As I have argued elsewhere, the Court should defer to any national prosecution that results in a sentence equal to or longer than the sentence the suspect could expect to receive at the ICC, even if the national prosecution is based on completely different conduct than the ICC’s prosecution.

In fairness to the Appeals Chamber, it’s worth noting that Gbagbo’s attorney challenged the Pre-Trial Chamber’s application of the “same conduct” requirement; she did not challenge the requirement itself. That’s a shame, because I think Gbagbo’s case perfectly illustrates why the Appeals Chamber should jettison the “same conduct” requirement. Would it? Probably not — as I note in my article, the requirement does have a clear textual basis in Art. 20 of the Rome Statute (“upward” ne bis in idem). But the Appeals Chamber has proven remarkably willing to ignore the Rome Statute when it proves inconvenient, so it would have been worth a shot — especially as the “same conduct” requirement is fundamentally inconsistent with the principle of complementarity’s emphasis on the ICC being a court of last resort . At the very least, challenging the requirement would have forced the Appeals Chamber to explain why the requirement’s waste of OTP resources is warranted. I would have liked to read that explanation.

When the Left Shoots Itself in the Foot (IHL Version)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, I made the mistake of relying on an article in Electronic Intifada about a recent speech by Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli Defense Minister. Here are the relevant paragraphs in the article:

Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon on Tuesday said Israel would attack entire civilian neighborhoods during any future assault on Gaza or Lebanon.

Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem, Yaalon threatened that “we are going to hurt Lebanese civilians to include kids of the family. We went through a very long deep discussion … we did it then, we did it in [the] Gaza Strip, we are going to do it in any round of hostilities in the future.”

I probably should have known better than to rely on an article entitled, in relevant part, “Israeli defense minister promises to kill more civilians.” Prompted by a skeptical commenter, I watched the video of Ya’alon’s speech. And the video makes clear that the author of the article, Asa Winstanley, selectively quoted what Ya’alon said in order to make it seem like Ya’alon was advocating deliberately attacking civilians. In fact, Ya’alon was discussing a possible attack on a rocket launcher located in a civilian house and acknowledging that, if the IDF launched the attack, it was clear they were “going to hurt Lebanese civilians to include kids of the family.” The IDF launched the attack anyway, believing that the military advantage outweighed the certain civilian damage.

Bothered by being suckered into making such a significant mistake, I tweeted Winstanley about his selective quotation. Perhaps he had not actually seen the video? His response was disappointing, to put it mildly. Instead of acknowledging his mistake, he repeated the selective quote. I replied that the video made clear Ya’alon was talking about Israel’s proportionality calculation, not deliberate attacks on civilians, and pointed out that civilian damage is permissible under IHL unless the anticipated civilian damage caused by an attack is excessive in relation to the expected military advantage. I also noted that I thought the attack Ya’alon was discussing was still illegal, because in my view killing a number of civilians in order to take out one rocket launcher was disproportionate.

At that point, it’s safe to say, Winstanley simply lost it. Here are some of his tweets, with my thoughts in the parentheticals…

The Fog of Technology and International Law

by Duncan Hollis

[Note: This piece is cross-posted to the SIDIblog, the blog of the Italian Society of International Law, which was kind enough to ask for my views on these topics; for those interested in their other posts (in multiple languages), see here.]


  • War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.

Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege (1832), Bk. 1, Ch. 3.

  • It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur.  But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes. 

U.S. President Barack Obama, April 23, 2015

I arrived in Rome for a month-long visit at LUISS Universita Guido Carli to find a country wrestling with the tragic news of the death of one of its own – Giovanni Lo Porto.  As President Obama himself announced, the United States inadvertently killed Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein, a USAID contractor, as part of a January drone strike targeting an al Qaeda compound in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.   Both aid workers were Al Qaeda hostages; Lo Porto had been kidnapped in 2012, while Weinstein was abducted in 2011.

The story made global headlines for Obama’s apology that the United States had not realized these hostages were hidden on-site, and thus their deaths were a tragic mistake:

As President and as Commander-in-Chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni.  I profoundly regret what happened.  On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.

President Obama directed a “full review” of the strike, and there are calls for other investigations as well, including here in Italy.

Amidst this tragedy – and some of the apparent missteps by the U.S. (not to mention Pakistani) governments (painfully noted by Mr. Weinstein’s family) — there is something remarkable in the Obama statement.  Unlike so many other reports of U.S. errors or controversial programs in recent years (think Wikileaks or this guy), here was the U.S. Government, on its own, declassifying and disclosing the facts surrounding a drone strike that by all accounts appears to have included a major mistake in its execution.  For lawyers, moreover, such disclosures are critical – without them we are left with what I’d call the “fog of technology” which precludes the application of the rule of law in an open and transparent way.

Clausewitz’s concept of the “fog of war” is simple, and well known:  it describes the situational uncertainty that military actors face, their lack of perfect information about an adversaries’ intentions and capabilities (not to mention incomplete knowledge of their allies’ intentions and capabilities).   What looks good on paper before an armed conflict may prove unworkable as the conditions of war – physical hardship, the need for immediate decision-making, emotional strains, etc. – complicate decision-making, and with it, the achievement of military objectives.

I use the term “fog of technology” to identify a similar situational uncertainty that lawyers face when confronting the deployment of new technology.  Simply put, new technology can cloud how lawyers understand the content of law.  Of course, lawyers can assess new technology and find it analogous to prior cases, allowing for what I call “law by analogy”, where the nature or function of a new technology is regulated according to how an analogous technology or function has been regulated in the past.  But the more novel the technology – the more it can function in non-analogous ways, or with effects previously unimagined – the more lawyers may (or at least should) struggle with interpreting and applying the law to it.

Now, the fog of technology can emerge in all sorts of legal systems and all sorts of contexts from 3D printing to nanotechnology to driverless cars.  But President Obama’s explicit reference to Clausewitz makes me think about it in the particular context of warfare itself.  We are very much in a fog of technology when it comes to applying law to modern conflicts, whether it’s the remotely-piloted drone that killed Lo Porto and Weinstein, Stuxnet, or rumors of truly autonomous weapon systems (or “killer robots”).  Which domestic and international legal frameworks regulate the deployment of these technologies?  Does international humanitarian law (IHL) govern these operations, and, if so, does it do so exclusively, or do other regimes like international human rights apply as well?  To the extent a specific regime applies – IHL – how do its rules on things like distinction or neutrality apply to technologies and operations that may have no prior analogues?  More specifically, how does the law treat specific cases – was the killing of Lo Porto and Weinstein, tragic but legal, or was it an internationally wrongful act?

Of course, technology is not the only reason we have such questions.  Indeed, several scholars (most notably Michael Glennon) have identified the idea of a “fog of law.”  The rise of new types of non-state actors such as Al Qaeda continue to generate legal uncertainty; more than a decade after September 11, debates persist over whether and when U.S. counter-terrorism operations fall within a criminal law framework, or, as the U.S. insists, within the laws of armed conflict.   Similarly, when the United States targets and kills a U.S. citizen abroad (such as Ahmed Farouq, the American affiliated with Al Qaeda, who died in the same strike that killed Lo Porto and Weinstein), the question is not so much how the technology did this, but whether the U.S. Constitution regulates such killing.

Still, I think there are features of technology itself that make lawyering in this context significantly more difficult.  My co-blogger Ken Anderson recently summarized a few of the most important aspects in a recent post at the Hoover Institution.  He identifies several commonalities among cyberweapons, drones, and killer robots:  (i) their ability to operate remotely; (ii) their capacity for extreme precision (at least when compared to earlier weapons); and (iii) the diminished ease of attribution.  Of these, I think the problem of attribution is foundational; law will have little to say if legal interpreters and decision-makers do not know how the technology has been deployed, let alone how it functions or even that it exists in the first place.   In such cases, the fog of technology is tangible.

Consider the story of drones and international law. (more…)

Guest Post: Iran’s Relief Ship and the Blockade of Yemen 

by Eugene Kontorovich

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

Iran has announced that it will be sending a ship with humanitarian supplies to Yemen, departing the evening of May 10th. Many parts of the Yemeni conflict raise law of war questions, from the legality of the pan-Arab intervention to questions about the use of force and civilian casualties. The Iranian relief ship puts into focus the blockade maintained by Saudi Arabia and its allies, with logistical and intelligence support from the United States.

Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade of Yemen’s ports from the start of the campaign. Since then, the humanitarian situation has become dire, according to many reports, with significant shortages of medicine, food and water.  (Saudi Arabia also bombed the Sanaa airport to prevent Iranian relief planes from landing.) According to Oxfam, “there is no exit” for Yemen’s 10 million people, half of whom are already going hungry.

Blockade is an entirely valid military tactic, which necessarily puts pressure on the civilian economy and well-being. However, there is a theory, which in recent years has attracted considerable support, that international law prohibits blockades in a non-international armed conflict (NIAC). This limitation on blockade has been discussed almost exclusively in connection with Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Assuming that the Yemeni conflict is a NIAC, as most observers seem to view it (a civil war with foreign assistance to both sides), the Saudi blockade raises the same questions as the Gaza blockade, as Tehran has gleefully noted.

To be sure, considerable authority concludes that blockade is entirely permitted in NIACs. The Saudi blockade gives a good occasion to revisit the debate, which has thus far proceeded with an incomplete account of state practice.

Israel’s blockade of Gaza appears to be the first one where said to be illegal because of the nature of the conflict. In the Gaza context, the illegality argument was based largely on what was said to be scanty affirmative precedent for such actions in such contexts, though a lack of precedents does not normally create a prohibition in international law.

Though it was not mentioned in the extensive discussions of Israel’s Gaza policy, there is not only historical precedent, but also contemporary practice supporting NIAC blockades. In particular, Georgia’s blockade of the separatist Abkhazia region, which has been in effect since 2008. The details of the blockade are murky, in part because it has generated not only no international protest, but also no international interest. It is clear that the blockade has been used to interdict neutral vessels carrying non-military supplies. Indeed, the blockade is so well accepted, that the commentators on the legality of the Gaza blockade appear to have been entirely unaware of it.

Then there is Sri Lanka’s blockade of Tamil-held areas during their decades-long civil war. Douglas Guilfoyle, the author of one of the major analyses of the legality of the Gaza blockade, dismissed the relevance of the Sri Lankan precedent:

Most reported maritime interceptions appear to have occurred with Sri Lanka’s territorial sea or contiguous zone, ostensibly on suspicion the vessels were engaged in smuggling weapons or supplies… The practice certainly involved no assertion of rights against neutral vessels on the high seas.

Unfortunately, this account appears to be mistaken on all major points. The blockade certainly applied to neutral ships carrying food and relief supplies, even under Red Cross emblem. Indeed, the blockade resulted in major shortages of basic necessities. The seizure Guilfoyle points to as being within the contiguous zone was, according to all other news accounts, well outside it (and was in any case after the cessation of hostilities and defeat of the Tamils). Nonetheless, the international community does not appear to even have questioned the legality of this blockade.

In another precedent that has not factored into the NIAC-blockade discussion, Indonesia imposed a naval blockade on East Timor when it invaded the territory in 1975, according to accounts of the conflict. Despite fairly strong international condemnation of the invasion itself, I have not found specific criticism of the legality of the blockade.

Incidentally, in 1992, a  “peace ship” carrying activists, Western politicians, and a slew of journalists was turned back by the Indonesian navy after attempting to symbolically challenge that blockade. In that incident, the ship turned back of its own accord after Indonesian threats to open fire; despite the strong international focus on the incident at the time, no one suggested the illegality of such actions in a NIAC.

There may be other recent state practice that has gone unnoticed as well. The episodes discussed here generated relatively little legal controversy – ironically, permissive precedent is most likely to go unnoticed. (The discussion’s of Israel’s blockade dwelt mostly on the United States blockade of Confederate ports in the Civil War and the France’s blockade of Algeria, rather than more current ones, no doubt because they attracted more attention, and better sourced in English and French publications than the Indonesian, Georgian and Sri Lankan measures.)

The blockades discussed here, including the Saudi one, all appear to proceed without all of the formality of the a traditional international armed conflict blockade; for example, it is not clear that there were formal declarations, and the blockaded enemy does not seem to have been always been recognized as a belligerent. This suggests state practice supports a less legally restrictive blockade regime for NIACs.

Thus if Riyadh and its allies are inclined to maintain the blockade, and intercept the Iranian relief ship, it has a strong legal basis. Of course, the Saudi blockade itself becomes part of the state practice on this issue, and on other blockade issues such as proportionality.  One may have thought that, prior state practice to the contrary, Gaza suggested an interest by some states in changing the rules about blockade in NIACs. The Yemen blockade, in force since late March, has not been denounced as illegal, suggesting that no new rule is taking shape.

In regards to the conduct of the blockade, it is interesting to note that Human Rights Watch today criticized the coalitions conduct of the blockade, in particular urging for allowing in fuel. The report, which is well worth reading for more detail on the naval blockade, paints an absolutely catastrophic picture of the situation in Yemen, with much of the population facing death by hunger, water shortage and associated diseases.

Interestingly, HRW does not challenge the legality of the blockade, or its apparently very narrow list of “free goods” (those permitted to pass the blockade after being subject to inspection). In particular, HRW does not call for the US or the UN to condemn the operation, as it has for other blockades. While HRW interestingly reports that the Saudi’s contraband list is not public (generally a legal problem for blockade), it also does not protest what appear to be its fairly comprehensive scope.

Guest Post: Stephen W. Preston on ‘The Legal Framework for the United States’ Use of Military Force since 9/11’ (ASIL Annual Meeting 2015)–Old Wine in New Bottles

by Elisa Freiburg

[Elisa Freiburg, LL.M. (LSE), is research associate for international law at the University of Potsdam and a doctoral candidate at the University of Heidelberg. Her research focuses on international human rights, development, international criminal law, and the use of force.]

On April 10, 2015, Stephen W. Preston, General Counsel at the United States Department of Defense, delivered a keynote speech at the ASIL Annual Meeting. This speech addressed a vast number of US policy issues and describes the current state of the US understanding of international law on the use of force – an understanding that should worry the international community.

A central issue and starting point of Preston’s speech was the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which had been passed by the US Congress in the aftermath of 9/11 on September 14, 2001, and still, as of today almost 14 years later, continues to authorizes the US President under domestic law to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons” responsible for 9/11  (or those who harbored such organizations or persons), “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States”. In 2009, the Obama Administration filed a memorandum in the Guantánamo habeas litigation, arguing that the President’s authority to detain “persons who were part of, or substantially supported, Taliban or al Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners” could be derived from the 2001 AUMF (thereby actually abandoning the “enemy combatant” argument of the Bush administration). By the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, US Congress endorsed this new formula which meant that the initial definition of the 2001 AUMF had been significantly expanded.

Certainly, the term “or associated forces” in that definition offers endless possibility to expand the scope of alleged detention authorities. Preston reiterated the interpretation by his predecessor, Jeh Johnson, who had held in 2012 that an associated force must be both (1) an organized, armed group that has entered the fight alongside al-Qa’ida (no mere alignment), and (2) a co-belligerent with al-Qa’ida in hostilities against the US or its coalition partners. Preston also referred to a public hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2014, during which he had listed the groups and individuals against which the US were taking military action (in the sense of capture or lethal operations) under the 2001 AUMF, namely: al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and certain other terrorist or insurgent groups in Afghanistan; al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Yemen; individuals who are part of al-Qa’ida in Somalia and Libya; (since 2014) the Nusrah Front and the Khorasan Group in Syria; and “the group we fought in Iraq when it was known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq”, the Islamic State. This list already shows how the understanding of the original scope of the AUMF (applicable to those responsible for the 9/11 attacks) has been expanded since 2001. Though Preston tried to differentiate between the Islamic State and its ties with al-Qa’ida, and (theoretically) a totally new group arising “fully formed from the head of Zeus”, in practice one might wonder whether a new group in the region without any links to al-Qa’ida would not rather constitute an abnormality than the rule (at least for the foreseeable future), thereby allegedly allowing the US to include every terrorist group in the region into the AUMF scope if they wanted to. The inclusion of the Islamic State, which does not consider itself as forming part of al-Qa’ida, but as a new group, demonstrates that this line of association might last, from the US perspective if not forever, then for quite a while. (more…)

Guest Post: The Mediterranean Migrants Crisis and the Use of Force–Is There a Case for Destroying Smugglers’ Boats?

by Sondre Torp Helmersen and Niccolo Ridi

[Sondre Torp Helmersen is a PhD Candidate at the University of Oslo and Niccolò Ridi is a PhD Candidate at King’s College London and SNSF Research Assistant, The Graduate Institute, Geneva.]

1. Introduction

The recent disasters off the coasts of Italy have been the deadliest documented incidents in the troubled history of migration in the Mediterranean sea. The unprecedented number of lives lost at sea has prompted outrage in a number of countries and brought the Mediterranean migrants Crisis at the top of the European political agenda. After more than 1000 people drowned in ten days, a summit was finally called by the President of the European Council Donald Tusk.

The outcome of the meeting has been met with disappointment: outside of southern European Countries, plans for a more equitable distribution of migrants within the European Union states do not seem a priority, and the measures agreed upon focus merely on preventing departure. States have agreed on a number of measures comprising the tripling of the funding allocated to Europe’s Operation Triton (which had previously been called ‘woefully inadequate’ by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres), improved cooperation against smugglers networks, a generic pledge to do more for refugee protection and resettlement on a voluntary basis and, more controversially, actions directed to identify, capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers before they can be used.

The idea of targeting smugglers’ vessels was originally included in a 10-point action plan relying on the precedent of Operation Atalanta, which focuses on protecting on preventing piracy acts off the coast of Somalia. The adoption of such a strategy as a means of dealing with a migrants crisis, however, calls for careful consideration.

European leaders have asked EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini “to propose actions in order to capture and destroy the smugglers’ vessels before they can be used”. However, aside from rumours on the possible use of Apache helicopters targeting vessels from a range of 2 km, proposals on the use of force have so far been quite vague, and their wording careful enough to suggest that any action would have to be consistent with international law. Angela Merkel is reported to have suggested that either a Security Council resolution or the cooperation of a Libyan unity government would be prerequisite for these operations. French President François Hollande has said that France and the United Kingdom will push for a Security Council resolution. But how do these proposed operations fit in the traditional paradigms on the use of force?

2. The Legality of Using Force

The force envisaged by European leaders would apparently be used to destroy boats docked in African harbours or internal or territorial waters. This would violate the prohibition of using force in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, unless one of its exceptions apply. Attacking the boats may alternatively be classified as ‘law enforcement’ rather than ‘use of force’ (e.g. Guyana v Suriname para 445), but such enforcement would be equally illegal in another State’s territory or internal or territorial waters in the absence of the same exceptions.

The exception for self-defence is not applicable, since there has been no “armed attack” against European countries from African States or people smugglers (the latter would be relevant if one recognises a right to self-defence against non-State actors). There may also be a right for States to use force to protect their nationals abroad, but European nationals are generally neither threatened by nor involved in the smuggling. The more or less debunked doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ would also not be applicable, since, even if one could argue that parts of Africa and/or the Middle East are suffering humanitarian crises, destroying people smugglers’ ships would not help alleviate those crises.

The simplest approach would be to have the consent of the relevant African States. In most cases this would mean Libya. A complicating factor is the current split between the two governments that claim to represent the State of Libya. One is based in Tripoli, the other in Tobruk. This raises the question of which of these, if any, that may give valid consent to the use of force in Libyan harbours and waters. The Tobruk government controls the majority of Libya’s territory, and is recognised by most other States as Libya’s government. However the Tripoli government controls the country’s traditional capital as well a substantial part of its territory. Some territory is also controlled by other groups, including the (so-called) Islamic State. In short, the situation is murky. After having repeatedly offered its cooperation to help fight the smuggling operations, the Tripoli government has said it will not give consent to using force against people smugglers. The Tobruk government has apparently not yet taken an official position.

The second option is to get authorisation from the UN Security Council, under the UN Charter Chapter VII. Such authorisation was given for the EU’s anti-piracy ‘Operation Atalanta’ off the coast of Somalia. However in that case the authorisation was made conditional on the consent of the Somali government. A similar condition could be set now. Authorisation would also require the consent of the UNSC’s five permanent members. Relations are currently frosty between Russia and the West, and one reason is how the Western powers used and possibly abused the 2011 authorisation to use force in Libya. Indeed, President Hollande has conceded that some convincing might be necessary to overcome Russian reluctance. Another basic condition for the UNSC to authorise the use of force is that the force is necessary to “maintain or restore international peace and security” (Article 42), in the presence of either a “threat to” or “breach of” international peace or an “act of aggression” (Article 39). The most plausible route would be to argue that the situation in the Mediterranean constitutes a “threat to the peace”. This is not obvious from the text of Article 39, but the UNSC has interpreted the provision highly flexibly in the past, and may well do so again. For example, in Resolution 668 (on Iraq’s treatment of its Kurdish population), the UNSC held that “a massive flow of refugees towards and across international frontiers … threaten[s] international peace and security”.

Other legal issues may also arise. African countries’ failure to clamp down on people smugglers’ activities may constitute a violation of the ‘duty of vigilance’ (Armed Activities para 246-250), but such a violation does not in itself authorise other States to respond with armed force. Further, if we concede that international humanitarian law applies, smugglers’ boats would be entitled to protection as civilian objects. The smugglers’ activities should not qualify as ‘piracy’ under the UNCLOS Article 101. That would in any case only make them liable to seizure by force by any State on the high seas (Article 105). To argue that the provision allows to destroy their ships when docked in a harbour seems too much of a stretch.

3. Conclusion: Another Problem that Cannot be Solved by Force

While there are legal avenues open for using force against African people smugglers, a wholly different question is whether this would actually contribute to solving the problem. The former head of operations of Atalanta has recently stated that to destroy smugglers’ boats would not be effective, as the boats used tend to be cheap and easy to replace. In a broader perspective, it would help solve neither the underlying causes of migration, which include conflict and misrule in Africa, nor the causes of the EU’s attempts to restrict migration, which include its social and economic costs.

The EU does seem to envisage the destruction of boats as one element in a broader set of tools. What is lacking, though, is an attempt to improve the current European asylum framework and a more equitable distribution of migrants among the members of the Union. This remains one of the most controversial and polarising issues in the EU. It therefore comes as no surprise that states less concerned by the refugee flows, such as the UK, would lend their support to operations at sea but avoid committing to any plans for a new resettlement system.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the construction of a narrative that places emphasis on the criminal nature of smuggling activities is conspicuous. There is clearly no question that smugglers are criminals. The idea of a “war on smugglers” seems to fit the policy goal of avoiding to give the Triton operation a clear search and rescue mandate – indeed, one of the most significant concerns voiced by human rights groups. As Kenneth Roth has suggested, to reduce the problem to the “false pretext of criminality” is to ignore the gravity of the situations from which many migrants are fleeing, and the resulting readiness to go to any lengths to seek better opportunities on European soil.

Breaking the Silence — About Israel’s Assault on Gaza

by Kevin Jon Heller

The irreplaceable Breaking the Silence has released a new report on Operation Protective Edge — and it’s a doozy. Here are some particularly disturbing snippets from the Guardian‘s article on the report, which contains dozens of testimonials by past and present IDF soldiers:

“[The commander] said: ‘We don’t take risks. We do not spare ammo. We unload, we use as much as possible.’”

“The rules of engagement [were] pretty identical,” added another sergeant who served in a mechanised infantry unit in Deir al-Balah. “Anything inside [the Gaza Strip] is a threat. The area has to be ‘sterilised,’ empty of people – and if we don’t see someone waving a white flag, screaming: “I give up” or something – then he’s a threat and there’s authorisation to open fire … The saying was: ‘There’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved.’ In that situation, anyone there is involved.”

“The rules of engagement for soldiers advancing on the ground were: open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing when you go in,” recalled another soldier who served during the ground operation in Gaza City. The assumption being that the moment we went in [to the Gaza Strip], anyone who dared poke his head out was a terrorist.”

Soldiers were also encouraged to treat individuals who came too close or watched from windows or other vantage points as “scouts” who could be killed regardless of whether there was hard evidence they were spotting for Hamas or other militant groups. “If it looks like a man, shoot. It was simple: you’re in a motherfucking combat zone,” said a sergeant who served in an infantry unit in the northern Gaza strip.

“A few hours before you went in the whole area was bombed, if there’s anyone there who doesn’t clearly look innocent, you apparently need to shoot that person.” Defining ‘innocent’ he added: “If you see the person is less than 1.40 metres tall or if you see it’s a lady … If it’s a man you shoot.”

In at least one instance described by soldiers, being female did not help two women who were killed because one had a mobile phone. A soldier described the incident: “After the commander told the tank commander to go scan that place, and three tanks went to check [the bodies] … it was two women, over the age of 30 … unarmed. They were listed as terrorists. They were fired at. So of course they must have been terrorists.”

The soldiers’ descriptions are disturbingly reminiscent of the notorious “free fire” zones in Vietnam and the US government’s well-documented (and erroneous) belief that signature strikes directed against “military-age men in an area of known terrorist activity” comply with IHL’s principle of distinction. The testimonials are, in a word, stunning — and put the lie to oft-repeated shibboleths about the IDF being “the most moral army in the world.” As ever, the stories told by the IDF and the Israeli government are contradicted by the soldiers who actually have to do the killing and dying.

You can find the report here. And if you’re interested in a predictable right-wing attempt to discredit the report — which basically just complains that Breaking the Silence doesn’t release the identity of the soldiers who gave testimony (gee, can’t imagine why not…) — see here.

Guest Post: The Status of the Territory Unchanged: Russia’s Treaties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia

by Natia Kalandarishvili-Mueller

[Natia Kalandarishvili-Mueller is a Lecturer in Humanitarian Law at Tbilisi State University, Institute of International Law, Faculty of Law, and a PhD Candidate at the University of Essex, School of Law. The views expressed in the post are that of the author only.]

Russia still occupies twenty percent of Georgian territory. On 24 November 2014, the Russian Federation and Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s breakaway region, signed a Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership. The document is an avenue for Abkhazia’s incorporation into Russia’s military, economic, social and legal space. Particularly, it aims to create a common security and defence system and armed forces of Russia and Abkhazia in the form of joint defence and border protection forces and unifies standards of warfare management and law enforcement. Moscow also envisages the breakaway region’s support with military equipment. The provisions provide for the harmonization of the breakaway region’s legislation not only with that of Russia, but also with the standards of the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia also guarantees helping Abkhazia not only with its international recognition, but also facilitating Abkhazia’s membership in international organizations. On 18 March 2015, Russia and the other one of Georgia’s breakaway regions, South Ossetia, also signed a Treaty on Alliance and Integration (and here) containing basically the same provisions.

The Government of Georgia regards both these treaties as Russian annexation of Georgian territories (here and here). Georgia’s view is not without grounds. As a whole, the aforementioned documents also undermine the right to return and the right to self-determination of ethnic Georgians and their descendants who have been forced to flee their homes during the 1990s and 2008 armed conflicts. At present, the issue of the ethnic cleansing of Georgians is dealt with by the ICC, but only in the context of the 2008 armed conflict. The ICC Prosecutor’s Office Report on Preliminary Examination Activities (December 2014) observed that

[…] there is a reasonable basis to believe that South Ossetian forces carried out a widespread and systematic attack against the ethnic Georgian civilian population in South Ossetia and adjacent areas in the context of the armed conflict in the period from August 2008 through October 2008 that amounted to the crime against humanity of forcible transfer of ethnic Georgians under article 7(1)(d). There is a reasonable basis to believe that these forces also committed war crimes of pillaging under 8(2)(b)(xvi) and/or article 8(2)(e)(v) and destroying civilian property belonging to ethnic Georgians under article 8(2)(a)(iv) and/or article 8(2)(e)(xii) in the same period. (para. 140)

Hence, from the perspective of international law, the signed treaties raise complex issues such as the legality of the use of force, state formation, the management of natural resources, and the validity of these very treaties in light of the VCLT of 1969, occupation law, territorial annexation and the legality of self-determination of these territories. This post chooses to focus on the last three aspects, namely the interplay of the principles of annexation and self-determination in light of occupation law. Two questions may, therefore, be posed in light of the signed treaties:

  1. According to International Humanitarian Law (IHL), what is the relationship between occupation law and annexation of territory?
  2. What is the relevant legal framework for self-determination in international law and how may it be connected with occupation law?


Occupation Law and the Annexation of Territory

In light of the first question, I argue that even when an instance of annexation of territory takes place, the situation of occupation continues from the perspective of IHL, and the responsibility of the occupying power vis-à-vis the civilian population persists. Hence, no matter what type of treaty is forged or which agreements are achieved by Russia and the breakaway regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will still remain occupied in light of Article 42 HR 1907. This stance echoes the reading of Article 47 of the GC IV, which states that:

Protected persons who are in occupied territory shall not be deprived, in any case or in any manner whatsoever, of the benefits of the present Convention by any change introduced, as the result of the occupation of a territory, into the institutions or government of the said territory, nor by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the Occupying Power, nor by any annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory.

Likewise, the commentary to Article 47 regards the relationship between situations of occupation and those of annexation in the following way:

[…] an Occupying Power continues to be bound to apply the Convention as a whole even when, in disregard of the rules of international law, it claims during a conflict to have annexed all or part of an occupied territory.

Dinstein, too, considers that an occupant cannot take the title, i.e. the possession of the territory it occupies. The displaced sovereign, therefore, remains to be holding the title de jure and the annexation of the occupied territory by the occupant is prohibited (Y. Dinstein, The International Law of Belligerent Occupation, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 49). Thus “any unilateral annexation of an occupied territory – in whole or in part – by the Occupying Power would be legally stillborn” (ibid. p. 50). Therefore, IHL does not fall mute, as it bases its application on the facts on the ground. The fact that Russia continues to exert effective control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia in light of Article 42 HR 1907 cannot be swept under the carpet. Even if Russia considers signing these treaties to be valid because it has herself recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states, in light of the separability of ius ad bellum and ius in bello, for IHL the situation remains unchanged:

This complete separation between ius ad bellum and ius in bello implies that IHL applies whenever there is de facto armed conflict, however that conflict can be qualified under ius ad bellum, and that no ius ad bellum arguments may be used in interpreting IHL. (M. Sassòli, A.A Bouvier, et al., How Does Law Protect In War? ICRC, Vol. I, 2006, p. 103)


Occupation Law and Self-Determination

In light of the second question, I argue that a situation of occupation may end with self-determination. However, resorting to self-determination may only be justified once the effective control of the occupant over the territory is completely relinquished and the process of self-determination is free from any third-party interference, particularly by the former occupant. Furthermore, self-determination, if exercised contrary to the international law principles of state sovereignty and territorial inviolability, undermines these very principles. In 1970, the Secretary General of the UN stated that:

… as far as the question of secession of a particular section of a Member State is concerned, the United Nations attitude is unequivocable. As an international organisation, the United Nations has never accepted and does not accept and I do not believe it will ever accept a principle of secession of a part of a Member State. (U. Thant, “Secretary General’s Press Conferences” (1970) 7:2 UN Monthly Chronicle 34 at 36)

There are two forms of self-determination: external and internal (A. Cassese, Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 5). Internal self-determination means that an entity establishes its self-government within the internationally recognized borders of a state (C.A. Monteux, Institution Building in Kosovo: the Role of International Actors and the Question of Legitimacy, London School of Economics and Political Science, PhD thesis, 2009, p. 90). In practice, internal self-determination can take various forms, from simple cultural autonomy to the canton system in Switzerland (C. Dominicé, The Secession of the Canton of Jura in Switzerland, in Secession: International Law Perspectives, in M. G. Kohen (ed.), Cambridge University, 2006, pp. 453–469).

External self-determination, on the other hand, means that an entity determines its status under international law, establishes its position among the international community and regulates its relation with other states free from the intervention of any state (supra, C.A. Monteux, Institution Building in Kosovo: the Role of International Actors and the Question of Legitimacy, p. 90). Direct recourse to external self-determination (i.e., secession) could undermine not only the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, as mentioned above, but render the whole concept of self-determination unjust. As such, this right has been linked to the colonial period and was aimed to free the people from the oppressing regimes. In its decision, the Supreme Court of Canada makes this point explicit:

International law contains neither a right of unilateral secession nor the explicit denial of such a right, although such a denial is, to some extent, implicit in the exceptional circumstances required for secession to be permitted under the right of a people to self-determination, e.g., the right of secession that arises in the exceptional situation of an oppressed or colonial people […]. (Reference RE Secession of Quebec Supreme Court of Canada (1998) 2. S.C.R. 217 §112)

Further, the Canadian Supreme Court views external self-determination as a step of last resort in particular situations:

The recognized sources of international law establish that the right to self-determination of a people is normally fulfilled through internal self-determination – a people’s pursuit of its political, economic, social and cultural development within the framework of an existing state. A right to external self-determination (which in this case potentially takes the form of the assertion of a right to unilateral secession) arises in only the most extreme of cases and, even then, under carefully defined circumstances. (ibid., § 126)

It has to be mentioned that the circumstances which would pronounce the conditions for external self-determination in international law lack clarity. This is also evidenced by the stance the ICJ took in the advisory opinion on Accordance of International Law of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Respect of Kosovo, when it only dealt with the issue of whether or not Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence was in accordance with international law (§ 49-56 and § 82-83). Based on arguments of those in favor of external self-determination, Borgen summarized one possible way such a rule could be formulated:

“Any attempt to claim legal secession “that is, where secession trumps territorial integrity” must at least show that:

  1. 1. the secessionists are a “people” (in the ethnographic sense);

  2. 2. the state from which they are seceding seriously violates their human rights; and

  3. 3. there are no other effective remedies under either domestic law or international law” (C.J. Borgen, Kosovo’s Declaration for Independence: Self-Determination, Secession and Recognition, ASIL Insights, Issue 2, Volume 12, February 29, 2008 available here)

In the context of de-colonisation, the concept of self-determination meant that colonies were allowed to “secede” and form a state on their own. But when it comes to “communities that are not colonies and within existing states, self-determination means ‘internal self-determination’, the pursuit of minority rights within the existing state” (C.J. Borgen, States and International Law: The Problems of Self-determination, Secession, and Recognition in B. Cali (ed.), International Law for International Relations, Oxford, 2009, p. 207).

Therefore, before directly leaping to claims of secession, internal self-determination has to be exercised. In this context, the demographic situation of the territory must not be changed and all those who lived there and who were forcibly transferred away from it have to have a say in the future of its status. At least this is what permeates the logic of international law. This would respectively apply to the Georgians and their descendants who were evicted from Abkhazia and South Ossetia and who were the victims of ethnic cleansing, both during the 1990s armed conflicts and the 2008 war.

Examining self-determination and occupation law in tandem points to the fact that it has to be viewed in light of the element of consent, i.e. who gives consent of the presence of the hostile state on the territory. The lack of consent to be present on one’s territory during military occupation means the previous power/sovereign is absent from the territory and does not exercise effective control over it as any state ought to over its own territory. So that consent is regarded valid, it must not be coerced and be extended by the recognised government of the recognised state (E. Benvenisti, The International Law of Occupation, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 67).

When an occupant claims not to have effective control over the territory, but remains on the territory either by an alleged invitation of the de facto regime or by a drawn-up treaty, not only the legality of the regime has to be questioned, but also the validity of the treaty has to be examined in light of the VCLT.

In my view, these are the points that bring to the forefront the tension between occupation law and the principle of self-determination. Any recourse to the right of self-determination of a territory should be done only once a situation of occupation has completely ended and even then it should only be exercised without third-party intervention in addition to restoring the original demographic situation. During military occupation, when elections or the determination of the political future of the occupied territory are underway without the genuine consent of the ousted government, the situation on the ground continues to be one of occupation.

[This post has been slightly revised from the previous version that was posted.]

The Advantage for Palestine of a Slow Preliminary Examination

by Kevin Jon Heller

Nearly everyone treats Palestine’s membership in the ICC as a done deal; after all, the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) has accepted Palestine’s accession to the Rome Statute and the OTP has publicly stated that “since Palestine was granted observer State status in the UN by the UNGA, it must be considered a ‘State’ for the purposes of accession.” But neither the UNSG nor the OTP has final say over whether Palestine qualifies as a state; as Eugene Kontorovich, my friend and regular Israel/Palestine sparring partner, has repeatedly pointed out on Twitter (see here, for example), statehood is a legal issue that the ICC’s judges will eventually have to decide.

Unlike Eugene, I would be very surprised if the judges second-guessed the UNSG and the OTP and held that Palestine does not qualify as a state. But it’s certainly possible. So here is something for Palestine to consider: because the ICC’s judges cannot make a determination concerning Palestine’s statehood until the OTP has decided to formally investigate the situation, the longer the preliminary examination takes, the longer Palestine will have to make it more difficult for the judges to decide against it.

I don’t want to get into too much detail about the relevant provisions in the Rome Statute; a brief summary should suffice. Art. 15, which concerns proprio motu investigations — the current situation regarding Palestine, because the OTP treats an Art. 12(3) declaration as a request for an Art. 15 investigation — does not permit the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) to determine whether a situation “appears to fall within the jurisdiction of the Court” until the OTP has asked it to authorise a formal investigation. Art. 18, which in certain circumstances requires the OTP to defer to state investigations of specific suspects, also does not apply until the OTP has decided to formally investigate (whether proprio motu or on the basis of a state referral). And Art. 19, the basic complementarity provision, does not permit a state to challenge admissibility until there is a specific case pending and does not permit a suspect to challenge admissibility (which includes jurisdiction) until a warrant for his arrest or a summons for his appearance has been issued — both of which occur subsequent to the opening of a formal investigation.

There is, in short, only one party that can ask the PTC to decide a jurisdictional issue prior to the commencement of a formal investigation: the OTP itself. That’s Art. 19(3). And it’s safe to say that the OTP won’t ask the PTC to determine whether Palestine qualifies as a state before it has to.

That means, of course, that it could easily be years before the PTC gets to weigh in on the issue of Palestinian statehood. Why is that a good thing for Palestine? Most obviously, because it gives it more time to get its statehood ducks in a row — acceding to more international conventions, resolving internal political differences, seeking additional recognitions of Palestine as a state, etc. More importantly, though, it gives Palestine time to become an integral member of the Court, thereby increasing the institutional pressure on the PTC to conclude that it is a state. Assume that the OTP takes four years to open a formal investigation, which would be relatively quick by OTP standards. Palestine could — and should! — take advantage of that gap to pay dues each year to the ICC; to attend the annual sessions of the ASP (as it did as an observer in the 13th Session) and participate in its intersessional work; to nominate Palestine’s delegate to the ASP for a position in the Bureau; and (better still) to nominate a Palestinian as a judge. After four years of such involvement, it would be very difficult for the PTC to conclude that Palestine was not a state, given that such a decision would force the ASP to expel the Palestinian delegate, (presumably) refund four years of Palestine’s dues, and perhaps even unseat a Palestinian judge.

I’m sure some readers — particularly those who believe that Palestine cannot qualify as a state as long as Israel illegally occupies its territory — will find my strategy cynical. Perhaps it is — but it would hardly be the first time a state acted strategically with regard to an international organisation. After all, Israel is the culprit-in-chief in that regard; its favourite strategy, which is the height of cynicism, is to refuse to cooperate with an international investigation and then dismiss the results of that investigation as “one-sided” and thus biased. Moreover, I use the term “state” with regard to Palestine deliberately; contrary to the view of many pro-Israel commentators, the Montevideo criteria do not remotely doom Palestine’s claim to statehood. On the contrary, I believe Palestine has legally qualified as a state under those criteria for many years. But that is a subject for another day. (Interested readers can start with this brief, written by Errol Mendes.)

For now, Palestine needs to take full advantage of its admittedly provisional membership in the ICC. As a wise man once said, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

John Bellinger’s Op-Ed on ISIS and the ICC (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

The op-ed, which appears in today’s New York Times, argues that the ICC is the most appropriate venue for prosecuting ISIS’s many international crimes. I have great respect for John, who is unique among former high-ranking US government officials in his willingness to defend the ICC, but the op-ed makes a number of arguments that deserve comment.

It certainly makes more sense for the court’s prosecutor to investigate the Islamic State than to investigate the United States or Britain for treatment of detainees or Israel for its handling of last year’s Gaza conflict, as some activists have called for.

There is no question that ISIS is responsible for horrific international crimes that deserve to be prosecuted. But does it “certainly make more sense” for the ICC to prosecute those crimes than British torture in Iraq, US torture in Afghanistan, and Israel’s vast array of crimes against Palestinian civilians in Gaza? That’s not self-evident. Readers know my skepticism toward the ICC investigating the situation in Palestine, but the expressive value of prosecuting UK or US military commanders and political leaders for torture would be incalculable — it would get the ICC out of Africa; it would affirm that torture, a crime that rarely involves a large numbers of victims, is unacceptable and deserving of prosecution; and — of course — it would demonstrate that no state, no matter how powerful, is immune from international criminal justice.

At a minimum, the Security Council should ask the court to investigate the numerous offenses committed by the Islamic State that fall within the court’s mandate.


A Security Council request would be necessary because Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State is operating, are not parties to the Rome Statute (the treaty that created the court) and are not otherwise subject to the court’s jurisdiction.

A Security Council referral is not actually necessary, because the ICC’s jurisdiction is not simply territorial. The Court can also prosecute any international crime committed by a national of a state that has ratified the Rome Statute. Many ISIS leaders are nationals of ICC member-states — including Jihadi John, who is a UK national. So the ICC could prosecute those leaders tomorrow if it had them in custody. Indeed, Fatou Bensouda has already mentioned the possibility of such nationality-based prosecutions.

Moreover, a Security Council referral may be more trouble than it’s worth. John himself notes a major problem: if the territorial parameters of any such referral exposed members of the Syrian government to ICC jurisdiction, Russia and/or China would almost certainly veto the referral. And what if the referral exposed Syrian rebels to ICC jurisdiction? I can’t imagine the US, France, and the UK would be too keen about that — not least because it would provide the ICC with a backdoor to prosecuting their nationals for aiding and abetting rebel crimes.

The United States has reason to be concerned about inappropriate and politicized investigations of the United States and Israel.

I don’t see why, given that the ICC has not opened a formal investigation in Afghanistan despite having examined the situation for eight years and has only had jurisdiction over Israel’s crimes for a few months. Moreover, John never explains why any ICC investigation of the US or Israel would necessarily be “inappropriate and politicized,” given that both states have quite obviously committed crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction. Why should the ICC only prosecute the US’s enemies — never its friends, and certainly never the US itself? Americans and Israelis might like that idea, but I imagine few others would accept it.

[B]ut the International Criminal Court still has an important role to play in investigating and prosecuting acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — all of which have reportedly been committed by the Islamic State.

I’m not so sure, at least in the context of ISIS — and this is my basic issue with John’s op-ed. Does the ICC really need yet another situation to investigate, given its already overtaxed resources? And do we really want the Security Council to refer the ISIS situation, given that there is almost no chance it will finance the resulting investigation? (See, for example, the failed Syria resolution.) Moreover, why should the ICC prosecute ISIS leaders when states like the US, the UK, and Japan (and Germany, and France, and…) are just as capable of prosecuting those leaders themselves — if not more so? They have investigative and prosecutorial resources the ICC can only dream of. So why should the ICC do their work for them?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we need to stop assuming that the ICC is always the best venue for prosecuting international crimes. It’s not. It’s a weak Court with more failures than successes on its ledger. Even under ideal circumstances — unlikely to exist — it would never be able to prosecute more than a handful of ISIS leaders. And if past cases are any indication, there is no guarantee those prosecutions would lead to convictions. So if states really want to bring ISIS to justice, the solution is there for all to see.

They should do the job themselves.

NOTE: I am not implying that John invented the idea that the ICC should investigate ISIS crimes. As he notes in his op-ed, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has previously suggested the same thing. But that in no way changes my position — and I think it’s unfortunate that High Commissioners see the ICC as the first resort instead of the last, even in situations (such as ISIS) where, unlike states, the ICC has no ability to effectively investigate. The previous High Commissioner exhibited the same problematic tendency, calling on the Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC despite the fact that the Court would be powerless to investigate Syrian and rebel crimes as long as the conflict continues. Security Council referrals only make sense after a conflict has ended — and not even there, unless the Security Council is willing to give its referrals teeth by funding the subsequent investigation and punishing states for not cooperating with the ICC, which it has shown no interest whatsoever in doing. Do we really need more failed ICC investigations like the one in Darfur?