Archive of posts for category
Law of War

New Opportunities to Research Civil War at Melbourne Law School

by Kevin Jon Heller

My colleague Anne Orford has just received — and deservedly so — a very significant Australian Laureate Fellowship for a program entitled Civil War, Intervention, and International Law. The program is funded by the Australian Research Council from 2015 to 2020 and will establish an interdisciplinary research team based at Melbourne Law School. Here is a snippet from the description of the program:

Professor Orford’s ARC Laureate Fellowship Program will undertake a comprehensive analysis of one of the most pressing questions in contemporary international law and politics: whether, and if so under what conditions, foreign actors can lawfully intervene in civil wars. The lawfulness of external intervention in the domestic affairs of states is one of the most enduring and contested topics of debate within the disciplines of international law and international relations. The intensity of debates about the legality of intervention by the US and its allies in Iraq and Syria on the one hand, and by Russia in the Ukraine on the other, illustrates both the urgency of this issue and the difficulty of finding general principles to address it. The project will combine archival research, legal analysis, and critical theorising to develop a conceptual framework that can better grasp the changing patterns and practices of intervention.

The program is now inviting applications for two Postdoctoral Fellowships, which are full-time, fixed term research positions that can last up to five years. Here is the description:

The Postdoctoral Fellows will be appointed to undertake projects that explore the historical and contemporary practice of interventions in a specific region, chosen from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, or the Middle East. The specific regional studies, as well as the cases to be explored as part of those regional studies, will be chosen by the Postdoctoral Fellows in conjunction with Professor Orford. The Postdoctoral Fellows will take responsibility under the supervision of Professor Orford for developing the regional studies and for drawing out cross-cutting themes between them. The aim will be to map and evaluate the specific legal, political, and economic issues that have influenced and shaped interventions in civil wars in particular regions, the legal justifications that have accompanied those interventions, and the normative innovations that have resulted. It is well accepted, for example, that the principle of non-intervention has a particular meaning and importance in the inter-American context, as many early formulations of the principle emerged out of attempts to renegotiate the relation between the US and its near neighbours in Central and South America. Similarly, the responsibility to protect concept has a close association with African states and attempts to manage civil wars on that continent. The cases within each regional study may include pre- and immediately post-World War 2 situations (such as those in Spain and China), early post-colonial conflicts (such as those in Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia), proxy wars of the 1980s (such as those in Afghanistan and Nicaragua), and post-Cold War situations (such as those involving the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Iraq, Ukraine, and Syria). The focus of the program is on developments over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but proposals focusing on nineteenth century practice will also be considered. It is anticipated that the studies undertaken by the Postdoctoral Fellows will be published as monographs.

The program is also seeking two PhD students:

The doctoral projects will each study an emerging area of conceptual innovation that has played a role in reshaping the broader normative framework governing intervention in civil war over the past decades. One project will analyse the impact of the related concepts of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect, and the second will analyse the impact of the concepts of collective self-defence and intervention by invitation that have been invoked in the context of the war on terror. The projects will study particular cases of intervention in civil war that were justified either in terms of protecting civilians (using concepts such as humanitarian intervention or the responsibility to protect) or of responding to terrorism (using concepts such as collective self-defence or intervention by invitation). The projects will involve detailed analyses of how legal arguments have been used in practice – for example, the ways in which legal concepts have been invoked by parties to civil wars (including foreign interveners), the extent to which the use of legal arguments has been innovative and directed to transforming existing norms, the patterns of diplomatic and military practice that those legal arguments have sought to justify, how other states have responded to such justifications, what positions states have taken publicly in debates on relevant issues in the General Assembly and the Security Council, and how decisions by external actors to support or recognise particular groups have been publicly justified. It is anticipated that the resulting doctoral theses will be published.

Anne is a fantastic scholar, the law school has a superb academic culture, and there are very few places in the world more pleasant to live than Melbourne. I hope interested readers will apply. You can find more information here.

U.S. Prepared to Launch Possibly Illegal Airstrikes Against Assad (But That’s OK)

by Julian Ku

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama has authorized U.S. military forces to use air power to defend  U.S.-trained Syrian rebels if those rebels are attacked by the Syrian government forces.

President Barack Obama has authorized using air power to defend a new U.S.-backed fighting force in Syria if it is attacked by Syrian government forces or other groups, raising the risk of the American military coming into direct conflict with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“For offensive operations, it’s ISIS only. But if attacked, we’ll defend them against anyone who’s attacking them,” said a senior military official. “We’re not looking to engage the regime, but we’ve made a commitment to help defend these people.”

I totally understand the reason for this policy. If the U.S. is going to train and support Syrian forces, and give them air support, it makes sense to provide air cover against all attacks.  But the legality of this policy under U.S. law requires reliance on the kind of pure presidentialism President Obama is supposedly against.  And its legality under international law is pretty tenuous as well.

Under U.S. law, the President is sort-of-authorized to attack ISIS under a very sketchy interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. It is a very sketchy interpretation, but even that sketchy interpretation can’t justify air strikes on the Syrian government in Syrian territory and in defense of rebels involved in the Syrian civil war.  So the only legal theory that would support the U.S. position here is reliance on the President’s inherent powers under Article II of the Constitution without any claim of congressional authorization.  That’s all well and good, but it is another nail in the coffin for the congressionalist legal theory embraced by Candidate Obama in 2007.  Remember that? When Obama said the Constitution required the President to go to Congress unless the President needed to act against an imminent attack?  It seems so long ago.

Under international law, the Russians are already pointing out that using military force in a foreign country against that country’s recognized government is a violation of the U.N. Charter since there is no Security Council authorization here.  There isn’t even a clear “humanitarian intervention” theory here, at least not if the air strikes are only defensive.

And yet, I have little doubt that the U.S. will carry out the strikes if needed and that there will be almost no fuss in the U.S. about its constitutionality.  Article II is alive and well in the Obama era.  There may be little bit more fuss overseas about its legality under international law, since that seems a tough case to make. But it is hard to imagine that international law will act as much of constraint here either.

The Pre-Trial Chamber’s Dangerous Comoros Review Decision

by Kevin Jon Heller

In late 2014, the Office of the Prosecutor rejected a request by Comoros to open a formal investigation into Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara. To my great surprise, the Pre-Trial Chamber (Judge Kovacs dissenting) has now ordered the OTP to reconsider its decision. The order does not require the OTP to open a formal investigation, because the declination was based on gravity, not on the interests of justice — a critical distinction under Art. 53 of the Rome Statute, as I explain here. But the PTC’s decision leaves little doubt that it expects the OTP to open one. Moreover, the PTC’s decision appears designed to push the OTP to decline to formally investigate a second time (assuming it doesn’t change its mind about the Comoros situation) on the basis of the interests of justice, which would then give the PTC the right to demand the OTP investigate.

To put it simply, this is a deeply problematic and extremely dangerous decision — nothing less than a frontal assault on the OTP’s prosecutorial discretion, despite the PTC’s claims to the contrary. I will explain why in this (very long) post.

At the outset, it is important to emphasise that we are dealing here with situational gravity, not case gravity. In other words, the question is not whether the OTP should have opened a case against specific members of the IDF who were responsible for crimes on the Mavi Marmara, but whether the OTP should have opened a situation into the Comoros situation as a whole. The Rome Statute is notoriously vague about the difference between situational gravity and case gravity, even though it formally adopts the distinction in Art. 53. But it is a critical distinction, because the OTP obviously cannot assess the gravity of an entire situation in the same way that it assesses the gravity of a specific crime within a situation.

The PTC disagrees with nearly every aspect of the OTP’s gravity analysis. It begins by rejecting the OTP’s insistence (in ¶ 62 of its response to Comoro’s request for review) that the gravity of the Comoros situation is limited by the fact that there is no “reasonable basis to believe that ‘senior IDF commanders and Israeli leaders’ were responsible as perpetrators or planners of the apparent war crimes’.” Here is how the PTC responds to that claim:

23. The Chamber is of the view that the Prosecutor erred in the Decision Not to Investigate by failing to consider whether the persons likely to be the object of the investigation into the situation would include those who bear the greatest responsibility for the identified crimes. Contrary to the Prosecutor’s argument at paragraph 62 of her Response, the conclusion in the Decision Not to Investigate that there was not a reasonable basis to believe that “senior IDF commanders and Israeli leaders” were responsible as perpetrators or planners of the identified crimes does not answer the question at issue, which relates to the Prosecutor’s ability to investigate and prosecute those being the most responsible for the crimes under consideration and not as such to the seniority or hierarchical position of those who may be responsible for such crimes.

These are fundamentally irreconcilable conceptions of “potential perpetrator” gravity. The OTP is taking the traditional ICTY/ICTR approach, asking whether the Israeli perpetrators of the crimes on the Mavi Marmara are militarily or politically important enough to justify the time and expense of a formal investigation. The PTC, by contrast, does not care about the relative importance of the perpetrators; it simply wants to know whether the OTP can prosecute the individuals who are most responsible for committing the crimes in question.

To see the difference between the two approaches — and to see why the OTP’s approach is far better — consider a hypothetical situation involving only one crime: a group of the lowest-ranking soldiers from State X executes, against the stated wishes of their commanders, 10 civilians from State Y. The OTP would conclude that the “potential perpetrator” gravity factor militates against opening a formal investigation in State Y, because the crime in question, though terrible, did not involve militarily important perpetrators. The PTC, by contrast, would reach precisely the opposite conclusion concerning gravity, deeming the soldiers “most responsible” for the crime by virtue of the fact that they acted against orders. After all, no one else was responsible for the decision to execute the civilians.

The PTC’s approach to “potential perpetrator” gravity is simply bizarre….

A Legitimate Need for Disqualification in the Lubanga Case

by Kevin Jon Heller

Thomas Lubanga’s lawyer, Catherine Mabille, has moved to disqualify Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi from Lubanga’s upcoming sentence review on the ground that the judge was involved in the case while working in the Office of the Prosecutor. Here are the relevant paragraphs from the motion:

11… [O]fficial Court documents show that Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi acted as Chef de Cabinet for the Prosecutor, Mr Moreno Ocampo.

12. In particular, Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi was engaged in that capacity during the period between the application for a warrant of arrest against Mr Tomas Lubanga and the confirmation of charges hearing in that case.

13. It follows that a reasonable observer, properly informed, must necessarily conclude that she participated in person in the investigations concerning Mr Thomas Lubanga, participated in the drafting of the application for his arrest, participated in the drafting of the detailed list of charges submitted to the Pre-Trial Chamber for examination and, in general, that she participated at the highest level of the organisation in the proceedings against Mr Thomas Lubanga until December 2006.

14. Witnesses Bernard Lavigne (P-0582) and Nicolas Sebire (P-0583) were called in this case by Trial Chamber I to “testify as to the approach and the procedures applied to intermediaries” to assist the Chamber in ruling on the Defence’s abuse of process application. They confirm that the executive committee established within the Office of the Prosecutor, of which Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi was a member, was regularly consulted on the conduct of investigations and that it directed the course of those investigations.

15. Mr Sebire stated that he had himself attended two meetings of the executive committee, the purpose of which was “[TRANSLATION] to report on the investigation, the progress of the investigation and the evidence gathered by … by the time of appearing before the committee.”

The OTP does not deny that Judge Fernandez was previously involved in the Lubanga case. On the contrary, it simply insists that the test for recusal is whether “a reasonable and properly informed observer would apprehend bias by Judge Fernández in deciding on the early release of Mr Lubanga” — and that the Judge’s “sporadic and general” involvement in the case does not satisfy the test:

13. Finally, the Presidency should consider Judge Fernández’s non-operational and relatively circumscribed role in the Lubanga case resulting from her position as head of JCCD and as a member of ExCom from June 2003 to December 2006. Judge Fernandez was never directly responsible for the investigation and prosecution of the Lubanga case. JCCD is a division of the Office of the Prosecutor entrusted with conducting preliminary examinations; evaluating information pursuant to articles 15 and 53(1); providing advice on whether a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation exists, and providing advice on issues related to jurisdiction and admissibility, and on cooperation matters. Thus, Judge Fernández would have been involved in the early stages of the proceedings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (including the Lubanga case), in particular, in the decision to commence an investigation, and in transmitting requests for cooperation, including arrest warrants and investigative missions in the field.

14. As a member of ExCom, Judge Fernández would have participated in the general discussion and approval of the main legal and strategic documents and major investigative and prosecution activities developed by the Investigation and Prosecution Divisions with respect to all the cases from June 2003 to December 2006, including that against Mr Lubanga. However, her intervention would have necessarily been sporadic and general in nature. She was not one of the lawyers involved in investigating or prosecuting the case against Mr Lubanga; although she would have been kept apprised of and approved of various steps as the case proceeded against him during the period of her tenure at the Office of the Prosecutor, her situation is not comparable to that of a prosecution lawyer deeply involved in the case and knowledgeable of its details.

I have great respect for Judge Fernandez. I’m thrilled that she was recently elected President of the Court. And I have no doubt whatsoever that she would not be biased against Lubanga in the sentence review. But that’s irrelevant — because Art. 41(2)(a) of the Rome Statute still requires her disqualification. Here is the text of the provision (emphasis mine):

A judge shall not participate in any case in which his or her impartiality might reasonably be doubted on any ground. A judge shall be disqualified from a case in accordance with this paragraph if, inter alia, that judge has previously been involved in any capacity in that case before the Court or in a related criminal case at the national level involving the person being investigated or prosecuted.

The OTP admits that Judge Fernandez has previously been involved in the Lubanga case. Art. 41(2)(a) thus prohibits her from participating in the sentence review as a member of the Appeals Chamber — a judge “shall” be disqualified (not “may” be disqualified) if she has previously been involved “in any capacity” (not in a significant capacity) in the case. End of story.

The OTP, of course, disagrees. Most obviously, it insists that previous involvement in a case requires disqualification only if that involvement would lead a reasonable observer to doubt the judge’s impartiality. But that is not what Art. 41(2)(a) says. There are only two ways to read the provision: (1) as providing two different grounds requiring disqualification — appearance of bias or previous participation in the case; or (2) as establishing an irrebuttable presumption that previous participation gives rise to a reasonable doubt of a judge’s impartiality. The second interpretation is likely correct, given that the provision mentions previous participation “inter alia” as a situation in which a judge “shall” (not “may”) be disqualified from a case. Either way, though, Judge Fernandez must be disqualified from Lubanga’s sentence review.

The OTP seems to recognise that, despite its argument, nothing in the wording of Art. 41(2)(a) actually suggests that previous participation requires disqualification only if a reasonable observer would doubt a judge’s impartiality. It thus insists (para. 7) that “[t]he relevant provisions must be contextually and purposively interpreted according to the rules on interpretation of treaties in the Vienna Convention, and must be applied on a case-by-case basis.” This is typical ICC double-speak, a nudge-nudge, wink-wink to the judges asking them to ignore a clear provision of the Rome Statute simply because the OTP finds it inconvenient. The judges need to say no — although, given their history (Regulation 55, anyone?), there is reason to suspect they’ll simply do what the OTP wants.

Stay tuned…

UPDATE: I made similar points a few years ago. See here.

Ryan Goodman to Work at DoD for One Year

by Kevin Jon Heller

Ryan — friend of Opinio Juris and friend of Kevin — has been appointed Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense. Here is a snippet from NYU’s press release:

In his new role at the Department of Defense Goodman will focus primarily on national security law and law of armed conflict. “I am very humbled to have this opportunity to work with the General Counsel and the outstanding people of the Defense Department,” said Goodman. “I look forward to the hard work and challenges ahead in this arena of public service.”

One of the nation’s leading scholars in national security and human rights law, Goodman co-founded Just Security, a blog for the rigorous analysis of law, rights, and national security, in 2013. With Goodman serving as co-editor-in-chief, Just Security quickly achieved international prominence for providing balanced and broad analysis of major legislation and executive action, information about the impact of US national security policies around the world, and scrutiny of international legal developments in the national security area.  During his time with the Defense Department, Goodman will discontinue his work with Just Security.

I’m sad that we will not have the benefit of Ryan’s blogging for a year, but the blogosphere’s loss is the DoD’s gain. Readers know that I have reservations about academics going into government service, but I have no doubt whatsoever that Ryan — like his mentor Harold Koh before him — will be a principled, conscientious, and even courageous voice in government. Indeed, Ryan has never shied away from criticising the USG when he thinks its approach to international law has been misguided. I just regret that we will probably never get to know how he spent his year with the DoD!

Please join me in congratulating Ryan — though I think the DoD is really the one that deserves congratulations.

The Gaza Report’s Treatment of Warnings: A Response to Blank

by Kevin Jon Heller

Laurie Blank published a post yesterday at Lawfare entitled “The UN Gaza Report: Heads I Win, Tails You Lose.” The post accuses the Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report on Operation Protective Edge (“Gaza Report”) of “completely undermin[ing] the foundational notion of equal application of the law” with regard to three areas of IHL: warnings, civilian vs military objects, and compliance. None of Blank’s criticisms are convincing, but in this post I want to focus solely on her first topic, warnings. Here is what she says about the Commission’s discussion of whether Israel complied with its obligation under IHL to provide civilians in Gaza with “effective advance warning” prior to attack:

First, consider the report’s treatment of warnings, one of the precautions set out in Article 57 of Additional Protocol I.  Article 57 mandates that when launching attacks, “effective advance warning shall be given of attacks which may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit.”  The Commission examines Israel’s warnings in great detail, including leaflets, telephone calls, texts and roof-knocks, noting that the warnings often did lead to successful evacuation and save many lives.  However, the Commission found in many cases that specific phone warnings were not effective as required by LOAC, because the individuals in the targeted building would not know “in what direction to escape.” (¶ 237).

However, LOAC contains no requirement that the civilian population be able to act on the warnings in order to find them effective.  Instead, the legally correct approach is to examine whether the warnings generally informed civilians that they were at risk and should seek shelter. In other words, the legal issue is whether they were effective in transmitting a warning, not whether the civilians actually heeded them. The Israel Defense Forces routinely made individualized, specific phone calls to warn the residents of buildings to seek safety in advance of an attack on a particular building, far exceeding the requirements of LOAC. Yet the Commission bases its conclusions on the post-hoc question of whether civilians actually found shelter, which ultimately depends on a host of considerations outside the control of the attacking party.

Unfortunately, both paragraphs misrepresent the Gaza Report. Let’s consider Blank’s claims one-by-one.

[T]he Commission found in many cases that specific phone warnings were not effective as required by LOAC, because the individuals in the targeted building would not know “in what direction to escape.”

The Israel Defense Forces routinely made individualized, specific phone calls to warn the residents of buildings to seek safety in advance of an attack on a particular building, far exceeding the requirements of LOAC.

These statements are misleading. The subsection of the Gaza Report that Blank criticises focuses on Israel’s controversial use of “roof knocking,” not on its use of phone calls to civilians located in or near buildings about to be attacked. (The subsection is entitled “Roof Knock Warnings.”) Indeed, the entire point of the subsection is to explain why roof-knocking does not provide civilians with effective advance notice unless it is combined with a phone call or “other specific warnings” (¶ 239). Blank does not challenge the Commission’s conclusion in that regard. She does not even acknowledge it…

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.