Archive of posts for category
Middle East

The PTC’s Bizarre Request for Additional Information About Afghanistan

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Did Carter Page Get a PhD from SOAS?

by Kevin Jon Heller

The Guardian is reporting today that Carter Page — Donald Trump’s bumbling former foreign-policy advisor, who has been interviewed quite extensively by the FBI regarding his contacts with Russia — earned a PhD from SOAS in 2011 after failing his defence twice. Here are some snippets from the story:

Page first submitted his thesis on central Asia’s transition from communism to capitalism in 2008. Two respected academics, Professor Gregory Andrusz, and Dr Peter Duncan, were asked to read his thesis and to examine him in a face-to-face interview known as a viva.

Andrusz said he had expected it would be “easy” to pass Page, a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas). He said it actually took “days and days” to wade through Page’s work. Page “knew next to nothing” about social science and seemed “unfamiliar with basic concepts like Marxism or state capitalism,” the professor said.

The viva, held at University College, London, went badly. “Page seemed to think that if he talked enough, people would think he was well-informed. In fact it was the reverse,” Andrusz said. He added that Page was “dumbfounded” when the examiners told him he had failed.

Their subsequent report was withering. It said Page’s thesis was “characterised by considerable repetition, verbosity and vagueness of expression”, failed to meet the criteria required for a PhD, and needed “substantial revision”. He was given 18 months to produce another draft.

Page resubmitted in November 2010. Although this essay was a “substantial improvement” it still didn’t merit a PhD and wasn’t publishable in a “learned journal of international repute”, Andrusz noted. When after a four-hour interview, the examiners informed him he had failed again, Page grew “extremely agitated”.


After this second encounter, Andrusz and Duncan both resigned as Page’s examiners. In a letter to Soas, they said it would be “inappropriate” for them to carry on following Page’s “accusation of bias” and his apparent attempts to browbeat them. Andrusz said he was stunned when he discovered Page had joined Trump’s team.

Soas refuses to identify the academics who eventually passed Page’s PhD thesis, citing data protection rules.

In a statement, Soas said it had “proper and robust procedures for the award of PhDs”. It added: “All theses are examined by international experts in their field and are passed only where they meet appropriate high academic standards.”

I don’t think it is technically accurate to say that Page “failed” his defence twice. It seems more likely that each time he received a “not pass, but with major corrections” — which is not the same thing as a fail under SOAS’s PhD regulations. If a student fails, he or she cannot resubmit.

That said, I have never heard of a SOAS doctoral student being offered “not pass, but with major corrections” twice. The current regulations, which date back to at least 2014, specifically provide (section 6.9) that “[c]andidates for MPhil or PhD who are ‘not pass, but with major corrections’ are permitted one re-entry to examination.” They also require the revised dissertation be submitted within 12 months of the defence, while Page was given 18 months. It is possible, of course, that the regulations were different in 2010. But I think it’s unlikely.

It is also strange that SOAS would simply replace the original examiners with new ones after two “not pass” results and a subsequent allegation of bias. Why would a student who failed to correct his dissertation twice be given a third bite of the apple with different examiners? Page is hardly the first student to allege bias when he received a failing mark — and it’s not like he’s Saif Gaddafi or anything.

Something is seriously wrong here. SOAS is a world-class university with very high academic standards — one I’m proud to be associated with. The administration owes all of us an explanation. Hiding behind data privacy is not acceptable.

NOTE: SOAS’s Guidance for Examiners says candidates have 18 months to resubmit and at least mentions the possibility of examiners recommending “a further referral to revise and resubmit the thesis.” I am not sure how the Guidance can be reconciled with the PhD Regulations, and I presume the latter are binding.

A Potentially Serious Problem with the Final Decision Concerning Comoros

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initial Thoughts on the ICC’s Decision to Investigate Afghanistan

by Kevin Jon Heller

Very significant news out of the ICC today: after a decade-long preliminary examination, the OTP has finally decided to ask the Pre-Trial Chamber to authorize a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan. Here is a snippet from Fatou Bensouda’s announcement:

For decades, the people of Afghanistan have endured the scourge of armed conflict.  Following a meticulous preliminary examination of the situation, I have come to the conclusion that all legal criteria required under the Rome Statute to commence an investigation have been met.  In due course, I will file my request for judicial authorisation to open an investigation, submitting that there is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in connection with the armed conflict in Afghanistan.  It will be for the Judges of the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber, constituted by the Presidency, to decide whether I have satisfied them that the Statute’s legal criteria to authorise opening an investigation are fulfilled.

Given the limited temporal scope of the Court’s jurisdiction, my request for judicial authorisation will focus solely upon war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed since 1 May 2003 on the territory of Afghanistan as well as war crimes closely linked to the situation in Afghanistan allegedly committed since 1 July 2002 on the territory of other States Parties to the Rome Statute.  The Court has no jurisdiction respecting crimes alleged to have been committed before those cut-off dates.

Assuming the PTC grants the OTP’s request — which is basically a foregone conclusion — Afghanistan will become (following Georgia) the second ICC investigation outside of Africa.

It will be very interesting to see how the US reacts to the announcement. The OTP made it clear in its 2016 preliminary-examination report that it intends to investigate crimes committed by the US military and the CIA:

211. The information available provides a reasonable basis to believe that, in the course of interrogating these detainees, and in conduct supporting those interrogations, members of the US armed forces and the US Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) resorted to techniques amounting to the commission of the war crimes of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape. These acts are punishable under articles 8(2)(c)(i) and (ii) and 8(2)(e)(vi) of the Statute. Specifically:

  • Members of US armed forces appear to have subjected at least 61 detained persons to torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity on the territory of Afghanistan between 1 May 2003 and 31 December 2014. The majority of the abuses are alleged to have occurred in 2003-2004.
  • Members of the CIA appear to have subjected at least 27 detained persons to torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity and/or rape on the territory of Afghanistan and other States Parties to the Statute (namely Poland, Romania and Lithuania) between December 2002 and March 2008. The majority of the abuses are alleged to have occurred in 2003-2004.

212. These alleged crimes were not the abuses of a few isolated individuals. Rather, they appear to have been committed as part of approved interrogation techniques in an attempt to extract ‘actionable intelligence’ from detainees. According to information available, the resort to such interrogation techniques was ultimately put to an end by the authorities concerned, hence the limited time-period during which the crimes allegedly occurred.

213. The Office considers that there is a reasonable basis to believe these alleged crimes were committed in furtherance of a policy or policies aimed at eliciting information through the use of interrogation techniques involving cruel or violent methods which would support US objectives in the conflict in Afghanistan. Likewise, there is a reasonable basis to believe that all the crimes identified herein have a nexus to the Afghanistan conflict.

If the US formally challenges the investigation — a big if, because it would probably see doing so as an acknowledgment of the investigation’s legitimacy — it will no doubt rely on Mike Newton’s argument in the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law that the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Afghanistan and the United States precludes the ICC from exercising jurisdiction over American soldiers. (The SOFA presumably doesn’t apply to CIA operatives, who are not part of the US armed forces.) Oversimplifying a bit, Mike argues that Afghanistan has no jurisdiction that it can delegate to the ICC, because the SOFA provides that the US retains exclusive jurisdiction over crimes committed by American soldiers. I disagree with the argument, for reasons ably laid out by Roger O’Keefe and Carsten Stahn. But it is a serious argument that deserves serious consideration.

Like Dov Jacobs, I am also intrigued by the OTP’s stated intention to investigate crimes committed by the CIA in Romania, Lithuania, and Poland. There is no jurisdictional problem, because those states are all members of the ICC and the the SOFA that applies to NATO states is based on shared jurisdiction, not exclusive jurisdiction. And I don’t think anything in the Rome Statute prohibits the OTP from defining a situation to include territory of multiple states. But we have definitely never seen a situation like this before.

I doubt that we will see the ICC issue arrest warrants for an American soldier or CIA operative anytime soon. My guess is that the OTP will begin with crimes committed by the Taliban, which will be much easier to investigate and prosecute than American crimes. (If only because Donald Trump might be crazy enough to actually invade The Hague if the Court ever got its hands on an American.) But this is still a momentous — if long overdue — day for the ICC. Opening an investigation that could lead to Americans being prosecuted, even if only in theory, is a remarkable act of bravery for a Court that has proven largely impotent with regard to crimes committed by government officials.

Kudos to Fatou Bensouda and the OTP.

New Essay: Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have just posted on SSRN a draft of a (very) long article entitled “Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom.” It represents my first real foray into both “classic” public international law and postcolonial critique. Here is the abstract:

Although the US has consistently relied on the ICJ’s doctrine of specially-affected states to claim that it and other powerful states in the Global North play a privileged role in the formation of customary international law, the doctrine itself has been almost completely ignored both by legal scholars and by the ICJ itself. This article attempts to fill that lacuna. In particular, by focusing on debates in a variety of areas of international law – with particular emphasis on the jus ad bellum and jus in bello – it addresses two questions: (1) what makes a state “specially affected”? and (2) what exactly is the importance of a state qualifying as “specially affected” for custom formation? The article concludes not only that the US approach to the doctrine of specially-affected states is fatally flawed, but also that a more theoretically coherent understanding of the doctrine would give states in the Global South power over the development of custom that the US and other Global North states would never find acceptable.

You can download the article here. As always, comments most welcome!

UK-Saudi Arabia Arms Trade before the High Court: Questions following the Judgment

by Riccardo Labianco

[Riccardo Labianco is a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London. His research focuses on state-to-state military assistance in times of conflict.]

On 10th July 2017, the High Court of Justice (HCJ) delivered its decision regarding the choice of the Secretary of State for International Trade not to halt the transfers of arms between the UK and Saudi Arabia (SA). The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), the claimant, requested judicial review of that choice, in light of the violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) committed by SA in the conflict in Yemen which likely occurred through UK-manufactured arms and weapons. Eventually, the judges accepted the government’s arguments and dismissed the request for judicial review. This decision was based on the fact that the UK government was the only actor able to assess the absence of a clear risk of IHL violations that could be committed with the transferred arms, due to its inside knowledge of the Saudi administration and its engagement with it. As shown below, the absence of a clear risk of IHL violations must be assessed before authorising any arms export.

Two aspects of the judgment are analysed here. First, the HCJ’s interpretation of the “Consolidated Criteria for Arms Export”, a piece of EU legislation incorporated in the UK legal system. Second, the choice to consider the UK’s “privileged position” within the Saudi administration as an essential element for the lawfulness of the arms transfers.

Symposium: Aeyal Gross’s “The Writing on the Wall”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the next three days we will be featuring an online discussion of my SOAS colleague and TAU law professor Aeyal Gross‘s new book for Cambridge University Press, The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017). The book develops ideas that Aeyal discussed on Opinio Juris — in a symposium on the functional approach to occupation — more than five years ago. So it’s fitting that we discuss his book on the blog now!

We are delighted to welcome a number of commenters, including Eliav Lieblich (TAU), Valentina Azarova (Koç) (who also contributed to the earlier symposium), Diana Buttu (IMEU), and Eugene Kontorovich (Northwestern). Aeyal will respond to the comments at the end of the symposium.

We look forward to the conversation!

Saudi Arabia Threatens to Shoot Down a Qatari Airways Plane

by Kevin Jon Heller

Saudi-owned TV news network Al Arabiya aired a video simulation yesterday that shows a Saudi Arabian fighter shooting an air-to-air missile at a Qatari Airways plane. Here is the video:

That’s bad enough — but what is truly horrifying is the accompany voiceover, which intones the following:

International law permits states to shoot down any aircraft that violates a state’s airspace, classing it as a legitimate target, especially if flying over a military area.

No, it doesn’t. This is wrong on so many levels. To begin with, shooting down a Qatari Airways plane would categorically violate the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which Saudi Arabia ratified more than 50 years ago. Art. 3bis, which has been in force since 1998, provides as follows:

a) The contracting States recognize that every State must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight and that, in case of interception, the lives of persons on board and the safety of aircraft must not be endangered. This provision shall not be interpreted as modifying in any way the rights and obligations of States set forth in the Charter of the United Nations.

The second sentence recognises that Saudi Arabia would have every right under the UN Charter to defend it against armed attack — if, for example, the Qatar military decided to use a Qatar Airways plane for offensive military purposes. But although a civilian Qatar Airways plane would no doubt violate the principle of non-intervention if it intentionally entered Saudi airspace, thus giving rise to Qatari state responsibility (because Qatar owns Qatar airways), the mere fact of intentional entry would not remotely qualify as an armed attack — much less one that would justify the use of lethal force in self-defense.

The conclusion is no different under the jus in bello. A Qatar Airways plane would not become a legitimate target by flying over a Saudi “military area” — much less simply by entering Saudi airspace. Indeed, neither act would even be a use of force sufficient to create an international armed conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So IHL would not even apply.

We need to be clear about what the video represents. Quite simply, Saudi Arabia is threatening to engage in state terrorism — the use of violence to spread panic among Qatari civilians in order to persuade the Qatari government to supposedly stop supporting terrorist groups. (Something the Saudis know more than a little about.)

Saudi Arabia is a fundamentally lawless state. I’d like to think this horrific video could prove to be its Charlottesville moment, finally convincing the US and the UK that the Saudi government has no intention of complying with international law. But I’m not going to hold my breath. If routinely massacring civilians in Yemen isn’t enough, what’s casually threatening to blow up a civilian Qatari plane?

Dear Secretary Tillerson (and the World Media): Qatar is NOT Under a “Blockade”

by Julian Ku

Longtime readers of this blog may have noticed that one of my pet peeves is the incorrect usage of international legal terms in public and diplomatic discourse.  Hence, Israel did NOT commit “piracy” during the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid despite lots of governments claiming otherwise.  Cuba is not under a “blockade” despite tons of Cuban government propaganda otherwise. So you can imagine my dismay when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued this statement yesterday calling the situation in Qatar a “blockade.”

We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar. There are humanitarian consequences to this blockade.

(Emphasis added). Global media is using the term  “blockade” as well.

I don’t doubt that Qatar is under severe economic pressure.  It is reported that all of Qatar’s neighbors in the Gulf have cut off air, land and sea trade with Qatar.  Saudi Arabia has blocked the only land border into Qatar, which is a peninsula.  But as powerful as these economic pressures are, they do NOT constitute a blockade as defined by international law.  As this definition from the Max Planck Institute Encyclopedia of Public Law explains:

A blockade is a belligerent operation to prevent vessels and/or aircraft of all nations, enemy and neutral from entering or exiting specified ports, airports, or coastal areas belonging to, occupied by, or under the control of an enemy nation.

There is no evidence, as far as I know, that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are preventing “vessels and/or aircraft of all nations” from entering Qatar ports.  Instead, the Gulf nations are simply preventing anyone in their territories from traveling to or trading with Qatar.  A blockade would mean that the Gulf nations actually used military force to interdict all shipping and flights into Qatar by any nation and through international waters.  Israel has essentially established such a blockade of the Gaza Strip, but that has not happened to Qatar (yet). Until that happens, there is no blockade.

Why is it so shocking that Secretary Tillerson did not recognize this legal distinction? Because the U.S. frequently engages in economic sanctions of the sort currently being imposed against Qatar.  The U.S. has either strict economic sanctions or full-scale embargoes on countries like North Korea, Cuba, and Iran.  Cuba in particular has tried to label the US embargo on it as a “blockade” even though the U.S. does not use military force to prevent other countries from trading with Cuba. The U.S. should not and cannot water down the legal definition of “blockade” without imperiling an crucial tool in its diplomatic toolbox.   Moreover, since “blockades” are traditionally seen as an “act of war,” they would probably constitute a “use of force” under Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter.  The U.S., more than any country, should want to maintain the legal right to impose embargoes.

So please, Secretary Tillerson, consult your many talented and knowledge State Department lawyers.  Qatar is NOT being blockaded, and the U.S. (of all countries) should avoid saying so.

Syria War Crimes Accountability Act — Now Revised!

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last month, I blogged about the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017, a bipartisan Senate bill “[t]o require a report on, and to authorize technical assistance for, accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Syria.” I praised the bill, but pointed out that Section 7(a) was drafted in such a way that it permitted the US to provide technical assistance to entities investigating international crimes committed by pro-Assad forces and “violent extremist groups,” but did not permit the US to support entities investigating international crimes committed by rebels.

I am delighted to report that Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), successfully introduced an amendment to the bill at last Thursday’s SFRC’s business meeting that corrects the asymmetry in Section 7(a). The new version reads as follows (emphasis in original):

The Secretary of State (acting through appropriate officials and offices, which may include the Office of Global Criminal Justice), after consultation with the Department of Justice and other appropriate Federal agencies, is authorized to provide appropriate assistance to support entities that, with respect to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, all forces fighting on its behalf, and all non-state armed groups fighting in the country, including violent extremist groups in Syria beginning in March 2011…

This is a welcome change, because — as I pointed out in my original post — there is no reason to treat crimes committed by rebels any differently than crimes committed by Assad’s forces or by ISIS.

Kudos to Sen. Cardin! Let’s hope the revised version of the bill passes the full Senate soon.

States Are Failing Us in Syria — Not International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last month, Just Security published a long and thoughtful post by Rebecca Ingber with the provocative title “International Law is Failing Us in Syria.” The international law she is talking about is the jus ad bellum — the illegality of unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI) in particular. In her view, the failure of the international community to use force to end the humanitarian crisis in Syria indicates that an exception to Art. 2(4) for UHI is “the only means of preserving international law’s credibility in the use of force realm”:

The reality is that there will be times that states use force out of a sense of moral imperative and long-term strategic importance, and not out of a specific self-defense rationale. International law – and we international lawyers – can try to stand in the way, at times constraining morally imperative action, at times getting bulldozed; or we can look the other way and be sidelined, perhaps even tell policymakers and our clients to move forward without us. Or, we can engage and work with them to help craft the most sound, narrow, acceptable grounds possible, together with our allies. This view is not an acceptance that international law does not matter. It is an acceptance that international law – like so much public law – operates in a dynamic space that is inevitably interwoven with the reality of how states act and the widespread acceptance of its legitimacy.

I don’t want to focus here on the legal aspects of Ingber’s post, other than to note that when she claims “our allies… have become comfortable stretching the outer bounds of what international law has historically been thought to permit” with regard to the use of force, she links almost exclusively to UK practice. (The one exception is “unwilling or unable,” where she refers to the flawed Chachko/Deeks post that tries to categorise state positions on the doctrine.)

The legal questions are, of course, interesting. But what I find most problematic about Ingber’s post is its most basic assumption: namely, that the international community has failed to do more in Syria because UHI is not legal. That assumption, I think, is categorically false. If the King of International Law announced tomorrow that UHI was consistent with Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter, it would have no effect on the international response to the Syrian crisis. Literally none.

And that is because international law is not failing us in Syria. States are.

Or, more precisely, the self-interest of states is failing us. States have not intervened in Syria to end the humanitarian crisis because doing so would be immensely costly in terms of both blood and treasure, not because Art. 2(4) doesn’t permit UHI. There is no easy solution for states concerned about Syria, such as a Kosovo- or Libya-style airpower campaign. If they want to end the crisis, they will have to invade Syria and destroy the large and generally well-equipped Syrian army — a task that would make the invasion of Iraq look positively economical by comparison. And the sad truth is that the US is not going to spend billions of dollars and accept thousands of dead American soldiers to save a bunch of defenceless Syrian civilians. Nor is the UK. Or France. Or Germany. Or any other state.

Do intervention-minded scholars disagree? Does anyone really believe that there is a head of state out there — actual or even potential — who at this very moment is saying to herself “I could end the Syria crisis tomorrow if that damn Art. 2(4) didn’t prohibit unilateral humanitarian intervention”? The idea beggars belief. I am on record with my insistence that UHI is not only unlawful but criminal, but I’m not stupid. A successful UHI in Syria would result in a Nobel Peace Prize, not a confirmation of charges hearing.

What is most striking about Ingber’s post is that she barely attempts to defend her claim that international law is preventing the kind of UHI she believes is necessary in Syria. All she says is that “with respect to Syria alone, the fact that international law may have played a role in taking intervention off the table during the Obama presidency (and there are subtle indications that it did) should weigh heavily on us now.” I’ve read both of the documents to which she links, and the indications are subtle indeed. In the press conference, Obama openly acknowledges the real reason why the US did not intervene in Syria while he was President — it wasn’t worth the cost:

So with respect to Syria, what I have consistently done is taken the best course that I can to try to end the civil war while having also to take into account the long-term national security interests of the United States.

And throughout this process, based on hours of meetings, if you tallied it up, days or weeks of meetings where we went through every option in painful detail, with maps, and we had our military, and we had our aid agencies, and we had our diplomatic teams, and sometimes we’d bring in outsiders who were critics of ours — whenever we went through it, the challenge was that, short of putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, uninvited, without any international law mandate, without sufficient support from Congress, at a time when we still had troops in Afghanistan and we still had troops in Iraq, and we had just gone through over a decade of war and spent trillions of dollars, and when the opposition on the ground was not cohesive enough to necessarily govern a country, and you had a military superpower in Russia prepared to do whatever it took to keeps its client-state involved, and you had a regional military power in Iran that saw their own vital strategic interests at stake and were willing to send in as many of their people or proxies to support the regime — that in that circumstance, unless we were all in and willing to take over Syria, we were going to have problems, and that everything else was tempting because we wanted to do something and it sounded like the right thing to do, but it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap.

Obama takes the same position in the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Nothing in the interview suggests that the illegality of UHI had anything to do with Obama’s unwillingness to intervene more dramatically in Syria. On the contrary, as Goldberg explains by means of contrasting Obama with Samantha Power, he simply doesn’t believe in UHI:

Power is a partisan of the doctrine known as “responsibility to protect,” which holds that sovereignty should not be considered inviolate when a country is slaughtering its own citizens. She lobbied him to endorse this doctrine in the speech he delivered when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but he declined. Obama generally does not believe a president should place American soldiers at great risk in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States.

Goldberg recounts many of the factors underlying Obama’s realist view of American military power. The key one, though, is pragmatic, not legal — the disaster of NATO’s supposedly humanitarian intervention in Libya:

But what sealed Obama’s fatalistic view was the failure of his administration’s intervention in Libya, in 2011. That intervention was meant to prevent the country’s then-dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering the people of Benghazi, as he was threatening to do. Obama did not want to join the fight; he was counseled by Joe Biden and his first-term secretary of defense Robert Gates, among others, to steer clear. But a strong faction within the national-security team—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, who was then the ambassador to the United Nations, along with Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and Antony Blinken, who was then Biden’s national-security adviser—lobbied hard to protect Benghazi, and prevailed. (Biden, who is acerbic about Clinton’s foreign-policy judgment, has said privately, “Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.”) American bombs fell, the people of Benghazi were spared from what may or may not have been a massacre, and Qaddafi was captured and executed.

But Obama says today of the intervention, “It didn’t work.” The U.S., he believes, planned the Libya operation carefully—and yet the country is still a disaster.

The Libya fiasco is particularly important, because it is tempting to believe that collective UHI in Syria might be more successful than individual UHI. It probably would — except that the benefits of collective action would still not outweigh the reluctance of powerful states to spend blood and treasure for merely humanitarian concerns. Libya is a case in point: NATO countries were willing to drop bombs on the Libyan army, but they would never have committed soldiers to a ground invasion. They are not willing to put them in Libya now, when the risks are minimal. So even if Ingber is right that states have shown “widespread support for military action in response to humanitarian crises” (and I don’t think she is), she is still missing the fundamental point: they support military action by others, not by them. It’s not an accident, for example, that interventionists like John McCain and Lindsey Graham expect Arab soldiers to do the fighting for them in Syria.

And, of course, Syria is not Libya. Or even Kosovo. On the contrary: unlike in those situations, UHI in Syria, whether individual or collective, risks a shooting war with Russia, the second most powerful military in the world, and perhaps with Iran. That unpleasant possibility provides a far more effective deterrent to military action against Assad than the text of Art. 2(4) ever will.

What, then, is to be gained by “divining” or “crafting” an exception to Art. 2(4) for UHI, as Ingber suggests? The legality of UHI would not lead to humanitarian interventions in Syria or in any other comparable situation. But it would give powerful states like the US yet another pretext for using force to promote their national interests. Why invoke an inherently selfish rationale such as self-defence as a pretext for aggression when you could invoke humanitarian intervention instead? Who is opposed to helping innocent civilians? And if we take your land and oil and other resources along the way, well, we have to pay for our selflessness somehow, don’t we?

Legalising UHI, in short, will not lead to more humanitarian uses of force. It will lead to more aggression. And that is because international law is not the problem in Syria and elsewhere. States are.

Symposium on Israeli Settlements

by Kevin Jon Heller

AJIL Unbound has just posted the contributions to a symposium entitled “Revisiting Israel’s Settlements.” The contributors are all superb: Eyal Benvenisti, Pnina Sharvit Baruch, David Kretzmer, Adam Roberts, Omar M. Dajani, and Yaël Ronen. The true highlight, though, is the essay that accompanies the symposium and will be published in the next issue of the American Journal of International Law: Theodor Meron’s “The West Bank and International Humanitarian Law on the Eve of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Six-Day War,” which can be downloaded for free. Meron’s essay revisits the famous memo he wrote in 1967 as the Legal Adviser of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which he made clear, inter alia, that Israel was occupying the West Bank and that building settlements there would violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. Once again Meron painstakingly vivisects the frivolous legal arguments that Israel and its apologists have offered to excuse the occupation and the settlements. But it’s his conclusion that is particularly important:

But if the continuation of the settlement project on the West Bank has met with practically universal rejection by the international community, it is not just because of its illegality under the Fourth Geneva Convention or under international humanitarian law more generally. Nor is it only because, by preventing the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian territory, the settlement project frustrates any prospect of serious negotiations aimed at a twostate solution, and thus of reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is also because of the growing perception that individual Palestinians’ human rights, as well as their rights under the Fourth Geneva Convention, are being violated and that the colonization of territories populated by other peoples can no longer be accepted in our time.

It’s a shame that Israel didn’t listen to Meron in 1967. Israel might be geographically smaller if it had, but it would also be far more safe and secure. Instead, the settlements metastasise, Israel’s democracy deteriorates, and Palestinians continue to suffer.