Archive of posts for category
Middle East

Lawfare Podcast on al-Bahlul

by Kevin Jon Heller

While in DC last week for the ICC/Palestine event at George Mason — I’ll post a link to the video when it becomes available — I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lawfare’s Wells Bennet and Just Security’s Steve Vladeck to discuss the oral argument at the DC Circuit on the al-Bahlul remand, which the three of us attended that morning. You can listen to the podcast at Lawfare here; Steve did most of the talking, because he understands the constitutional issues in the case better than anyone, but I weighed in a few times on the international-law side. I hope you enjoy it — and my thanks to Wells for inviting me to participate.

Mark Kersten on the Terror Attacks in Canada

by Kevin Jon Heller

These days, I usually use Twitter to point readers to blog posts that deserve their attention. But Mark Kersten’s new post at Justice in Conflict is so good — and so important — that I want to highlight it here. The post achieves the near-impossible, passionately indicting Canada’s right-wing government for creating a political environment ripe for terrorism without in any way suggesting that Wednesday’s terror attacks were justified. It’s a truly brilliant post, from top to bottom. Here is a snippet, concerning the Harper government’s foreign-policy disasters:

The Canadian government has actively pursued a political philosophy of retribution and control that tarnishes the country’s image as an ‘honest international broker’. Harper’s record attests to an unyielding mission to reshape Canada’s international identity as a tough and hard-power state. The Harper government plays the part of destructive belligerent in climate change negotiations and tar-sands cheerleader. It is first in line to threaten Palestine with “consequences” if Ramallah pursues accountability for alleged crimes committed by Israeli forces in Gaza. While it isn’t usually described as such (many prefer terms like “militarily engaged”), the reality is that Canada has been at war, primarily in Afghanistan, for most of the last decade. And while we should judge each decision to engage in wars on their own terms, the government has positioned itself as a military – rather than diplomatic or humanitarian – middle power. The role of Canadian citizens in the Afghan detainee scandal has been swept under the rug. The government willfully left a child soldier, Omar Khadr, to rot in Guantanamo and were the only Western government not to request the repatriation of their citizens from that nefarious island prison. It left Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen wrongly accused of terrorism, stranded in Khartoum for years and threatened anyone who tried to help him return to Canada with aiding and abetting terrorism. In a country that takes pride in seeing Lester B. Pearson as the father of peacekeeping, the government prefers to count the number of fighter jets it will buy than the number of peacekeepers it deploys. And, making matters worse, those who disagree with the Harper government’s approach to being “hard on crime”, “tough on justice”, and “a military power” are too often portrayed as naive or betraying Canadian values.

Sadly, it’s not just Canada that has pursued the kind of right-wing policies that make horrific acts of terrorism more likely. Very similar posts could — and should — be written about the Key government in New Zealand, the Abbott government in Australia, and (yes) the Obama government in the US. These misguided policies have done next to nothing to prevent terrorism; they create the illusion of security, not its actuality. Indeed, insofar as they do little more than further radicalize the populations they affect, the policies have made us all that much less safe.

Read Kersten. And if you are on an academic committee that is looking to appoint a brilliant young lecturer, hire him.

ICC and Palestine Event at George Mason

by Kevin Jon Heller

The event at George Mason University on the ICC and Palestine is today. Here, again, is the flyer:

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If you cannot attend, the live-stream link is here.

Guest Post: Removing the cloak of immunity – the Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales accepts no immunity from criminal investigation into torture

by Oliver Windridge

[Oliver Windridge is a British lawyer specialising in international criminal and human rights law. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or any other organisations affiliated to the author.]

Last week saw the discontinuation of alleged Bahraini torture survivor FF’s judicial review of the Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales (DPP) decision not to authorise a criminal investigation into the alleged involvement of Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the son of the King of Bahrain, in torturing persons involved in the political protests in Bahrain in April 2011. Unfortunately, since the DPP withdrew from the case just prior to the court hearing there does not appear to be a final judgement, only this 2013 directions hearing judgement which  sets out the parties’ submissions.

As background, FF took part in Bahraini political protests in February and March 2011 which resulted in him being allegedly badly beaten by police and held without charge. In July 2012 a dossier prepared by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) alleged that Prince Nasser was directly involved in the torture of detained prisoners linked to the same political protests FF participated in. In addition to being the son of the King of Bahrain, Prince Nasser also holds the position of Commander of the Royal Guard.

The ECCHR’s dossier was handed to the British police which in turn lead the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales (CPS) to indicate in August 2012 that Prince Nasser would enjoy personal immunity under Section 20 of the State of Immunity Act 1978 since Prince Nasser was a member of the Bahraini royal household and/or functional immunity pursuant to section 1 of the same act in relation to any conduct in his role as Commander of the Royal Guard.

Following a request for review of the CPS’s decision, the CPS Special Crime and Counter Terrorism division indicated in September and October 2012 that Prince Nasser did not enjoy personal immunity under Section 20 (1) (b) of the 1978 Act as his household was independent from that of his father, the King of Bahrain. It maintained however, that Prince Nasser still enjoyed functional immunity under Section 1 of the 1978 Act based on his position as Commander of the Royal Guard of Bahrain

FF sought judicial review of the CPS’s decision submitting that Section 1 of the 1978 Act does not apply to criminal proceedings. He cited in support Pinochet III and Jones v Saudi Arabia, both of which he argued supported his contention that public officials of foreign states have no functional immunity from criminal process in relation to the international crime of torture.  FF argued therefore that prosecution of Prince Nasser for torture committed in Bahrain would be possible in UK courts pursuant to the extraterritorial criminal jurisdiction under Section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. In January 2013 FF was granted judicial review permission.

As mentioned above, the matter was due to be heard in the High Court of England and Wales on 7 October 2014, roughly one year and 10 months after permission for judicial review was granted. However shortly before, the DPP appears to have accepted that Prince Nasser does not enjoy immunity from torture allegations and withdrew from the case.

(more…)

Panel at George Mason on the ICC and Palestine

by Kevin Jon Heller

I will be participating next week in what should be an excellent event at George Mason University on the ICC and Palestine. The other participants are all excellent — David Luban, Meg DeGuzman, George Bisharat, and the organizer, Noura Erakat. Here is the flyer:

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I hope at least some Opinio Juris readers will be able to attend and hear my dire prognostications in person. (If you do, make sure to come say hello.) The event will be live-streamed for those that do not live nearby.

Does the Collective Self-Defense Justification Extend to Khorasan? If Not, Then Is There One?

by Julian Ku

I agree with Jens’ excellent post on the importance of the “unwilling or unable” standard to the US justification for legal strikes on non-state actors in Syria.  I agree this action may reveal state practice supporting (or rejecting) this legal justification.  I am curious whether the UK, France, or other states that may be participating in Syria strikes will embrace this theory. (I already know the Russians have roundly rejected this US justification). I also wonder whether this legal justification will weaken, as a policy matter, the ability of the US to effectively attack ISIS.

I do have one additional observation. Tacked on, almost as an afterthought, Ambassador Power’s letter notes that:

In addition, the United States has initiated military actions against al-Qaida elements in Syria known as the Khorasan Group to address terrorist threats that they pose to the United States and our partners and allies.”

The vague wording of the letter about Khorasan (threats to “the United States and our partners and allies”) as compared to the pretty specific language about ISIS’s attacks on Iraq  (“ to end the continuing attacks on Iraq, to protect Iraqi citizens, “) suggests that Khorasan is not currently engaged in armed attacks on Iraq.  This means that the U.S. is making a much broader international law claim than for its attacks on ISIS.  The U.S. is attacking Khorasan because, like Al Qaeda, it is a terrorist threat to the U.S. itself.  But no actual armed attacks have yet occurred (as far as I know).

It is therefore worth noting whether more  states object to the attacks on Khorasan than on ISIS, because the Khorasan attacks have a weaker international legal justification. My guess is that objecting states like Russia will not bother distinguishing between the two. But it will be interesting to see whether US allies will refuse to join strikes on Khorasan, even if they are willing to strike ISIS in Syria.

The Unwilling or Unable Doctrine Comes to Life

by Jens David Ohlin

Today the U.S. launched airstrikes against ISIS and other extremist groups within Syrian territory. In the past, airstrikes were limited to Iraqi territory, which came with the consent of the Iraq government (and were thus legally uncontroversial from the perspective of jus ad bellum). Today’s airstrikes require a sophisticated legal argument to explain the intrusion on Syria’s territorial sovereignty. Samantha Power’s letter to the United Nations indicates that the Obama administration is relying on a combination of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and the “unwilling or unable” standard:

September 23, 2014

Excellency,

In Iraq’s letter to the United Nations Security Council of September 20, 2014, and other statements made by Iraq, including its letter to the United Nations Security Council of June 25, 2014, Iraq has made clear that it is facing a serious threat of continuing attacks from ISIL coming out of safe havens in Syria. These safe havens are used by ISIL for training, planning, financing, and carrying out attacks across Iraqi borders and against Iraq’s people. For these reasons, the Government of Iraq has asked that the United States lead international efforts to strike ISIL sites and military strongholds in Syria in order to end the continuing attacks on Iraq, to protect Iraqi citizens, and ultimately to enable and arm Iraqi forces to perform their task of regaining control of the Iraqi borders.

ISIL and other terrorist groups in Syria are a threat not only to Iraq, but also to many other counties, including the United States and our partners in the region and beyond. States must be able to defend themselves, in accordance with the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense, as reflected in Article 51 if the UN Charter, when, as is the case here, the government of the State where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks. The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these safe-havens effectively itself. Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria in order to eliminate the ongoing ISIL threat to Iraq, including by protecting Iraqi citizens from further attacks and by enabling Iraqi forces to regain control of Iraq’s borders. In addition, the United States has initiated military actions against al-Qaida elements in Syria known as the Khorasan Group to address terrorist threats that they pose to the United States and our partners and allies.

I request that you circulate this letter as a document of the Security Council.

Samantha J. Power

His Excellency
Mr. Ban Ki-moon
Secretary-General of the United Nations
New York, NY

So the structure of the argument goes as follows. The right of response is originally Iraqi, and the U.S. right of intervention is parasitic upon the Iraqi claim. Iraq has been attacked by ISIS, thus triggering Iraq’s right of self-defense against ISIS. Furthermore, since Syria is apparently unable to adequately respond to the ISIS threat and prevent its forces from using Syria as a base of operations to launch attacks against Iraq, then Iraq is entitled to use military force against ISIS installations and forces in Syria, even without the consent of the Syrian government or authorization from the Security Council. In other words, this falls under the inherent right of self-defense that is carved out by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter as an exception to the general prohibition on the use of force contained in article 2 of the U.N. Charter. The U.S. is intervening militarily to vindicate Iraq’s self-defense interest as a case of individual or collective self-defense.

A few observations here:

First, this was a predictable development. I don’t see another avenue for the U.S. to legally defend the intervention, unless it wanted to rely on the even more controversial RTP doctrine, which isn’t terribly relevant here. Nor was a Security Council resolution possible (given Russian and Chinese positions on Syria).

Second, it will solidify the growing interpretation of the customary international law on self-defense as applying to attacks by non-state actors. I view this position as absolutely correct, pace the International Court of Justice and its unsupported statement that the Article 51 right of self-defense only applies to attacks by states (which is nowhere mentioned in Article 51 anyway). In addition to the Security Council resolution after the 9/11 attacks, the world community’s reaction to the armed conflict against ISIS will be highly relevant for crystallizing the correct interpretation of self-defense as applying to attacks from state and non-state actors alike.

Third, the world reaction to the conflict against ISIS in Syria will help resolve the uncertain status of the unwilling or unable standard for force against non-state actors in third-party territory. Although the status of the doctrine has in the past been in doubt, international law is very much an evolving creature, and years from now the present conflict will no doubt be an important exhibit in that debate. In other words, even if “unwilling or unable” is not the current state of the law, it may well be very soon on account of the present conflict, the U.S. legal justification for it, and the world’ community’s reaction to same.

 

Guest Post: Pesky Questions of International Law: What’s the basis for air strikes in Syria?

by Jennifer Trahan

[Jennifer Trahan is an Associate Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at NYU-SPS.]

President Obama’s speech on September 10th raised many legal issues, including, whether there needs to be added Congressional authorization for the use of force, or one can utilize the pre-existing Authorization for the Use of Military Force (“AUMF”) that Congress granted after 9/11 (see Deborah Pearlstein’s post and Peter Spiro’s).  But his speech also raised profound questions at a second level – that of public international law (touched upon by Kevin Jon Heller).

This may not seize the attention of the American public, but surely coalition partners would ask these questions:  what was Obama’s basis for the legality of air strikes in Syria?

It is somewhat troubling that President Obama took the step of supporting air strikes in Syria, without articulating any clear legal foundation at the international level.  Just to be clear, the issue of air strikes in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (“ISIS”) does not raise similar questions, as Iraq had earlier consented to the use of force.

There are a number of possible legal rationales for air strikes in Syria, but the U.S. needs to make the case under one of these grounds.  Such a legal foundation was not well-articulated in President Obama’s speech.  (more…)

Guest post: A Response to Kevin Heller on the Nature of Self-Defense

by Michael W. Lewis

[Michael W. Lewis is a Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University where he teaches International Law and the Law of War.] 

Kevin was right that my Just Security post misstated the legal standard for self-defense by stating that Syria could rightfully treat US attacks on ISIS on Syrian soil as aggression if the US had established that it was acting in self-defense.  As he said, such a use of force in self-defense cures any sovereignty violation that the United States might have committed.  This is, of course, how it works in theory.  Reality is somewhat different.

In practice, any state relying on the “unable or unwilling” standard (as the United States did in Pakistan to support the bin Laden raid) will have no way of knowing whether the target state will see things the same way.  By definition a state relying on the “unable or unwilling” standard lacks permission from the host/target state to use force on its territory.  This is why I said that the US would act at its own peril in Syria.  Any state taking such action will do so at its own peril because the host/target state might believe itself to be justified in using force to repel perceived aggression.   That is why the US used its most advanced and stealthiest helicopters for the bin Laden raid because they anticipated that Pakistan might react to an unannounced incursion with force.

Further, in most incidents of anticipatory self-defense (which is what any strike relying on the “unable or unwilling” standard is likely to be based upon) the host/target state claimed that the use of force on its territory was illegal and in many cases did exercise what it maintained were its sovereign rights to respond to the incursion with force.  To use the 1967 War as an example, Israel claimed that its first strike against the Egyptian Air Force was an exercise of self-defense because Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi troops were massing on its borders and Egypt had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.  IF Israel’s claim of self-defense was valid this would cure its sovereignty violations, and the Egyptian anti-aircraft batteries would be prohibited from firing on the Israeli planes as they bombed the Egyptian airfields.  Even if theoretically international law contained such a prohibition, would any state in Egypt’s position honor it?  The answer is self-evidently, no.

The reality is that any states relying on the “unable or unwilling” standard to support a claim of self-defense will do so while anticipating and preparing for armed resistance from the host/target state.  And host/target states which have not granted permission for others to use force on their territory will assert a right to defend their sovereignty by treating such uses of force as aggression, and by responding with force if they so choose.   The host/target state’s response, though theoretically unlawful, is very likely to occur and is something that any state relying upon the “unable or unwilling” standard will both anticipate and factor in to its decision to use force.

Guest Post: Update on Israel/Palestine and the Revival of International Prize Law

by Eliav Lieblich

[Eliav Lieblich is an Assistant Professor at the Radzyner Law School, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC)]

Back in January, I wrote a guest post  about prize proceedings initiated by the Government of Israel against the Finnish vessel Estelle, intercepted by the Israeli navy while attempting to breach the Gaza blockade in late 2012. As I wrote back then, the proceedings were held before the District Court of Haifa, sitting in its capacity as the Admiralty Court of Israel. The State based its application to condemn the vessel on old pieces of British legislation, which granted prize jurisdiction to courts in Mandatory Palestine (the British Naval Prize Act of 1864 and the British Prize Act of 1939).

As I noted back in January, prize powers have never been exercised by Israel before. Moreover, prize proceedings are extremely rare globally. Indeed, since customary prize law allows belligerents to capture and condemn private vessels – both “enemy” and, in some cases, “neutral” – prize law seems at odds with contemporary human rights norms protecting private property.

In this context, my January post raised several questions for the Haifa Court. Among these, I’ve questioned the continuous relevance of prize law in the human rights era, and whether Israeli administrative law will affect the Court’s understanding of prize law. Well, the wait is over: on August 31, the Court (Judge Ron Sokol), has rendered a 33-page decision in The State of Israel v. The Vessel Estelle.

I will spare the readers from detailing the Court’s finding of jurisdiction, although doubtless interesting to legal historians: the bottom line is that it has found itself to have inherited the jurisdiction from the former British prize courts in Palestine. But the Court had some interesting things to say in terms of substantive prize law. (more…)

Mike Lewis Is Wrong About the Nature of Self-Defence

by Kevin Jon Heller

Mike Lewis has a guest post at Just Security today responding to Ryan Goodman’s recent post exploring what the US’s claimed “unwilling or unable” test for self-defence against non-state actors means in the context of Syria and ISIS. Ryan, careful scholar as always, rightly points out that the test “remains controversial under international law.” Mike doesn’t seem to have any such qualms, but that’s not what I want to respond to here. Instead, it’s important to note that Mike makes a basic error concerning how the “unwilling or unable” test functions — assuming for sake of argument it is a valid approach to self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter (emphasis mine):

It is important to note that this interpretation does not give the US unlimited license to act in violation of the sovereignty of other states as some opponents of the standard claim. There are limits and dangers associated with taking such a course of action. First of all, an intervening state can only take such actions after giving the host/target state a meaningful opportunity to prevent its territory from being used by the non-state actor to launch attacks. In the case of Syria, there is no question that it is unable to control the territory under ISIS control so further delays are unnecessary. Secondly, the intervening state does so at its own peril. Syria can rightfully interpret any strikes as aggression by the US and it is justified in taking steps to prevent such attacks and to destroy the drones/aircraft conducting such attacks.

Um, no. The entire point of arguing self-defence — in any form, including pursuant to the controversial “unwilling or unable” test — is that it cures any violation of state sovereignty under Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter. So if the US attacked ISIS in Syria because Syria was unwilling or unable to prevent ISIS from using its territory as a base for attacks, the US would not violate Art. 2(4) and Syria would have no right whatsoever to act in self-defence against that armed attack. Indeed, any attempt to “prevent such attacks and to destroy the drones/aircraft conducting such attacks” would represent an act of aggression by Syria against the US, thereby opening the door to legitimate acts of self-defence against Syria itself.

Again, I don’t accept that the “unwilling or unable” test reflects current customary international law. But it’s important not to let that debate obscure how self-defence functions under Art. 51 of the UN Charter.

The 9/11 AUMF does not cover ISIS

by Jens David Ohlin

Last night I blogged about Obama’s speech that outlined the administration’s plan to contain and destroy ISIS. I noted that Obama announced his intention to ask for congressional authorization for the plan while steadfastly maintaining that he did not need this authorization. He was vague about why. In my blog last night, I presumed that he was asserting that he had authority under his Article II commander-in-chief power.

Marty Lederman notes in the comments, as well as on Just Security, that this was not a reference to an Article II argument. A senior administration official released a statement last night confirming that Obama is relying on the 9/11 AUMF as an enduring authorization that covers the new military initiative against ISIS.

I find this argument implausible. Here is the relevant text of the AUMF:

IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Since, al-Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks, the AUMF covers al-Qaeda. It also covers organizations that planned, authorized, committed or aided the attacks, or organizations that harbored those organizations. Consequently, non-al-Qaeda organizations are covered by the AUMF insofar as they are connected to al-Qaeda in the right way.

This is a question of law application to fact, so it is necessarily a fact-dependent analysis. However, there appears to be little evidence that this link exists between ISIS and al-Qaeda. Of course, ISIS was once part of (or closely associated with al-Qaeda), and therefore at that time the AUMF arguably covered ISIS. Before its current manifestation, ISIS was considered an Iraq franchise of al-Qaeda, operating under the banner of Osama bin Laden and ostensibly subordinating itself under his operational control.

That relationship no longer exists. ISIS no longer operates under the banner of al-Qaeda, nor is it operationally subordinate to what is left of al-Qaeda core or any of the other al-Qaeda franchises. And famously, al-Qaeda effectively excommunicated ISIS for not following its central directives regarding target selection. Al-Qaeda officials correctly concluded that ISIS’s strategy was counter-productive because it alienated Muslims, and they promptly disassociated themselves from a group that was too radical even by al-Qaeda’s standards. So the operational link is broken, and has long-since been broken.

So what is the connection that the administration is asserting? They argue that

Based on ISIL’s longstanding relationship with al-Qa’ida (AQ) and Usama bin Laden; its long history of conducting, and continued desire to conduct, attacks against U.S. persons and interests, the extensive history of U.S. combat operations against ISIL dating back to the time the group first affiliated with AQ in 2004; and ISIL’s position – supported by some individual members and factions of AQ-aligned groups – that it is the true inheritor of Usama bin Laden’s legacy…

This is a weak argument. Yes, ISIS once had a relationship with al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, but that prior relationship no longer governs. What matters is the current relationship. Furthermore, the fact that ISIS is the “true inheritor” of Bin Laden’s legacy is neither here nor there. In what sense is ISIS the “inheritor” of Bin Laden’s legacy? The only one I can think of is that ISIS represents the gravest Jihadist threat to the peaceful world — a position once held by Osama Bin Laden. Also, the fact that they threaten U.S. personnel and interests is an argument that proves way too much — plenty of other groups do that as well, which isn’t terribly relevant. None of this makes ISIS fit into one of the AUMF categories (planning, aiding, haboring, etc). Simply put, ISIS is not al-Qaeda.

Don’t get me wrong. I think ISIS represents the biggest threat to regional and national security since 9/11, and military force is warranted for that reason. Congress should immediately pass a new AUMF authorizing force against ISIS. I just don’t think that the original AUMF can be stretched to cover ISIS today. It’s a weak argument that sounds like a pretext to avoid making an Article II constitutional argument (which Obama presumably disfavors).