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Middle East

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…

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.

Breaking the Silence — About Israel’s Assault on Gaza

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Advantage for Palestine of a Slow Preliminary Examination

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They should do the job themselves.

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

Guest Post on the ICC and Palestine at Justice in Conflict

by Kevin Jon Heller

My contribution to the symposium is now available. Here is the introduction:

I want to start with a prediction, one I’ve made before and still subscribe to: the ICC will never open a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine. People of all political persuasions seem to think that the ICC is somehow eager to leap into the most politicised conflict of the modern era. I disagree, not because the situation doesn’t deserve to be investigated – I think it is one of the gravest situations in the world – but because I don’t think we take the ICC’s institutional interests into account nearly enough when we prognosticate about what it might do. And I see very little upside for the ICC in opening a formal investigation.

My thanks to Mark Kersten for posting it — and to Kirsten Ainley for organising the roundtable at the LSE on which it’s based.

Israel’s “Defenders” Show Their True Colors Regarding Academic Freedom

by Kevin Jon Heller

From April 17-19, the University of Southampton is scheduled to host a conference entitled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.” As the title indicates, the conference was always going to be controversial. (Full disclosure: I was originally scheduled to present at the conference, but pulled out a couple of weeks ago because I simply didn’t have time to prepare anything.) Indeed, the conference webpage contains the following statement by the organisers:

The conference “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility, and Exceptionalism” at the University of Southampton on April 17-19th will engage controversial questions concerning the manner of Israel’s foundation and its nature, including ongoing forced displacements of Palestinians and associated injustices. The conference will examine how international law could be deployed, expanded, even re-imagined, in order to achieve regional peace and reconciliation based on justice.  The conference is intended to broaden debates and legal arguments concerning historic Palestine and the nature, role, and potentialities of international law itself.

Participants will be a part of a multidisciplinary debate reflecting diverse perspectives, and thus genuine disagreements, on the central themes of the conference. Diligent efforts, including face-to-face meetings with leading intellectuals in Israel, were made to ensure the widest range of opinions possible. Those who chose to abstain, however, cannot derail the legitimate, if challenging, academic discussion the conference will inspire.

The conference organizers are grateful to the University of Southampton for ensuring academic freedom within the law and for taking steps to secure freedom of speech within the law. The conference organizers accept that the granting of permission for this event does not imply support or endorsement by the University of any of the opinions to be expressed at the conference.

The final paragraph is more than a little ironic — because earlier today the University of Southampton caved to pressure from self-appointed right-wing “defenders” of Israel and withdrew its permission for the conference. To be sure, the University did not have the integrity to admit the real reason why it was withdrawing permission. Instead, it fell back on that time-worn excuse, “security.” (Read: Israel’s right-wing “defenders” promised to disrupt the conference if the University didn’t cancel it.) The organizers’ statement in response makes clear just how pathetic that excuse really is:

A number of risks have been identified by the police but it is very clear from the Police’s report that they are more than capable of policing the conference and ensuring the safety of university staff, speakers, delegates, students and property. However, instead of accepting this at face value the University decided to focus on the risks identified by the Police and ignore their statement about their ability to police the event – we were told the Police will never say in writing they are not able to police an event, in other words the University had doubts about the Police’s ability to do their job of upholding the law! The university claims that the Police are not able or unwilling to become too involved because the University is ‘private property’, which we find astonishing. The University is a public space, it was established by a Royal Charter and it has public roles and duties including upholding freedom of speech and to that extent it should be able to resort to police assistance in order to curb security risks to enable it to fulfil its legal obligation to uphold freedom of speech. If this is not done, if commitment to safety is not undertaken by the police, freedom of speech becomes an idle worthless notion. At no point were we given an indication that the University has indeed allowed itself the time to seek viable police assistance to supplement its own resources. Additionally, and unconvincingly, the University claims that it is now too late to put proper security arrangements in place. We do not accept that in any way as there are still 18 days left before the conference.

It will be a great shame if the conference does not go ahead as planned, whether at Southampton or at another venue. But the University’s decision does have a silver lining: it makes clear the contempt that Israel’s right-wing “defenders” have for academic freedom. They love to invoke academic freedom in the context of academic BDS, where the freedom in question is that of Israeli academics. (Regular readers know that I oppose academic BDS, and I voted against it recently at SOAS.) But when academic freedom means permitting criticism of Israel — well, then censorship is just fine. Consider the following…

Symposium on Palestine and the ICC at Justice in Conflict

by Kevin Jon Heller

Just in time for the activation of Palestine’s membership in the ICC, over the next few days Mark Kersten’s blog, Justice in Conflict, will be featuring posts by all of the people who participated in last week’s roundtable at the LSE — Mark, me, Kirsten Ainley, Dov Jacobs, Chantal Meloni, Leslie Vinjamuri, and Michael Kearney. Mark’s introductory post can be found here. I will post a link to a podcast of the LSE event as soon as it’s available. My contribution to the symposium should be up tomorrow or the next day.

Also, a hearty congratulations to Dr. Kersten, who has just been awarded a two-year SSHRC postdoc at the University of Toronto! London will miss him.

Responding to Rogier Bartels About Perfidy at Just Security

by Kevin Jon Heller

My friend Rogier Bartels published two excellent posts at Just Security over the past few days (here and here) in which he argues that it is inherently perfidious to launch an attack from a military object disguised as a civilian object. Just Security has just posted my lengthy response. Here is how I conclude the post:

At the risk of sounding like an armchair psychologist, I’d like to suggest an explanation for why an excellent scholar like Rogier adopts a theory of perfidy that, in my view, cannot be correct. The problem, I think, is the nature of the attack that gave rise to our lively debate: a bomb placed in a privately-owned car in the middle of a generally peaceful city. Such an attack simply doesn’t seem fair; of course a “combatant” — even a high-ranking member of Hezbollah — is entitled to feel safe walking by a car on “a quiet nighttime street in Damascus after dinner at a nearby restaurant,” as the Washington Post put it. Indeed, like Rogier, I am skeptical that IHL even applied to the bombing.

But just as hard cases make bad law, unusual situations generate problematic rules. Once we try to apply Rogier’s theory of perfidy to the “normal” combat situation, its plausibility falls apart. Although the same military/civilian distinctions apply, those distinctions take on a very different sheen during street-by-street, house-by-house fighting in a city virtually destroyed by armed conflict. You expect to be able to walk by a Mercedes in a Damascus suburb without being blown up, even if you are a soldier; but if you are a soldier in downtown Fallujah, the last thing you are going to do is walk casually past that burned out, overturned Mazda sitting in the middle of the city’s main road. Yet that Mazda is no less a civilian object than the Mercedes, and as long as IHL applies there is no legal difference between planting a bomb in the Mazda and planting a bomb in the Mercedes. Either both car bombs are perfidious or neither of them is. And it is very difficult to argue that planting a bomb in a burned-out, overturned Mazda in downtown Fallujah — or placing an ambush behind it, or using it for cover, or blending into it with camouflage, or placing a landmine near it — is an act of perfidy.

I share Rogier’s concern with the Israel/US operation that killed the Hezbollah leader, and I understand his unease — from a civilian protection standpoint — with many of the kinds of attacks I’ve discussed in this post. Any proposal to expand the definition of perfidy, however, must acknowledge the (ugly) reality of combat, particularly in urban areas. The general distinction between perfidy and ruses of war is a sensible one, even if we can — and should — debate precisely where the line between the two is drawn.

I hope readers will wander over to Just Security and read all three posts — as well as the original discussion that led to them.

Iran Responds to US Senators’ Letter, Shows Why Congress Should Be Involved in the First Place

by Julian Ku

I am totally swamped with various overlapping projects right now, so let me procrastinate anyway by noting that Iran took my suggestion and sent a response to the “open letter” sent them from 47 US Senators yesterday.  The letter actually shows why the President, and not the senators, is the one who is operating on the edge of constitutionality.

In the letter, Iran’s foreign minister suggested the senators were violating the US Constitution’s allocation of foreign policy conduct to the President.

[Foreign Minister] Zarif “expressed astonishment that some members of Congress find it appropriate to write leaders of another country against their own president,” a press release explained. “It seems that the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy.”

As I explained yesterday, I don’t think the letter is a  violation of the Constitution, although there is a closer question under the much-cited, never used Logan Act.

What I found more interesting is the Iranian FM’s suggestion that a future president who withdrew from or amended the agreement would violate international law. This statement illustrates why I think Congress should be included in this process in the first place.

[Zarif] warned that a change of administrations would not relieve the U.S. of its obligations under an international agreement reached under the previous administration. Any attempt to change the terms of that agreement, he added, would be a “blatant violation of international law.”

“The world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by U.S. domestic law,” Zarif explained. “The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.”

Zarif is no doubt right as a matter of international law (assuming there will be a binding agreement as opposed to a mere political commitment).  But think about it.  Why should a president be allowed to commit the US to binding obligations under international law that neither Congress nor a future President can withdraw from without violating international law?  Shouldn’t such a president be required to first get approval from Congress before committing the United States to this path? Isn’t that why there is a Treaty Clause in the first place? At the very least, doesn’t it make constitutional sense for Congress to have a right to weigh in?

So while lefty blogs and lefty senators are having a field day accusing the Republican senators of violating the law or exaggerating Jack Goldsmith’s pretty minor quibble with the letter’s use of the term ratification, they are ignoring the real constitutional question here.  The President seems ready to commit the United States to a pretty serious and important international obligation without seeking prior or subsequent approval from Congress.  And foreign countries are ready to denounce the United States if, say Congress, decides to pull out or refuses to carry out those obligations. Even if the President’s actions are good policy, it seems like a political and constitutional train wreck that could easily be avoided if the Administration simply agreed to send the Iran deal to Congress.

Way back in 2008, leading scholars like Oona Hathaway and Bruce Ackerman repeatedly denounced President Bush for considering executing a security agreement with Iraq without Congress. Where are the academic defenders of Congress’s foreign policy prerogatives now?

47 US Senators Send Iran’s Leader an Unnecessary(?) Primer on How US Constitution Works

by Julian Ku

Most of the US Senate’s Republican membership has signed an open letter to Iran’s leaders “informing” them about the nature of the U.S. constitutional system with respect to international agreements.   It is actually a very accurate statement of US foreign relations law, even if it is a little strange and potentially intrusive into the President’s foreign affairs power. It may also concede more than the Senators may have wanted to on the constitutionality of the proposed Iran deal.

Here are the key paragraphs in the letter;

[U]nder our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays a significant role in ratifying them.  In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify by a two-thirds vote.  A so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House and the Senate….Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.

What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.

OK, there is nothing here that is incorrect, as a matter of law, and this is not surprising since the letter was apparently drafted by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a very smart and knowledgeable constitutional lawyer. The letter does raise a couple of important constitutional issues.

First, a letter sent directly to a foreign leader on a matter which is currently under negotiations with the U.S. could be criticized as an unconstitutional interference in the President’s inherent  power to conduct foreign affairs.  Certainly, it is very unusual.  Imagine if the U.S. Senate had sent a letter to the Iraqi leaders in 2007-8 that Congress was going to have to approve any US-Iraqi alliance or defense cooperation treaty.

In any event, I actually think this letter skirts, but manages to avoid, any unconstitutional interference.  Phrased merely as a letter “bringing attention” to the U.S. constitutional system, the letter does not state U.S. policy, nor does it make any statement on the question of policy.

The most troubling line of the letter is: “The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.  ” But this is indisputably correct as a matter of law.

Maybe the strongest criticism of the letter is simply that it need not have been sent.  The only possible purpose of sending the letter is to discourage the Iranians from actually concluding an agreement, since presumably the Iranians can read US foreign relations law textbooks (or even blogs) without the help of the US Senate.  But then again, maybe they don’t. If the Iranians are somehow deluded into thinking a sole executive agreement could survive a Republican president in 2016, it is probably best for all concerned that they know the truth now.

Second, and on the other hand, I do wonder if the senators here may have conceded more than they wanted to here.  There is still a plausible constitutional argument out there that President must submit the Iran nuke agreement to either the Senate (as a treaty) or to Congress as a whole.  The letter all but concedes that the President can indeed conclude a sole executive agreement with Iran on this matter.  Doesn’t this undercut the Senators’ argument that they should, indeed, must have their say on this deal?  (also, they only got 47 votes! There are 55 Republican senators, plus some Democrats who also oppose the Iran deal. Do they not agree with this statement of law?).

In any event, I can’t recall a letter of this sort from recent (or even older) U.S. history.  Readers should feel free to add examples in the comments.  I wonder if the Iranians will send a letter back?

Iran Nuke Review Act Does Not Actually “Require” a Vote of Congress

by Julian Ku

According to the WSJ,  the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act”  that I discussed earlier this week may already have 64 declared supporters in the Senate.  This means that supporters are only 3 votes shy of enough to override President Obama’s veto of this bill.

Since the bill might actually become law, it is worth reminding supporters of the bill that it does NOT guarantee that Congress will vote on the Iran nuke deal.  This might be confusing, but as I argued earlier this week, the proposed law would only suspend the lifting of sanctions for 60 days.  During that 60-day period, Congress could vote on the bill, or it could choose not to do so.  Silence would allow the sanctions to be lifted after the 60 days.  So it is not quite right to say, as the WSJ does, that the proposed law would “require a vote of Congress.”  Still, it is quite likely that Congress would vote, and at least this bill would give them the opportunity to do so.

If the bill passes, and a veto fight breaks out, it will be worth considering whether President Obama invokes any constitutional arguments to justify his position.  I believe that President Obama’s threatened veto reflects a robust and unilateralist conception of the President’s power to make sole executive agreements without Congressional approval.  It will be interesting to see if he defends his veto on constitutional grounds.