Archive of posts for category
Middle East

Emerging Voices: The Preliminary Examinations in Iraq: A Net Loss for the ICC’s Political Capital

by David Benger

[David Benger is the Course Assistant for the Brandeis University in The Hague intensive summer school in International Criminal Law. He may be reached at dabenger [at] gmail [dot] com.]

The International Criminal Court, an ostensibly purely legal organization, is nevertheless plagued by a wide variety of political pressures. For example, the attempt to balance The Court’s relationship with The African Union (widely considered to be deteriorating) and its relationship with the United States (widely considered to be improving) is an important thorn in the side of the Court’s daily operations. This post will examine the re-opening of the preliminary examination of British soldiers in Iraq through the lens of the potential political fallout of that decision. The re-opening of the preliminary examination in Iraq is not a signal of sufficient substance to appease the African anti-ICC lobby. Unless and until there are actual trials of European commanders in The Hague (not likely in the near future), the characterization of the ICC by African leaders as a neo-imperialist Western tool is not likely to dissipate based on a mere preliminary examination. With regard to the United States, however, the impact of this decision will almost certainly resonate. Though many observers of the USA-ICC relationship subscribe to the narrative of a steadily improving rapport between the two, this post will argue that this is not quite the case. In fact, the relationship between the Court and the USA is in a decidedly precarious position, and the re-opened Iraq investigation may have a decisive and damning impact on America’s potential support for The Court.

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Joint Declaration Charging Legal Violations in Israel’s Gaza Offensive

by Julian Ku

A group of international law and criminal law scholars have issued a joint declaration denouncing Israel’s Gaza offensive for causing “grave violations…of the most basic principles of the laws of armed conflict and of the fundamental rights of the entire Palestinian population.” It is the latest front in the public debate over legal violations arising out of the Gaza conflict, some of which we have noted here at Opinio Juris (the legality of denying electricity to Gaza and the legal effect of Israeli warnings to civilians).Personally, I don’t think there is enough evidence in UN and media reports to support the Joint Declaration’s main claim: that Israel is intentionally trying to target, terrorize, and collectively punish the civilian population of Gaza. Rather, my view is that Israel is conducting an aggressive military operation which is resulting in civilian deaths, and that those deaths may or may not be legal violations of the law of armed conflict (it is hard to say based on media reports at this time).   But I am not convinced (as the Joint Declaration seems to allege) that killing civilians is actually the basic intention and goal of the Israeli government.

Still, the Gaza conflict has plainly drawn the attention of the global community of international and criminal law scholars. I think these kinds of statements will have, and are already having, an impact on world opinion and the Israeli government. So it is worth taking a look.

Guest Post: Israel’s Use of Law and Warnings in Gaza

by Janina Dill

[Janina Dill is a Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.]

In the ongoing military campaign ‘Protective Edge’ the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) consistently issues warnings before air strikes against targets in Gaza. The population is warned of impending attacks with phone calls, text messages or so called ‘knocks on the roof’ (dropping of non- or low-impact explosives on the intended target). The warnings play a central role in Israel’s claim that, contrary to Palestinian armed groups, namely Hamas; it obeys the strictures of international law. ‘While the IDF goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties, Hamas deliberately puts civilians in the line of fire, the IDF maintains on its official blog. The First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, the relevant sections of which have the status of customary international law, in Article 57(2) c indeed prescribes that ‘effective advance warning shall be given of attacks which may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit’.

Warnings, their frequency and form, are at the centre of a narrative that Israel does not simply comply with, but goes beyond the call of international law in its care for the civilians of Gaza. ‘Israel’s use in the Gaza Strip of non-lethal warning shots to the roofs of buildings which constitute military targets … is not legally obligated’, the Military Advocate General’s Corps holds. Media commentary commends Israel for giving civilians a way out without even being obliged to do so. This is a misunderstanding of Article 57. The provision establishes an unequivocal obligation to warn before attacks that implicate the civilian population – as air strikes against a territory as densely populated as Gaza will regularly do. Granted, it is not an absolute obligation. The law recognizes that sometimes it may not be possible to warn. Crucially the provision does not say ‘warn if possible’, but ‘warn unless impossible’. It is open to interpretation when that is the case and reasonable people may disagree, but the default is to issue a warning and it is a failure to do so that requires explanation. Warnings are not acts of charity.

But are the kinds of warnings issued as part of Operation Protective Edge manifestations of the IDF’s commitment to the laws of war? The practice raises two distinct concerns. The first is that the air strikes the IDF carries out after issuing warnings are indicative of a misunderstanding of the legal implications warning before an attack. It has none! The second is the concern that the practice itself violates international law. I discuss them in turn. (more…)

Can Israel Cut Off Water and Power to Gaza?

by Kevin Jon Heller

That’s the question at the heart of a complicated debate between a variety of IHL scholars. The debate began with a legal opinion that Avi Bell submitted to the Knesset, in which he argued that nothing in international law prohibits Israel from cutting off the water and power it provides to Gaza. Although the opinion is dense — and has been updated in response to a document criticising an earlier published version — the bottom line is that Bell rejects the idea that Gaza is still occupied and believes it is thus impossible to find a positive obligation on Israel to continue to provide water and power (p. 5):

Some have argued that Israel is required to supply the Gaza Strip because Israel allegedly maintains control over Gaza. There are two versions of this claim: one version claims that Israel belligerently occupies the Gaza Strip; the other claims that Israel “controls” the Gaza Strip for purposes of human rights treaties or “post-occupation” duties even though it neither occupies nor exercises sovereignty over the Gaza Strip. When it controls territory through belligerent occupation, a state may have the duty supply certain goods to a civilian population if there is no other way to ensure access to the goods. Similarly, when it controls territory over which it has lawful sovereignty, a state may have the duty to supply certain goods when human rights treaties demand their provision to the civilian population. However, Israel does not control the Gaza Strip for purposes of the law of belligerent occupation or human rights  duties. Thus, Israel cannot be held to a duty to supply.

Bell’s legal opinion led a group of leading Israeli international-law scholars, including Eyal Benvenisti, Aeyal Gross (also at SOAS), David Kretzmer, and Yuval Shany, to submit a response to the Knesset. The essence of the response is that even if Israel is no longer occupying Gaza (on which the experts do not take an opinion), its ongoing control over basic features of Gazan life means that it is not free to completely ignore basic Palestinian humanitarian needs. Here is the key paragraph (pp. 10-11):

Israel and Gaza are not equal sovereign entities. Israel has controlled Gaza for decades, which resulted in significant dependence on Israeli infrastructure. Even after the disengagement, it still holds certain powers over the population in Gaza – including by its control over essential infrastructure. Since Israel does not allow, de facto, the development of independent infrastructure in Gaza, it cannot completely deny the responsibility to provide these essential supplies. Therefore, the interpretation suggested in the Opinion does not reflect a proper balance between the different objectives of IHL – even when considering the special challenges of asymmetric warfare. Chiefly, this is because it results in a legal “black hole” which deprives the civilian population of the effective protection of international law.

The debate between Bell and the other experts led Diakonia, a Swedish NGO, to commission a third report from Michael Bothe, one of the world’s foremost IHL experts. Bothe concludes, like the group of experts, that cutting off water and power to Gaza could (in certain circumstances) violate IHL. But he offers two independent bases for that conclusion…

The al-Senussi Admissibility Decision in Two Quotes

by Kevin Jon Heller

Libya’s Foreign Minister, 21 May 2014:

There is a complete absence of the army and the police [in Libya], which are responsible for the security of the state. Armed groups are not under control…. State-building needs to build security institutions first and foremost because with no security there can be no investments, building a real state, nor an effective criminal justice system to protect rights and freedoms.

ICC Appeals Chamber, 24 July 2014:

The Appeals Chamber concluded that there were no errors in the findings of the Pre-Trial Chamber that Libya is not unwilling or unable to genuinely prosecute Mr Al-Senussi.

Meanwhile, over at ABC News…

by Kevin Jon Heller

BsJXdWkCYAEhdi_Diane Sawyer had a hard-hitting report tonight at ABC News on the recent hostilities between Israel and Palestine. The segment opens with her saying, “We take you overseas now to the rockets raining down on Israel today as Israel tried to shoot them out of the sky.” As she speaks, a video box next to her shows explosions on an urban landscape. Sawyer then shows a still photo of two haggard men carrying clothes in front of a destroyed building and says, “here is an Israeli family trying to salvage what they can.”

There’s only one problem with Sawyer’s report: the explosions are in Gaza, the result of IDF airstrikes, and the men are Palestinian, not Israeli.

Welcome to the mainstream media’s even-handed coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Name That Pinko!

by Kevin Jon Heller

What Israel-hating, Hamas-loving lefty said the following on Facebook?

Dear friends: Take a few moments to read the following words and share them with others. I see the severe and rapid deterioration of the security situation in the territories, Jerusalem and the Triangle and I’m not surprised. Don’t be confused for a moment. This is the result of the policy conducted by the current government, whose essence is: Let’s frighten the public over everything that’s happening around us in the Middle East, let’s prove that there’s no Palestinian partner, let’s build more and more settlements and create a reality that can’t be changed, let’s continue not dealing with the severe problems of the Arab sector in Israel, let’s continue not solving the severe social gaps in Israeli society. This illusion worked wonderfully as long as the security establishment was able to provide impressive calm on the security front over the last few years as a result of the high-quality, dedicated work of the people of the Shin Bet, the IDF and the Israel Police as well as the Palestinians whose significant contribution to the relative calm in the West Bank should not be taken lightly.

However, the rapid deterioration we’re experiencing in the security situation did not come because of the vile murder of Naftali, Eyal and Gil-Ad, may their memories be blessed. The deterioration is first and foremost a result of the illusion that the government’s inaction on every front can actually freeze the situation in place, the illusion that “price tag” is simply a few slogans on the wall and not pure racism, the illusion that everything can be solved with a little more force, the illusion that the Palestinians will accept everything that’s done in the West Bank and won’t respond despite the rage and frustration and the worsening economic situation, the illusion that the international community won’t impose sanctions on us, that the Arab citizens of Israel won’t take to the streets at the end of the day because of the lack of care for their problems, and that the Israeli public will continue submissively to accept the government’s helplessness in dealing with the social gaps that its policies have created and are worsening, while corruption continues to poison everything good, and so on and so on.

But anyone who thinks the situation can tread water over the long run is making a mistake, and a big one. What’s been happening in the last few days can get much worse — even if things calm down momentarily. Don’t be fooled for a moment, because the enormous internal pressure will still be there, the combustible fumes in the air won’t diminish and if we don’t learn to lessen them the situation will get much worse.

The pinko in question would be Yuval Diskin, the director of Israel’s Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011. Further proof that being outside of government is conducive to honesty — especially when the government in question is overseen by someone like Netanyahu.

Syria and International Justice at the LSE

by Kevin Jon Heller

I will be participating in a roundtable about Syria and international justice next Monday night at the LSE. It’s free and open to the public, so I hope at least a few OJ readers will come. You can also send questions to the following hashtag: #LSESyriaICC. We will try to answer at least a few of them!

Here are the event details:

Syria and International Justice
LSE Centre for International Studies Dialogue
30 June 2014
6.30-8pm at LSE
Thai Theatre
New Academic Building

With a draft Security Council resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court vetoed, what, if anything, should the international community or other interested actors do to achieve justice in Syria?

SPEAKERS

Kevin Jon Heller, Professor of Criminal Law, SOAS. @kevinjonheller
Dov Jacobs, Asst Professor of Int’l Law, Grotius Centre. @dovjacobs
Mark Kersten, Researcher, LSE. Justiceinconflict.org. @MarkKersten
Jason Ralph, Professor of Int’l Relations, University of Leeds. @JasonRalph4
Leslie Vinjamuri, Senior Lecturer in IR, SOAS. @londonvinjamuri

CHAIR

Kirsten Ainley, Director of LSE CIS. @kirstenainley

Quote of the Day: Tony Abbott on the Rule of Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

Here he is, defending General Sisi, the new President of Egypt:

This is a general, but a general who has studied in both the United States and the United Kingdom, so he is certainly someone who is familiar with the rule of law.

Because everyone knows that you can’t learn about the rule of law outside the West. Duh.

PS. Abbott made his silly comment as a way of explaining why he was confident Egypt would not be unfair to Peter Greste, the Australian Al-Jazeera journalist accused — with no evidence whatsoever — of “spreading false news” and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

Greste was just sentenced to seven years in prison. I guess Sisi didn’t pay enough attention in his US and UK classes.

Breaking the Silence (About the IDF’s Treatment of Palestinians)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call readers’ attention to a remarkable Israeli NGOBreaking the Silence, which collects the testimony of Israeli soldiers about the brutalization of Palestinians during the occupation. Here is the NGO’s self-description:

Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.

Soldiers who serve in the Territories witness and participate in military actions which change them immensely. Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases. Our testimonies portray a different, and much grimmer picture in which deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of  Israel’s security. While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny that what is done in its name. Discharged soldiers returning to civilian life discover the gap between the reality they encountered in the Territories, and the silence about this reality they encounter at home. In order to become civilians again, soldiers are forced to ignore what they have seen and done. We strive to make heard the voices of these soldiers, pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled.

We collect and publish testimonies from soldiers who, like us, have served in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since September 2000, and hold lectures, house meetings, and other public events which bring to light the reality in the Territories through the voice of former combatants. We also conduct tours in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills region, with the aim of giving the Israeli public access to the reality which exists minutes from their own homes, yet is rarely portrayed in the media.

Founded in March 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron, Breaking the Silence has since acquired a special standing in the eyes of the Israeli public and in the media, as it is unique in giving voice to the experience of soldiers. To date, the organization has collected more than 700 testimonies from soldiers who represent all strata of Israeli society and cover nearly all units that operate in the Territories. All the testimonies we publish are meticulously researched, and all facts are cross-checked with additional eye-witnesses and/or the archives of other human rights organizations also active in the field. Every soldier who gives a testimony to Breaking the Silence knows the aims of the organization and the interview. Most soldiers choose to remain anonymous, due to various pressures from official military persons and society at large. Our first priority is to the soldiers who choose to testify to the public about their service.

What makes this kind of work so effective, of course, is that it is impossible to disregard the soldiers who provide the testimonials — or at least all of them — as “anti-Israel.” On the contrary, these soldiers are true patriots, doing their part in a repressive political environment to save Israel from its Netanyahus and Liebermans.

The Guardian has an excellent story today about Breaking the Silence. You can read it here. And make sure to check out the NGO’s superb website, where all of the testimonials can be found.

Hat-tip: my colleague Anicee Van Engeland.

Libya’s Chutzpah

by Kevin Jon Heller

I had a good chuckle this morning when I read Libya’s latest attempt to avoid complying with its obligation to surrender Saif Gaddafi to the ICC. (Which, of course, it may be genuinely unable to do, given that he’s still being held in Zintan. But that’s another story.)

The source of my amusement is Libya’s new excuse for not being able to file submissions on time:

[D]uring May 2014, there has been a surge in attacks against the Government, particularly in Tripoli and Benghazi, such that the UN Support Mission in Libya has recently expressed its concern over these “various acts of violence, including the assaults on official institutions”. These ongoing exigencies have prevented the Libyan authorities from providing up-to-date instructions on the salient issues. In view of these circumstances, the Government is, understandably, currently focusing its resources on restoring stability and order.

If you followed Libya’s failed admissibility challenge closely, you know that Saif’s defence team at Doughty Street Chambers (full disclosure: I’m now an academic member there) consistently argued that the violence in Libya prevented it from effectively trying Saif. Libya just as consistently rejected that argument, insisting that the violence had no effect whatsoever on its ability to conduct judicial proceedings.

To recap Libya’s position, then: the violence in the country doesn’t prevent the government from prosecuting Saif. But it does prevent it from filing a legal brief withe the ICC.

As I said, I had a nice chuckle.

A Problematic Study of Drone Strikes in Pakistan (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Lawfare reports today on a study published in Political Science Quarterly about how ordinary Pakistanis view US drone strikes in their country. According to the post, the study “[c]hallenge[s] the conventional wisdom” that there is “deep opposition” among Pakistanis to drone strikes and that “the associated anger [i]s a major source of the country’s rampant anti-Americanism.”

I don’t have access to the study itself, but the polling questions quoted in the Lawfare post seem seriously flawed. Here are the three primary questions about drone strikes:

How much, if anything, have you heard about the drone attacks that target leaders of extremist groups – a lot, little, or nothing at all?

Please tell me whether you support or oppose the United States conducting drone attacks in conjunction with the Pakistani government against the leaders of extremist groups.

Now I’m going to ask you a list of things that the United States might do to combat extremist groups in Pakistan. For each one, please tell me whether you would support or oppose it. [The respondent is then offered]: Conducting drone attacks in conjunction with the Pakistani government against leaders of extremist groups. 

There are two significant problems with these questions. First, it seems like a major stretch to describe the US drone program in Pakistan as being carried out “in conjunction with the Pakistani government” — a formulation that implies that Pakistan and the US are working together. I accept reports that say Pakistan has tacitly or secretly endorsed the US drone program. But the Pakistani government’s public position has always been that the drone program is being conducted without its consent. The “in conjunction with” language is thus seriously misleading — especially given that the ordinary Pakistani will likely be far more familiar with the government’s public position than with the private one revealed in secret cables. Indeed, the second and third questions could easily be interpreted to be asking a hypothetical question (“would you like drone strikes more if they were conducted in conjunction with your government?”), instead of as an assertion of a past and present state of affairs.

The second problem, however, is even more serious. All three questions assert — and assume — that drone strikes in Pakistan target “leaders of extremist groups.” But that is almost certainly not the case. Here, for example, is what the Stanford/NYU “Living Under Drones” report says:

National security analysts—and the White House itself— have found that the vast majority of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan have been low-level alleged militants. Based on conversations with unnamed US officials, a Reuters journalist reported in 2010 that of the 500 “militants” the CIA believed it had killed since 2008, only 14 were “top-tier militant targets,” and 25 were “mid-to-high- level organizers” of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other hostile groups. His analysis found that “the C.I.A. [had] killed around 12 times more low-level fighters than mid-to-high- level” during that same period. More recently, Peter Bergen and Megan Braun of the New America Foundation reported that fewer than 13% of drone strikes carried out under Obama have killed a “militant leader.” Bergen and Braun also reported that since 2004, some 49 “militant leaders” have been killed in drone strikes, constituting “2% of all drone-related fatalities.”

Unless all of these reports are incorrect, the US drone program in Pakistan has never focused on “leaders of extremist groups.” It is thus extremely misleading for the study to ask ordinary Pakistanis whether they support drones strikes that target such leaders. Would the results be the same if the study had asked participants whether they “supported or opposed the United States conducting drone attacks against low-level fighters believed to be members of extremist groups”? I doubt it.

It is a truism of the polling business that poll results are only as good as the questions participants are asked. In the case of the drone study reported in Lawfare, there is reason to be skeptical of both the questions and the answers.

UPDATE: After an email exchange with one of the authors, I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that the questions were formulated and asked by Pew, not by the research team. That said, I still question how useful the answers are, given the problems discussed above.