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Middle East

NYU’s Selective Defence of Academic Freedom

by Kevin Jon Heller

John Sexton, the controversial President of NYU, has spoken out against the American Studies Association’s much-debated resolution in favour of boycotting Israeli universities. Here is his statement, issued jointly with NYU’s provost:

We write on behalf of New York University to express our disappointment, disagreement, and opposition to the boycott advocated by your organization of Israeli academics and academic institutions.

This boycott is at heart a disavowal of the free exchange of ideas and the free association of scholars that undergird academic freedom; as such, it is antithetical to the values and tenets of institutions of advanced learning.

I have no desire to wade into the debate over academic BDS, other than to say I’m generally wary of academic boycotts, but find it distressing that those who criticize the ASA for undermining academic freedom somehow never get around to criticizing Israel for its ongoing repression of Palestinian academics and students.

That said, NYU is the last university that should be issuing flowery defences of academic freedom. As Anna Louise Sussman points out in The Nation, President Sexton has not only refused to criticize the repression of academics in the UAE, where NYU has a campus, he has made statements that actually justify that repression:

Since April 8 the Emirati government has arrested five prominent Emiratis—activists, bloggers and an academic—for signing a petition calling for reform, and thrown them in jail, where they remain to this day. They are being held without charges, although they are in contact with their families and lawyers.

[snip]

Dr. Christopher Davidson, a reader in Middle East politics at Durham University who specializes in the politico-economic development in the Gulf, believes that by arresting people like Professor bin Ghaith, a high-profile academic, the government hopes to show that no one—no matter how connected they are—is beyond the government’s reach. Even Professor bin Ghaith’s connections to Paris-Sorbonne couldn’t save him, although Davidson chalks that up to the Sorbonne’s notable lack of response.

[snip]

According to NYU sociology Professor Andrew Ross, who has been an outspoken critic of the university’s involvement in the autocratic city-state, NYU president John Sexton recently told a group of concerned faculty members that he had reason to believe those arrested were a genuine threat to national security, something that Professor Lockman finds “particularly shocking.”

“He suggested that these people were genuinely subversive and deserving of arrest, although human rights organizations, of course, have a different take,” said Lockman. “This kind of toadying to the crown prince and his ilk shows the hollowness of NYU’s role in this place.”

Ross and his colleagues at the New York chapter of the American Association of University Professors sent a letter addressed to Dean Sexton and Vice-Chancellor Al Bloom, warning that “Silence on this serious issue will set a precedent that could also have ominous consequences for the speech protections of NYUAD faculty.”

Apparently, academic freedom is important to NYU only when it’s Israeli academics whose freedom is at stake. The academic freedom — and actual freedom — of academics in states in which NYU has business interests? Not so much.

Hat-Tip: Max Blumenthal.

NOTE: For more about President Sexton’s unwillingness to defend academic freedom in the UAE, see this essay in The Atlantic. The articles notes that, ironically, the UAE discriminates against Israeli students who want to study in the country.

Guest Post: Iran and Diplomacy – Countermeasures Against Immunity and Immunity Against Countermeasures

by Sondre Torp Helmersen

[Sondre Torp Helmersen is an LLM candidate at the University of Cambridge, teaches at the University of Oslo, and is an editor at the Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law.]

The recent nuclear deal between Iran and the “P5+1” may potentially bookend a long period of intermittent diplomatic troubles for Iran. The mutual distrust and hostile rhetoric that have accompanied (and obstructed) the negotiations are traceable to the fallout over the taking of US diplomats in Tehran as hostages in 1979, in what is usually called the Iran hostage crisis. The diplomatic breakthrough that the deal represents provides an opportunity to revisit the impact of that crisis on the current state of diplomatic law. Some parts of its legacy are widely appreciated, while others are less well understood. This post will focus on a somewhat overlooked distinction, namely that between countermeasures against abuses of diplomatic immunity and violations of diplomatic immunity as countermeasures.

1. Background: The Tehran case and self-contained regimes

The hostage crisis led to a judgment by the International Court of Justice (the Tehran case, [1980] ICJ Rep 3). The Court found that actions attributable to Iran had violated the diplomats’ immunity. Iran argued, among other things, that the hostage takings could be seen as countermeasures against foregoing abuses of diplomatic immunity by the diplomats. Responding to this, the Court pronounced as follows:

“… diplomatic law itself provides the necessary means of defence against, and sanction for, illicit activities by members of diplomatic or consular missions.” (para 83)

“The rules of diplomatic law, in short, constitute a self-contained regime which, on the one hand, lays down the receiving State’s obligations regarding the facilities, privileges and immunities to be accorded to diplomatic missions and, on the other, foresees their possible abuse by members of the mission and specifies the means at the disposal of the receiving States to counter any such abuse. These means are, by their nature, entirely efficacious, for unless the sending State recalls the member of the mission objected to forthwith, the prospect of the almost immediate loss of his privileges and immunities, because of the withdrawal by the receiving State of his recognition as a member of the mission, will in practice compel that person, in his own interest, to depart at once.” (para 86)

The interpretation and ramifications of these passages are still debated. There are (at least) four possible readings. (more…)

The OTP’s Remarkable Slow-Walking of the Afghanistan Examination

by Kevin Jon Heller

The Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) at the ICC just released its 2013 Report on Preliminary Examination Activities. There is much to chew over in the report, but what is most striking is the OTP’s slow-walking of its preliminary examination into crimes committed in Afghanistan.

The OTP divides preliminary examinations into four phases: (1) initial assessment, which filters out requests for investigation over which the ICC cannot have jurisdiction; (2) jurisdiction, which asks “whether there is a reasonable basis to believe that the alleged crimes fall within the subject-matter jurisdiction of the Court”; (3) admissibility, which focuses on gravity and complementarity; and (4) interests of justice, whether the OTP should decline to proceed despite jurisdiction and admissibility.

The OTP opened its investigation into the situation in Afghanistan in January 2007. Yet only now — nearly seven years later — has the OTP concluded that there is a reasonable basis to believe that crimes were committed there. And what are those crimes? Here is a snippet from the report:

23. Killings: According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (“UNAMA”), over 14,300 civilians have been killed in the conflict in Afghanistan in the period between January 2007 and June 2013. Members of anti-government armed groups were responsible for at least 9,778 civilian deaths, while the pro-government forces were responsible for at least 3,210 civilian deaths. A number of reported killings remain unattributed.

24. According to UNAMA, more civilians were killed by members of anti- government armed groups in the first half of 2013 than in 2012. Members of the Taliban and affiliated armed groups are allegedly responsible for deliberately killing specific categories of civilians perceived to support the Afghan government and/or foreign entities present in Afghanistan. These categories of civilians, identified as such in the Taliban Code of Conduct (Layha) and in public statements issued by the Taliban leadership, include former police and military personnel, private security contractors, construction workers, interpreters, truck drivers, UN personnel, NGO employees, journalists, doctors, health workers, teachers, students, tribal and religious elders, as well as high profile individuals such as members of parliament, governors and mullahs, district governors, provincial council members, government employees at all levels, and individuals who joined the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program and their relatives. The UNAMA 2013 mid-year report, in particular, indicated a pattern of targeted killings of mullahs who were mainly attacked while performing funeral ceremonies for members of Afghan government forces.

You can see why it took the OTP nearly seven years to determine (para. 35) “that there is a reasonable basis to believe that crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction have been committed within the situation of Afghanistan.” The crimes are so minor and so isolated that they could only be uncovered by years of diligent investigation.

The OTP obviously could have moved to Phase 3 — admissibility — years ago. So why didn’t it — especially given the pressing need for a non-African investigation? See below…

The New Iran Deal Doesn’t Look Legally Binding. Does it Matter?

by Duncan Hollis

A flurry of news today over the announcement that Iran has cut a deal with six major world powers — the Permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council — the US, Russia, China, France and the UK — plus Germany.  The text of the ‘Joint Plan of Action’ is also widely available (see here or here).

My first reaction on looking at this ‘deal’ is that it’s not legally binding under international law.  Look at how the Preamble begins:

The goal for these negotiations is to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons….

The ‘goal’ implies something aspirational rather than required.  The big-ticket commitment that Iran won’t seek or develop nuclear weapons is also referenced as a ‘reaffirmation’ rather than an affirmative commitment via this text.

Similarly, the operative paragraphs maintain an emphasis on avoiding language of legal intent:

Elements of a first step

The first step would be time-bound, with a duration of 6 months, and renewable by mutual consent, during which all parties will work to maintain a constructive atmosphere for negotiations in good faith.

Iran would undertake the following voluntary measures:

  • From the existing uranium enriched to 20%, retain half as working stock of 20% oxide for fabrication of fuel for the TRR. Dilute the remaining 20% UF6 to no more than 5%. No reconversion line
  • Iran announces that it will not enrich uranium over 5% for the duration of the 6 months. . . . .

*********
In return, the E3/EU+3 would undertake the following voluntary measures:

  • Pause efforts to further reduce Iran’s crude oil sales, enabling Iran’s current customers to  purchase their current average amounts of crude oil. Enable the repatriation of an agreed amount of revenue held abroad. For such oil sales, suspend the EU and U.S. sanctions on associated insurance and transportation services.
  • Suspend U.S. and EU sanctions on:
    • Iran’s petrochemical exports, as well as sanctions on associated services.5
    • Gold and precious metals, as well as sanctions on associated services.
  • · Suspend U.S. sanctions on Iran’s auto industry, as well as sanctions on associated services . . .

(emphasis added)

Note the operative verb in these paragraphs is ‘would’ not ‘shall’ (which everyone would agree connotes an intention to be legally bound) or even ‘will’ (which the United States often uses to convey a legal intent even through the British and several other countries insist signals an agreement meant to have political, in lieu of legal, force).

To further emphasize the political and non-legally binding nature of this agreement, note the two sides emphasize that the measures listed are ‘voluntary’.  Moreover, the document is unsigned and lacks final clauses.  So, the bottom line for me . . . this isn’t binding under international law.  It’s a political commitment, not a legal one.

OK.  Say I’m right?  Why does it matter if this is not a treaty?  To be clear, there’s nothing entirely novel about concluding a major political document in a non-legal form — from the Atlantic Charter, to the Shanghai Communique to the Helsinki Accords, there are plenty of ‘big ticket’ precedents for doing major deals in legally non-binding texts.  Nor is it that political commitments are devoid of content — to be sure they can contain much that is aspirational or even puffery.  But, many political commitments can contain significant expectations of changes to future behavior and, at first glance, I’d say the Joint Plan of Action falls in the latter category.  The text is chock full of commitments both sides indicate they’ll be taking in the next six months on the path to a comprehensive settlement with respect to the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

That said, I think there are at least three significant implications of the choice of a non-treaty form for this deal.  First, I think it offers all sides flexibility – all seven parties are cloaking their expectations of what’s going to happen now behind terms that allow them to turn on a dime as necessary, either to back away from their ‘voluntary measures’ or to adjust them as all involved carefully monitor the other side’s performance.  Indeed, I expect that such flexibility was a key criterion for the sort of cooperation this deal envisages.  Second, by choosing a political deal rather than a legal one, I think the results are less credible than if they’d been done via a more august instrument like a treaty.  The treaty signals a level of commitment that just isn’t available with respect to an unsigned ‘joint plan’.   Now, maybe a major legal text wasn’t possible in the time frame all sides were working under, but I’d be surprised if any subsequent, final deal isn’t coached in a legal form given the greater credibility that accompanies those sorts of promises.

For the United States, though, I think the third, and most significant, implication of this deal taking a political form is the fact that the Obama Administration doesn’t have to get the Senate or the Congress as a whole to approve it.  Legally binding treaties and international agreements require the conclusion of specific domestic approval procedures.  The Constitution contemplates the Senate giving advice and consent by a 2/3rd majority to Treaties (and most arms control agreements are done as Treaties).  Modern practice meanwhile more regularly favors ‘congressional-executive’ agreements where Congress approves of the conclusion of the agreement before or after the deal is done.  In other cases, the President may invoke his sole executive powers to authorize the conclusion of a deal by himself.  But, when it comes to political commitments, there are no constitutional precedents requiring that Congress as a whole or the Senate authorize the commitment’s conclusion.  Now, together with Josh Newcomer, I’ve argued previously that this status quo is constitutionally problematic where political commitments can function in much the same way as treaties.  I fear political commitments may function as a loop-hole for the Executive to do deals that he could not do if he had to go to Congress or the Senate.  I’m not sure that this is such a case, but it’s certainly worth thinking about the consequences of having the United States pursue this major foreign policy shift where the U.S. legislature has so little say in the matter (at least until such time as any deal requires changes to U.S. law itself).

What do others think?  Am I right the Joint Plan of Action is not intended to be a treaty or an international agreement?  And do you agree that it was a means for the United States to conclude a deal without involving a Congress, at least some portion of which has been overtly hostile to any negotiations with Iran?

[Update: over at Lawfare, Ingrid Wuerth rightly calls me to task for my earlier title -- referencing a 'U.S.-Iran' deal when there are 7 States involved -- en route to discussing whether this text would've required congressional or Senate approval IF it was legally binding.  I've fixed the title accordingly and recommend readers check out Ingrid's post.]

Why Is the New Agreement Between P5+1 and Iran Not Void?

by Kevin Jon Heller

A few days ago, in response to reports of an imminent deal between P5+1 and Iran concerning Iran’s uranium enrichment, Tyler Cullis and Ryan Goodman debated whether Iran has a “right” to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes. Tyler argued that Iran does, citing (inter alia) Art. IV of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT):

Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.

Ryan disagreed, arguing that any such “right” in the NPT has been superceded by a series of Security Council resolutions — beginning with Res. 1696 in 2006 — demanding that Iran cease its enrichment activities. In defense of his position, Ryan cited a number of eminent non-proliferation scholars, such as Larry D. Johnson, a former Assistant-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs at the United Nations:

While Iran claims that it has a right to enrich uranium as part of its peaceful nuclear energy program, the IAEA Board of Governors found that there had been a history of concealment and failure to declare certain activities to the agency, and therefore reported the matter to the Security Council. The Council has decided that over and above its obligations under NPT and the safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Iran was required, under Chapter VII of the Charter, to suspend all proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities, including all enrichment-related and all reprocessing activities, as confidence-building measures.

I think Ryan are Johnson are right that the “inalienable right” guaranteed by Iran’s ratification of the NPT is nullified — at least for now — by the various Security Council resolutions. So here is my question: why is the just-announced agreement between P5+1 and Iran not void ab initio for the same reason? SC Res. 1737 categorically prohibits Iranian uranium enrichment (emphasis mine)…

Why It’s Not Surprising Syria Is Destroying Its Chemical Weapons

by Kevin Jon Heller

A couple of weeks ago, Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum said he was surprised that Syria has, by all accounts, voluntarily given up its chemical-weapons capability:

I don’t really have any comment about this, except to express a bit of puzzlement. As near as I can tell, Bashar al-Assad is really and truly sincere about destroying his chemical weapons stocks.1 But why? I very much doubt it’s because he fears retaliation from the United States. And given his past behavior, it’s hardly likely that it’s driven by feelings of moral revulsion.

So what’s his motivation? For reasons of his own, he must have decided that he was better off without chemical weapons than with them. Perhaps it has to do with the internal political situation in Syria. Or maybe Russia got fed up for some reason. But it’s a bit of a mystery, and not one that I’ve seen any plausible explanations for.

I don’t think it’s a mystery at all. Here is the explanation:

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have firmly seized the momentum in the country’s civil war in recent weeks, capturing one rebel stronghold after another and triumphantly planting the two-starred Syrian government flag amid shattered buildings and rubble-strewn streets.

Despite global outrage over the use of chemical weapons, Assad’s government is successfully exploiting divisions among the opposition, dwindling foreign help for the rebel cause and significant local support, all linked to the same thing: discomfort with the Islamic extremists who have become a major part of the rebellion.

The battlefield gains would strengthen the government’s hand in peace talks sought by the world community.

Both the Syrian government and the opposition have said they are ready to attend a proposed peace conference in Geneva that the U.S. and Russia are trying to convene, although it remains unclear whether the meeting will indeed take place. The Western-backed opposition in exile, which has little support among rebel fighters inside Syria and even less control over them, has set several conditions for its participation, chief among them that Assad must not be part of a transitional government — a notion Damascus has roundly rejected.

“President Bashar Assad will be heading any transitional stage in Syria, like it or not,” Omar Ossi, a member of Syria’s parliament, told The Associated Press.

The government’s recent gains on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, and in the north outside the country’s largest city, Aleppo, have reinforced Assad’s position. And the more the government advances, the easier it is to dismiss the weak and fractious opposition’s demands.

As I have pointed out before, the US’s obsession with chemical weapons was manna from heaven for Assad. There is still no hard evidence that Assad personally ordered the Syrian military to use chemical weapons, and it would have been suicide for anyone associated with the Syrian government to risk US military intervention by using them again. Assad thus essentially traded his strategically useless chemical-weapons capability for the right to wage a ruthless counter-insurgency with impunity. That trade has obviously worked — there is almost no chance at this point that the rebels will overthrow Assad’s government, and it is equally unlikely that Assad will ever step down as part of some kind of negotiated peace agreement. Why would he? He is winning the war, and the West has essentially lost interest in the mass atrocities he has committed, and continues to commit, against innocent Syrian civilians. Indeed, the Syrian military is now routinely using incendiary weapons to kill civilians, yet the West remains silent.

But at least Assad no longer has chemical weapons. Success, right?

Carsten Stahn Guest Post: On Intervention, Narratives of Progress, Threats of force and the Virtues of Case-by-Case Assessment–A Rejoinder to Koh (Part III)

by Carsten Stahn

[Carsten Stahn is Professor of International Criminal Law and Global Justice at Leiden University and Programme Director of the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies. He is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Leiden Journal of International Law, Executive Editor of the Criminal Law Forum and project leader of the Jus Post Bellum Project. An earlier post on this appears here.]

Harold Koh and Daniel Bethlehem deserve credit for having launched this important and timely debate. Koh has formulated an excellent reply to critiques to his post which stands in the best tradition of debate over the prohibition of the use of force. As we all known, Article 2 (4) has been declared dead and rejuvenated too many times. It is thus legitimate to have struggles as to the proper way forward. I see merit in the need to map ‘current law onto modern reality’.  But I would argue that some of the underlying elements of his existing proposition of an ‘affirmative defence are rooted in tensions that are unlikely to be solved through discourse over the creation a new substantive exception to the prohibition of the use of force. A case-by-case assessment may be ultimately better than an abstract rule to accommodate the problems inherent in a formulation of a doctrine that has been controversial for centuries.  I would like to highlight three aspects that may require deeper reflection in the debate: (i) narratives regarding ‘progress’, (ii) the relationship between ‘threat of force’ and ‘use of force’, and (iii) the choice of the appropriate methodology for the way ahead.  

1. Observational standpoints and narratives of progress

Firstly, it is important to clarify observational standpoints. Koh presents change to the rule a ‘progress’ and adherence to it as stalemate. I have doubt whether the debate can be adequately addressed, let alone resolved, based on the dichotomy between a progress-adverse ‘absolutist’ view, represented by the illegal per se rule, and a modern ‘reformist ‘view’ which would argue that the rule is not ‘black and white’. It is an oversimplification to divide scholarly opinion into these two camps. Most international lawyers would acknowledge that the Charter is a ‘dynamic instrument’. It is a given, and not a point of controversy’ that it should be interpreted in light of its objectives and purposes. There are cases in which Art. 2 (IV) does not prohibit the use of force, such as intervention by invitation which raises difficult issues of the legitimacy consent in the context of civil war (as noted by Jordan Paust). The ICJ recognized in Nicaragua (Judgment, 27 June 1986, para. 175) that conventional and customary law on the use of force are not necessarily identical in content.  Even proponents of a strict interpretation of Article 2 (4) recognize ‘shades of grey’ and options for development. There may thus more agreement than divide.

In my view, Koh takes a shortcut by criticizing international lawyers for having ‘become more comfortable stating rules than in figuring out how international law might help to push unfolding events towards the right resolution’. The roots of the controversy lie deeper. Koh’s position is based on a specific approach towards international law. His argument is based on the premise that international law is an instrument of problem-solving and a tool to facilitate decision-making processes over war and peace. This approach advocates different prerogatives than a more systemic vision of international law that regards norms and institutions as the centre of a normative system that protects collective interests and values and constrains behavior. This tension has been inherent in approaches to international law for decades.

The main problem with Koh’s position is not so much the normative content of the proposition, i.e. the claim that use of force may in some circumstances be in the spirit of Charter principles and help ‘protect human rights. The fundamental difficulty of Koh’s argument is that it reduces the options for accountability of military action.  It shifts the balance from a centralized enforcement system to a decentralized system where nations become the arbiters over the legality of their claims to intervention. This causes fears and anxieties among many UN members. Koh’s plea for new abstract regulation would give formal recognition to the claim that the Council is an option à la carte than can be turned on and switched off in ‘hard cases’ where there is no agreement. Giving up this constraint weakens leverage for compliance and the need to justify choices of behavior before a collective forum, in circumstances in which international law is most important in debate. This is a position that many nations will be reluctant to sacrifice for the gain of greater clarity on the rule.

One of the main dilemmas of ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been the question of ‘agency’, i.e. that action is carried out in the name of others. It has been inherent in humanitarianism since it its inception. R2P mitigated this dilemma through recourse to collective response schemes.  Koh’s suggested new rule turns a ‘blind eye’ to this. It fails to engage with the question how intervening nations could claim authority to speak for others/victims.  In the African Union, this dilemma has been mitigated by an institutional solution, i.e. consent under Articles 4 (h) and (j) of the Constitutive Act which recognizes

‘the right of the Union to intervene in a member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely; war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity’.

Koh’s suggested norm does not address such institutional safeguards.  It simply uses institutional support as one optional parameter to support the claim for legality. He suggests that the claim for exemption from wrongfulness would be  ‘strenghtened’ if intervening nations could demonstrate ‘that the action was collective’. This may simply not be enough. (more…)

Putting the Cart Before the Horse? Top Panel of International Criminal Law Experts Proposes “Extraordinary” Criminal Tribunal for Syria

by Julian Ku

As one commenter to Ken’s post on the draft UN Security Council Resolution notes, there will be no Security Council referral to the ICC on Syria. Currently there is one paragraph in the draft resolution expressing the Security Council’s “strong conviction that those individuals responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic should be held accountable;”  That’s not much, but it might be enough of a hook for some future UN Security Council or a future Syrian government to set up a hybrid ad hoc criminal tribunal to hold “accountable” those users of chemical weapons.

So it is worth noting that friend of blog Michael Scharf of Case Western Reserve University Law School alerts us to a proposed “Statute for a Syrian Extraordinary Tribunal to Prosecute Atrocity Crimes” that he, and a panel of blue-ribbon international criminal law experts, have released under the auspices of the Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG).  The panel of experts is both distinguished and experienced on questions of international criminal law, and on the nitty-gritty details of setting up international criminal tribunals.  They will be discussing next week at a press conference in DC and it should get quite a bit of attention among US and UN policymakers.  It is a discussion draft, and it is not an attempt to demand the UN or Syrian governments establish something exactly along these lines.  Rather, it is an attempt to get the ball rolling among lawyers and policymakers.

One move in the proposed draft stands out.  The proposed tribunal is not exactly an international criminal tribunal, and indeed, it is not necessarily even a hybrid tribunal (with a mix of international and domestic judges) although its closest analogue appears to be Cambodia. Rather, it could be simply a special court set up under Syrian law to prosecute high-level offenders for violations of international law.  One advantage to this approach?  I don’t think it would require UN Security Council action to set up such a tribunal.  So that is a useful nod to political realities and Russia’s current position.

One (really big) disadvantage to this approach? We would need a new Syrian government to set up and carry out this proposed statute.   And to get that new Syrian government, would we have to promise some sort of immunity to the old Syrian government that committed all those horrible crimes we want to prosecute?

Obviously, there is a lot to sort through, and I do salute Prof. Scharf for getting the conversation rolling in a useful and politically realistic way.  But there are not just legal, but enormous political issues that need to be dealt with before key details of such a tribunal could be determined.

Brief Thoughts on the Russia-US Deal (and No, I’m Not in Favor of Force)

by Kevin Jon Heller

On both twitter and the blog, readers seem to have inferred from my previous post that I’m somehow disappointed that the US-Russia chemical-weapons deal does not automatically allow force for noncompliance. I suppose that’s my fault; I tend to assume when I write that readers have at least some prior knowledge of my politics. So let me be clear: I am categorically opposed to the US using military force against Syria in the absence of Security Council authorization. (And I’d be very skeptical of it with authorization, but at least it wouldn’t be illegal.)

So what do I think of the US-Russian deal? For what it is, and assuming Assad complies, it seems like a good idea. Anything that reduces Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons is positive. Although I don’t think Assad ordered the Damascus attack, I have no doubt he would use chemical weapons if (as seems unlikely at that this point) the rebels ever threatened to overthrow his regime. And of course someone in the Syrian military used chemical weapons, so it would be great if that could not happen again. I also have little doubt that the rebels would use chemical weapons if they could, so anything that limits that possibility, as well, is a good thing. I also hope that the deal will put pressure on other states in the region — Israel and Egypt, in particular — to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy their own stocks of the weapons.

That said, my central critique of the US obsession with chemical weapons still stands: they are only a very minor part of the conflict. The real problem is the systematic violence the Assad regime has unleashed against its own people with conventional weapons — and the equally unconscionable, if less intense, violence inflicted on those same people by the rebels. This deal not only does nothing to address that violence, it significantly distracts attention from it. When was the last time the media focused  on anything in Syria other than chemical weapons? Just this week, Human Rights Watch published reports on a mass execution of 248 people by Syrian forces in May and on the Syrian military’s widespread use of cluster munitions, which are no less indiscriminate than chemical weapons, while the Commission of Inquiry published a report documenting the Syrian military’s numerous — and deliberate — attacks on medical facilities. How much attention have those reports received in the media?

My hope, of course, is that a successful resolution to the chemical-weapons problem will free up the relevant parties, and the media, to focus on the need to find non-military ways to pressure the Assad government and the rebels to stop killing innocent civilians. But I’m not holding my breath. I imagine 95% of the coverage we will see in the coming months will focus on whether Syria is actually complying with the US-Russian deal. In other words, business as usual. Meanwhile, Syrian civilians will continue to be killed through conventional means in large numbers.

Putin & Assad: 1; Obama: 0; Syrian People: -1

by Kevin Jon Heller

That’s the tally in light of the deal that has been reached regarding Syria’s chemical weapons. The US position was that any agreement had to permit the use of force against Syria in case of noncompliance. But the US-Russian deal simply calls for the Security Council to consider the consequences of noncompliance under Chapter VII; it does not commit the Council to any particular course of action. And we know what would happen to a resolution authorizing force:

Under a “framework” agreement, international inspectors must be on the ground in Syria by November, Mr. Kerry said, speaking at a news conference with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.

Under the agreement, Syria must submit a “comprehensive listing” of its chemical weapons stockpiles within a week.

American and Russian officials also reached a consensus on the size of Syria’s stockpile, an essential prerequisite to any international plan to control and dismantle the weapons.

“If fully implemented,” Mr. Kerry said, “this framework can provide greater protection and security to the world.”

If President Bashar al-Assad of Syria fails to comply with the agreement, the issue will be referred to the United Nations Security Council.

Mr. Kerry said that any violations would then be taken up under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes punitive action. But Mr. Lavrov made clear that Russia, which wields a veto in the Security Council, had not withdrawn its objections to the use of force.

Obama not only failed to muster a credible threat of force, he has now failed to ensure that Syrian noncompliance will result in real consequences. Score one for Putin and Assad.

The real losers in the deal, however, are the Syrian people. If the agreement holds, Assad will have effectively been given the green light by both the US and Russia to continue killing his citizens. He just won’t be able to use chemical weapons to do it.

Does the Washington Post Editorial Page Have ANY Standards Left?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Apparently not, because yesterday’s war propaganda editorial by Sebastian Junger beating the drum for attacking Syria is just spectacularly awful. I’ve been out of the fisking game for a while, but the editorial simply can’t pass unmentioned.

Every war I have ever covered — Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Liberia — withstood all diplomatic efforts to end it until Western military action finally forced a resolution. Even Afghanistan, where NATO troops stepped into a civil war that had been raging for a decade, is experiencing its lowest level of civilian casualties in more than a generation.

When you’re citing Afghanistan — now in its 12th year of conflict, with tens of thousands of civilian casualties, millions of refugees, 3300+ dead US soldiers, and a price tag nearing $500 billion — as an example of successful Western military action, you should probably just stop, delete your file, and go play with your kids.

(But I do like the slogan for the US: “Year 12 in Afghanistan: Lowest Civilian Casualties Ever!”)

That track record should force even peace advocates to consider that military action is required to bring some wars to an end. And yet there’s been little evidence of that sentiment in American opposition to missile strikes against military targets in Syria.

Obama has specifically disclaimed any intention to end the Syrian civil war through military action. But whatever…

From Apology to Bazinga!: International Legal Rhetoric in Obama’s Speech and Putin’s Op-Ed

by Chris Borgen

In From Apology to Utopia, Martti Koskenniemi  mapped how international legal rhetoric can be used to “apologize” for power—to provide a fig leaf over the rude exposure of realpolitik—and how it can be utopian—making rules for a world that does not actually exist.  This week we have had two examples of international law and high politics: President Obama’s speech on Tuesday and Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in today’s New York Times. And while many in the U.S. seem most concerned about Putin’s apparent skepticism toward American exceptionalism, I suggest that more attention should be focused on what his op-ed and President Obama’s speech show about how Russia and the U.S. use international legal rhetoric in pursuit of their goals.

As President Obama’s speech tried to make the case for U.S.-led military action in Syria (if the current diplomatic initiatives fail), Vladimir Putin’s op-ed argued why the U.S. should not intervene. In looking at these two texts—attempts by an American President and a Russian President to speak to the American public, and, at times, to the world—we can compare and contrast how the language of international law is used by both leaders.

Putin’s argument plays on American fears and worries but it is framed in the rhetoric of international law. There are some scare lines, such as: “A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.” There is a description of a “reeling” Afghanistan where “no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw.”  And, he adds, don’t forget the divisions in Iraq and Libya.  It is not in “America’s long-term interest” to have U.S. military intervention be “commonplace.” Well, that last part is true enough.

There are also some parts that are a bit hard to swallow, like his implying that his policy is based on a concern over the security of Israel or blaming the ongoing civil war on the West supplying arms to the opposition (which staying silent on Russia’s arming of the murderous Assad regime). I half-expected Putin to follow-up some of his arguments with “Bazinga!”

But all of these various points, be they persuasive or not, are placed in a frame of international legal rhetoric.  Putin’s op-ed is an excellent example of Russia’s strategy of using the language of international law to try to persuade publics around the world of the wisdom of its own foreign policy, while implicitly or explicitly critiquing the policies of other states. Near the beginning of his essay, Putin explains… (Continue Reading)