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Non-State Actors

A Brief Rejoinder to Haque on the ICRC’s Interpretation of NIAC

by Kevin Jon Heller

My thanks to Adil Haque for his response to my post. Adil and I rarely disagree in any profound way about IHL, so it’s enjoyable to spar with him about whether a first-strike by government forces against an organized armed group automatically creates a NIAC — thus triggering IHL — or whether a certain intensity of hostilities between the two is required.

I will have more to say about Adil’s response soon, but I wanted to quickly address one particular implication in his post: namely, that the ICRC’s Commentary on AP II supports his claim that a single military operation by government forces or by an organized armed group is sufficient to trigger a NIAC because it is more than a “sporadic act of violence.” Here is what he writes:

In my view, a military operation by State armed forces that meets with no armed response and may never be repeated is not a “sporadic act of violence” within the meaning of APII 1(2). On this point, I follow the ICRC Commentrary to APII, which negatively defines “isolated and sporadic acts of violence, as opposed to military operations carried out by armed forces or armed groups.” APII 1(2) describes disturbances and tensions created by disorganized or unarmed groups, criminal gangs, and individuals. APII 1(2) does not describe “acts of violence against the adversary in offence or defence” (that is, attacks as defined by API).

With the exception of ambiguous quotes like the one above, there is little support in the ICRC’s Commentary on AP II or in any of the ICRC’s commentaries for Adil’s position. The ICRC clearly believes that any kind of NIAC — AP II or Common Article 3 — requires adequately intense hostilities.

Let’s start with the AP II Commentary Adil cites. The Commentary opens its discussion of AP II by emphasizing (p. 1343) that CA3 and AP II have the same structure — and that neither applies in the absence of sufficiently intense hostilities (emphasis mine):

The content and scope of all of these articles will be analysed in the respective comments on them. Before doing this it seems useful to have a closer look at the basic pattern of Part I, which reveals the similarity of the ideas which inspired Protocol II and common Article 3. To understand the scope of the Protocol one should indeed always bear in mind the fact that this instrument supplements and develops common Article 3; it is an extension of it, and is based on the same structure.l Their common characteristics find expression, explicitly or implicitly, in Part I. These can be summarized as follows…

The threshold where Protocol II becomes applicable is determined by the criteria expressed in Article 1 (Material field of application), which means that it is intended to apply only to conflicts of a certain degree of intensity.

Later, the Commentary discusses (p. 1355) what AP II means by “internal disturbances,” taking the position that such disturbances include situations in which military operations by government forces — even against an organized armed group — do not lead to sufficiently intense hostilities (emphasis mine):

[T]he ICRC gave the following description of internal disturbances during the first session of the Conference of Government Experts in 1971:

“This involves situations in which there is no non-international armed conflict as such, but there exists a confrontation within the country, which is characterized by a certain seriousness or duration and which involves acts of violence. These latter can assume various forms, all the way from the spontaneous generation of acts of revolt to the struggle between more or less organized groups and the authorities in power. In these situations, which do not necessarily degenerate into open struggle, the authorities in power call upon extensive police forces, or even armed forces, to restore internal order. The high number of victims has made necessary the application of a minimum of humanitarian rules.”

[snip]

In short, as stated above, there are internal disturbances, without being an armed conflict, when the State uses armed force to maintain order; there are internal tensions, without being internal disturbances, when force is used as a preventive measure to maintain respect for law and order.

Finally the Commentaries specifically point out (p. 1356) that such “internal disturbances” do not create a NIAC and do not trigger IHL:

Internal disturbances and tensions are not at present within the field of application of international humanitarian law; the ICRC has carried out activities in this field on an ad hoc basis. However, this does not mean that there is no international legal protection applicable to such situations, as they are covered by universal and regional human rights instruments. 31 It is not within the scope of this commentary, however, to go into that subject.

The ICRC’s position on CA3 and AP II NIACs — as requiring hostilities of a certain intensity, and thus as not being triggered by “first strikes” — is an old one. Here is what Pictet said (p. 49) in the ICRC’s 1952 Commentary on the First Geneva Convention (emphasis mine):

[I]t was suggested that the term “conflict” should be defined or, which would come to the same thing, that a certain number of conditions for the application of the Convention should be enumerated. The idea was finally abandoned — wisely, we think. Nevertheless, these different conditions, although in no way obligatory, constitute convenient criteria, and we therefore think it well to give a list of those contained in the various amendments discussed; they are as follows:

(1) That the Party in revolt against the de jure Government possesses an organized military force, an authority responsible for its acts, acting within a determinate territory and having the means of respecting and ensuring respect for the Convention.

(2) That the legal Government is obliged to have recourse to the regular military forces against insurgents organized as military and in possession of a part of the national territory.

This statement only implicitly endorsed an intensity requirement, so Pictet clarified that the was talking about actual hostilities between government forces and an organized armed group in the ICRC’s 1960 Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention (p. 37):

Speaking generally, it must be recognized that the conflicts referred to in Article 3 are armed conflicts, with armed forces on either side engaged in hostilities –conflicts, in short, which are in many respects similar to an international war, but take place within the confines of a single country.

And just in case that statement remained ambiguous (“both” would have been more precise than “either”), the ICRC clarified in its 2016 Commentary on the First Geneva Convention that of the various indicia of NIAC that Pictet discusses, intensity is one of the two most important ones (emphasis mine):

387  A situation of violence that crosses the threshold of an ‘armed conflict not of an international character’ is a situation in which organized Parties confront one another with violence of a certain degree of intensity. It is a determination made based on the facts.

421  Over time, of the criteria enumerated in the Pictet Commentaries, two are now widely acknowledged as being the most relevant in assessing the existence of a non-international armed conflict: that the violence needs to have reached a certain intensity and that it must be between at least two organized Parties/armed groups. The existence of a non-international armed conflict thus needs to be assessed according to these specific criteria.

422  The wording of common Article 3 gives some rudimentary guidance on its threshold of application: what is required is an ‘armed’ ‘conflict’ not of an international character, in which ‘Part[ies] to the conflict’ are involved. This indicates that for common Article 3 to apply, a situation of violence must have reached a certain level of intensity, characterized by recourse to arms by non-State armed groups that are capable of being Parties to an armed conflict.

According to the ICRC, in short, all NIACs require adequately intense hostilities. The difference between a CA3 NIAC and an AP II NIAC is one of degree rather than kind.

The ICRC Commentaries are only as good as the analysis they contain, so Adil is obviously free to defend an interpretation of Art. 1 of AP II and of Common Article 3 that reads the intensity requirement out of NIAC. In doing so, however, he is clearly breaking with the ICRC.

First Strikes & NIAC: Thoughts on the Haque/Horowitz Debate

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have been following with great interest the debate at Just Security between Adil Haque and Jonathan Horowitz over whether the existence of a non-international conflict (NIAC) exists the moment a state launches a “first strike” at an organized armed group or whether hostilities of a certain intensity between the two are required. Adil takes the former position (see here, here, and here); Jonathan takes the latter one (see here and here).

Though Adil’s posts exhibit his typical brilliance, my sympathies lie with Jonathan. To begin with, as a matter of the lex lata, I don’t think the argument is even close: the Tadic test, which requires both organization on the part of the armed group and adequately intense hostilities, has overwhelming support from states. After all, the test is based squarely on Art. 1(2) of Additional Protocol II, ratified by 168 states, which provides that the “Protocol shall not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature, as not being armed conflicts.” And, of course, as the ICRC notes in its new commentary on the First Geneva Convention, the AP II standard is used by a number of more recent conventions that apply to all NIACs — Common Article 3 or AP II — such as the Rome Statute (1998), the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property (1999), and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (2001).

Adil, it is worth noting, has a different interpretation of AP II, one that does not require intensity:

In my view, if an organized armed group has the capacity to sustain military operations then any military operation by or against that group should be constrained by the law of armed conflict. The organization and capacity of the group is sufficient to distinguish military operations by or against the group from “internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature.”

This is a difficult position to defend. The text of Art. 1(2) of AP II clearly contemplates actual hostilities, not a single act by government forces. What could be a more “sporadic act of violence” than a single act that does not meet with a response from the targeted group and may never be repeated by the government? More importantly, despite some stray practice cited by Michael J. Adams and Ryan Goodman in this post, states have simply never interpreted the AP II standard to require only organization.

Even more problematic, though, is Adil’s argument that the “object and purpose” of IHL counsels against conditioning the application of IHL on adequately intense hostilities:

In my view, we should interpret both the substantive rules of IHL and the conditions for the application of IHL in light of the object and purpose of IHL. The primary object and purpose of IHL is to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations. Accordingly, IHL should apply to all such military operations. To postpone the application of IHL until a first strike triggers an armed response, or until military operations reach a high level of intensity, would be inconsistent with the object and purpose of IHL.

As regular readers know, whenever I see arguments based on the supposed “object and purpose” of a treaty, I reach for my pen. All too often, such arguments simply use object and purpose to justify interpreting a treaty in a manner that specifically contradicts the intention of the states that drafted and concluded it. And unfortunately I think that is what Adil does here. He defends applying IHL to first strikes by claiming that the “object and purpose” of IHL is “to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations” (emphasis mine). But that is misleading: the object and purpose of IHL is to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations in armed conflict. If there is no armed conflict, IHL has nothing to say about the danger of military operations — because IHL doesn’t apply. And as discussed above, states have always insisted that a first-strike military operation is not enough to create an armed conflict — IHL applies only once there are adequately intense hostilities between government forces and the organized armed group.

Adil is free, of course, to normatively argue that IHL should apply to first strikes in NIAC because doing so would better protect human beings. I would disagree, but the claim is coherent and deserving of discussion. What he can’t do is base that claim on the object and purpose of IHL, because that would be to use an object and purpose that only applies within armed conflict to justify changing the definition of armed conflict itself. The definition of when IHL applies cannot be determined by reference to what the goals of IHL are once it applies. That definition has to be sought outside of the IHL system — and again, it is clear that states do not want IHL to apply to first-strike military operations against organized armed groups.

There is, however, an even deeper problem with Adil’s argument that the need to protect human beings from military operations counsels a definition of NIAC that does not require adequately intense hostilities: if that is true, there is also no reason why the application of IHL should require armed groups to be organized. All of Adil’s arguments against the intensity requirement apply equally to the organization requirement. If we need to protect human beings from the dangers of first-strike military operations by states against organized armed groups, surely we also need to protect them from the dangers of first-strike military operations by states against unorganized armed groups. After all, Adil’s central argument is that the inherent danger of military operations means that IHL should apply to a first-strike regardless of whether that military operation leads to any kind of hostilities.

I see no convincing response to this criticism. It is tempting to argue that the organization requirement is important because a first-strike military operation against an organized armed group is much more likely to lead to actual hostilities than a first-strike military operation against an unorganized armed group. But Adil rejects the idea that hostilities are relevant to the application of IHL. He believes IHL should apply even if a first-strike military operation meets with no response whatsoever.

Another potential response would be to argue that first-strike military operations against organized armed groups pose greater dangers for innocent civilians than first-strike military operations against unorganized armed groups. But that would be a difference of degree, not of kind — and thus far from a convincing basis for applying IHL to the former and not the latter. I’m also not sure whether the claim is even empirically sound. It is at least equally plausible to assume that states are more willing to use military force against unorganized individuals whom they can assume will not fight back (or will not fight back effectively) than against an organized armed group with the capacity to respond to a first strike with military operations of its own.

Adil’s desire to protect human beings from the dangers of military operations is laudable, but his claim that IHL should apply to first strikes against organized armed groups cannot be sustained. Not only have states insisted that IHL applies only to hostilities that reach a certain level of intensity, the idea that protecting individuals from the danger of military operations requires eliminating the intensity requirement is underinclusive. Those dangers exist for all military operations, even those against unorganized armed groups. So the only consistent — if still objectionable — position is that IHL applies to any military operation launched by a state, regardless of its object. I’m curious whether Adil would be willing to take that position.

Homage to California? (More on What Calexit Teaches Us About Secessionist Movements)

by Chris Borgen

Law professors should not be political prognosticators.  That’s probably something on which we can all agree.  Nonetheless, here’s my prediction: despite the current buzz (see also, this), California will not secede from the United States. Sorry, Silicon Valley Hamiltons.  However, the “Yes California” movement, spurred on by a Trump presidential victory can be instructive on the law,  psychology, and incentives behind more robust secessionist movements around the world.

As Julian mentioned in a post earlier today, the “#Calexit”  movement is seeking a referendum on secession in 2019.  The  group’s website states:

“As the sixth largest economy in the world, California is more economically powerful than France and has a population larger than Poland. Point by point, California compares and competes with countries, not just the 49 other states.”

In our view, the United States of America represents so many things that conflict with Californian values, and our continued statehood means California will continue subsidizing the other states to our own detriment, and to the detriment of our children.

Although charity is part of our culture, when you consider that California’s infrastructure is falling apart, our public schools are ranked among the worst in the entire country, we have the highest number of homeless persons living without shelter and other basic necessities, poverty rates remain high, income inequality continues to expand, and we must often borrow money from the future to provide services for today, now is not the time for charity.

This statement, and much about the movement, is like a study in secessionist politics, albeit with a sun-kissed white wine and Jacuzzis twist.  OK, that Jacuzzi quip may be snarky, but I wanted to attach an image to this idea: the yearning for Calexit, such as it is, is an example of a wish for a “secession of the successful” (to use a term political geographers John O’Loughlin, Gerard Toal, and Rebecca Chamberlain-Creanga used to describe the attempted  Transnistrian secession from Moldova, actually). These types of separatist movements, in which the separating group wants to stop paying rents to the central government and/or keep resources within their own territory for themselves, are generally called “tax exits.”

The Transnistrian, Slovenian, and Croatian separations or or attempted secessions all had elements of tax exits. (See P. Collier & A. Hoeffler, ‘The Political Economy of Secession’, in H. Hannum & E. F. Babbitt (eds), Negotiating Self Determination (2006), 46 (concerning Slovenia and Croatia)). This is not even a solely a phenomenon of nation-building.  In the U.S., we have even had new towns made up of wealthy neighborhoods that separated themselves from exiting municipalities over tax allocations.

Perhaps the best analogy, though, is Catalonia.  Relatively wealthy,  a large export economy, and the hub of creative industries in Spain, Catalonia even looks like parts of California (or vice versa). A common complaint is that wealth generated in Catalonia is redistributed by the national government to regions that are economically weak.

Now, here’s what the Calexiters argue:

Since 1987, California has been subsidizing the other states at a loss of tens and sometimes hundreds of billions of dollars in a single fiscal year. As a result, we are often forced to raise taxes and charge fees in California, and borrow money from the future to make up the difference. This is partly why California presently has some of the highest taxes in the country, and so much debt. Independence means that all of our taxes will be kept in California based on the priorities we set, and we will be able to do so while repaying our debts and phasing out the current state income tax.

You can’t state more clearly that a tax exit is a significant motivating factor for Calexit.

So, if a majority of Californians say “yes to California,” do they have a right to become their own country under domestic law or international law?

Julian answered the domestic law question in his post.

As for international law, the right to self-determination is described in Article 1 of both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights Covenant and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:

All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

However, while Catalans, for example, can make a credible argument that they are  a distinct people with its own language and culture and a heritage as a significant nation in European history, Calexiters are mainly upset about the recent election and would like to hang on to more tax revenues.  Those are disputes over policy, but not claims of an independent national identity.

Regardless, since the birth of the United Nations, diplomats and jurists emphasized that a right of self-determination does not provide a remedy of secession outside of the context of decolonization. A broad right to secession would have clashed with a cornerstone of the UN, the territorial integrity of states. Outside of the context of decolonization, the right of self-determination for communities that are within already existing states is understood as a right to “internal” self-determination: the pursuit of political, cultural, linguistic, and other rights within the existing state (in this case, the U.S.).

However, secession is not in and of itself illegal under international law (although it may be linked to an act that is breach in international law, such as a military intervention by another state: think Russia invading Georgia to assist South Ossetia.)

While secession may be neither a right nor illegal under international law, secessionist acts are usually illegal under domestic laws.  Taken together, whether or not a secession is successful begins as a domestic political struggle, framed by the legal system of the pre-existing country and sometimes implicating international law due to intervention by other countries (or if the secession becomes a non-international armed conflict, but that’s another story).

All this sounds quite exotic in the context of some tech industry founders applying their credo of “disruption” to national politics. (I’m just waiting for the first Calexiter to say he or she aims to “break shit.”)  The short answer is that there is no right for California to secede under either domestic or international law.

However, the rhetoric of self-determination is enticing to would-be nation-builders and Calexiters make many of the same mistakes as other tax exit secessionists:

First, they assume there is a clear path to secession, when that is rarely the case.  Talk to the Catalans about this.  They have mustered hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in (more…)

Russia and the DNC Hack: What Future for a Duty of Non-Intervention?

by Duncan Hollis

There are lots of important issues implicated by this morning’s above-the-fold story in the New York Times that U.S. officials and certain cybersecurity experts (e.g., Crowdstrike) have concluded Russian government agencies bear responsibility for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers and leaking internal e-mails stored on them to Wikileaks (Russian responsibility for the hack itself was alleged more than a month ago).  The domestic fall-out is already on evidence with the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz and I’m sure we’ll see other impacts here in Philadelphia at this week’s Convention (although Senator Sanders so far is not using the event to walk back his endorsement of Hillary Clinton). U.S. national security officials are treating the news as a national security and counter-intelligence issue (as they absolutely should).

But what does international law have to say about a foreign government obtaining and leaking e-mails about another country’s on-going election processes? This is obviously not a case violating Article 2(4) since that only prohibits the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” and there’s no force at work in the current distribution of data otherwise intended to remain confidential.  But alongside the Charter’s prohibition on the use of force, customary international law has long recognized a ‘duty of non-intervention’ that applies to State behavior in cases falling short of the use of force.  The question then becomes whether the duty applies to this case and if so to what end?  For my part, I see at least three distinct sets of issues:  (i) attribution; (ii) the duty’s scope; (iii) the relevance of international law more generally to cyber security incidents like this one.

1. Attribution — Did Russia do this?  Attribution has both a factual and a legal element, both of which are at issue in the DNC case.  Factually, there’s the question of who actually perpetrated these hacks — the hacker(s) named Guccifer 2.0 claims responsibility but cybersecurity investigators suggest two separate penetrations tied to two different Russian hacker groups, “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear” (international lawyers take note of how much more fun cybersecurity officials have in naming stuff than we do).  Making the factual case of who did what in hacks such as this is always difficult even as recent technological advancements have improved the ability to trace-back in certain cases. Just as importantly, however, there’s always the possibility of a ‘false flag’ where the true perpetrator goes to great lengths to make investigators think some other actor was responsible (i.e, planting evidence/code in a particular language or using coding patterns associated with a particular group of actors).  Ironically, the potential for a false flag means that a State caught red-handed can always invoke plausible deniability and suggest that they are themselves a victim as some other, unknown super-sophisticated actor is trying to frame them.  One can safely assume, for example, that Russia will make this argument in the DNC case.  Indeed, even in cases that appear clear cut like Sony Pictures, there are still those who resist FBI’s assertions of North Korean responsibility.

A second aspect of the attribution inquiry is a more legal one — namely, assuming the individual actors who perpetrated the hack can be identified, when can their actions be attributed to a State? This is not really at issue if the perpetrators are in a State’s direct employ (e.g. military officers or intelligence officials).  But what happens if the perpetrators are nonstate actors?  How much control would a State like Russia need to exercise over the DNC hack and later leak for it to bear responsibility?  That question is one that different international fora have answered differently in different contexts (the ICJ’s Nicaragua case and ICTY’s Tadic case‘s competing tests of effective versus overall control being the most famous examples).  As such, it’s difficult to say at present what relationship a State must have with nonstate hackers or hacktivists to bear responsibility for what they do.  That may not be a bad thing overall, as one can imagine how a clear line might incentive States to proliferate behavior just short of crossing the line in lieu of being chilled from acting generally if the whole area is cast as a truly grey zone.  That said, the ability to debate what international law requires in terms of the State-nonstate actor relationship complicates any application of the duty of non-intervention in individual cases.

2. Scope: What behavior violates the duty of non-intervention?  Assuming that Russia was responsible (which I should be clear at this point is just an assumption), the next question is whether its hacking and leaking of DNC data violated the duty of non-intervention?  Here again, international lawyers will encounter some uncertainty as the precise scope of the duty has never been fully resolved.  To be clear, there’s widespread consensus that a duty of non-intervention is customary international law.  The problems are more the duty’s contents.  The most famous formulation is undoubtedly that put forth by the ICJ in the Nicaragua case (para. 205), prohibiting interventions

bearing on matters in which each State is permitted, by the principle of State sovereignty, to decide freely. One of these is the choice of a political, economic, social and cultural system, and the formulation of foreign policy. Intervention is wrongful when it uses methods of coercion in regard to such choices, which must remain free ones. The element of coercion, which defines, and indeed forms the very essence of, prohibited intervention, is particularly obvious in the case of an intervention which uses force, either in the direct form of military action, or in the indirect form of support for subversive or terrorist armed activities within another State.

The ICJ’s take suggests that intervention requires methods of coercion, forcing the victim State to make different choices than it might were it free of coercive interference.  This pairs with key parts of the earlier 1970 UN General Assembly Declaration on Friendly Relations Among States:

No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. Consequently, armed intervention and all other forms of interference or attempted threats against the personality of the State or against its political, economic and cultural elements, are in violation of international law.

No State may use or encourage the use of economic political or any other type of measures to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights and to secure from it advantages of any kind. Also, no State shall organize, assist, foment, finance, incite or tolerate subversive, terrorist or armed activities directed towards the violent overthrow of the regime of another State, or interfere in civil strife in another State.

Thus, much of the debate over the duty of non-intervention has focused on identifying which coercive measures below the use of force threshold are covered by the prohibition. But, looking at the DNC hack, there’s little evidence that Russia is trying to coerce any particular result. Indeed, it’s not even clear that the goal of the hack was to support Trump’s candidacy.  The operation could have other purposes; for example, I’ve seen suggestions that it might have been a response to Russian presumptions that the United States bears responsibility for the Panama Papers, a data breach that caused some discomfort to Putin’s administration.  Given this, might we not simply write this hack-off as a particularly visible form of espionage?  Is this case equivalent, for example, to the OPM hack?  That hack, while clearly contrary to U.S. national security interests, was not terribly susceptible to claims of an international law violation given international law’s longstanding, complicated relationship with surveillance (for more see Ashley Deek’s recent article).

I’m not so sure, however, that the duty of non-intervention can be dismissed so quickly.  For starters, the hackers did not just take the data and use it to inform their own policies or behavior. They also leaked it, and did so in a way where the timing clearly sought to maximize attention (and corresponding impacts) on the U.S. domestic political campaign process.  Perhaps we need to separate out this incident into two parts — the espionage (i.e., the hack itself) and the interference in the U.S. campaign using the fruits of that espionage.  Doing so suggests the leaking might be the problematic act under a less quoted paragraph of the 1970 U.N. General Assembly Declaration’s description of the duty of non-intervention:

Every State has an inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural systems, without interference in any form by another State.

Interference in ‘any form’ is clearly a broader formulation than coercive acts, suggesting that actions designed to impact public support for not just a particular candidate, but an entire “political” party, could implicate the duty of non-intervention here.  That said, there are others who’ve been thinking much more carefully on the question of non-intervention and cyberspace than I have.  Later this year, for example, we should be able to read the fruits of Tallinn 2.0, the much-anticipated follow-up to the Tallinn Manual and its take on international law applicable to cyberwar.  Tallinn 2.0 will offer the views of an independent group of experts on how international law regulates cyberspace outside of the use of force and jus in bello contexts, including the duty of non-intervention.  I imagine I’m not alone in wanting to know whether and how its contents will speak to the current DNC crisis.

3. Remedies:  Does International Law Really Matter Here? Talking about this case in the last 24 hours, I’ve had a couple of non-lawyer friends express skepticism over international law’s relevance to the DNC hack.  Given our age, my friends hearken back to the Cold War, suggesting that Russia can and will ignore international law with impunity here (one of the more sanguine among them, also pointed out that the United States has its own history of interfering in foreign elections, a point Jack Goldsmith made earlier today at Lawfare). And, to be sure, there’s some merit to this critique.  After all, Russia’s Security Council veto ensures the inability of that body to respond to these events in any way. And U.S. resistance to the jurisdiction of international courts and tribunals precludes any real chance that a third-party would review the case.

Still, I think it’s important to raise the international legal issues for at least three reasons.  First, and perhaps most obviously, international law does provide self-help remedies in cases of state responsibility, including retorsion (otherwise legal acts done in response to unlawful behavior) and counter-measures (behavior that would otherwise be unlawful but for the fact that it is itself in response to unlawful behavior).  Thus, if Russia was responsible for the DNC hack and that hack did violate the duty of non-intervention, it would free the United States to engage in counter-measures vis-a-vis Russia that would otherwise be unlawful.  Time and space preclude me from surveying all the various counter-measure options that the United States might have, although I’d note there’s an interesting ancillary question of whether international law might limit the U.S. from pursuing certain counter-measures — such as interfering in Russia’s own domestic political process — if doing so is analogous to humanitarian obligations, which are non-derogable (i.e., you cannot violate the human rights of another State’s nationals just because they violated your nationals’ human rights).  I’d welcome reader thoughts on such limits as well as a more open discussion of the types of counter-measures that might be legally available in this case or any collective measures that could be in play.

Second, there’s the question of what happens if international law is not invoked or applied to this case? To the extent state practice can involve acts and omissions, might silence suggest that this sort of behavior (hacking and releasing political parties’ internal communications) is perceived as lawful (or at least not internationally wrongful)?  In other words, how States react to this case will have follow-on effects on future expectations of responsible State behavior, leading to new norms of behavior in cybersecurity.  This is a topic on which I’ve been spending A LOT of time lately with a forthcoming article in the American Journal of International Law that I’ve co-authored with Martha Finnemore (we’ve not posted it yet, but interested readers should e-mail me if they’d like to see a draft).

Finally, there’s an academic reason to undertake this analysis.  In recent years, scholars have debated and emphasized ways to shrink the duty of non-intervention, under the banner of things like human rights (unseating the old assumption that international law did not care what a State did vis-a-vis its own citizens in its own territory) or humanitarian intervention (the idea that responding to a State’s failure to protect those within its borders is more important than the duty of other States to stay out of domestic jurisdiction matters).  I wonder if these arguments are relevant to the current controversy?  Have they inadvertently created space for additional exceptions or otherwise shifted the scope and reach of any duty of non-intervention?  I might be wrong to worry about any such link, but I do think the issue warrants further study.

Thus, I think this is an important case that bears close attention.  I’d like to see how the United States responds publicly, if at all, to the allegations, not to mention how other States or actors view the behavior in question.  For international lawyers, moreover, I’d hope to see further discussions of how to attribute responsibility in cyber security incidents as well as more detailed analyses of how the duty of non-intervention applies in cyberspace than we have had to date.  To that end, I’d welcome reader thoughts and comments.  What have I got wrong?  What am I missing?

 

The NY Times on Bitcoins and China

by Chris Borgen

William Gibson, repurposing a Gertrude Stein quip, said about cyberspace “there’s no there, there” capturing the ethos of the internet as a place beyond the physical world of borders and jurisdiction.  Bitcoin melded cryptography and networked processing to attempt to make a currency that was not based in or controlled by any state.

But the internet is based on servers and fiber-optic cable and telecom switching stations that are firmly rooted in the physical world.  The cloud is made out of metal and plastic and glass. And as for Bitcoin, there increasingly is a there, there. And “there” is China. (For a quick background on Bitcoin, see this video, which explains how Bitcoin builds a payment system that replaces trust and personal allegiance with “mathematical confidence” or  this article.)

The New York Times reports how Chinese companies have come to dominate the production of Bitcoins:

In its early conception, Bitcoin was to exist beyond the control of any single government or country. It would be based everywhere and nowhere.

Yet despite the talk of a borderless currency, a handful of Chinese companies have effectively assumed majority control of the Bitcoin network. They have done so through canny investments and vast farms of computer servers dispersed around the country. The American delegation flew to Beijing because that was where much of the Bitcoin power was concentrated…

…But China’s clout is raising worries about Bitcoin’s independence and decentralization, which was supposed to give the technology freedom from the sort of government crackdowns and interventions that are commonplace in the Chinese financial world.

“The concentration in a single jurisdiction does not bode well,” said Emin Gun Sirer, a professor at Cornell and a Bitcoin researcher. “We need to pay attention to these things if we want decentralization to be a meaningful thing.”

What follows is a story considering the possible factors that contributed to Bitcoin’s popularity in China (including attempts to avoid government financial regulators and the popularity of online gambling) which, in turn, incentivized large investments in Bitcoin businesses, leading to the situation where “over 70 percent of the transactions on the Bitcoin network were going through just four Chinese companies…”

And, through it all, there is the question as to whether these and other Chinese companies even want to exercise leadership over Bitcoin at all. There is an interesting question of the psychology of power. The frame of the NY Times story is a meeting that took place in China between US and Chinese corporate leaders. The Americans flew to China because, as the Times put it, “that was where much of the Bitcoin power was concentrated.” They tried to persuade Chinese leadership to make certain changes to Bitcoin but were unable to do so. They also expressed frustration at the reluctance of the Chinese companies to exercise leadership in the industry. But then consider this description by one of the Chinese CEO of the same meeting:

“It was almost like imperialistic Westerners coming to China and telling us what to do… There has been a history on this. The Chinese people have long memories.”

Same room; completely different views of the dynamics of the meeting.

So, before we deploy too much post-modern, post-Westphalian, post-everything analysis to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or to the internet more generally, perhaps we need to  give jurisdiction, territory, memory, and psychology a second look. There is a there, there.

Emojis and International Law

by Chris Borgen

Emojis: love them or hate them, you can’t seem to get away from them.  🙂  The smiley face, the thumbs-up, the smiling pile of poop, and the hundreds of other little symbols and pictograms that get used in text messages, tweets, and the like.  And tomorrow, June 21, we will have 71 new emojis to play with.  Why will there be new emojis tomorrow? And what does this have to do with international law? Read on…

First, a bit of background: while the smiley face is very much an iconic 1970’s symbol (“Have a Nice Day!’), the use of what we would call emoji in electronic communications started in the 1990’s in Japan, for use in cellphone texts.  Each little frowny face or thumbs-up, though, needs to be mapped using a common standard, or else it would only be able to be seen on certain platforms (say, an Android smartphone) but not on others (such as a Mac).

Consequently, there is actually an approved set of “official” emojis that can work across multiple software and hardware platforms and that new emojis are released once a year by a standard-setting organization called the Unicode Consortium, “a non-profit corporation devoted to developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalization standards and data, particularly the Unicode Standard, which specifies the representation of text in all modern software products and standards.”  The Consortium’s membership includes Apple, Adobe, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Yahoo, among others. By providing cross-platform standards, the Consortium is essentially making the soft law of the interoperability of symbols across different programs and devices. 😎

Proposals for new emojis are made to the Unicode Consortium, which then reviews and decides which symbols  should become standard and how they should be encoded. There are currently about 1,300 emojis, with about 70 added each year.   (By way of perspective the total  “Unicode Standard is mammoth in size, covering over 110,000 characters. “) The list of new emojis being released on June 21 is here.  Can’t wait to use the team handball emoji!

But, besides this being an unexpected story of industry standard-making bodies and funny little symbols, one must keep in mind that the Unicode Consortium’s responsibilities go well beyond encoding the broken heart glyph. As NPR reported last year:

The Unicode Consortium’s job has always been to make basic symbols work across all computers and other devices, but the emoji has put the group at the center of pop culture.

“Our goal is to make sure that all of the text on computers for every language in the world is represented,”

However, as Mashable notes:

getting characters added to the Unicode Standard is a long, drawn-out process. In addition to the original Japanese emoji characters, the Unicode additions included other new characters — such as country maps and European symbols.

What this means is that there is a data file that maps every individual emoji symbol to a Unicode code point or sequence.

But this is just the standardization of the symbols. Supporting emoji, as well as the specific design of the emoji characters, is up to software makers.

Thus, the administrative scaffolding that makes emojis ubiquitous is based on a non-governmental standard-setting body using soft law to allocate Unicode points or sequences to symbols (be they emojis, letters, mathematical symbols, etc.) that are approved by the Consortium.   The approval of emojis is simply one example of a set of responsibilities with much broader implications than just whether “nauseated face” deserves its own encoding. (According to the Consortium, it does.)

Besides interest in the process of institutional decision-making in standard-setting bodies such as the Consortium, there is also a question  of whether the Consortium’s overall goal of ensuring that the script of every language in the world is represented digitally is in tension the current focus on encoding more and more emoji.  Some have expressed concern that this focus on emojis may divert time and resources away from the protection of endangered languages. Peoples who are trying to preserve endangered languages (such as, for example, Native American and First Nation languages) would be greatly helped if the alphabet of that language would be as easy to read across a variety of computer platforms and digital devices as a smiley-face. Consider this an issue of resource allocation.  Letterjuice, a Brighton and Barcelona-based type foundry, posted a thoughtful essay on Unicode and language rights, which stated: (more…)

Abkhazia Defeats Panjab in Overtime for ConIFA World Football Cup

by Chris Borgen

I know Opinio Juris is probably not where you come for sports updates but this is the result of the ConIFA World Football Cup, a tournament among unrecognized regimes, minorities, and stateless peoples.

For more on ConIFA, statehood, and nationalism, see my post from last week.  In short, the ConIFA competition may be an attempt not only to boost morale within unrecognized regimes, ethnic enclaves, and stateless people, but also remind the rest of the world of the claims that these groups have, be they claims of statehood or simply a desire to be recognized to exist as a people. Consider the following from an article posted by Al Jazeera:

…CONIFA’s president Per-Anders Blind explained how this World Cup has nothing to do with politics and borders.

“Our aim is to show that football can be a tool to bring our members to the global stage. We all have the same right to exist,” he said.

Chewing on a little pouch of “snus’, a Swedish chewing tobacco, Blind described how the idea for the CONIFA World Cup was inspired by his own life experience.

“My father is a reindeer herder in the Swedish and Norwegian mountains. I was born and raised as part of a group of forgotten people, the Sami, and endured discrimination because of that.”

Blind’s comments are reminiscent of the Olympic ideal to “use sport to foster peace and reconciliation, underlining the power of the Games to promote tolerance and solidarity among the participants, fans and people all over the world.”  Perhaps the founders of ConIFA were frustrated that membership international sports organizations such as the International Olympic Committee and (particularly relevant to ConIFA) FIFA, was too intertwined with statehood to extend these ideals to unrecognized regimes and stateless peoples. As the ConIFA website states, echoming the Olympic ideal,

CONIFA aims to build bridges between people, nations, minorities and isolated regions all over the world through friendship, culture and the joy of playing football. CONIFA works for the development of affiliated members and is committed to fair play and the eradication of racism.

But it can be difficult to set aside issues of politics, borders, and laws when the membership of ConIFA is practically defined by its tension with existing borders, politics,and/ or laws. While the structures of the International Olympic Committee and FIFA may favor recognized states, the tournament organization of ConIFA itself steps from the sports field into the arena of high politics.   Abkhazia, the Georgian breakaway region, not only won the tournament but was also the host. While the tournament may be a morale-booster for the population of Abkhazia, it was played in territory that Georgia views was taken from it by a Russian military invasion.   The Al Jazeera article notes that:

Georgian officials have complained that the CONIFA tournament is illegal since it it lacks Georgia’s authorisation within what it considers to be its territorial boundary. According to Georgian law, participants entering Abkhazia through Russia would be entering Georgian territory illegally.

The ConIFA World Football Cup symbolizes different things for different people. For some, it is an affirmation that they, too, matter. For others, the tournament is affront to the rule of law. And for some, it might just be a chance to watch the home team play a game of soccer. In any case, though, it matters.

Videos and summaries of the games are available at the ConIFA website. (And, by the way, Northern Cyprus beat ConIFA heavyweights Padania for the third place trophy.)

Thoughts on Jens’s Post about the Kunduz Attack

by Kevin Jon Heller

I read with great interest Jens’s excellent post about whether the US attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz was a war crime. I agree with much of what he says, particularly about the complexity of that seemingly innocuous word “intent.” But I am not completely convinced by his argument that reading intent in the Rome Statute to include mental states other than purpose or dolus directus would necessarily collapse the distinction between the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population and the war crime of launching a disproportionate attack. Here is the crux of Jens’s argument:

In the civilian tradition, the concept of intent is a wider category that in some circumstances might include recklessness. This equation sounds odd to a common-law trained criminal lawyer, because to an American student of criminal law, intent and recklessness are fundamentally different concepts. But just for the sake of argument, what would happen if intent were given this wider meaning? Could the U.S. service members be prosecuted for intentionally directing an attack against the civilian population because “intentionally” includes lower mental states such as dolus eventualis or recklessness?

I worry about this argument. And here’s why. If intent = recklessness, then all cases of legitimate collateral damage would count as violations of the principle of distinction, because in collateral damage cases the attacker kills the civilians with knowledge that the civilians will die. And the rule against disproportionate attacks sanctions this behavior as long as the collateral damage is not disproportionate and the attack is aimed at a legitimate military target. But if intent = recklessness, then I see no reason why the attacking force in that situation couldn’t be prosecuted for the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against civilians, without the court ever addressing or analyzing the question of collateral damage. Because clearly a soldier in that hypothetical situation would “know” that the attack will kill civilians, and knowledge is certainly a higher mental state than recklessness. That result would effectively transform all cases of disproportionate collateral damage into violations of the principle of distinction and relieve the prosecutor of the burden of establishing that the damage was indeed disproportionate, which seems absurd to me.

I don’t want to focus on recklessness, because it isn’t criminalised by the Rome Statute. The lowest default mental element in Art. 30 is knowledge, which applies to consequence and circumstance elements — “awareness that a circumstance exists or a consequence will occur in the ordinary course of events.” So Jens’s real worry, it seems to me, is that reading the “intentionally” in “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” to include knowledge would mean a proportionate attack could be prosecuted as an intentional attack on a civilian population as long as the attacker was aware that civilians would be harmed “in the ordinary course of events” — a state of affairs that will almost always be the case, given that an attacker will engage in a proportionality assessment only when he knows that civilians will be incidentally affected by the planned attack on a military objective.

I’m not sure I agree. As I read it, the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” consists of two material elements: a conduct element and a circumstance element. (There is no consequence element, because the civilians do not need to be harmed.) The conduct element is directing an attack against a specific group of people. The circumstance element is the particular group of people qualifying as a civilian population. So that means, if we apply the default mental element provisions in Art. 30, that the war crime is complete when (1) a defendant “means to engage” in an attack against a specific group of people; (2) that specific group of people objectively qualifies as a civilian population; and (3) the defendant “is aware” that the specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population. Thus understood, the war crime requires not one but two mental elements: (1) intent for the prohibited conduct (understood as purpose, direct intent, or dolus directus); (2) knowledge for the necessary circumstance (understood as oblique intent or dolus indirectus).

Does this mean that an attacker who knows his attack on a military objective will incidentally but proportionately harm a group of civilians commits the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” if he launches the attack? I don’t think so. The problematic element, it seems to me, is not the circumstance element but the conduct element: although the attacker who launches a proportionate attack on a legitimate military objective knows that his attack will harm a civilian population, he is not intentionally attacking that civilian population. The attacker means to attack only the military objective; he does not mean to attack the group of civilians. They are simply incidentally — accidentally — harmed. So although the attacker has the mental element necessary for the circumstance element of the war crime (knowledge that a specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population) he does not have the mental element necessary for its conduct element (intent to attack that specific group of people). He is thus not criminally responsible for either launching a disproportionate attack or intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.

To be sure, this analysis is probably not watertight. But I think it’s based on the best interpretation of the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.” The key, in my view, is that the crime does not contain a consequence element — no harm to civilians is necessary. If the war crime was “intentionally directing attacks that cause harm to a civilian population,” the analysis would be very different: the crime would then consist of three material elements: a conduct element (intentionally directing an attack), a consequence element (harming a group of people), and a circumstance element (the harmed group of people qualifying as a civilian population).The applicable mental elements would then be quite different: the defendant would commit the war crime if he (1) intentionally launched an attack that harmed a civilian population, (2) knowing that the attack would harm a specific group of people, and (3) knowing that the harmed group of people qualified as a civilian population. And in that case, a proportionate attack on a legitimate military objective would qualify as “intentionally directing attacks that harm a civilian population” — a nonsensical outcome, for all the reason Jens mentions.

In the absence of the consequence element, however, this situation does not exist. As long as the defendant whose attack harms a civilian population meant to attack only a legitimate military objective, his knowledge that the attack would incidentally harm a civilian population would not qualify as the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population. He would be guilty of that crime only if he meant to attack the civilian population itself.

Your thoughts, Jens?

NOTE: This post generally takes the same position Adil Haque took in a series of comments on Jens’s post.

AJIL Unbound Symposium on Third World Approaches to International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

AJIL Unbound has just published a fantastic symposium entitled “TWAIL Perspectives on ICL, IHL, and Intervention.” The symposium includes an introduction by James Gathii (Loyola-Chicago) and essays by Asad Kiyani (Western), Parvathi Menon (Max Planck), Ntina Tzouvala (Durham), and Corri Zoli (Syracuse). All of the essays are excellent and worth a read, but I want to call special attention to Ntina’s essay, which is entitled “TWAIL and the ‘Unwilling or Unable’ Doctrine: Continuities and Ruptures.” Here is a snippet that reflects her central thesis:

The similarities between this practice and the prominent role of nineteenth-century international legal scholars in the construction of the “civilizing” discourse of the time are striking, even if “[s]ubsequent generations of international lawyers have strenuously attempted to distance the discipline from that period.” Imperial aspirations tied to such arguments also form a “red thread” that connect “the standard of civilization” with the “unwilling or unable” doctrine. The unequal international legal structure promoted by these arguments is intimately linked to an unequal political structure, characterized by the dominance of the Global North over the Global South. More specifically, states of the Global North are enabled to use force against the sovereignty and—importantly—the life and security of the citizens of states of the Global South in pursuing the former’s “war on terror” and the political and economic agendas accompanying it. Moreover, pressure is exerted upon states of the Global South to transform themselves and adopt policies appealing to powerful states, if they want to avoid being branded “unwilling or unable.” A strong parallel can be detected between this transformative process and the pressure exerted upon peripheral states during the nineteenth century to introduce reforms that would render them “civilized” and, hence, equal to Western states.

Ntina makes a number of points in the essay that I’ve tried to make over the years — but she does so far better than I ever have or could. For anyone interested in the “unwilling or unable” doctrine, her essay is a must read.

Seeking the Regulatory High Ground: the International Civil Aviation Organization and Commercial Spaceflight

by Chris Borgen

In 1958, Air Force Chief of Staff Thomas D. White wrote: “For all practical purposes air and space merge, form a continuous and indivisible field of operations.” White later coined the term “aerospace” and used it in a Congressional hearing. Later it was used in policy papers to explain why the U.S. Air Force would also have the responsibility for space issues. (William Burrows, The New Ocean, 248.)

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the UN, has just made a similar giant leap from air into space. Agence France Press reports that in a March 15 speech at the Second Annual Aerospace Symposium (there’s that word again) co-sponsored by ICAO and the UN Office on Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said:

The International Civil Aviation Organization “recognizes that sub-orbital and outer space flights will foster new tourism and transport markets, and that investments in related research and development remain at a very healthy level,”…

“Personally, as an engineer, I am very excited to see the dream and theory of normalized space flight now becoming such a tangible reality,” he told an aerospace symposium in Abu Dhabi.

In making its case, the agency noted an uptick in the number of spacecraft designs that have made the leap from concept to reality, saying more will follow.

As SpaceNews put it: ICAO is “spreading its wings into commercial spaceflight.” Thinking holistically about the continuum of air and space activities does make sense. Virgin Galactic’s space planes and SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s returnable, reusable rockets will have significant activities within the atmosphere as well as in space. And, so, we see domestic and international organizations adapting.

That adaptation is itself an interesting story. ICAO’s mandate is focused on aviation. Its vision statement is to “[a]chieve the sustainable growth of the global civil aviation system.” Even its 2014- 2016 strategic objectives make no mention on of space– or aerospace. However, Agence France Press reports that at the ICAO/ UNOOSA conference, the ICAO leadership stated that:

Rules must be put in place soon to ensure safety and security in space, as well as prevent the creation of a patchwork of regulations by individual states..

The agency suggested adapting the existing regulatory framework for aviation, for which the ICAO and national governments are responsible.

ICAO, as it stands, does not have enforcement authority. It studies,  fosters coordination and  develops policies and standards.

While there has been a focus on certain potential future space activities, such as asteroid mining, and their relation to the Outer Space Treaty, is there a need for a new treaty covering launches and activities such as space tourism? In the U.S., there seems to be a concern that too much regulation of the space tourism and orbital launch services could stifle the nascent industry. According to R&D:

Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the recently passed commercial-space competitiveness legislation from the U.S. Congress keep their distance from regulating space tourism, “as long as passengers receive explicit warnings about the hazards and the vehicles have basic safeguards,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

And so there are likely two discussions that will be taking place in the coming months. The first will concern the an institutional question: should ICAO become a norm-setter in regards to space activities? The second will address a set of regulatory issues: do we need a new treaty on aerospace activities, space tourism, and launch activities? Could consultation and coordination among national regulators be enough?

Stay tuned…

Russia’s Short-Sighted Approach to the Georgia Investigation

by Kevin Jon Heller

According to a recent article in Agenda.ge, Russia has announced that it will not cooperate with the ICC’s formal investigation into the situation in Georgia:

Russia’s Ministry of Justice issued a statement confirming it would not cooperate with the investigation, reported Russian media today.

Tbilisi was not surprised by Moscow’s decision. The Georgian side believed it would not be in Russia’s best interests for this case to be investigated.

Russian officials stated it would not collaborate with The Hague Court since the Russian parliament had not ratified the Rome Statue, which Russia signed in 2000.

“As of February 1, 2016, the Russia Federation has not ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the document has not come into power,” Russia’s Justice Ministry said.

[snip]

Earlier, spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova said Moscow was disappointed with ICC’s recent activities and would be forced to “fundamentally review its attitude towards the ICC”.

Zakharova said ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had taken Georgia’s side and started an investigation aimed against Russia and South Ossetia.

“Such actions hardly reflect the ideals of justice,” she said.

Assuming the article is correct — and Agenda.ge is, of course, a Georgian news organization — the statement represents a rather baffling shift in Russia’s approach to the Georgia investigation. According to the OTP’s request for authorization to open the investigation, Russia generally cooperated with the ICC during the preliminary examination, including providing the OTP with 28 volumes of evidence concerning Georgian attacks on Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. Given that the Pre-Trial Chamber has authorized the OTP to investigate those attacks (para. 29), Russia’s cooperation seems to have paid off, at least to some extent.

More fundamentally, though, Russia doesn’t seem to have much to fear from the ICC. The OTP’s most sensational allegation is probably that Russia had “overall control” of South Ossetia’s forces during the 2008 conflict…

Guest Post: Reaffirming the Role of Human Rights in a Time of “Global” Armed Conflict

by Jonathan Horowitz

[Jonathan Horowitz is a Legal Officer on National Security and Counterterrorism in the Open Society Justice Initiative. This post is based on his recently published article in Emory International Law Review, “Reaffirming the Role of Human Rights in a Time of “Global” Armed Conflict,” and will also appear in a longer form and under a different title in a forthcoming book, Theoretical Boundaries of Armed Conflict and Human Rights, edited by Jens Ohlin for Cambridge University Press.]

If a foreign State asked you (a government official) permission to let it kill an individual on your government’s territory – an individual who the foreign State said it was fighting against in a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) but who was not in a NIAC against your government – would your human rights obligations prevent you from providing your consent? To pose the question more directly: Would you permit another state to kill someone on your territory in a manner that you yourself weren’t allowed to do?

These questions expose a rarely discussed tension that rests at the heart of the notion of a global (or transnational) NIAC. Unlike many important writings that debate this issue with a focus on the attacking State, these questions seek to reveal the legal responsibilities, namely under human rights law, that arise when a host State grants its consent to the attacking State.

The underlying assumption of a global NIAC is that the US, or any State, may chase its enemies around the world using international humanitarian law (IHL) targeting rules. John O. Brennan, when serving as assistant to the US president for homeland security and counterterrorism, articulated the notion of a global NIAC when he stated “[t]here is nothing in international law that…prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.”

When we look at this statement from the perspective of the consenting State rather than from the perspective of the attacking State, two things become obvious. The first is that the attacking State’s claims to IHL targeting authorities are more permissive than the host State’s international human rights law (IHRL) obligations. This is because, under our scenario, the host State is not in a NIAC with the attacking State’s enemies and so the host State’s IHRL obligations still apply in full.

A second observation it that under the obligations to respect and protect the human rights of people on its territory, a State must not take part in unlawful and arbitrary deprivation of life and it must protect people in its territory from the same.

When this second observation is linked with the first one, the situation arises whereby even if the foreign State sought to carry out a killing in complete conformity with IHL, the way the killing occurred may still have gone far beyond what IHRL allows the host State to permit. That being the case, the host State would be barred from providing its consent; and, as I explain in more detail in a new article, this significantly undercuts the notion of a global NIAC.

This conclusion, however disappointing it may be for attacking States that wish to use consent as a legal sanitizer, isn’t exactly legal nuclear science. But I do think it’s an area that has largely gone unexplored and allows consenting States to get off the hook for their unlawful role in permitting killings that they have no right to permit.

The problems that IHRL poses for a State that is asked to grant its consent in the context of a global NIAC doesn’t, however, mean that a State can’t defend itself from the serious threats of non-State actors abroad. It means that such use of force must be based on other legal authorities, be them host State law enforcement measures, relying on the inherent right to self-defense, UN Security Council authorization, joining a host State’s armed conflict with a common enemy, and so on.

And while it’s true that distinguishing between using a legally permissible framework or a legally impermissible framework may lead to no material difference in the final outcome (i.e., use of lethal force and casualties may still result), the distinction remains important. A global NIAC stands for something far greater than the consequences of any single lethal attack or group of lethal attacks that a State may wish to carry out. It permits a State to engage in long-lasting armed conflict whereby human rights law is sidelined and the more permissible IHL targeting rules are routinely applied without geographic constraint. Such a legal framework dramatically expands a State’s use of force beyond what international law had envisaged to date.

But herein lays a considerable problem. It will be an uphill battle to persuade host States to respect their human rights obligations (in this case by refusing to grant consent) within the extremely politicized and highly insecure sphere of terrorism, counterterrorism, and armed conflict, especially when the request for consent comes from an attacking State that has considerable military, political, and economic resources to provide or withhold. In turn, this will require a sustained focus and intensified discussions on the legal obligations of the host State and will have to include holding the host State accountable for its breach of international law.