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Non-State Actors

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, 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.


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 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.

Navy SEAL Who Supposedly Killed Bin Laden Under Investigation

by Kevin Jon Heller

The SEAL in question is Matthew Bissonnette, who published the bestselling No Easy Day under the pseudonym Mark Owen. According to the Intercept, the federal government is investigating Bissonnette for revealing classified information and using his position to make money while still on active duty:

A former Navy SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden and wrote a bestselling book about the raid is now the subject of a widening federal criminal investigation into whether he used his position as an elite commando for personal profit while on active duty, according to two people familiar with the case.

Matthew Bissonnette, the former SEAL and author of No Easy Day, a firsthand account of the 2011 bin Laden operation, had already been under investigation by both the Justice Department and the Navy for revealing classified information. The two people familiar with the probe said the current investigation, led by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, expanded after Bissonnette agreed to hand over a hard drive containing an unauthorized photo of the al Qaeda leader’s corpse. The government has fought to keep pictures of bin Laden’s body from being made public for what it claims are national security reasons.

The investigation is a perfect example of the US government’s bipartisan unwillingness to address crimes committed by the military as part of the war on terror. As I noted more than three years ago, Bissonnette openly admits to committing the war crime of willful killing — a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions — in No Easy Day. Here is his description of how he and a fellow SEAL killed bin Laden (p. 315):

“The point man reached the landing first and slowly moved toward the door. Unlike in the movies, we didn’t bound up the final few steps and rush into the room with guns blazing. We took our time.

The point man kept his rifle trained into the room as we slowly crept toward the open door. Again, we didn’t rush. Instead, we waited at the threshold and peered inside. We could see two women standing over a man lying at the foot of a bed. Both women were dressed in long gowns and their hair was a tangled mess like they had been sleeping. The women were hysterically crying and wailing in Arabic. The younger one looked up and saw us at the door.

She yelled out in Arabic and rushed the point man. We were less than five feet apart. Swinging his gun to the side, the point man grabbed both women and drove them toward the corner of the room. If either woman had on a suicide vest, he probably saved our lives, but it would have cost him his own. It was a selfless decision made in a split second.”

With the women out of the way, I entered the room with a third SEAL. We saw the man lying on the floor at the foot of his bed. He was wearing a white sleeveless T-shirt, loose tan pants, and a tan tunic. The point man’s shots had entered the right side of his head. Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull. In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing. Another assaulter and I trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds. The bullets tore into him, slamming his body into the floor until he was motionless.

This is about as clear-cut as IHL and ICL get in a combat situation. Bissonnette did not make a split-second decision to shoot bin Laden; his account makes clear that he had plenty of time to assess the situation. And there is no question bin Laden was hors de combat when Bissonnette pointed his weapon at him and finished him off. Bissonnette wasn’t even the SEAL who first shot bin Laden in the head, so he can’t argue that this was some kind of continuous action designed to eliminate any possibility that bin Laden remained a threat. Ergo: a war crime.

But it’s bin Laden, of course. Inter malum enim silent leges. So instead of prosecuting Bissonnette for murder under the UCMJ, the US government investigates him for hanging onto a trophy of his kill and profiting from his notoriety.

Behold impunity.

PS: In case anyone is wondering, “death throes” refers to the agonal phase of dying, when the body is shutting down. The agonal phase precedes clinical death (when the heart stops and respiration ceases), brain death, and biological death.

Why All the Hate Toward Breaking the Silence?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Although anything I post about Israel invariably elicits angry comments, nothing makes Israel’s supposed “defenders” more angry than my posts — see here and here — about Breaking the Silence, the Israeli organisation that collects testimonies by IDF soldiers about their experiences in combat. I’m obviously not the only one who has noticed the anger toward the organisation; Haggai Mattar recently published a superb article at +972 entitled simply, “Why Do So Many Israeli’s Hate Breaking the Silence?” Here are a couple of key paragraphs:

The first claim, which in my mind is the most important and critical accusation to refute, is that Breaking the Silence is not credible. The organization’s critics come up with all sorts of reasons why the organization isn’t credible, but there is one rebuttal that is awfully difficult to refute: In the 11 years that Breaking the Silence has collected and published testimonies, there has not been one instance in which a serious error — not to mention a fabrication — has been found in their published testimonies.

This is no insignificant point — it needs to be the heart of the debate. An organization that publishes hundreds of testimonies, which works with more than 1,000 soldiers, which has dealt with very complicated subject matter for 11 years — and not a single fabricated published testimony has ever been found. No court of law in any land can boast of such a record. And that is despite a number of attempts to fool the organization by giving them false testimonies. Their researchers and fact-checkers seem to have a perfect record of catching fabrications before publication.

That astounding success is the result of the massive investment Breaking the Silence makes in every single testimony. As the organization’s director of research has written here in the past, every testimony given by a soldier or former soldier is fact-checked, and the background of the incident or testimony is verified along with the identity of the testifier him or herself (and that they are not an aspiring politician looking to make a name for himself). The entire testimony is then corroborated with any available information — both from other soldiers’ testimonies and open source information. Some of the most hair-raising testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence were never published because the organization could not independently corroborate them. Just imagine if journalists who published attack pieces on the organization applied their strict verification standards to their own work and the malicious things that are said about it.

The article goes on to explain why Breaking the Silence does not give its testimonies to the IDF (they used to — and were investigated by the IDF for their trouble); why the testimonies are anonymous (similar reasons); why the organisation’s foreign funding is a non-issue (duh); and why it engages in events overseas (double duh).

The article ultimately concludes by answering the question asked by its title: because Breaking the Silence involves Israeli soldiers laying bare the ugly reality of how the IDF actually conducts its biennial destruction of Gaza — a necessary counterpoint to the endless Israeli propaganda about how the IDF is the “most moral army” in the world. The IDF regularly violates IHL and commits war crimes, and no number of self-interested secret briefings by the IDF about its targeting procedures can change that basic fact.

Moreno-Ocampo Needs a Remedial Criminal Law Course

by Kevin Jon Heller

Here is Moreno-Ocampo’s latest doozy, concerning the possibility of Israelis being prosecuted for war crimes related to Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank:

Where the Israeli High Court of Justice has approved specific settlements as legal, this could provide a complete defense to any allegations that they are war crimes, former International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told the Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

Moreno-Ocampo is in Jerusalem lecturing at the The Fried-Gal Transitional Justice Initiative at the Hebrew University Law School.

Although Moreno-Ocampo has stepped down from his post, he was the boss of the current ICC chief prosecutor who will decide whether or not the settlements qualify as a war crime, is considered highly influential internationally and his statement could be a major coup in the debate over the issue.

Moreno-Ocampo did not by any means say that the settlements were legal under international law.

But he did say that “Israel’s High Court is highly respected internationally” and that anyone prosecuting Israelis regarding settlement activity would be incapable of proving criminal intent if those Israelis explained that they honestly believed their actions were legal once ratified by the country’s top court.

“At least they could show no intention” to commit a crime said the former chief ICC prosecutor.

Few ICL scholars are more sympathetic to mistake defences than I am (see this article), but Moreno-Ocampo’s statements simply make no sense. Most obviously, Art. 32(2) of the Rome Statute specifically recognises the principle ignorantia legis neminem excusat — ignorance of the law excuses no one:

A mistake of law as to whether a particular type of conduct is a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court shall not be a ground for excluding criminal responsibility.

Art. 32(2) applies regardless of whether a defendant was simply unaware that his actions were illegal (ignorance) or affirmatively believed that they were legal (mistaken belief). So if an Israeli was prosecuted for committing a settlement-related war crime — transfer of civilians into occupied territory, forcible transfer, pillaging, etc. — it would not matter that he either did not know international law criminalised his actions or believed that his actions were legal because the Israeli Supreme Court had approved the legality of settlements. The only question would be whether he committed the actus reus of the war crime in question with the necessary mens rea.

To be sure, some common-law systems provide an exception to the ignorantia legis principle where the defendant has reasonably relied on an official interpretation of the law. Moreno-Ocampo’s emphasis on the reputation of the Israeli Supreme Court suggests he might be thinking about that exception. But there are two significant problems here. First, no such exception exists in the Rome Statute, as the text of Art. 32(2) makes clear. Second, even if there was one, the ICC would be very unlikely to conclude that an Israeli defendant could reasonably rely on a statement by an Israeli court — even a supposedly “highly respected” one (which is questionable) — that settlements are legal. That would obviously be the case if the Israeli Supreme Court affirmed that the settlements were legal under Israeli law; no international tribunal has ever allowed such a “domestic legality” defence. And I seriously doubt that the ICC would find it any more reasonable for an Israeli defendant to rely on an Israeli court’s interpretation of international law, given the widespread international rejection of official Israeli positions on a variety of international-law issues.

Finally, we might be generous and assume that Moreno-Ocampo was actually thinking not about Art. 32(2) of the Rome Statute, but about Art. 32(1), which recognises mistakes that negative mens rea:

A mistake of fact shall be a ground for excluding criminal responsibility only if it negates the mental element required by the crime.

In this interpretation, Moreno-Ocamp is actually arguing that an Israeli defendant who knew the Israeli Supreme Court had approved the legality of the settlements would not have the mental states required by any of the various settlement-related war crimes. But that is a flawed argument, because none of those war crimes require a mens rea that would be negated by a belief in settlement legality. Consider, for example, the elements of the war crime of direct or indirect transfer, Art. 8(2)(b)(viii) of the Rome Statute:

1. The perpetrator: (a) Transferred, directly or indirectly, parts of its own population into the territory it occupies…

2. The conduct took place in the context of and was associated with an international armed conflict.

3. The perpetrator was aware of factual circumstances that established the existence of an armed conflict.

In terms of mens rea, Art. 8(2)(b)(viii) requires the prosecution to prove that the defendant (1) intentionally engaged in the acts that qualified as direct or indirect transfer; (2) knew that Israeli civilians were moving into occupied territory; and (3) knew that Israel exercised effective control over the West Bank at the time of the transfer. The defendant’s belief that settlements are legal would not negate either of those mental elements, so Art. 32(1) would not apply.

No matter how we interpret it, then, Moreno-Ocampo’s statement about the Israeli Supreme Court makes no sense as a matter of substantive international criminal law. Israel relies on the “expertise” of this “highly influential” former prosecutor at its own peril…