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Non-State Actors

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

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Is Britain Intentionally Using Weapons of Mass Destruction?

by Kevin Jon Heller

I refer, of course, to the British Navy’s use of the music of Britney Spears to scare off Somali pirates:

In an excellent case of “here’s a sentence you won’t read every day”, Britney Spears has emerged as an unlikely figurehead in the fight against Somali pirates.

According to reports, Britney’s hits, including Oops! I Did It Again and Baby One More Time, are being employed by British naval officers in an attempt to scare off pirates along the east coast of Africa. Perhaps nothing else – not guns, not harpoons – is quite as intimidating as the sound of Ms Spears singing “Ooh baby baby!”

Merchant naval officer Rachel Owens explained the tactics to Metro: “Her songs were chosen by the security team because they thought the pirates would hate them most. These guys can’t stand western culture or music, making Britney’s hits perfect. As soon as the pirates get a blast of Britney, they move on as quickly as they can.”

This is an unconscionable tactic, one that does not befit a country that considers itself civilized. Need I remind the British Navy that torture is illegal under both international and UK law?

The British Navy should also be aware that international law does not completely forbid belligerent reprisals. If the Somali pirates begin to fight back by blaring One Direction at oncoming British ships, the Navy will have no one but themselves to blame.

Hat-Tip: the BBC’s Kate Vandy.

My Talk in London Defending the Specific-Direction Requirement

by Kevin Jon Heller

I had the privilege last week of speaking in London at a superb Chatham House/Doughty St. Chambers symposium on the ICTY’s recent high-profile acquittals in Perisic, Gotovina, and others. My co-panelists were John Jones, QC, Saif Gaddafi’s ICC-appointed lawyer, and Elies van Sliedregt, the Dean of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Chatham House’s Elizabeth Wilmshurst was the moderator. I don’t believe the symposium was recorded, so I thought I would post the detailed outline of my remarks. My talk was, not surprisingly, a defence of Perisic‘s specific-direction requirement; it developed and systematized the thoughts I’ve articulated in a series of posts here on Opinio Juris. I was particularly keen to explain why criticizing the requirement for lacking a foundation in customary international law – as the SCSL did in Taylor – fundamentally misunderstands the difference between criminal-law doctrines that expand criminal responsibility (which must have a customary foundation, because of the nullum crimen principle) and those that narrow it (which do not have to have a customary foundation, because they do not implicate nullem crimen).

The outline of my remarks can be found here. As always, reader comments most welcome!

Guest Post at Just Security About “Belonging to” and Associated Forces

by Kevin Jon Heller

Just Security has been kind enough to post my reply to an excellent post by Ryan Goodman. Here is the introduction:

In a recent post here at Just Security, Ryan Goodman offered a novel – and characteristically intelligent – defense of the US position that it is involved in a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) not only with al-Qaeda, but also with al-Qaeda’s “associated forces.” According to Ryan, the US is involved in a NIAC with al-Qaeda’s associated forces because they “belong to” al-Qaeda for purposes of the rules of IHL governing targeting and detention. Here is what he said, nominally in response to Christof Heyns’ assertion in his recent UN report on extrajudicial killings that an associated force must “form part” of al-Qaeda for its members to be targetable and detainable:

Nevertheless, the law of armed conflict stipulates that members of armed groups (e.g., AQAP) with a particular relationship to a party to a conflict (e.g., al-Qaeda) are legitimate targets. Specifically, Article 50(1) of Additional Protocol I states that a person cannot be considered a civilian (e.g., for the purpose of lethal targeting) if he is a member of an organized armed group with such an association. That association is defined in Article 4(a)(2) of the POW Convention: “members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict.”

In short, “belonging to” a party to the conflict is a form of an associated group, which renders its members subject to lethal force and detention.

I disagree with Ryan that the concept of “belonging to” can be applied in non-international armed conflict (NIAC). In this post I explain why.

Because Just Security does not have a comment system, interested readers should feel free to leave comments here.

Guest Post: The OPCW Grows Up

by Faiza Patel

[Faiza Patel is the Co-Director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law]

In the decade that I worked at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, few people outside the arms control community knew about my employer. Now, of course, everyone is talking about the OPCW as its inspectors undertake the difficult and dangerous task of monitoring the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to this previously low-profile outfit has only piqued interest further.

So what is the OPCW and what does it do?

The OPCW is an inter-governmental organization charged with making sure that countries comply with their obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. For the past 16 years it has been doing so without much fanfare. As the Nobel committee made clear, the OPCW’s contribution to world peace is based on this long record, not just for stepping up in Syria.

The Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997, is one of the most important achievements of the post-Cold War period. It is unique amongst arms control treaties because it bans not just the use, but also the stockpiling, of an entire category of weapons (In contrast, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allows the five permanent members of the Security Council to maintain nuclear arsenals, although they are meant to be working towards eliminating them.) Countries that join the treaty are required to declare any chemical weapons they hold, as well as related facilities, and to get rid of them under international supervision. They must also undertake to never develop a chemical weapons capacity.

Under the treaty, countries were required to destroy their chemical weapons by 2012. Substantial progress has been made towards this goal, with approximately 80 percent of chemical agent stockpiles destroyed. Unfortunately, the two major possessor states, the United States and the Russian Federation, have not yet finished. They are, however, slated to finish up over the next few years and most experts are confident that both countries will eventually fulfill this commitment.

In addition to monitoring the elimination of chemical weapons, the OPCW has important non-proliferation mandate that will continue even after all weapons stockpiles are gone. Facilities producing dual use chemicals – such as Thiodiglycol, which is used to make ink but can also be used to produce mustard gas – are periodically inspected to ensure that toxic substances are not diverted to weapons uses. Since 1997, the organization has undertaken some 1900 of these types of inspections. Of course this represents only a fraction of the industrial facilities that deal in chemicals that could be turned into weapons, but the fact that countries allow inspections increases confidence that they are committed to the goals of the treaty.

Despite this impressive record, the OPCW faces a number of challenges as it embarks on the Syrian mission. (more…)

Book Symposium Investment Law: Comments on Ambach

by Howard Morrison

[Judge Howard Morrison is a Judge at the ICTY and the ICC]

Dr. Philipp Ambach deals with a topic that is contemporary and contentious.

In a world where the globalisation of most aspects of human life and endeavour is readily apparent it cannot be that case that those who engage in commercial, and often highly profitable, enterprises that have an impact upon the commission of serious crimes have no responsibility and affected communities no redress.

The author deals with the historical foundations of the concept of transnational corporate actors and notes the lacunae in the statutes of the UN ad hoc tribunals in respect of dealing with ‘legal persons’ as opposed to individual liability and potential guilt.

Dr Ambach points out that the exploitation of natural resources in conflict zones can easily further destabilize such situations and may be funding one or more parties to a conflict. Indeed if one examines the ongoing situation in the DRC it is arguable that the conflict is not parallel to such commercial activity but is generated by it and the territorial disputes that surround it. Resource wars, most particularly in a world of exponentially increasing human population, are with us and likely to increase, a situation not lost on the UN bearing in mind UN SC Resolution 1856 (2008). It is ironic that human rights may decrease proportionally with population growth.

The author examines how crimes against humanity and war crimes may be perpetrated by international corporate actors including in internal armed conflicts and cites relevant judgements of the ICTY and ICTR. He focuses on the war crime of pillage which has especial resonance, in particular noting that the ICC requires a qualitative requirement of personal or private use in contradistinction to the definition in the ad hocs.

Dr Ambach also examines genocidal liability and points out the potential although rightly noting the difficulty imposed by the requirement to possess a relevant specific destructive intent. He goes on to examine the crime of aggression and its current limitations.

The author makes a careful analysis of criminal responsibility distinguishing between those of corporate and individual actors  examining the legal requirements in differing national jurisdictions. He makes the important point that whilst there is yet to be a clear or common position in international law regarding the liability of international corporations for international crimes  there is a logical, if sometimes evidentially difficult, route top the liability of individual corporate officials and, perhaps, most obviously CEOs. It is important to remember that at its base level any corporation is simply an assembly of like minded individual pursuing a common commercial enterprise. The prosecution of just one senior director or executive sends a powerful message to the commercial world and should have practical and ethical consequences.

Dr Ambach goes on to examine modes of liability and discusses the vexed question of joint criminal enterprise as against co-perpetration. Making a specific analysis of Article 25 of the Rome Statute he goes on to point out the more obvious practical evidentiary obstacles and the position of an accessory by a virtue of being a corporate representative. It is important to examine Article 25 in all its parts. Dr Ambach takes the reader through the wording and interpretations with useful clarity.

He points out that the representatives of corporations may well have the sufficient mens rea to found liability under the statutes of both the ad hoc tribunals and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. He makes the important point that the law relation to aiding and abetting such offences is far from clear and settled; indeed it is an aspect of the modes of liability that needs to be clarified and standardised to provide both a route to indictment and clarity for legitimate commercial actors.

This is an interesting and well thought through contribution by Dr Ambach which provides a very useful route into this important arena of international law for both the scholar and practitioner alike. He, in my view, rightly concludes that it is time to adjust the system on international criminal justice to the ‘modern landscape of perpetrators of the worst crimes in armed conflict’. This is a proposition difficult to argue against at any level. The reticence of some States to move this area of law forward in a decisive common international endeavour is, at the least, worrying for many tens of thousands of predominantly powerless citizens who are seriously, and too often fatally, affected by the activities of sometimes cynical corporate actors.

Book Symposium Investment Law: International Criminal Responsibility of Transnational Corporate Actors Doing Business in Zones of Armed Conflict

by Philipp Ambach

[Dr. Philipp Ambach is the Special Assistant to the President of the International Criminal Court. The views expressed are those of the author alone and cannot be attributed the International Criminal Court.]

The vast majority of armed conflicts of our times is, if not based on, at least closely tied with the economic interests of the belligerent parties or stakeholders behind the scenes. Business corporations which maintain trade relations with partner groups or entities that are, at the same time, engaged in an internal or international armed conflict may become directly or indirectly involved in the commission of serious crimes. Many international corporate actors provide financial resources to regional armed groups through the trade of goods that are the product of exploitation of natural resources in conflict zones, such as gold, diamonds, oil, uranium and other precious or strategic resources (so-called ‘resource wars’). These economic transactions often destabilize the region affected by armed conflict and even put oil on the fire of a looming conflict if the economic transactions serve to strengthen one or the other or both warring parties in the conflict.

Those economic actors involved may incur criminal liability if they are aware that their goods or funds serve to provide these armed groups with weapons or other means of warfare subsequently used against civilians. The crimes committed may amount to international crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. In such cases, corporate actors may even come under scrutiny by the International Criminal Court (‘ICC’) for their participatory role in such crimes, if the individual criminal liability of the person(s) in control of such financial transactions on behalf of a corporate actor can be established.

International courts and tribunals have devoted little to no attention to the issue since the post-World War II criminal proceedings held against German businessmen who had been economically involved in the war (See the discussion by Nerlich). Also the UN ad hoc-Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, set up in the mid-nineties, and the ICC (which became operational in July 2002) have been set up to try individuals for international crimes; their statutes do not provide for criminal liability for corporate actors, as they are based on the principle of individual guilt for criminal conduct (nulla poena sine culpa). In contrast, companies have a corporate (not: individual) identity and are legally best described as ‘legal persons’ – to which the concept of individual guilt cannot easily be ascribed. However, even in larger corporations decisions on specific transactions are being taken by a rather small panel of senior stakeholders who are heading the corporation. Despite their remoteness from the crimes committed on the ground, individual criminal liability may attach to them if each individual only knew that the immediate effect of their business transaction would be the (continued) commission of crimes.

Individual criminal liability of representatives of corporations for international crimes can be ascribed broadly in two forms: either the company representative acts in close cooperation with his or her business partners as a co-author of crimes commonly envisaged; or the individual corporate actor’s contribution to the crime is of an auxiliary nature while the design and control over the crime is left to the business partner.

(more…)

Ryan Goodman Responds to War/Not War

by Kevin Jon Heller

Ryan has kindly responded to my post commenting on his claim that “arguments have been inconsistent with regard to one fundamental legal question: whether the US is, as a matter of law, in an armed conflict.” Unfortunately, our conversation has something of a Pinteresque quality: in claiming that I mischaracterized one of his central claims, he mischaracterizes my central claim. Ryan’s reply is predicated on the idea that I’m defending specific scholars against the idea that they have flip-flopped opportunistically regarding whether the US is involved in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda. I don’t know why he thinks that: he provided no examples of specific scholars flip-flopping in his post, and I did not defend any specific scholars against the claim of flip-flopping in mine. My primary point was simply this: because the existence of armed conflict, particularly non-international armed conflict, is fact-specific, context-dependent, and fluid, it is problematic to assume — as Ryan does, and as the USG alway has — that (in Ryan’s words) it would have been ”a better path over the past twelve years” to take “a consistent position that one legal situation (war) or the other (not a war) exists” between the US and AQ than to take different positions on different aspects of that supposed “armed conflict” at different points of time. My secondary point, which built on the primary one, was that Ryan’s commitment to a unitary view of the supposed “armed conflict” between the US and AQ blinded him to the fact that it was impossible to infer anything untoward or opportunistic — “flip-flops” is obviously a word with negative connotations — from the fact that different scholars have taken different positions at different points in time on different aspects of that conflict. I stand by both points, and unfortunately, because of the misunderstanding between us, Ryan’s post addresses neither of them.

I also want to briefly address Ryan’s dismissal of my claim that, with regard to 9/11, “[o]ne attack, no matter how horrible, does not a (non-international) armed conflict make.” He disagrees, citing a 2003 article by Derek Jinks in which Jinks claims (1) that “the laws of war apply to all acts committed in an armed conflict even if committed prior to the point at which the ‘protracted’ threshold was crossed,” and (2) that NIAC exists even if the hostilities are not adequately organized and intense as long as “the state party to the hostilities interprets them as an ‘armed conflict (a subjective standard).” I have great respect for Derek’s work, but both points are well outside of the IHL mainstream. (And note that Derek repeated the second point today.)

I will try to write in more depth about Derek’s points soon. Suffice it for now to say that the only cite he provides for his first point does not actually support his argument. Here is what he says in the footnote, citing paras. 619-27 of the Trial Chamber’s judgment in Akayesu:

The jurisprudence of the ICTR is instructive on this point. The relevant “armed conflict” in Rwanda lasted a total of six months. Applying the ICTY definition, the tribunal held Common Article 3 applicable to the conflict, finding that the “armed conflict” existed from the initiation of the hostilities even if the existence of an armed conflict could only be discerned after the violence had become “protracted.”

That is not what the Trial Chamber held. It held only that “[i]n the present case, evidence has been presented to the Chamber which showed there was at the least a conflict not of a international character in Rwanda at the time of the events alleged in the Indictment” (para 627; emphasis mine). The events alleged in the indictment with regard to war crimes began on 7 April 1994, one day after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. By that time, the conflict had already begun between the RPF and FAR (see para. 109 of the judgment), justifying the Trial Chamber’s conclusion that a NIAC existed. More importantly, the Trial Chamber neither suggested nor implied that the attack on the plane — the Rwandan genocide equivalent to 9/11 — was itself part of the NIAC that began the next day. That was simply not an issue in the case.

Finally, it’s also worth briefly noting that Akayesu also contradicts Derek’s second point — that a state’s subjective belief a NIAC exists means that a NIAC exists even if the hostilities do not objectively qualify as armed conflict. The Trial Chamber specifically noted (para. 624) with regard to both Common Article 3 conflicts and Second Additional Protocol conflicts that “these criteria have to be applied objectively, irrespective of the subjective conclusions of the parties involved in the conflict.” But I’ll have more to say about that issue later.

Russia May Charge Greenpeace Activists with Piracy; Will They Cite the Ninth Circuit? (Updated)

by Julian Ku

[See update at end of this post] Russia’s government has recently been talking up international law, so it will be interesting to see if they follow through with plans to charge Greenpeace activists with piracy.

MOSCOW — Russia opened a criminal case Tuesday against Greenpeace activists, accusing them of piracy for attempting to stage a protest on an Arctic oil rig. A Greenpeace spokeswoman called the accusation “absurd.”

Russian border troops seized the Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise, along with its multinational crew of 30 activists and sailors, in a commando operation Thursday in the Barents Sea. The day before, the group had been foiled while attempting to raise a protest banner on a Russian oil drilling platform.

The facts remain pretty fuzzy, but I don’t think the Russian charge of piracy is quite as absurd as Professor Joseph Sweeney of Fordham, an eminent authority on admiralty law, makes it out to be.  Prof. Sweeney says in the article:

“They can’t be too serious about charging them with piracy,” said Joseph C. Sweeney, professor emeritus of international and maritime law at Fordham University Law School. “That requires stealing things and the intention of stealing things.”

But current definitions of piracy don’t require an intention for financial enrichment. Rather, as we noted back in February when the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction against anti-whaling protestors for attacking Japanese whalers, UNCLOS requires only that the attackers be acting for “private ends.”  As Kevin argued in his post, there is reason to believe that “private ends” does not include “politically motivated” acts (although Eugene Kontorovich has a good rebuttal of that point here).  In any event,  I think the traditional idea that piracy requires the goal of financial enrichment cited by Professor Sweeney is no longer widely held.

This means that the Russians can make out a colorable charge of piracy.  It also means that this theory will allow them to avoid questions about whether they were in the Russian exclusive economic zone, etc, since that shouldn’t matter if they stick with the piracy charge.  I expect the Russians will cite the Kozinski Ninth Circuit opinion, and if they do, this may be an important precedent for the development of modern piracy law.

[UPDATE: I stand by the analysis above, but I should note that 1) Eugene Kontorovich argues that this can't be piracy because they did not attack a "ship"; and 2) Russia's President Putin seems to have admitted this can't be piracy, although he maintains there is some other legal violation here somewhere since he alleges they tried to "seize the rig by force".]

A Reply to Goodman Re: War/Not War with Al-Qaeda

by Kevin Jon Heller

Ryan has a fascinating but problematic post today at Just Security in which he takes international-law scholars to task for opportunistically flip-flopping on whether the US is involved in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda. Here is the crux of his argument, taken from the post’s introductory paragraph:

Those arguments have been inconsistent with regard to one fundamental legal question: whether the US is, as a matter of law, in an armed conflict. In fact, a pattern has emerged over the years: opposition to different actions has alternated between arguing that the US is—or is not—involved in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda. It sometimes seems as though the preferred argument depends on how that threshold question—whether we’re in a war—affects the interests at stake.

I thought about writing a letter to the editor in response, but there is no guaranteed that Just Security would publish it — and there would be no way for anyone other than a Just Security member to join the discussion (Facebook and Twitter, as I’ve said, being inadequate media for dialogue.) So I thought I would reply on Opinio Juris and invite interested readers to comment here.

The basic problem with Ryan’s post is this: it conflates inconsistency of outcome and inconsistency of principle. In Ryan’s view, “war” with AQ is a simple binary: either the US has been or has not been at war with AQ. As he puts it:

What might have been a better path over the past twelve years and, more importantly, the way forward? At the very least: a consistent position that one legal situation (war) or the other (not a war) exists.

Ryan thus equates inconsistency of outcome with inconsistency of principle: if scholars have taken inconsistent positions about war/not war between the US and AQ, that must be because they have adopted inconsistent legal principles (opportunistically, no less) concerning the existence of war.

But that is a flawed understanding of international humanitarian law. The basic principle of conflict qualification, as I have pointed out many times before, is this: the existence of non-international armed conflict is a fact-specific determination, one that depends on the organization of the non-state actor and the intensity of hostilities between the non-state actor and a state. Conflicts evolve over time in terms of both organization and intensity, so peace can turn into NIAC and NIAC can turn into peace. And, of course, there are many other types of conflict: NIAC can turn into IAC (Libya when the West intervened on behalf of the rebels); IAC can turn into NIAC (Afghanistan with the toppling of the Taliban); IAC can turn into occupation and occupation can turn into NIAC (Iraq); IAC and NIAC can exist alongside of each other (which would be the case if the US started bombing Syria); and so on. The qualification matters, because the type of conflict affects everything from targeting rules to the detention regime (as Ryan well knows, having written very intelligently about detention of civilians).

Because conflict qualification, especially concerning the existence of NIAC, is an inherently fluid and fact-specific determination, it is impossible to infer inconsistency of principle with regard to the nature of the conflict between the US and AQ from inconsistency of outcome. It is completely possible to take a principled approach to conflict qualification and yet not conclude that “one legal situation (war) or the other (not a war) exists.” Indeed, I’d go further and suggest that the most unprincipled approach to conflict qualification is the one that the US has adopted. The USG has never made an effort to take conflict qualification seriously; it has simply assumed the existence of a global non-international armed conflict between the US and AQ since bin Laden “declared war” in 1996. (Hence the USG’s ability to claim with a straight governmental face that al-Nashiri was able to commit war crimes prior to 9/11 and prior to the AUMF.) The only principle behind the US position is expediency — the USG’s desire to have its “war” with AQ governed by IHL instead of by IHRL.

Let me be clear: I am not defending all of the scholars that Ryan mentions in his post. I have vast disagreements with some of them, and some of them may well be arguing opportunistically. But I suspect that, if we examined many of their positions, we would find that their supposed inconsistency actually reflects a good-faith effort to take conflict qualification far more seriously than the USG ever has. Specifically, I’m willing to wager that most of those positions were based on (1) a rejection of the idea that the US can be in a global NIAC with AQ, an idea that to the best of my knowledge no non-American scholar accepts; and (2) an insistence that although the US and AQ can be involved in NIACs in specific geographic areas — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, etc. — the existence of such NIACs has to not only be determined based on the situation on the ground (organization and intensity), but also needs to be re-assessed over time.

Let me end with a couple of examples. In “Turn 1,” Ryan chides Allain Pellet for claiming that it was “legally false” the US and AQ were at war after 9/11 and takes Antonio Cassese to task for calling it a “misnomer” to describe the US/AQ conflict as a “war.” Dig deeper, however, and both Pellet and Cassese were absolutely correct. Pellet’s article was written 10 days after 9/11, nearly three weeks before the US began bombing Afghanistan. At that point there was no armed conflict between the US and AQ. One attack, no matter how horrible, does not a (non-international) armed conflict make. And Cassese was not denying the possibility that the US and AQ could be involved in a non-international armed conflict; he was denying that the US and AQ could be involved in a “war” — a term that has always been reserved for armed conflict between states. So his claim, too, was accurate.

Emerson is right — “[a] foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The problem is not with international law scholars who have “flip flopped” on the qualification of the armed conflict between the US and AQ; the problem is with the USG’s insistence that it has be either/or. When it comes to IHL, very few complex legal issues admit of simple binaries.

Eric Posner on the Coming Death of the ICC

by Kevin Jon Heller

Eric Posner has a new Cassandra column at Slate, this latest one foretelling the doom of the ICC. There isn’t much point in disagreeing with his basic thesis; no one knows at this point — not him, not I — whether the ICC will succeed. It is possible, however, to take issue with a number of assertions that Posner makes in his article. Some are unfair; others are simply wrong.

If anyone ought to be prosecuted for war crimes, it’s this reviled leader, who almost certainly directed poison gas attacks against civilians. But as Joshua Keating explained in Slate, it’s not going to happen. This, just the latest blow to the ICC, illustrates once again why the prospect of international justice through global courts is ever receding—and why the court’s own days may be numbered.

This assertion falls into the unfair category. As Alana Tiemessen pointed out on twitter, the ICC can hardly be blamed for the failure of the Security Council (for now) to refer Assad to the Court. And, of course, the assertion simply ignores the fact that the Security Council has referred controversial situations to the Court in the past. Posner could have acknowledged Darfur and Libya. He could have acknowledged how the Darfur referral has made it considerably more difficult for Bashir to function as Sudan’s head of state. (See, e.g., the ongoing controversy over his desire to travel to the US to attend the UN General Assembly, which will never happen.) If Posner wanted to say something critical, he could have pointed out that the real problem is the Security Council’s failure to back up its referrals, either financially or in terms of enforcement. But that would have simply highlighted the fact that the problem is the Security Council, not the ICC.

Instead, the worst of the bad guys were tried at Nuremberg and in Tokyo. But the postwar proceedings faced a problem. Hitler’s and Tojo’s invasions of innocent countries—and even Hitler’s massacre of civilians at home—did not violate any rule of international law that came with personal criminal liability. Leaders were tried and punished nonetheless, but doubts about legitimacy lingered, since the trials lacked a basis in international law even while they condemned defendants for violating it.

Both unfair and wrong. Posner simply elides the difference between aggression, crimes against humanity, and war crimes with regard to retroactivity…

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

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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