Archive of posts for category
Non-State Actors

It’s Time to Reconsider the Al-Senussi Case. (But How?)

by Kevin Jon Heller

As readers are no doubt aware, Libya has descended into absolute chaos. As of now, there is quite literally no functioning central government:

Libya’s newly elected parliament has reappointed Abdullah al-Thinni as prime minister, asking him to form a “crisis government” within two weeks even as the authorities acknowledged they had lost control of “most” government buildings in Tripoli.

Senior officials and the parliament, known as the Council of Representatives, were forced last month to relocate from the capital to Tubruq in eastern Libya after fighting broke out between the Dawn of Libya coalition, led by brigades from the city of Misurata, and rival militias based at the city’s international airport.

Since then the airport has fallen to the Islamist-affiliated coalition and Tripoli appears to have slipped almost completely out of the government’s grip.

Mr Thinni’s administration said in a statement posted on its Facebook page late on Sunday night that it had lost control of Tripoli and that its officials had been unable to access their offices, which had been occupied by opposition militias.

“We announce that most ministries, state agencies and institutions in Tripoli are out of our control,” said the government. Some state buildings had been occupied by armed groups and staff, including ministers and undersecretaries, had been threatened and prevented from entering, it said.

“It has become difficult for them to go to their offices without facing either arrest or assassination, especially after several armed formations announced threats against them, attacked their homes and terrorised their families,” the statement added.

The collapse of the Libyan government comes less than five weeks after the ICC Appeals Chamber unanimously decided that the case against Abdullah al-Senussi was inadmissible. In its view at the time — to quote the summary of the admissibility decision — “the case against Mr Al-Senussi is being investigated by Libya and… Libya is not unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation.”

Whatever the merits of the Appeals Chamber’s decision at the time — and they’re limited — the situation on the ground in Libya has obviously rendered it obsolete. It is now impossible to argue that the Libyan government is “able” to effectively prosecute al-Senussi, no matter how willing it might be. The Court thus needs to reconsider the admissibility of his case sooner rather than later.

Fortunately, the drafters of the Rome Statute anticipated just such a situation. Art. 19(10) specifically provides that  “[i]f the Court has decided that a case is inadmissible under article 17, the Prosecutor may submit a request for a review of the decision when he or she is fully satisfied that new facts have arisen which negate the basis on which the case had previously been found inadmissible under article 17.” The OTP should submit such a request as soon as possible; whatever hesitation it once had about forcefully asserting the admissibility of the case, there is now no possible justification for not trying to take control of it.

But what about al-Senussi? Can he challenge the inadmissibility decision? It’s a very complicated issue — but I think the best answer, regrettably, is that he cannot…

Israel’s Indiscriminate Attack on Shujaiya

by Kevin Jon Heller

On the record, US officials invariably defend even the most indefensible IDF uses of force in Gaza, most often parroting the Israeli line that the IDF does everything it can to spare civilian lives and that Hamas’s use of human shields is responsible for any innocent civilians the IDF does kill.

When speaking anonymously, however, those same officials tell a very different story.

Exhibit A: an absolutely devastating new article in Al Jazeera America about Israel’s destruction of Shujaiya in Gaza, which involved 258 IDF artillery pieces firing 7,000 high-explosive shells into the neighborhood, including 4,800 shells in seven hours. I’m not sure I’ve ever read quite such damning statements about the IDF’s tactics, going far beyond John Kerry’s widely reported sarcastic comment that the attack was “a hell of a pinpoint operation.” Here is a snippet from the article:

Artillery pieces used during the operation included a mix of Soltam M71 guns and U.S.-manufactured Paladin M109s (a 155 mm howitzer), each of which fires three shells per minute. “The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible,” said the senior U.S. military officer who spoke with me about the report. “It’s not mowing the lawn,” he added, referring to a popular IDF term for periodic military operations against Hamas in Gaza. “It’s removing the topsoil.”

“Holy Bejesus,” exclaimed retired Lt. General Robert Gard when told the numbers of artillery pieces and rounds fired during the July 21 action. “That rate of fire over that period of time is astonishing. If the figures are even half right, Israel’s response was absolutely disproportionate.” A West Point graduate, who is veteran of two wars and now the Chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Gard added that even if Israeli artillery units fired guided munitions, it would have made little difference.

[snip]

Senior U.S. officers who are familiar with the battle and Israeli artillery operations, which are modeled on U.S. doctrine, assessed that, based on the rate of artillery fire into Shujaiya overnight Sunday, IDF commanders weren’t precisely targeting Palestinian military formations, as much as laying down an indiscriminate barrage aimed at “cratering” the neighborhood. The cratering operation was designed to collapse the Hamas tunnels discovered when IDF ground units came under fire in the neighborhood. Initially, said the senior U.S. military officer who spoke with me about the military summaries of IDF operations, Israel’s artillery had used “suppressing fire to protect their forward units, but then poured in everything they had — in a kind of walking barrage. Suppressing fire is perfectly defensible — a walking barrage isn’t.”

The Israelis’ own defense of their action reinforced the belief among some senior U.S. officers that artillery fire into Shujaiya had been indiscriminate. That’s because the Israelis explained the civilian casualty toll on the basis that the neighborhood’s non-combatant population had been used as “human shields” because they had been “ordered to stay” in their homes by Hamas after the IDF had warned them to leave.

“Listen, we know what it’s like to kill civilians in war,” said the senior U.S. officer. “Hell, we even put it on the front pages. We call it collateral damage. We absolutely try to minimize it, because we know it turns people against you. Killing civilians is a sure prescription for defeat. But that’s not what the IDF did in Shujaiya on July 21. Human shields? C’mon, just own up to it.”

As I said, stunning stuff. And utterly damning of the IDF — the “most moral army in the world.” It’s just a shame the US government won’t be more open with what it really thinks about the IDF’s actions. Perhaps then Israel wouldn’t feel free to use force against Palestine with impunity.

NOTE: After reading the article in Al Jazeera America, make sure to read Shane Darcy’s important post at EJIL: Talk! discussing a recent decision by Israel’s Supreme Court that upholds the legality of collective punishment.

Okay, This Time Britain Really Has Killed Terrorism (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last November, I wrote a post entitled “Terrorism Is Dead, and Britain Has Killed It.” I chose that title because I couldn’t imagine a conception of terrorism more absurd than the one argued by the British government and accepted by a Divisional Court: namely, that David Miranda’s mere possession of documents illegally obtained by Edward Snowden qualified as terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2000.

I obviously need to expand my imagination.

Why? Because the British government’s is now arguing that merely watching the video of James Foley’s execution is terrorism. From the Telegraph:

Viewing or sharing the harrowing video of James Foley’s beheading online could be regarded as a terrorist offence, Scotland Yard has warned.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said specialists from the Counter Terrorism unit were continuing to examine the footage in order to look for clues as to the identity of the suspected British jihadist but said the public should refrain from viewing the video.

In a statement a spokesman said: “We would like to remind the public that viewing, downloading or disseminating extremist material within the UK may constitute an offence under Terrorism legislation.”

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe explained that while viewing the video was technically a crime, his officers would be more focused on tracking down those who shared the footage or glorified it.

Um, no — viewing the Foley video is not “technically a crime.” Foley’s execution is a horrific act by a horrific organisation. But there is absolutely no plausible argument that merely watching a video of it qualifies as terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2000 — not even in light of the awful Miranda judgment. We can see why by quoting the UK Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation‘s summary of that case:

What the Miranda judgment reveals is that the publication (or threatened publication) of words may equally constitute terrorist action. It seems that the writing of a book, an article or a blog may therefore amount to terrorism if publication is “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”, “designed to influence the government” and liable to endanger life or create a serious risk to health or safety.

There are two obvious problems with considering the mere act of watching the Foley video an act of terrorism. First, watching the video is not “liable to endanger life or create a serious risk of health or safety,” as required by s 1(2) of the Terrorism Act 2000 — unless, of course, we think that anyone who watches it will somehow magically be transformed into an ISIS terrorist. Second, although I don’t understand why anyone would want to watch the savage murder of an innocent person, individuals are clearly not watching the video “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” or because they intend “to influence the government.” So no, watching the Foley video does not qualify as a terrorist act under s 1(1).

Nor does merely watching the Foley video violate any of the substantive offences in either the Terrorism Act 2000 or the Terrorism Act 2006. (Section 1(1) is not an offence in itself; it provides the definition of terrorism for the substantive offences.) In terms of the Terrorism Act 2000, it’s not “support” under s 12, because that section requires the defendant to have “invite[d] support for a proscribed organisation.” It’s not “use and possession” under s 16, because that section, like s 1(1), requires the specific intent to promote terrorism. It’s not “possession for terrorist purposes” under s 57, because merely having the Foley video on a computer (which streaming does not even involve) does not “give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.” And it’s not “collection of information” under s 58, because an execution video, though disgusting, is not “a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”

Merely watching the Foley video also does not run afoul of the Terrorism Act 2006. Section 1 criminalises “encouragement of terrorism,” but it applies only to those who “publish” a statement that encourages “the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism.” Watching a video is not publication. For similar reasons, watching a video does not qualify as “dissemination of terrorist publications” under s 2 — not even in light of s 2(2)(f), which criminalises possessing a terrorist publication “with a view to its” dissemination.

In his most recent report, the Independent Reviewer wrote that “[a] statutory definition [of terrorism] so broad that the enforcement authorities resort to their own rules of thumb in order to make sense of it is unhelpful.” I think the Metropolitan Police’s argument about the Foley video makes his point.

NOTE: I have updated the post in response to Adrian Hunt‘s excellent comment below, which deserves to be read in full.

MH17 Should Be Framed as Murder, Not as a War Crime

by Kevin Jon Heller

It has become quite common to describe the downing of MH17 as a war crime. In late July, for example, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that “[t]his violation of international law, given the prevailing circumstances, may amount to a war crime,” More recently, William Burke-White has said that, for framing purposes, “[t]he time has come for governments and international organizations to call the attack on MH17 a probable war crime.” 

[I]f whoever launched the missile did so with the intent of killing the civilian passengers aboard MH17, the act was unmistakably a war crime.

Even if the objective was to strike a Ukrainian transport aircraft, the act likely constitutes a war crime. Fundamental to the law of war, including the law applicable in non-international armed conflicts, is the principle of distinction – the requirement that fighting parties distinguish between civilian and military targets. In the words of the International Committee of the Red Cross, that duty of care includes doing “everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives.”

In this case, many steps could easily have been taken to differentiate MH17 from a military-transport plane, including visual identification (perhaps with binoculars), radar-signature analysis, and a check of the civilian aircraft transponder-code broadcast. If, as seems likely, these basic steps were not taken, even an accidental strike on MH17 would constitute a war crime.

If the Ukrainian separatists did indeed intend to kill civilians, Bill and Navi Pillay are absolutely right to describe the attack as a war crime — in this case, murder and/or intentionally directing attacks at civilians or civilian objects (to use the Rome Statute’s terminology). But everything we know to date about the attack indicates that the separatists honestly believed MH17 was a Ukrainian military transport, not a civilian airplane. If so, that changes the legal assessment of the attack considerably. The attack would still qualify as murder under domestic law — but it would not qualify as a war crime, under either the Rome Statute or the jurisprudence of the ICTY. (The latter likely representing the customary definition of the war crimes of murder and attacking civilians or civilian objects, which most states would apply in a prosecution based on universal jurisdiction.)

Let’s go in order. The problem with describing the attack on MH17 as a war crime under the Rome Statute is Article 32(1), which provides that “[a] mistake of fact shall be a ground for excluding criminal responsibility only if it negates the mental element required by the crime.” The actus rei of the war crime of murder and the war crime of intentionally directing attacks at civilians or civilian objects each include a circumstance element: the individuals attacked must qualify as civilians (or as otherwise protected persons). The relevant mens rea for circumstance elements is knowledge, pursuant to Art. 30(3) of the Rome Statute: “For the purposes of this article, ‘knowledge’ means awareness that a circumstance exists.” Black-letter criminal law provides that an honest mistake of fact negatives any mens rea that requires subjective awareness. So if the separatists honestly believed they were attacking a Ukrainian military transport, they were not aware that they were attacking civilians. In which case they could not be convicted of either the war crime of murder or the war crime of intentionally directing attacks at civilians or civilian objects.

The result is no different under the ICTY’s jurisprudence, even though the ICTY applies a lower mens rea to the war crimes of murder and attacking civilians. A complete discussion of the issue is beyond the scope of this post; suffice it to say here that an accused will be responsible for either war crime only if he was reckless toward the possibility that the objects of his attack qualified as civilian. (Dolus eventualis in civil-law terminology.) Recklessness is a subjective mental state in the ICTY’s jurisprudence; as the Trial Chamber noted in Brdjanin, specifically in the context of murder, “the threshold of dolus eventualis entails the concept of recklessness, but not that of negligence or gross negligence.”” Like the ICC, the ICTY recognizes mistakes of fact. As a result, the separatists could not be convicted of either the war crime or murder or the war crime of attacking civilians under ICTY jurisprudence if they honestly believed they were attacking a Ukrainian military transport: although that belief might have been negligent, even grossly negligent, its honesty meant that they were not subjectively aware they were attacking civilians.

The bottom line is that the accidental downing of civilian airplane based on an honest belief that the airplane was a military objective is not a war crime. Failing to take adequate precautions may violate IHL, but it is not criminal. The downing of MH17, therefore, should be framed not as a war crime but as murder.

Final Thoughts on the Bar Human Rights Committee’s Letter

by Kevin Jon Heller

Kirsty Brimelow QC, the chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) — and a colleague of mine at Doughty Street Chambers — has responded to my position on the 2009 Declaration, as recounted by Joshua Rozenberg in this Guardian article. Here is the relevant paragraph:

Neither Rozenberg’s opinion piece nor academic he relies upon, Kevin Heller, cite the text of the 2012 decision in support of their positions. This is hardly surprising given that the decision does not in fact “formally reject” the 2009 declaration.

Although I stand behind my claim that the OTP “formally rejected” the 2009 Declaration in its 2012 decision, Kirsty correctly points out that I did not cite the text of the decision. So I think it’s useful to summarise the text and quote it where appropriate:

[1] The 2009 Declaration purported to accept the Court’s jurisdiction over the situation in Palestine on an ad hoc basis, retroactive to 1 July 2002 (para. 1).

[2] Per Art. 15 of the Rome Statute, the OTP initiated a preliminary examination “in order to determine whether there was a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation” (para. 2).

[3] The OTP stated that the first step in that inquiry was to determine whether it had jurisdiction over the events in Palestine. In that regard, it noted that “only when such criteria are established will the Office proceed to analyse information on alleged crimes as well as other conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction” (para. 3)

[4] The OTP pointed out that only a “State” can accept the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis under Art. 12(1) of the Rome Statute (para. 4), which meant that the key issue with regard to the Declaration was whether Palestine qualified as a State (para. 5).

[5] The OTP concluded that it did not have the authority to decide whether, as a matter of law, Palestine was a State; that responsibility was “for the relevant bodies at the United Nations or the Assembly of States Parties” (para. 6).

[6] The OTP acknowledged that numerous states had acknowledged Palestine’s statehood and that Palestine had applied for membership as a State in the UN, but insisted that although the UN application was relevant, “this process has no direct link with the declaration lodged by Palestine” (para. 7).

[7] The OTP said it “could in the future consider allegations of crimes committed in Palestine” if the statehood issue was “eventually” resolved by the UN or ASP (para. 8).

Although the decision is not the picture of clarity, I still think it qualifies as a “formal rejection” of the 2009 Declaration. The Declaration formally requested the OTP accept jurisdiction and investigate the situation in Palestine. The OTP opened a preliminary examination, as required by the Rome Statute, but then ended that examination at the first step, concluding that it did not have jurisdiction over the events in question because Palestine could not establish that it was a State. That’s a rejection, even if the OTP — to use a common-law phrase — dismissed the Declaration without prejudice.

My guess is that paragraph 8 is the crux of the disagreement between the BHRC experts and me. They are reading it as a statement that the OTP would essentially hold onto the Declaration until the UN or ASP clarified Palestine’s status as a state, at which point it could then advance the preliminary examination. It’s possible — but I think the OTP would have said as much if that’s what paragraph 8 meant. I read the paragraph as making clear the OTP was rejecting the Declaration without prejudice to a later ad hoc declaration — a reading, not incidentally, that seems to square with Fatou Bensouda’s recent statement that the OTP won’t act without a new Declaration or Palestine’s ratification of the Rome Statute.

I also want to make clear that I disagree with Rozenberg’s statement that the BHRC “is at best naive, and at worst misleading, for suggesting [the] legal situation is beyond doubt.” I don’t think there is anything naive or misleading about the letter, even though I disagree with it. These are very difficult issues, over which reasonable people can disagree. And there is, of course, nothing wrong with advocates advocating.

Finally, I want to sincerely apologise to the BHRC for revealing that I had been asked to sign the letter. Although I waited for the letter to appear publicly before commenting on it, I should not have mentioned that I had been approached.

My Podcast on Palestine and the ICC — and an Additional Thought

by Kevin Jon Heller

I had the pleasure of doing a podcast yesterday with Mark Leon Goldberg, purveyor of the essential UN Dispatch website, on the possibility of Palestine ratifying the Rome Statute or accepting the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis. It’s about 20 minutes long, and you can find it here (or on iTunes).

I do want to mention another aspect of Palestine’s decision — one I hadn’t thought about until I read this excellent article in the Guardian by Joshua Rozenberg. (And it’s not just excellent because he quotes me.) As I discuss in the podcast, Palestine has two roads to a potential ICC investigation of Operation Protective Edge: (1) accept the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis retroactive to 29 November 2012, the date of UNGA Res. 69/17; or (2) ratify the Rome Statute and then file an ad hoc declaration retroactive to 29 November 2012. Although both roads would give the ICC jurisdiction over the situation in Gaza, there is actually a critical procedural difference between them — assuming that the OTP wanted to investigate (which I still think is extremely unlikely). If Palestine simply accepts the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis, the OTP’s decision to investigate would be considered proprio motu — and that decision would be subject to review by the Pre-Trial Chamber. (See, in that regard, the Cote d’Ivoire situation.) By contrast, if Palestine ratified the Rome Statute and then filed an ad hoc declaration, the OTP’s decision to investigate would be based on the referral of a State Party — and would not be subject to Pre-Trial Chamber review.

We’ll see what happens…

Three Thoughts on the OTP’s Rejection of Jurisdiction over the Situation in Palestine

by Kevin Jon Heller

The ICC Office of the Prosecutor has just released the following statement:

Palestine is not a State Party to the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the ICC; neither has the Court received any official document from Palestine indicating acceptance of ICC jurisdiction or requesting the Prosecutor to open an investigation into any alleged crimes following the November 2012 United Nations General Assembly Resolution (67/19), which accorded non-member observer State status to Palestine.

The ICC has no jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on the territory of Palestine.

I have three thoughts on the statement. First, the OTP clearly believes that the 2009 Declaration by the Palestinian Authority is void. If Palestine wants the OTP to investigate, it will have to either ratify the Rome Statute or file a new declaration accepting the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis.

Second, it seems equally clear that the OTP will not accept a Palestinian declaration accepting jurisdiction over events prior to before 29 November 2012, when the UNGA adopted Res. 67/19. The statement strongly implies — if it doesn’t quite say it explicitly — that Palestine’s statehood, at least for the ICC’s purposes, began on that date. Any other conclusion is difficult to reconcile with the statement’s emphasis on Res. 67/19; the fatal flaw of the 2009 Declaration seems to be that it was made before the UNGA upgraded Palestine’s status.

Third, the statement’s reference to “the territory of Palestine” raises the possibility that the OTP will not accept an ad hoc declaration that is limited to Gaza — even one that properly focuses, as the 2009 Declaration did, on crimes committed by both parties to the conflict. To be sure, the reference may just reflect casual or sloppy drafting; indeed, I see no reason why Palestine could not self-refer only the Gaza situation, given previous situations the OTP has accepted (Northern Uganda, Ituri, Darfur, etc.) But it’s a point to ponder going forward.

Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales Asks OTP to Investigate Gaza (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

The request is supported by a number of leading QCs and professors in Britain. (Full disclosure: three of the signatories are barrister members and one is an academic member of Doughty Street Chambers, with which I’m associated.) Here is the Bar Human Rights Committee’s summary:

Public international law and criminal law Q.C.s and Professors based in Britain join with the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales to urge the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to initiate a preliminary investigation into crimes being committed in the Gaza Strip.

In response to the extreme gravity of the situation in the Gaza Strip, including spiralling civilian deaths and large scale destruction of homes, hospitals and schools, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, supported by leading Q.Cs and Professors, has submitted a formal request, calling upon the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to initiate an investigation, pursuant to Article 15 of the Rome Statute.

The letter of request was submitted to the ICC on 3rd August 2014. It asserts that the 2009 Declaration, submitted by the Government of Palestine pursuant to Article 12(3) of the Rome Statute, provides the prosecutor with the necessary jurisdictional basis on which to act.

Kirsty Brimelow Q.C., Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee, stated: “The initiation of an investigation would send a clear and unequivocal message to those involved in the commission of these crimes that the accountability and justice called for by the United Nations on the part of victims are not hollow watchwords. It would bring about an end to the impunity which has prevailed in the region to date, fuelling ever increasingly brutal cycles of violence. The international community cannot continue to act simply as witness to such bloodshed and extreme civilian suffering.”

I declined to sign the request, despite my profound respect and admiration for the signatories. Although I have no doubt that serious international crimes have been committed by both Israel and Hamas in Gaza, I find the request problematic. Moreno-Ocampo formally rejected the Palestinian Authority’s 2009 Declaration on behalf of the OTP, and the UNGA did not give Res. 67/19 — which upgraded Palestine to non-member-state status — retroactive effect. In my view, therefore, the 2009 declaration is effectively (and perhaps even legally) void. That conclusion is supported by Fatou Bensouda’s public statement that “the ball is now in the court of Palestine”, “Palestine has to come back,” and “we are waiting for them.”

The bottom line for me is that Palestine needs to submit a new declaration accepting the ICC’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis. (Assuming the Palestinian Authority has the authority to do so — about which see my previous post.) That declaration should refer the situation in Gaza, not simply Israel’s crimes, as the 2009 Declaration properly did. (The primary reason I do not believe the complaint filed by the Palestinian Authority’s Justice Minister can be considered an ad hoc declaration is that it singles out Israel for investigation.) The declaration should also clearly specify the temporal parameters of the jurisdiction Palestine is giving to the ICC. Any attempt to accept the Court’s jurisdiction retroactive to 1 July 2002, when the Rome Statute entered into force, is likely to fail, because I seriously doubt that the OTP wants to determine when Palestine became a state. The most plausible date for retroactive jurisdiction would be 29 November 2012, when the UNGA adopted Res. 67/19. (Like many others, I believe Palestine qualified as a state long before that. But I wouldn’t be the one deciding whether to investigate.)

In short, and again with the greatest respect to the signatories of the present request, I do not think it is wise to pursue what seems to me to be a procedural shortcut to ICC jurisdiction over the situation in Gaza. If the ICC is to become involved in the most heavily politicised conflict in recent history — and I think the likelihood the OTP would act on even a proper request is essentially zero — there should be no doubt whatsoever about either Palestine’s desire for an investigation or the ICC’s jurisdictional competence. If we’ve learned anything about the conflict in Gaza, it’s the importance of always crossing the legal “t’s” and dotting the legal “i’s.”

UPDATE: Multiple sources are reporting on Twitter that the ICC has announced it has no jurisdiction over the situation in Gaza. (See here, for example.) That would seem to put beyond doubt that any attempt to rely on the 2009 Declaration will fail.

Can the PA Ratify the Rome Statute? (A Response to Eugene)

by Kevin Jon Heller

As Eugene notes in today’s guest post, the Palestinian Authority (PA) appears to have decided to ratify the Rome Statute. I’ll believe it when I see it: the PA has threatened to ratify before, only to back down at the last moment. But could it? Most observers have assumed it could, but Eugene disagrees. I think his bottom line may well be right, as I will explain at the end of this post. But I have problems with other aspects of it.

To begin with, let’s dispense with Eugene’s claim that Abbas’s lack of control has an upside for him, because it “prevents him from being held responsible for the war crimes there. If he does control the territory, and has allowed it to be a rocket launching base for years, he would be in trouble.” Abbas has neither de jure nor de facto effective control over the members of the groups (especially Hamas) that are responsible for the rocket attacks on Israel. Nor does it seem likely that he would be part of the military chain of command in a Fatah-Hamas unity government. So whatever the state of Palestine’s responsibility for the rocket attacks might be, it is extraordinarily unlikely that Abbas would ever be held individually criminally responsible for them — now or in the future.

I also think that Eugene is overreading the OTP’s rejection of Mohammed Morsi’s attempt to accept the ICC’s jurisdiction. In particular, I think he is eliding the difference between two different concepts of “effective control”: for purposes of determining the government of a state, and for purposes of determining whether part or all of a state’s territory is belligerently occupied. Here is the relevant paragraph of the ICC press release concerning the decision:

In accordance with the legal test of “effective control,” the entity which is in fact in control of a State’s territory, enjoys the habitual obedience of the bulk of the population, and has a reasonable expectancy of permanence, is recognized as the government of that State under international law. Application of that test, on both the date that the purported declaration was signed and the date it was submitted, lead to the conclusion that Dr Morsi was no longer the governmental authority with the legal capacity to incur new international legal obligations on behalf of the State of Egypt. The information available indicates that, at all material times, the applicants did not exercise effective control over any part of Egyptian territory, including on the date the declaration was signed. Nor would it be consistent with the “effective control” test to have one putative authority exercising effective control over the territory of a State, and the other competing authority retaining international treaty-making capacity.

As the paragraph indicates, the OTP relied on effective control to determine which of two rival domestic Egyptian entities represented the government of Egypt. In that context, the OTP quite rightly decided that “the entity which is in fact in control of a State’s territory, enjoys the habitual obedience of the bulk of the population, and has a reasonable expectancy of permanence, is recognized as the government of that State under international law.” Morsi lost under that test, because his claimed failed all three conditions.

That concept of effective control has little to do with the concept of effective control in the law of occupation. Effective control in the latter context determines whether the law of occupation applies; it does not determine who the sovereign is in the occupied state. On the contrary, one state’s effective control over the territory of another state does not transfer sovereignty from the government of the occupied state to the occupying state; the government in the occupied state remains the occupied state’s government, even if it loses some of its powers of governance for the duration of the (ostensibly temporary) occupation.

I see no reason, therefore, why Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and possible occupation of Gaza would have any impact on the OTP’s decision to accept or reject the Palestinian Authority’s ratification of the Rome Statute. Even if the state of Palestine is completely occupied by Israel — which Israel obviously rejects — the government of Palestine is still the government of Palestine. Indeed, the only way that wouldn’t be true is if the state of Palestine suffered debellatio, understood as the complete destruction of a state’s sovereignty through conquest. If that were the case, then Israel would be the government of Palestine and would be entitled (exclusively) to make decisions on its behalf. That was the situation after World War II: because of the debellatio of the German state, the Allies, via the Control Council, exercised supreme legislative authority in Germany as a condominium. But that is hardly the case in Palestine, as both sides agree. (And in any case, the concept of debellatio may well have fallen into desuetude.)

All that said, I agree with Eugene’s claim that the Palestinian Authority may not qualify as the government of Palestine — at least without the inclusion of Hamas. According to Eugene, “Hamas came to power in a coup against Abbas’s government, and since the ‘statehood’ of Palestine, the latter has never exercise ‘effective control’ over the area. Indeed, the Hamas authorities in Gaza, such as Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, dispute Abbas’s standing as president.” That’s an inaccurate description of the situation: Hamas was democratically elected by Palestinians in 2006, but was prevented from governing by Fatah until it seized control of Gaza in the 2007 civil war. Hamas’s election, however, only strengthens Eugene’s point, because it indicates that the Palestinian Authority may well have a Morsi problem if it attempts to ratify the Rome Statute without Hamas’s consent. The Palestinian Authority fails all of the elements of the OTP’s “effective control” test in the context of rival governments: it does not control all of the state of Palestine, it does not enjoy the “habitual obedience of the bulk of the population,” and it does not have “a reasonable expectancy of permanence.”

Nor, for that matter, does Hamas — for similar reasons. So it may well be that only a unity government between Fatah and Hamas, such as the one that Israel desperately tried to undermine prior to its invasion of Gaza, is competent to ratify the Rome Statute. Whether the Palestinians will still be able to form such a unity government remains to be seen.

Can Israel Cut Off Water and Power to Gaza?

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

The al-Senussi Admissibility Decision in Two Quotes

by Kevin Jon Heller

Libya’s Foreign Minister, 21 May 2014:

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

ICC Appeals Chamber, 24 July 2014:

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

Control Matters: Ukraine & Russia and the Downing of Flight 17

by Jens David Ohlin

The recent downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, apparently by an anti-aircraft missile fired from within rebel-controlled territory in the Ukraine, has raised the specter that Russia is covertly (or not so covertly) supplying arms and assistance to the pro-Russian separatists operating within eastern Ukraine. Obviously, the facts here are somewhat contested and I have no insider or independent information about the firing of the missiles. What I say here is based on news reports in The New York Times and elsewhere, and our understanding of the situation is rapidly evolving.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this story (or something similar) turns out to be true. Let’s assume that the “BUK” anti-aircraft missile system was either provided to the Ukrainian rebels by Russian operatives, or that it was stolen by the rebels from the Ukrainian military, and then operated with assistance from Russian operatives and military advisors. It seems more likely that the missile system was provided directly by Russia, but even if the rebels stole it from the Ukrainian military, it seems unlikely that the untrained militia-members would have been capable of deploying it without Russian assistance. (Again, let’s just take this as an assumption, because alternate hypotheses exist, including the contention that the militia members are trained in anti-aircraft missile deployment because they are local defectors from the Ukrainian military).

If this story is true, it reveals how important the debate is, in international jurisprudence, between competing theories of control. This might seem like an obvious point, but the current situation in the Ukraine (vis-à-vis Russian influence) may stand at precisely the fault line between “effective control” and “overall control” – the two competing doctrines of attribution in international law.

As most readers already know, the effective control test was articulated in the ICJ’s Nicaragua judgment and offers a fairly robust set of standards for attributing the actions of an armed group to a particular state, essentially requiring that the armed units are operating on the instruction, or at the direction of, the foreign state. In these circumstances, the actions of the armed group can be attributed to the foreign state.

In contrast, the ICTY in Tadic declined to follow the ICJ’s Effective Control Test, and instead formulated and applied the broader Overall Control Test. The test was originally designed to determine in Tadic whether the armed conflict was an international armed conflict or a non-international armed conflict. If the conduct was attributable to a foreign state, then the armed conflict was international in nature. Subsequently, Cassese argued (correctly) that the test was, in fact, a general test for state responsibility. The test allowed for state responsibility in situations where a foreign power helped to coordinate the actions of an organized and hierarchically structured armed group by equipping, financing, or training the paramilitary force.

The dispute between these two tests is crucial because they really do give different answers in important cases. It seems to me that the Ukrainian situation falls directly on the fault line between the overall and effective control tests. If the Effective Control test applies, then it is not clear whether the shooting down of the airliner can be directly attributed to the Russian government (although that conclusion depends on which facts are unearthed in the investigation). On the other hand, if the Overall Control test applies, then there is a plausible argument that the shooting of Flight 17 can be attributed to Russia because their operatives probably helped train and equip, and coordinate, the activities of the pro-Russian militia. The Overall Control test supports the attribution of responsibility to Russia, while the Effective Control test probably does not.

Either way, one important insight about both tests is their black-and-white nature. Instead of a spectrum of control yielding different degrees of responsibility, the tests act as an on-off switch. Either there is state responsibility or there is not; either the acts are attributed or they are not. There is no sliding scale of responsibility based on the degree of foreign involvement or entanglement in the local affairs of the militia or paramilitary organization.

A final note on a related but distinct topic. It also seems pretty clear that pro-Russian militia were acting incompetently in shooting down the plane, assuming incorrectly that they were shooting down a military aircraft. How should one understand their level of culpability here? Recklessness comes to mind as the appropriate mental state since they probably did not engage in the appropriate due diligence to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft.

Although it is unclear whether this should be treated as an international crime (killing of civilians during an armed conflict) or a domestic crime (murder), I have to say that I have never found international criminal law’s treatment of crimes of recklessness particularly satisfying. Under domestic law, reckless killings are either classified as manslaughter or as the lowest degree of murder (such as depraved indifference to human life) depending on the jurisdiction and depending on the severity of the recklessness. Domestic law therefore produces a grading of the offense based on the lower mental state. In contrast, international criminal law has no lower offense for crimes of recklessness. Unlike the distinction between murder and manslaughter, a defendant is either convicted or acquitted of the war crime of killing civilians (with nothing in between).