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Non-State Actors

The OTP’s Afghanistan Investigation: A Response to Vogel

by Kevin Jon Heller

As a number of commentators have recently noted, the latest report on the OTP’s preliminary-examination activities indicates that the OTP is specifically considering whether US forces are responsible for war crimes relating to detainee treatment in Afghanistan — something it only hinted at in its 2013 report. Here are the relevant statements (pp. 22-23):

94. The Office has been assessing available information relating to the alleged abuse of detainees by international forces within the temporal jurisdiction of the Court. In particular, the alleged torture or ill-treatment of conflict-related detainees by US armed forces in Afghanistan in the period 2003-2008 forms another potential case identified by the Office. In accordance with the Presidential Directive of 7 February 2002, Taliban detainees were denied the status of prisoner of war under article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention but were required to be treated humanely. In this context, the information available suggests that between May 2003 and June 2004, members of the US military in Afghanistan used so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” against conflict-related detainees in an effort to improve the level of actionable intelligence obtained from interrogations. The development and implementation of such techniques is documented inter alia in declassified US Government documents released to the public, including Department of Defense reports as well as the US Senate Armed Services Committee’s inquiry. These reports describe interrogation techniques approved for use as including food deprivation, deprivation of clothing, environmental manipulation, sleep adjustment, use of individual fears, use of stress positions, sensory deprivation (deprivation of light and sound), and sensory overstimulation.

95. Certain of the enhanced interrogation techniques apparently approved by US senior commanders in Afghanistan in the period from February 2003 through June 2004, could, depending on the severity and duration of their use, amount to cruel treatment, torture or outrages upon personal dignity as defined under international jurisprudence.

I highly recommend the posts by David Bosco at Multilateralist and Ryan Goodman at Just Security on the OTP’s report. But I have reservations about Ryan Vogel’s post at Lawfare. Although Vogel makes some good points about the political implications of the OTP’s decision to investigate US actions, his legal criticisms of the OTP are based on a problematic understanding of how gravity and complementarity function in the Rome Statute.

First, there is this claim:

Whatever one’s views regarding U.S. detention policy in Afghanistan from 2003-2008, the alleged U.S. conduct is surely not what the world had in mind when it established the ICC to address “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole.”  The ICC was designed to end impunity for the most egregious and shocking breaches of the law, and it is hard to see how alleged detainee abuse by U.S. forces meets that standard.

It is not completely clear what Vogel’s objection is, but it’s likely one of two things: (1) he does not believe US actions in Afghanistan qualify as torture; or (2) he does not believe any acts of torture the US did commit are collectively serious enough to justify a formal OTP investigation.The first objection is irrelevant: whether acts qualify as torture is for the ICC to decide, not the US. The second objection is more serious, but is based on a misunderstanding of the difference between situational gravity and case gravity…

Why Can’t US Courts Understand IHL?

by Kevin Jon Heller

While researching an essay on the use of analogy in IHL, I had the misfortune of reading Al Warafi v. Obama, a recent habeas case involving an alleged member of the Taliban. Al Warafi argued that even if he was a member of the Taliban — which he denied — he was entitled to be treated in detention as permanent medical personnel under Article 24 of the First Geneva Convention (GC I), which provides that “[m]edical personnel exclusively engaged in the search for, or the collection, transport or treatment of the wounded or sick, or in the prevention of disease… shall be respected and protected in all circumstances.” That protected status is very important, because other provisions in GC I — as well as in the First Additional Protocol (AP I), which extends the rules of GC I — require medics to be given a number of protections and privileges that other detainees do not enjoy.

The District Court rejected Al Warafi’s argument, concluding (p. 17) that he did not qualify as permanent medical personnel under Article 24 because the Taliban had not provided him with “the proof required by the Convention — that is, official identification demonstrating that he is entitled to protected status under Article 24. Absent such identification, petitioner simply cannot prove that he qualifies as Article 24 personnel.” In reaching the conclusion, the District Court specifically relied on paragraph 734 of the Commentary to AP I:

A soldier with medical duties is actually an able-bodied person who might well engage in combat; a medical vehicle could be used to transport ammunition rather than the wounded or medical supplies. Thus it is essential for medical personnel, units, materials and transports to be identified in order to ensure the protection to which they are entitled, which is identical to that accorded the wounded, sick and shipwrecked.

The DC Circuit then rejected Al Warafi’s appeal of the District Court’s decision on the same grounds.

I was puzzled by paragraph 734 when I came across it in the District Court’s decision. It seemed obvious that a medic who was not wearing the identification required by GC I and AP I could be targeted without violating the principle of distinction. It seemed equally obvious that a captured medic without proper identification might have a difficult time convincing his captors of his status. But I found it difficult to believe GC I and AP 1 would actually deprive a medic of his protected status simply because he did not have the proper identification. Doing so would serve no humanitarian purpose whatsoever, assuming the individual could establish his status by other means.

But paragraph 734 said what it said. So surely the District Court’s conclusion was correct. Right?

Wrong. Had the District Court bothered to read the next twelve paragraphs in the Commentary to AP I, it would have realised that, in fact, proper identification is not necessary for a medic to be entitled to protected status. Here is paragraph 746 of the Commentary to AP I:

The basic principle is stated in this first paragraph. The right to respect and protection of medical personnel and medical objects would be meaningless if they could not be clearly recognized. The Parties to the conflict therefore have a great interest in seeing that such personnel and objects can be identified by the enemy. Thus the rule laid down here is in the interests of those who are responsible for observing it. In fact, it would be the medical personnel and medical objects of the Party concerned which would suffer from poor means of identification and which could become the target of an enemy that had not identified them. Yet it must be emphasized that the means of identification do not constitute the right to protection, and from the moment that medical personnel or medical objects have been identified, shortcomings in the means of identification cannot be used as a pretext for failing to respect them.

In other words: the District Court and the DC Circuit should not have dismissed Al Warafi’s habeas petition on the ground the Taliban had not issued him with “official identification demonstrating that he is entitled to protected status.” Neither GC I nor AP I require such identification.

Another day, another misunderstanding of IHL by US courts. Sad, but predictable.

ICC/Palestine Event at Doughty Street Chambers

by Kevin Jon Heller

London-area readers interested in the ICC and Palestine might want to attend the following event, which is co-sponsored by Chatham House and Doughty Street Chambers (where I’m an academic member). It should be good, despite my participation:

Milestones in International Criminal Justice: The ICC and Palestine

Date: Tuesday 02 December 2014

Time: 18.00 – 19.30

Location: 54 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LS

Venue: Doughty Street Chambers

Speakers: Elizabeth Wilmshurst, Professor Kevin Jon Heller, Professor Yaël Ronen, Stephanie Barbour, Head of Amnesty International Centre for International Justice

CPD: 1.5

Fee: Free

Availability: Book a seat

In 2009 Palestine lodged a declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the ICC but only two years later the ICC Prosecutor decided to close its preliminary examination of the situation in Palestine because of uncertainties surrounding Palestine’s statehood.

The meeting will explore the implications of the UN General Assembly’s decision to accord to Palestine the status of non-member observer state in 2012, issues concerning Palestine’s prospective accession to the Rome Statute, and the possibility for Palestine to lodge a retroactive declaration giving the Court jurisdiction over Israeli military operations in Gaza such as ‘Cast Lead’ and ‘Protective Edge’.

Please note this event will be followed by a drinks reception.

This event is held in association with Doughty Street Chambers and is accredited with 1.5 CPD points.

Hope to see (some of) you there!

Thoughts on the Baffling Comoros Declination

by Kevin Jon Heller

As I read – and re-read – the OTP’s decision regarding the attack on the Mavi Marmara, one thought kept going through my mind: what was the OTP thinking? Why would it produce a 61-page document explaining why, despite finding reason to believe the IDF had committed war crimes during the attack, it was not going to open an investigation? After all, the OTP took barely 10 pages to explain why it was not going to open an investigation into British war crimes in Iraq. And it routinely refuses to open investigations with no explanation at all.

There are, I think, two possible explanations for the length of the decision. The first is that the OTP learned its lesson with its 2006 Iraq decision, which no one found convincing and was widely interpreted as Luis Moreno-Ocampo succumbing to Western pressure. This time, the OTP was going to do better, providing a much more detailed discussion of its decision not to investigate.

The second possible explanation is that the OTP felt the need to say more than usual because this was the first time a state had referred crimes committed by another state to the OTP. Nothing in the Rome Statute requires the OTP to treat state referrals differently than “referrals” by individuals or organisations (the scare quotes are necessary because individuals and organisations don’t refer situations; they ask the OTP to use its proprio motu power to open an investigation into a situation), but the OTP is, of course, ultimately dependent upon states to cooperate with it. Hence greater solicitude toward state referrals is warranted.

These two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and I imagine both are at least partially correct. But I still can’t help but think that the OTP made a serious mistake, one that will come back to haunt it in the future, should it ever need to formally address the Israel/Palestine conflict again — which seems likely.

To be clear, I don’t think refusing to investigate the attack on the Mavi Marmara was a mistake. I agree with the OTP that the potential crimes committed during the attack, however troubling, are not grave enough to warrant a formal investigation. My problem is with the OTP’s explanation of why those crimes are not adequately grave – that attacks on peacekeepers (in Darfur) are more serious than an attack on civilians engaged trying to break a blockade that has been widely condemned as illegal because of its devastating consequences for the inhabitants of Gaza. I fully agree with Michael Kearney’s recent guest-post on the Comoros decision, in which he questions the OTP’s characterisation of the flotilla as not really being humanitarian. I’d simply add that I find problematic its insistence that a genuinely humanitarian mission would have worked with Israel to distribute goods in Gaza instead of trying to break the blockade. Doing so would have meant, of course, giving final say over the goods to a state whose officials have admitted they want to keep Palestinians at near-subsistence levels. Complying with the blockade would simply have made the flotilla complicit in Israel’s ongoing collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population.

The OTP’s gravity analysis is also analytically confused…

Guest Post: Gabor Rona on the AUMF Discussion

by Gabor Rona

[Gabor Rona is a Visiting Professor of Law and Director, Law and Armed Conflict Project at Cardozo Law School.]

Just Security and Lawfare have published dueling AUMF reform proposals, here and here. (The proposals are not those of Just Security or Lawfare, but rather, those of the individual authors. For ease of reference, I’m calling them Just Security and Lawfare.) At the moment, there are also dueling posts on the two websites about the meaning of the Just Security proposal’s sunset provision. In fact, there are bigger fish to fry.

There’s quite a bit of agreement in the two proposals, as Ben notes in his responsive post at Lawfare, but he takes issue with the Just Security proposal’s principle #1: that a new AUMF should be “ISIL-specific and mission-specific.” Ben wants to include Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but the fact is that while the Just Security proposal is limited to ISIL, it does nothing that would conflict with executive powers to use force elsewhere. Both proposals contemplate force against ISIL and “associated forces,” but the Lawfare proposal explicitly adds Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. This addition appears to be a critical distinction between the two proposals, since they both also envision repeal of the 2001 AUMF against those responsible for 9/11 and those who harbor them (Al Qaeda and the Taliban) and of the 2002 AUMF against Saddam’s Iraq. Ben fears, mistakenly, that the Just Security proposal would leave our residual forces in Afghanistan legally naked. Here’s why he’s wrong.

The U.S. mission in Afghanistan hasn’t ended, but it has changed. The two international legal elements for armed conflict no longer exist. The first element is frequent and/or severe attacks. Fact is, it’s been quite a while since there have been either frequent or severe hostilities between the US and Al Qaeda/Taliban, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere on the planet. The drawdown of coalition troops and the limits imposed on those that remain make it difficult, if not impossible, for frequent or sever hostilities to persist. The second element for armed conflict is that the attacks be conducted by organized entities with a command structure, such that they are capable of being considered “a party” to armed conflict and subject to the laws of war. Whether you prefer to think of Al Qaeda as having “metastasized” or “dissipated,” there’s plenty of reason to doubt that “it” is no longer an “it” with the requisite command structure.

Another way to view the situation is that we’ve gone from war in Afghanistan, where force may be employed offensively, to non-war, where force may be employed defensively. The point for AUMF purposes is this: while US troops may need congressional authorization to prosecute a war, they do not need congressional authorization to defend themselves. That’s because the executive has inherent authority to order, or permit, our forces to defend themselves in the event of attack or imminent threat.

Bottom line # 1: while the Lawfare proposal is more emphatic about repeal of the two AUMFs than is the Just Security proposal, it is the Just Security proposal’s limitation to ISIL that more genuinely melds facts on the ground with applicable law, while doing nothing to compromise the executive’s constitutional powers to use force in self-defense.

Ben’s concerns aside, both proposals fail to deal effectively with the flawed notion of “associated forces.” Section 2b of the Lawfare proposal says that the “authorization of force (against Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Afghan Taliban) extends to associated forces of (those) entities . . . insofar as such forces are engaged in hostilities against the United States.” There are two things wrong here.

First, the very notion of “associated forces” as a construct to widen the net of war is wrong. There is no such notion in international law, and for good reason. There is a notion of “co-belligerency” applicable to wars between states. This notion exists to remove the protections of the law of neutrality when State C interferes in a war between States A and B. But there is no neutrality principle applicable to non-State armed groups, so the US’s doctrine asserting the right to engage against “associated forces” by analogy to the concept of co-belligerency is flawed. In fact, the notion of war against X and its “associated forces” is little different than the notion of global war, absent refinement of the associated forces concept.

Second, the Just Security proposal also endorses the “associated forces” concept and is, therefore, also flawed, but it at least requires a narrow definition of that term, “to include only those groups that are acting in concert with ISIL as parties to the armed conflict against the United States…” The Lawfare proposal does not define “associated” and applies to any forces “engaged in hostilities,” a much broader frame than “acting in concert with ISIL as parties to the armed conflict…”. It’s questionable that ISIL or any of its alleged associated forces are “engaged in hostilities against the United States.” As far as I’ve seen, the hostilities have been pretty much a one-way street, with U.S. bombings of ISIL. To maintain this asymmetry is why, I suppose, Americans don’t want U.S. boots on the ground.

Bottom line # 2: if you want to authorize use of force against “associated forces” rather than specific named entities (although I recommend against it for the reasons stated above) do so with the Just Security proposal’s reference to “parties to the conflict” rather than Lawfare’s “engaged in hostilities.”

The OTP Concludes Israel Is Still Occupying Gaza

by Kevin Jon Heller

As Thomas Escritt has reported for Reuters, the OTP has declined to open a formal investigation into Israel’s attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. I will have much more to say about the decision tomorrow; I agree with the OTP’s conclusion but have serious problems with much of its reasoning. But I thought I’d tease tomorrow’s post by noting that, despite the declination, Israel is going to be very angry at the OTP — because the OTP specifically concludes (as part of its decision to classify the conflict as international) that Israel is still occupying Gaza. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

26. Israel maintains that following the 2005 disengagement, it is no longer an occupying power in Gaza as it does not exercise effective control over the area.

27. However, the prevalent view within the international community is that Israel remains an occupying power in Gaza despite the 2005 disengagement. In general, this view is based on the scope and degree of control that Israel has retained over the territory of Gaza following the 2005 disengagement – including, inter alia, Israel’s exercise of control over border crossings, the territorial sea adjacent to the Gaza Strip, and the airspace of Gaza; its periodic military incursions within Gaza; its enforcement of no-go areas within Gaza near the border where Israeli settlements used to be; and its regulation of the local monetary market based on the Israeli currency and control of taxes and customs duties. The retention of such competences by Israel over the territory of Gaza even after the 2005 disengagement overall supports the conclusion that the authority retained by Israel amounts to effective control.

28. Although it no longer maintains a military presence in Gaza, Israel has not only shown the ability to conduct incursions into Gaza at will, but also expressly reserved the right to do so as required by military necessity. This consideration is potentially significant considering that there is support in international case law for the conclusion that it is not a prerequisite that a State maintain continuous presence in a territory in order to qualify as an occupying power. In particular, the ICTY has held that the law of occupation would also apply to areas where a state possesses “the capacity to send troops within a reasonable time to make the authority of the occupying power felt.” In this respect, it is also noted that the geographic proximity of the Gaza Strip to Israel potentially facilitates the ability of Israel to exercise effective control over the territory, despite the lack of a continuous military presence.

29. Overall, there is a reasonable basis upon which to conclude that Israel continues to be an occupying power in Gaza despite the 2005 disengagement. The Office has therefore proceeded on the basis that the situation in Gaza can be considered within the framework of an international armed conflict in view of the continuing military occupation by Israel.

I’m not certain I agree with this analysis, though the OTP’s conclusion is far from unreasonable. Regardless, let the fireworks begin…

Lawfare Podcast on al-Bahlul

by Kevin Jon Heller

While in DC last week for the ICC/Palestine event at George Mason — I’ll post a link to the video when it becomes available — I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lawfare’s Wells Bennet and Just Security’s Steve Vladeck to discuss the oral argument at the DC Circuit on the al-Bahlul remand, which the three of us attended that morning. You can listen to the podcast at Lawfare here; Steve did most of the talking, because he understands the constitutional issues in the case better than anyone, but I weighed in a few times on the international-law side. I hope you enjoy it — and my thanks to Wells for inviting me to participate.

Mark Kersten on the Terror Attacks in Canada

by Kevin Jon Heller

These days, I usually use Twitter to point readers to blog posts that deserve their attention. But Mark Kersten’s new post at Justice in Conflict is so good — and so important — that I want to highlight it here. The post achieves the near-impossible, passionately indicting Canada’s right-wing government for creating a political environment ripe for terrorism without in any way suggesting that Wednesday’s terror attacks were justified. It’s a truly brilliant post, from top to bottom. Here is a snippet, concerning the Harper government’s foreign-policy disasters:

The Canadian government has actively pursued a political philosophy of retribution and control that tarnishes the country’s image as an ‘honest international broker’. Harper’s record attests to an unyielding mission to reshape Canada’s international identity as a tough and hard-power state. The Harper government plays the part of destructive belligerent in climate change negotiations and tar-sands cheerleader. It is first in line to threaten Palestine with “consequences” if Ramallah pursues accountability for alleged crimes committed by Israeli forces in Gaza. While it isn’t usually described as such (many prefer terms like “militarily engaged”), the reality is that Canada has been at war, primarily in Afghanistan, for most of the last decade. And while we should judge each decision to engage in wars on their own terms, the government has positioned itself as a military – rather than diplomatic or humanitarian – middle power. The role of Canadian citizens in the Afghan detainee scandal has been swept under the rug. The government willfully left a child soldier, Omar Khadr, to rot in Guantanamo and were the only Western government not to request the repatriation of their citizens from that nefarious island prison. It left Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen wrongly accused of terrorism, stranded in Khartoum for years and threatened anyone who tried to help him return to Canada with aiding and abetting terrorism. In a country that takes pride in seeing Lester B. Pearson as the father of peacekeeping, the government prefers to count the number of fighter jets it will buy than the number of peacekeepers it deploys. And, making matters worse, those who disagree with the Harper government’s approach to being “hard on crime”, “tough on justice”, and “a military power” are too often portrayed as naive or betraying Canadian values.

Sadly, it’s not just Canada that has pursued the kind of right-wing policies that make horrific acts of terrorism more likely. Very similar posts could — and should — be written about the Key government in New Zealand, the Abbott government in Australia, and (yes) the Obama government in the US. These misguided policies have done next to nothing to prevent terrorism; they create the illusion of security, not its actuality. Indeed, insofar as they do little more than further radicalize the populations they affect, the policies have made us all that much less safe.

Read Kersten. And if you are on an academic committee that is looking to appoint a brilliant young lecturer, hire him.

ICC and Palestine Event at George Mason

by Kevin Jon Heller

The event at George Mason University on the ICC and Palestine is today. Here, again, is the flyer:

FINALFLYEROCTOBERPANELJpeg

If you cannot attend, the live-stream link is here.

The Invention of the Khorasan Group and Non-Imminent Imminence

by Kevin Jon Heller

I will be back blogging regularly soon, but I want to call readers’ attention to a phenomenal new article at the Intercept by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain about how the US government has cynically manipulated public fears of terrorism in order to justify its bombing campaign in Syria. Recall that Samantha Power — the UN Ambassador formerly known as a progressive — invoked the scary spectre of the Khorasan Group in her letter to the Security Council concerning the US’s supposed right to bomb terrorists in Syria in “self-defence.” As it turns out, not only is there literally no evidence that the Khorasan Group intends to launch an imminent attack on US interests — unless “imminent” is defined as “sometime before the Rapture” — there is also very little evidence that the Khorasan Group actually exists in a form that could threaten the US. Here is a snippet from the article on the latter point:

Even more remarkable, it turns out the very existence of an actual “Khorasan Group” was to some degree an invention of the American government. NBC’s Engel, the day after he reported on the U.S. Government’s claims about the group for Nightly News, seemed to have serious second thoughts about the group’s existence, tweeting “Syrian activists telling us they’ve never heard of Khorosan or its leader.”

Indeed, a NEXIS search for the group found almost no mentions of its name prior to the September 13 AP article based on anonymous officials. There was one oblique reference to it in a July 31 CNN op-ed by Peter Bergen. The other mention was an article in the LA Times from two weeks earlier about Pakistan which mentioned the group’s name as something quite different than how it’s being used now: as “the intelligence wing of the powerful Pakistani Taliban faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur.” Tim Shorrock noted that the name appears in a 2011 hacked Stratfor email published by WikiLeaks, referencing a Dawn article that depicts them as a Pakistan-based group which was fighting against and “expelled by” (not “led by”) Bahadur.

There are serious questions about whether the Khorasan Group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner. Aki Peritz, a CIA counterterrorism official until 2009, told Time: “I’d certainly never heard of this group while working at the agency,” while Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said: ”We used the term [Khorasan] inside the government, we don’t know where it came from…. All I know is that they don’t call themselves that.”

I don’t know for a fact that the Khorasan Group doesn’t exist. But it is profoundly troubling that the Obama administration has provided no evidence that it does — especially given that its case for the international legality of bombing Syria is based so heavily on the supposed threat the Khorasan Group poses to the “homeland.”

And let’s not forget that the Obama administration is doing everything it can to denude the concept of “self-defence” of all meaning. Here is the Intercept article on the “imminent” threat posed to the US by the maybe-existing Khorasan Group:

One senior American official on Wednesday described the Khorasan plotting as “aspirational” and said that there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works.

Literally within a matter of days, we went from “perhaps in its final stages of planning its attack” (CNN) to “plotting as ‘aspirational’” and “there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works” (NYT).

Late last week, Associated Press’ Ken Dilanian – the first to unveil the new Khorasan Product in mid-September – published a new story explaining that just days after bombing “Khorasan” targets in Syria, high-ranking U.S. officials seemingly backed off all their previous claims of an “imminent” threat from the group. Headlined “U.S. Officials Offer More Nuanced Take on Khorasan Threat,” it noted that “several U.S. officials told reporters this week that the group was in the final stages of planning an attack on the West, leaving the impression that such an attack was about to happen.” But now:

Senior U.S. officials offered a more nuanced picture Thursday of the threat they believe is posed by an al-Qaida cell in Syria targeted in military strikes this week, even as they defended the decision to attack the militants.

James Comey, the FBI director, and Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, each acknowledged that the U.S. did not have precise intelligence about where or when the cell, known as the Khorasan Group, would attempt to strike a Western target. . . .

Kirby, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said, “I don’t know that we can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months….We can have this debate about whether it was valid to hit them or not, or whether it was too soon or too late… We hit them. And I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes.”

Regarding claims that an attack was “imminent,” Comey said: “I don’t know exactly what that word means… ‘imminent’” — a rather consequential admission given that said imminence was used as the justification for launching military action in the first place.

According to the Obama administration, in short, the US is entitled to act in self-defence against “bad dudes” no matter when — or even if — those “bad dudes” might launch an armed attack against the US. This isn’t even the Bush administration’s “anticipatory self-defence.” This is, for lack of a better expression, “hypothetical self-defence.” Apparently, the US government believes it is entitled to use force against a non-state actor anywhere in the world as long as it can imagine a future state of affairs in which that actor would attack it.

The mind — and international law — reels.

The Unwilling or Unable Doctrine Comes to Life

by Jens David Ohlin

Today the U.S. launched airstrikes against ISIS and other extremist groups within Syrian territory. In the past, airstrikes were limited to Iraqi territory, which came with the consent of the Iraq government (and were thus legally uncontroversial from the perspective of jus ad bellum). Today’s airstrikes require a sophisticated legal argument to explain the intrusion on Syria’s territorial sovereignty. Samantha Power’s letter to the United Nations indicates that the Obama administration is relying on a combination of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and the “unwilling or unable” standard:

September 23, 2014

Excellency,

In Iraq’s letter to the United Nations Security Council of September 20, 2014, and other statements made by Iraq, including its letter to the United Nations Security Council of June 25, 2014, Iraq has made clear that it is facing a serious threat of continuing attacks from ISIL coming out of safe havens in Syria. These safe havens are used by ISIL for training, planning, financing, and carrying out attacks across Iraqi borders and against Iraq’s people. For these reasons, the Government of Iraq has asked that the United States lead international efforts to strike ISIL sites and military strongholds in Syria in order to end the continuing attacks on Iraq, to protect Iraqi citizens, and ultimately to enable and arm Iraqi forces to perform their task of regaining control of the Iraqi borders.

ISIL and other terrorist groups in Syria are a threat not only to Iraq, but also to many other counties, including the United States and our partners in the region and beyond. States must be able to defend themselves, in accordance with the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense, as reflected in Article 51 if the UN Charter, when, as is the case here, the government of the State where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks. The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these safe-havens effectively itself. Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria in order to eliminate the ongoing ISIL threat to Iraq, including by protecting Iraqi citizens from further attacks and by enabling Iraqi forces to regain control of Iraq’s borders. In addition, the United States has initiated military actions against al-Qaida elements in Syria known as the Khorasan Group to address terrorist threats that they pose to the United States and our partners and allies.

I request that you circulate this letter as a document of the Security Council.

Samantha J. Power

His Excellency
Mr. Ban Ki-moon
Secretary-General of the United Nations
New York, NY

So the structure of the argument goes as follows. The right of response is originally Iraqi, and the U.S. right of intervention is parasitic upon the Iraqi claim. Iraq has been attacked by ISIS, thus triggering Iraq’s right of self-defense against ISIS. Furthermore, since Syria is apparently unable to adequately respond to the ISIS threat and prevent its forces from using Syria as a base of operations to launch attacks against Iraq, then Iraq is entitled to use military force against ISIS installations and forces in Syria, even without the consent of the Syrian government or authorization from the Security Council. In other words, this falls under the inherent right of self-defense that is carved out by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter as an exception to the general prohibition on the use of force contained in article 2 of the U.N. Charter. The U.S. is intervening militarily to vindicate Iraq’s self-defense interest as a case of individual or collective self-defense.

A few observations here:

First, this was a predictable development. I don’t see another avenue for the U.S. to legally defend the intervention, unless it wanted to rely on the even more controversial RTP doctrine, which isn’t terribly relevant here. Nor was a Security Council resolution possible (given Russian and Chinese positions on Syria).

Second, it will solidify the growing interpretation of the customary international law on self-defense as applying to attacks by non-state actors. I view this position as absolutely correct, pace the International Court of Justice and its unsupported statement that the Article 51 right of self-defense only applies to attacks by states (which is nowhere mentioned in Article 51 anyway). In addition to the Security Council resolution after the 9/11 attacks, the world community’s reaction to the armed conflict against ISIS will be highly relevant for crystallizing the correct interpretation of self-defense as applying to attacks from state and non-state actors alike.

Third, the world reaction to the conflict against ISIS in Syria will help resolve the uncertain status of the unwilling or unable standard for force against non-state actors in third-party territory. Although the status of the doctrine has in the past been in doubt, international law is very much an evolving creature, and years from now the present conflict will no doubt be an important exhibit in that debate. In other words, even if “unwilling or unable” is not the current state of the law, it may well be very soon on account of the present conflict, the U.S. legal justification for it, and the world’ community’s reaction to same.

 

Ransom and Material Support

by Jens David Ohlin

The Foley family is furious that the US government did little to help them rescue their son, James Foley, from ISIS terrorists. In a recent New York Times article, the Foley family expresses frustration that European countries were quietly negotiating to pay ransoms for their nationals, while the US steadfastly refused to do so. As foreign nationals were gradually released for payments, detainees from the UK and the US remained behind because these two countries refuse to pay ransoms to terrorists. The Foleys figured this out late in the game and attempted a last-minute fundraising campaign to generate funds, but the effort came too late. They were also told by FBI agents that they could be prosecuted for paying a ransom to ISIS in exchange for their son.

I want to analyze in greater detail the claim that paying a ransom to ISIS could constitute a crime. I’m not aware of a specific federal statute banning the paying of ransoms to terrorist organizations. (If readers are aware of such a statute, please let me know in the comments section). Rather, I’m assuming that the FBI claim is based on the application of the material support provision of the federal code (18 U.S. § 2339B) which provides:

(a) Prohibited Activities.—

(1) Unlawful conduct.— Whoever knowingly provides material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both, and, if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life. To violate this paragraph, a person must have knowledge that the organization is a designated terrorist organization (as defined in subsection (g)(6)), that the organization has engaged or engages in terrorist activity (as defined in section 212(a)(3)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act), or that the organization has engaged or engages in terrorism (as defined in section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989).

(2) Financial institutions.— Except as authorized by the Secretary, any financial institution that becomes aware that it has possession of, or control over, any funds in which a foreign terrorist organization, or its agent, has an interest, shall—
(A) retain possession of, or maintain control over, such funds; and
(B) report to the Secretary the existence of such funds in accordance with regulations issued by the Secretary.

The first question is whether the payment of ransom constitutes the knowing provision of material support or resources. I’m not sure what a jury would do with this question. On the one hand, any money, delivered for any reason, can be considered a type of resource. Furthermore, the statute criminalizes knowing support, not just purposeful support. If it was the latter, the Foleys could claim that their purpose was to free their son, not provide material support. But since the mens rea is knowingly, perhaps they would be liable even if their purpose was the freedom of their son.

The bigger issue is whether they could claim an affirmative defense. The most likely possibilities are necessity and duress.

Necessity applies when a defendant, in response to a threat or emergency, violates a criminal prohibition because doing so represents the lesser of two evils. In that sense, the necessity defense has a utilitarian or consequentialist logic stemming from its status as a justification. If the defendant produces a greater evil, then the defense no longer applies.

In contrast, duress applies when the defendant performs a criminal act due to a threat of grave injury or death to the defendant or a close associate, emanating from a third party. (In the past I’ve argued that the defense should apply even if the target of the threat is not a close associate.) The paradigm of duress involves an autonomy-reducing threat that requires a level of moral heroism that cannot be expected by the law. The third party “forces” the defendant to violate the criminal prohibition by virtue of a threat that cannot be reasonably ignored. As such, duress is an excuse which negates the culpability of the actor. As an excuse, duress should not require that the defendant selected the lesser of two evils, because the claim has nothing to do with the defendant’s selection of a better outcome. Indeed, in duress situations the defendant may have selected the worse outcome because they are unwilling to sacrifice the life of the threatened individual.

American jurisdictions impose restrictions on the application of both defenses. Under the rule from Dudley & Stephens, necessity and duress are unavailable in cases of murder. There is a complicated question of whether the same exclusion should apply in manslaughter cases.

It seems clear to me that the Foleys, if they had paid a ransom to ISIS, would be (and should be) entitled to a duress defense. If they paid the ransom to ISIS, they would be providing material support to ISIS only by virtue of the threat against their son, which they cannot reasonably be expected to ignore. The government position is that paying ransom endangers future US citizens who would be captured for ransom by a terrorist organization incentivized to repeat the strategy. This seems factually true, though this point is irrelevant: duress as an excuse applies even if the outcome produced by the defendant is worse. Duress is not a lesser-evils defense. Finally, even if it were relevant, the future lives endangered by paying a ransom are speculative and hypothetical, rather than actual and manifest.

As a final point, necessity is often excluded as a defense if the statutory provision embodies a specific legislative choice or policy to criminalize the decision made by the defendant. However, that exclusion does not apply to excuses such as duress. And even in the context of necessity, there is no evidence that Congress had in mind the specific situation of paying ransom to terrorists. If, in the future, Congress passes a specific statute outlawing the paying of ransom to terrorists by private citizens, then the exclusion would be relevant.

Consequently, the Foleys are entitled to the duress defense, and that seems like the right result. And it also helps to explain the popular outrage over the FBI’s heavy-handed techniques against the Foley family. For the FBI agents to suggest to the Foleys that they would be prosecuted for paying the ransom was not only tone deaf–but it also indicates that the FBI agents did not understand the law of duress.