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Non-State Actors

Guest Post: Stephen W. Preston on ‘The Legal Framework for the United States’ Use of Military Force since 9/11’ (ASIL Annual Meeting 2015)–Old Wine in New Bottles

by Elisa Freiburg

[Elisa Freiburg, LL.M. (LSE), is research associate for international law at the University of Potsdam and a doctoral candidate at the University of Heidelberg. Her research focuses on international human rights, development, international criminal law, and the use of force.]

On April 10, 2015, Stephen W. Preston, General Counsel at the United States Department of Defense, delivered a keynote speech at the ASIL Annual Meeting. This speech addressed a vast number of US policy issues and describes the current state of the US understanding of international law on the use of force – an understanding that should worry the international community.

A central issue and starting point of Preston’s speech was the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which had been passed by the US Congress in the aftermath of 9/11 on September 14, 2001, and still, as of today almost 14 years later, continues to authorizes the US President under domestic law to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons” responsible for 9/11  (or those who harbored such organizations or persons), “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States”. In 2009, the Obama Administration filed a memorandum in the Guantánamo habeas litigation, arguing that the President’s authority to detain “persons who were part of, or substantially supported, Taliban or al Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners” could be derived from the 2001 AUMF (thereby actually abandoning the “enemy combatant” argument of the Bush administration). By the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, US Congress endorsed this new formula which meant that the initial definition of the 2001 AUMF had been significantly expanded.

Certainly, the term “or associated forces” in that definition offers endless possibility to expand the scope of alleged detention authorities. Preston reiterated the interpretation by his predecessor, Jeh Johnson, who had held in 2012 that an associated force must be both (1) an organized, armed group that has entered the fight alongside al-Qa’ida (no mere alignment), and (2) a co-belligerent with al-Qa’ida in hostilities against the US or its coalition partners. Preston also referred to a public hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2014, during which he had listed the groups and individuals against which the US were taking military action (in the sense of capture or lethal operations) under the 2001 AUMF, namely: al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and certain other terrorist or insurgent groups in Afghanistan; al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Yemen; individuals who are part of al-Qa’ida in Somalia and Libya; (since 2014) the Nusrah Front and the Khorasan Group in Syria; and “the group we fought in Iraq when it was known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq”, the Islamic State. This list already shows how the understanding of the original scope of the AUMF (applicable to those responsible for the 9/11 attacks) has been expanded since 2001. Though Preston tried to differentiate between the Islamic State and its ties with al-Qa’ida, and (theoretically) a totally new group arising “fully formed from the head of Zeus”, in practice one might wonder whether a new group in the region without any links to al-Qa’ida would not rather constitute an abnormality than the rule (at least for the foreseeable future), thereby allegedly allowing the US to include every terrorist group in the region into the AUMF scope if they wanted to. The inclusion of the Islamic State, which does not consider itself as forming part of al-Qa’ida, but as a new group, demonstrates that this line of association might last, from the US perspective if not forever, then for quite a while. (more…)

Breaking the Silence — About Israel’s Assault on Gaza

by Kevin Jon Heller

The irreplaceable Breaking the Silence has released a new report on Operation Protective Edge — and it’s a doozy. Here are some particularly disturbing snippets from the Guardian‘s article on the report, which contains dozens of testimonials by past and present IDF soldiers:

“[The commander] said: ‘We don’t take risks. We do not spare ammo. We unload, we use as much as possible.’”

“The rules of engagement [were] pretty identical,” added another sergeant who served in a mechanised infantry unit in Deir al-Balah. “Anything inside [the Gaza Strip] is a threat. The area has to be ‘sterilised,’ empty of people – and if we don’t see someone waving a white flag, screaming: “I give up” or something – then he’s a threat and there’s authorisation to open fire … The saying was: ‘There’s no such thing there as a person who is uninvolved.’ In that situation, anyone there is involved.”

“The rules of engagement for soldiers advancing on the ground were: open fire, open fire everywhere, first thing when you go in,” recalled another soldier who served during the ground operation in Gaza City. The assumption being that the moment we went in [to the Gaza Strip], anyone who dared poke his head out was a terrorist.”

Soldiers were also encouraged to treat individuals who came too close or watched from windows or other vantage points as “scouts” who could be killed regardless of whether there was hard evidence they were spotting for Hamas or other militant groups. “If it looks like a man, shoot. It was simple: you’re in a motherfucking combat zone,” said a sergeant who served in an infantry unit in the northern Gaza strip.

“A few hours before you went in the whole area was bombed, if there’s anyone there who doesn’t clearly look innocent, you apparently need to shoot that person.” Defining ‘innocent’ he added: “If you see the person is less than 1.40 metres tall or if you see it’s a lady … If it’s a man you shoot.”

In at least one instance described by soldiers, being female did not help two women who were killed because one had a mobile phone. A soldier described the incident: “After the commander told the tank commander to go scan that place, and three tanks went to check [the bodies] … it was two women, over the age of 30 … unarmed. They were listed as terrorists. They were fired at. So of course they must have been terrorists.”

The soldiers’ descriptions are disturbingly reminiscent of the notorious “free fire” zones in Vietnam and the US government’s well-documented (and erroneous) belief that signature strikes directed against “military-age men in an area of known terrorist activity” comply with IHL’s principle of distinction. The testimonials are, in a word, stunning — and put the lie to oft-repeated shibboleths about the IDF being “the most moral army in the world.” As ever, the stories told by the IDF and the Israeli government are contradicted by the soldiers who actually have to do the killing and dying.

You can find the report here. And if you’re interested in a predictable right-wing attempt to discredit the report — which basically just complains that Breaking the Silence doesn’t release the identity of the soldiers who gave testimony (gee, can’t imagine why not…) — see here.

The Advantage for Palestine of a Slow Preliminary Examination

by Kevin Jon Heller

Nearly everyone treats Palestine’s membership in the ICC as a done deal; after all, the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) has accepted Palestine’s accession to the Rome Statute and the OTP has publicly stated that “since Palestine was granted observer State status in the UN by the UNGA, it must be considered a ‘State’ for the purposes of accession.” But neither the UNSG nor the OTP has final say over whether Palestine qualifies as a state; as Eugene Kontorovich, my friend and regular Israel/Palestine sparring partner, has repeatedly pointed out on Twitter (see here, for example), statehood is a legal issue that the ICC’s judges will eventually have to decide.

Unlike Eugene, I would be very surprised if the judges second-guessed the UNSG and the OTP and held that Palestine does not qualify as a state. But it’s certainly possible. So here is something for Palestine to consider: because the ICC’s judges cannot make a determination concerning Palestine’s statehood until the OTP has decided to formally investigate the situation, the longer the preliminary examination takes, the longer Palestine will have to make it more difficult for the judges to decide against it.

I don’t want to get into too much detail about the relevant provisions in the Rome Statute; a brief summary should suffice. Art. 15, which concerns proprio motu investigations — the current situation regarding Palestine, because the OTP treats an Art. 12(3) declaration as a request for an Art. 15 investigation — does not permit the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) to determine whether a situation “appears to fall within the jurisdiction of the Court” until the OTP has asked it to authorise a formal investigation. Art. 18, which in certain circumstances requires the OTP to defer to state investigations of specific suspects, also does not apply until the OTP has decided to formally investigate (whether proprio motu or on the basis of a state referral). And Art. 19, the basic complementarity provision, does not permit a state to challenge admissibility until there is a specific case pending and does not permit a suspect to challenge admissibility (which includes jurisdiction) until a warrant for his arrest or a summons for his appearance has been issued — both of which occur subsequent to the opening of a formal investigation.

There is, in short, only one party that can ask the PTC to decide a jurisdictional issue prior to the commencement of a formal investigation: the OTP itself. That’s Art. 19(3). And it’s safe to say that the OTP won’t ask the PTC to determine whether Palestine qualifies as a state before it has to.

That means, of course, that it could easily be years before the PTC gets to weigh in on the issue of Palestinian statehood. Why is that a good thing for Palestine? Most obviously, because it gives it more time to get its statehood ducks in a row — acceding to more international conventions, resolving internal political differences, seeking additional recognitions of Palestine as a state, etc. More importantly, though, it gives Palestine time to become an integral member of the Court, thereby increasing the institutional pressure on the PTC to conclude that it is a state. Assume that the OTP takes four years to open a formal investigation, which would be relatively quick by OTP standards. Palestine could — and should! — take advantage of that gap to pay dues each year to the ICC; to attend the annual sessions of the ASP (as it did as an observer in the 13th Session) and participate in its intersessional work; to nominate Palestine’s delegate to the ASP for a position in the Bureau; and (better still) to nominate a Palestinian as a judge. After four years of such involvement, it would be very difficult for the PTC to conclude that Palestine was not a state, given that such a decision would force the ASP to expel the Palestinian delegate, (presumably) refund four years of Palestine’s dues, and perhaps even unseat a Palestinian judge.

I’m sure some readers — particularly those who believe that Palestine cannot qualify as a state as long as Israel illegally occupies its territory — will find my strategy cynical. Perhaps it is — but it would hardly be the first time a state acted strategically with regard to an international organisation. After all, Israel is the culprit-in-chief in that regard; its favourite strategy, which is the height of cynicism, is to refuse to cooperate with an international investigation and then dismiss the results of that investigation as “one-sided” and thus biased. Moreover, I use the term “state” with regard to Palestine deliberately; contrary to the view of many pro-Israel commentators, the Montevideo criteria do not remotely doom Palestine’s claim to statehood. On the contrary, I believe Palestine has legally qualified as a state under those criteria for many years. But that is a subject for another day. (Interested readers can start with this brief, written by Errol Mendes.)

For now, Palestine needs to take full advantage of its admittedly provisional membership in the ICC. As a wise man once said, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

John Bellinger’s Op-Ed on ISIS and the ICC (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

The op-ed, which appears in today’s New York Times, argues that the ICC is the most appropriate venue for prosecuting ISIS’s many international crimes. I have great respect for John, who is unique among former high-ranking US government officials in his willingness to defend the ICC, but the op-ed makes a number of arguments that deserve comment.

It certainly makes more sense for the court’s prosecutor to investigate the Islamic State than to investigate the United States or Britain for treatment of detainees or Israel for its handling of last year’s Gaza conflict, as some activists have called for.

There is no question that ISIS is responsible for horrific international crimes that deserve to be prosecuted. But does it “certainly make more sense” for the ICC to prosecute those crimes than British torture in Iraq, US torture in Afghanistan, and Israel’s vast array of crimes against Palestinian civilians in Gaza? That’s not self-evident. Readers know my skepticism toward the ICC investigating the situation in Palestine, but the expressive value of prosecuting UK or US military commanders and political leaders for torture would be incalculable — it would get the ICC out of Africa; it would affirm that torture, a crime that rarely involves a large numbers of victims, is unacceptable and deserving of prosecution; and — of course — it would demonstrate that no state, no matter how powerful, is immune from international criminal justice.

At a minimum, the Security Council should ask the court to investigate the numerous offenses committed by the Islamic State that fall within the court’s mandate.


A Security Council request would be necessary because Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State is operating, are not parties to the Rome Statute (the treaty that created the court) and are not otherwise subject to the court’s jurisdiction.

A Security Council referral is not actually necessary, because the ICC’s jurisdiction is not simply territorial. The Court can also prosecute any international crime committed by a national of a state that has ratified the Rome Statute. Many ISIS leaders are nationals of ICC member-states — including Jihadi John, who is a UK national. So the ICC could prosecute those leaders tomorrow if it had them in custody. Indeed, Fatou Bensouda has already mentioned the possibility of such nationality-based prosecutions.

Moreover, a Security Council referral may be more trouble than it’s worth. John himself notes a major problem: if the territorial parameters of any such referral exposed members of the Syrian government to ICC jurisdiction, Russia and/or China would almost certainly veto the referral. And what if the referral exposed Syrian rebels to ICC jurisdiction? I can’t imagine the US, France, and the UK would be too keen about that — not least because it would provide the ICC with a backdoor to prosecuting their nationals for aiding and abetting rebel crimes.

The United States has reason to be concerned about inappropriate and politicized investigations of the United States and Israel.

I don’t see why, given that the ICC has not opened a formal investigation in Afghanistan despite having examined the situation for eight years and has only had jurisdiction over Israel’s crimes for a few months. Moreover, John never explains why any ICC investigation of the US or Israel would necessarily be “inappropriate and politicized,” given that both states have quite obviously committed crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction. Why should the ICC only prosecute the US’s enemies — never its friends, and certainly never the US itself? Americans and Israelis might like that idea, but I imagine few others would accept it.

[B]ut the International Criminal Court still has an important role to play in investigating and prosecuting acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — all of which have reportedly been committed by the Islamic State.

I’m not so sure, at least in the context of ISIS — and this is my basic issue with John’s op-ed. Does the ICC really need yet another situation to investigate, given its already overtaxed resources? And do we really want the Security Council to refer the ISIS situation, given that there is almost no chance it will finance the resulting investigation? (See, for example, the failed Syria resolution.) Moreover, why should the ICC prosecute ISIS leaders when states like the US, the UK, and Japan (and Germany, and France, and…) are just as capable of prosecuting those leaders themselves — if not more so? They have investigative and prosecutorial resources the ICC can only dream of. So why should the ICC do their work for them?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we need to stop assuming that the ICC is always the best venue for prosecuting international crimes. It’s not. It’s a weak Court with more failures than successes on its ledger. Even under ideal circumstances — unlikely to exist — it would never be able to prosecute more than a handful of ISIS leaders. And if past cases are any indication, there is no guarantee those prosecutions would lead to convictions. So if states really want to bring ISIS to justice, the solution is there for all to see.

They should do the job themselves.

NOTE: I am not implying that John invented the idea that the ICC should investigate ISIS crimes. As he notes in his op-ed, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has previously suggested the same thing. But that in no way changes my position — and I think it’s unfortunate that High Commissioners see the ICC as the first resort instead of the last, even in situations (such as ISIS) where, unlike states, the ICC has no ability to effectively investigate. The previous High Commissioner exhibited the same problematic tendency, calling on the Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC despite the fact that the Court would be powerless to investigate Syrian and rebel crimes as long as the conflict continues. Security Council referrals only make sense after a conflict has ended — and not even there, unless the Security Council is willing to give its referrals teeth by funding the subsequent investigation and punishing states for not cooperating with the ICC, which it has shown no interest whatsoever in doing. Do we really need more failed ICC investigations like the one in Darfur?

Guest Post on the ICC and Palestine at Justice in Conflict

by Kevin Jon Heller

My contribution to the symposium is now available. Here is the introduction:

I want to start with a prediction, one I’ve made before and still subscribe to: the ICC will never open a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine. People of all political persuasions seem to think that the ICC is somehow eager to leap into the most politicised conflict of the modern era. I disagree, not because the situation doesn’t deserve to be investigated – I think it is one of the gravest situations in the world – but because I don’t think we take the ICC’s institutional interests into account nearly enough when we prognosticate about what it might do. And I see very little upside for the ICC in opening a formal investigation.

My thanks to Mark Kersten for posting it — and to Kirsten Ainley for organising the roundtable at the LSE on which it’s based.

So How Do We Assess Proportionality? (A Response to Blank, Corn, and Jensen) (UPDATED)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Just Security published a post by Laurie Blank, Geoffrey Corn, and Eric Jensen yesterday criticizing two surveys that are interested in how laypeople think about IHL’s principle of proportionality. Much of what the authors say is absolutely correct, particularly about the need to recognize that assessing ex post the ex ante decision-making process of military commanders is fraught with difficulty and likely to both overemphasize actual civilian casualties and underemphasize anticipated military advantage. But the post is still problematic, particularly the following claims:

Second, the surveys exacerbate what is perhaps the most dangerous misperception and distortion of this vital regulatory principle: that you, or I, or anyone can accurately and meaningfully assess the proportionality of an attack after the fact and without full knowledge of the circumstances at the time of the attack. Proportionality necessitates a prospective analysis that cannot be assessed in hindsight by looking solely at the effects of an attack (or the hypothetical effects of a hypothetical attack). The language of the proportionality rule refers to “expected” civilian casualties and “anticipated” military advantage — the very choice of words shows that the analysis must be taken in a prospective manner from the viewpoint of the commander at the time of the attack. Credible compliance assessment therefore requires considering the situation through the lens of the decision-making commander, and then asking whether the attack judgment was reasonable under the circumstances.


Ultimately, these surveys are based on a flawed assumption: that “public perception” is the ultimate touchstone for compliance with the proportionality rule; a touchstone that should be substituted for the expert, hard-earned judgment of military commanders who bear the moral, strategic, tactical and legal consequences of each and every decision they make in combat. On that basis alone, it is the surveys that are disproportionate.

I can’t speak to one of the surveys, because the authors don’t provide any information about it. But I am aware of (and have completed) the survey they do link to, which is conducted by Janina Dill, an excellent young Oxford lecturer who is the Associate Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. The authors caricature Dill’s survey when they claim that it is based on the “flawed assumption” that “public perception” is “the ultimate touchstone for compliance with the proportionality rule.” Dill does not suggest that the legality of a particular attack should be determined by public perception of whether it was proportionate; she is simply interested in how non-military people think about proportionality. Like the authors, I don’t believe Dill’s questions capture the complexity of the military commander’s task. But neither does Dill. That is not the point of the survey.

Dill, however, is more than capable of defending herself. I am more interested in the first paragraph quoted above, because the authors come perilously close therein to claiming that it is per se illegitimate for anyone — or at least individuals who are not soldiers themselves — to second-guess the targeting decisions of military commanders. I suppose they leave themselves a tiny escape from that position by implying (obliquely) that “you, or I, or anyone” could assess ex post a military commander’s ex ante proportionality calculation as long as we had “full knowledge of the circumstances at the time of the attack.” But the authors make no attempt whatsoever to explain how the decision-makers involved in any ex post “compliance assessment” could ever take into account everything the military commander knew about the circumstances of the attack — from “the enemy’s center of gravity and the relationship of the nominated target to that consideration” to “the exigencies of the tactical situation” to “the weaponeering process, including the choice of weapons to deploy and their known or anticipated blast radius or other consequences.” Some information about the objective circumstances of the attack may be available in written reports and through the testimony of the military commander’s superiors and subordinates. But those objective circumstances are only part of the story, because IHL proportionality requires (as the authors rightly note) assessing the reasonableness of the attack “through the lens” of the commander herself — what she actually knew about the objective circumstances of the attack. And that information will be located solely in the mind of the military commander. Perhaps some commanders are so honest and so mentally disciplined that they will provide a court-martial or international tribunal with an accurate assessment of what went through their mind before the attack. But most commanders faced with discipline or prosecution for a possibly disproportionate attack will either lie about their proportionality calculation or unconsciously rewrite that calculation after the fact to justify killing innocent civilians.

In most cases, therefore, the decision-makers involved in a compliance assessment will have no choice but to rely on circumstantial evidence — including, yes, an attack’s actual consequences — to infer what went through the mind of a military commander prior to launching an attack. Such inferences will always be, for all the reasons the authors note, complex, fraught with difficulty, and prone to error. But unless we are going to simply defer to “the expert, hard-earned judgment of military commanders who bear the moral, strategic, tactical and legal consequences of each and every decision they make in combat,” we have no choice but to ask people to draw them. I doubt that any of the authors think that uncritical deference is appropriate; more likely, they think that although compliance assessment is necessary, no civilian should ever be permitted to sit in judgment of a soldier. If so — or if they think that civilian assessment is possible in the right system — the authors need to do more than just complain about how difficult it is to be a military commander and dismiss as irrelevant how civilians think about fundamental principles of IHL. They need to tell us what a properly-designed system of compliance assessment would look like.

UPDATE: Janina Dill has posted her own response at Just Security. It’s excellent; interested readers should definitely check it out.

Responding to Rogier Bartels About Perfidy at Just Security

by Kevin Jon Heller

My friend Rogier Bartels published two excellent posts at Just Security over the past few days (here and here) in which he argues that it is inherently perfidious to launch an attack from a military object disguised as a civilian object. Just Security has just posted my lengthy response. Here is how I conclude the post:

At the risk of sounding like an armchair psychologist, I’d like to suggest an explanation for why an excellent scholar like Rogier adopts a theory of perfidy that, in my view, cannot be correct. The problem, I think, is the nature of the attack that gave rise to our lively debate: a bomb placed in a privately-owned car in the middle of a generally peaceful city. Such an attack simply doesn’t seem fair; of course a “combatant” — even a high-ranking member of Hezbollah — is entitled to feel safe walking by a car on “a quiet nighttime street in Damascus after dinner at a nearby restaurant,” as the Washington Post put it. Indeed, like Rogier, I am skeptical that IHL even applied to the bombing.

But just as hard cases make bad law, unusual situations generate problematic rules. Once we try to apply Rogier’s theory of perfidy to the “normal” combat situation, its plausibility falls apart. Although the same military/civilian distinctions apply, those distinctions take on a very different sheen during street-by-street, house-by-house fighting in a city virtually destroyed by armed conflict. You expect to be able to walk by a Mercedes in a Damascus suburb without being blown up, even if you are a soldier; but if you are a soldier in downtown Fallujah, the last thing you are going to do is walk casually past that burned out, overturned Mazda sitting in the middle of the city’s main road. Yet that Mazda is no less a civilian object than the Mercedes, and as long as IHL applies there is no legal difference between planting a bomb in the Mazda and planting a bomb in the Mercedes. Either both car bombs are perfidious or neither of them is. And it is very difficult to argue that planting a bomb in a burned-out, overturned Mazda in downtown Fallujah — or placing an ambush behind it, or using it for cover, or blending into it with camouflage, or placing a landmine near it — is an act of perfidy.

I share Rogier’s concern with the Israel/US operation that killed the Hezbollah leader, and I understand his unease — from a civilian protection standpoint — with many of the kinds of attacks I’ve discussed in this post. Any proposal to expand the definition of perfidy, however, must acknowledge the (ugly) reality of combat, particularly in urban areas. The general distinction between perfidy and ruses of war is a sensible one, even if we can — and should — debate precisely where the line between the two is drawn.

I hope readers will wander over to Just Security and read all three posts — as well as the original discussion that led to them.

Guest Post: Self-Defence and Non-State Actors in the Cold War Era – A Response to Marty Lederman

by Tom Ruys

[Tom Ruys is professor of international law at Ghent University. He is the author of ‘Armed Attack’ and Article 51 of the UN Charter (CUP: 2010) and co-editor-in-chief of the Journal on the Use of Force and International Law.]

In a previous post on OJ, Kevin Jon Heller talked about the Israeli intervention in Lebanon in 2006 and its relevance from a jus ad bellum perspective. The post gave rise to a discussion between Kevin and Marty Lederman revolving essentially around the legality of self-defence against attacks by non-State actors in the Charter era. Kevin takes the position that throughout the Cold War attacks by non-State actors were generally only regarded as ‘armed attacks’ in the sense of Article 51 UN Charter inasmuch as they could be imputed to a State. In this context, Kevin among others things quotes a section of my book from 2010. Marty, on the other hand, claims that ever since the 1837 Caroline affair, States have always regarded attacks by non-State actors as ‘armed attacks’ (irrespective of any State involvement), which may trigger the right of self-defence if the necessity and proportionality requirements are met. He adds that there is no clear evidence from the Cold war era to suggest that States have come to embrace a prohibition on the exercise of self-defence against non-State attacks since 1945. Marty notes en passant that the excerpt from my book contains ‘no references to any state practice or opinio iuris’ that would support Kevin’s position. Yet, if this is indeed the case, it is because the excerpt is merely the conclusion of a much more extensive chapter, which does contain ample illustrations in terms of State practice and opinio (similar and other references can moreover be found in the excellent analyses by Olivier Corten (Law Against War) and Christine Gray (International Law and the Use of Force)).

Upon a closer reading of Marty’s comments, I doubt we can find much common ground, since our points of departure seem diametrically opposed. Marty’s view rests on the presumption that pre-Charter precedents, such as the Caroline case, are ‘incorporated’ in Article 51 UN Charter. I essentially agree that the Caroline case has largely constituted the source of inspiration for the customary requirements of necessity and proportionality in the context of the right to self-defence. That is not to say, however, that what was considered permissible back in 1837, was still deemed permissible in 1945. Quite the contrary, even if we leave aside the fact that recourse to war was still regarded as a lawful means of settling inter-State disputes in the 19th century, the 19th-century understanding of self-preservation was much broader than the modern concept of self-defence, which developed only gradually in the early 20th century. The modern jus contra bellum is a product of the late 19th and mostly early 20th century. Up until 1912, Oppenheim stated without hesitation that intervention ‘in the interest of the balance of power’ must ‘obviously’ be excused, since ‘an equilibrium between the members of the Family of Nations is an indispensable condition of the very existence of International Law’ (International Law, 2nd ed.). In other words: pre-Charter precedents must be put into perspective. Instead of relying on 19th-century precedents, the proper course in dealing with this conundrum is to look at the Charter provisions and at evolutions in State practice in opinio juris since 1945.

Below are some cursory comments that tend to support Kevin’s position:

The adoption of the UN Charter and its aftermath

Even if some official statements and some draft versions of Article 51 refer to ‘attacks by one State against another’, the problem of non-State attacks was widely overlooked at the San Francisco Conference. Still, there are various indications that self-defence in the early Charter era was essentially construed as applying to attacks by one State against another. Kunz, for instance, in 1947 wrote that an armed attack ‘must not only be directed against a State, it must also be made by a State or with the approval of a State’ ((1947) 41 AJIL, 878). And the 1949 Report of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the North Atlantic Treaty contains the following observation: ‘[T]he words ‘armed attack’ clearly do not mean an incident created by irresponsible groups or individuals but rather an attack by one State upon another… However, if a revolution were aided and abetted by an outside power such assistance might possibly be considered an armed attack.’

Article 3(g) of the Definition of Aggression

Marty Lederman dismisses the idea that the Article 3(g) of the Definition of Aggression renders any support to Kevin’s position, since it ‘doesn’t say a thing about whether and in what circumstances IL prohibits State A from attacking the armed group in the territory of State B.’ That is perhaps textually correct, but if one takes a closer look at the debates within the Fourth Special Committee on the Definition of Aggression, it becomes obvious that the precise wording of this provision had everything to do with the underlying effort to find a compromise on the scope of Article 51 UN Charter (e.g., Italy: ‘The main concern was whether the right of self-defence should apply in cases of indirect aggression…’ UN Doc. A/AC.134/SR.52-66, 100). It all started with the following clause in the draft ‘Thirteen-Power proposal’: ‘When a State is victim in its own territory of subversive and/or terrorist acts by irregular, volunteer or armed bands organized or supported by another State, it may take all reasonable and adequate steps to safeguard its existence and its institutions, without having recourse to the right of individual or collective self-defence against the other State under Article 51 of the Charter’ (Article 7, UN Doc. A.AC.134/L.16). The draft clause fuelled an intense debate over the circumstances in which ‘indirect’ aggression might or might not trigger the right of self-defence. It is thus not too surprising to see that the ICJ used Article 3(g) of the Definition of Aggression in its Nicaragua case as the relevant threshold to determine whether attacks by non-State armed groups could justify the exercise of self-defence. What was surprising, however, about the Court’s approach, was that the Court gave a restrictive interpretation to Article 3(g) by excluding the provision of ‘logistical or other support’ (thus by and largely confining the applicability of Article 51 UN Charter to attacks imputable to a State, leaving little or no room for other forms of ‘substantial involvement’).

State practice in the Cold War period

If we look at State practice prior to 1980, in particular to the interventions by Israel, Portugal and South Africa in neighbouring countries, it is quite clear that State invoking the right of self-defence to justify cross-border military action against non-State actors generally claimed that the other State had somehow ‘sent’ the perpetrators of the initial attacks. By contrast, self-defence claims relying on active or passive support to armed bands or ‘terrorists’ operating on a more autonomous basis, did not meet with legal acceptance from third States. There is no evidence from the early Charter years to suggest that attacks by non-State armed groups could as such qualify as ‘armed attacks’ (irrespective of any State involvement).

It is only in the 1980s and the 1990s that this situation began to change as Israel, and subsequently the United States, increasingly began to claim a broader right to exercise self-defence against attacks by non-State actors (absent State imputability). This evolution must be seen against the background of an evolving political climate, viz. the (quasi-)completion of the decolonization process, and the growing recognition of terrorism as a threat to international peace and security. Cases such as the Israeli raid against the PLO headquarter in Tunis nonetheless illustrate that these claims initially met with a lukewarm, if not outright negative, reaction from third State (e.g., UN Doc. S/PV.2613, § 115 (Greece: ‘Acts of terrorism cannot in any way serve as an excuse for a Government to launch an armed attack on a third country’.).

State practice after the Cold War era and the 9/11 attacks

Marty stresses in his comments that the excerpt from my book contains ‘no references to any state practice or opinio iuris’ from the Cold war era affirming the need for State imputability (or at least State involvement) for attacks by non-State actors to trigger the right of self-defence. By contrast, he suggests the same excerpt refers to a ‘considerable number of interventions’ as well as ‘numerous security doctrines and official statements’ supporting the opposite view that non-State attacks can ipso facto amount to ‘armed attacks’ in the sense of Article 51 UN Charter. These references, however, relate to the post 9/11-era, not to the early Charter years. I readily acknowledge – and here I must depart to some extent from the position of Kevin – that there have been significant evolutions in State practice and opinio juris (cf. the Israeli intervention in Lebanon in 2006 or the strikes against IS in Syria). Yet, I fully agree with Kevin that this evolution is of a relatively recent nature and does not alter the fact that for most of the Charter era attacks by non-State armed groups were not, of themselves, regarded as ‘armed attacks’ triggering the right of self-defence. I hesitate to confirm whether this broader interpretation of the concept of ‘armed attack’ (as encompassing attacks by non-State actors absent any form of State involvement) has become lex lata. Suffice it to say that State practice seems to be heading in that direction (if the ICJ had taken the opportunity to confirm this trend in DRC v. Uganda or Palestinian Wall, we would not be having this discussion), and that the US-led military operations against IS have given rise to quite a number of interesting expressions of opinio juris of various States (for a comprehensive overview, readers may wish to keep an eye on the forthcoming Digest of State Practice in the Journal on the Use of Force and International Law).

(One final thing: like Marty and others I believe an ‘unable and unwilling’ test must be regarded as an aspect of the necessity assessment. By contrast, the question whether there is need for State imputability, or some other form of ‘substantial involvement’ by a State, for cross-border attacks to trigger the right of self-defence, has to do with the interpretation of the concept of ‘armed attack’.)

Mea Culpa Regarding Israel’s Attacks on Hezbollah in 2006

by Kevin Jon Heller

In a number of posts (see, for example, here and here), I have claimed that the League of Arab States (LAS) formally rejected the “unwilling or unable” test in the context of Israel’s 2006 attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thanks to comments by Ori and Tom Ruys on the most recent post, I now realize I have been guilty of the same kind of methodological sloppiness that characterizes most scholarly work in defence of the test. If you read the statement by the LAS — you can find it here — there is no way to determine whether the it denounced Israel’s attack because it rejected the “unwilling or unable” test or — and this actually seems more likely — because it simply rejected Israel’s claim that it was acting in self-defence. (I disagree with Ori that the statement can be read as an indictment of Israel solely for using disproportionate force in self-defence.) And if we cannot determine the precise reason why LAS rejected Israel’s self-defence claim, that rejection obviously cannot provide opinio juris against the “unwilling or unable” test.

That said, loathe though I am to disagree with Tom, I don’t see the international response to Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon as supporting the “unwilling or unable” test. Most obviously, Israel claimed that Hezbollah’s actions were attributable to Lebanon — it did not invoke the test at all. Moreover, no state specifically invoked “unwilling or unable” during the Security Council debate over Israel’s actions — some expressed concern over Lebanon’s failure to exercise effective control over the entirety its territory, but a number of those states attributed that failure to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, not to Hezbollah’s actions. So I agree with Olivier Corten that “these standpoints are highly ambiguous and so it seems a very difficult business to deduce from them any opinio juris.”

My thanks to Ori and Tom for weighing in — and to Ori for providing links to the relevant documents. Apologies to readers for being so sloppy. I just hope my lack of care will not distract from my basic point, which is that scholars who claim that the “unwilling or unable” test represents customary international law have failed to identify (anywhere near) sufficient significant state practice or opinio juris in defense of their position.

The Seemingly Inexorable March of “Unwilling or Unable” Through the Academy

by Kevin Jon Heller

How does an international-law doctrine become conventional wisdom without actually having support in the practice of states? It starts with one article asserting the doctrine, but failing to defend it. Then another article makes the same claim, citing only the first article. And then another. And another. And so on — until no one remembers that the first article did not actually identify any state practice at all.

So it is with the “unwilling or unable” test, as indicated by an otherwise quite good new article in the Journal of Conflict & Security Law entitled “Jus ad Bellum and American Targeted Use of Force to Fight Terrorism Around the World.” Consider (p. 228):

With regard to the use of self-defence against private actors located in another state, two consequences flow from the requirement of necessity. First, state practice indicates that the exercise of self-defence against the private actor is conditioned on the inability or unwillingness of the authorities in the host state to stop the private actor’s activities.98 Obviously, if the host state both can and will stop the activities in question, it will not be necessary for the victim state to resort to the use of force.

I’ve left the footnote number in, because it refers to precisely one source: Ashley Deeks’ essay “Unwilling or Unable: Toward an Normative Framework for Extra-Territorial Self-Defense.” An essay in which, as I have pointed out, the author openly admits that she “found no cases in which states clearly assert that they follow the test out of a sense of legal obligation.” (The US and UK have formally endorsed the unwilling or unable test since Deeks’ article was published.)

To be sure, the new article elaborates a bit on the “support” for the unwilling or unable test. But none of that support involves the practice of states — nor does the article acknowledge the inconvenient fact that the Arab League (22 states) has formally rejected the test (post-9/11, even). Instead, it simply says this (p. 229):

The test is widely supported in the literature, and it is also mentioned in two 2013 UN reports by, respectively, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. It also features among a series of “Principles Relevant to the Scope of a State’s Right of Self-Defense Against an Imminent or Actual Armed Attack by Nonstate Actors” proposed by the former legal adviser of the United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Daniel Bethlehem.

“Instant custom”? How passé. Who needs state practice at all? And please don’t bore us by pointing out contrary practice by a bunch of benighted states in the Global South. All we really need are enough scholars, special rapporteurs, and former legal advisors in the Global North willing and able to endorse a particular doctrine and poof — customary international law.

The Absence of Practice Supporting the “Unwilling or Unable” Test

by Kevin Jon Heller

Regular readers of the blog know that one of my hobbyhorses is the “unwilling or unable” test for self-defense against non-state actors. As I have often pointed out, scholars seem much more enamored with the test than states. The newest (regrettable) case in point: my friend Claus Kress, who is one of the world’s best international-law scholars. Here is what he writes in an otherwise-excellent contribution to Just Security about the use of force against ISIL in Syria (emphasis mine):

It therefore follows not only from the right of self-defense’s general requirement of necessity, but primarily from the respect for the sovereignty of the territorial State that the right of self-defense in case of a non-State armed attack is of a subsidiary nature. It presupposes that the territorial State is either unwilling or unable to end the non-State armed attack – or, as it should be added for the sake of completeness, fails to exercise due diligence to that effect. State practice is remarkably consistent with these principles. As Professor Ashley Deeks has demonstrated in a formidable article, the legal claims to a right of collective self-defense in cases of non-State armed attacks have generally included the statement that the territorial State is unwilling or unable to deal with the non-State threat.

In terms of what the “unable or unwilling” test might look like if it represented customary international law, Deeks’s article is indeed excellent. But the article is anything but “formidable” in terms of state practice that supports the test. Indeed, the non-state actor section of the article spans all of two pages (pp. 501-03) — and cites precisely two states that officially endorse “unwilling or unable”: the United Kingdom and the United States. That’s it. And those are the same two states that Claus discusses in his post.

Simply put, there is simply no “consistent practice” that supports the “unwilling or unable” test, and scholars need to be careful not to put states in the “unwilling or unable” camp simply because they are willing to use armed force against a non-state actor. Deeks has been particularly prone to this kind of overinclusiveness, most recently arguing that Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Iraq support the “unwilling or unable” test because they have attacked ISIL in Syria — this despite the fact that all five states are members of the Arab League, which has specifically rejected the test in the context of Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon. (Actual opinio juris.)

I have the utmost respect for Claus, and I have no desire to pick on Deeks. But methodological rigor is particularly critical when it comes to doctrines like “unwilling or unable,” because its actual adoption by states would open the floodgates to the extraterritorial (ie, sovereignty-infringing) use of force against non-state actors. There may well come a time when the “unwilling or unable” test reflects customary international law, but that time is not now. Two states do not a customary rule make, however powerful those states may be. And we cannot simply ignore the states in the Global South, however inconvenient powerful states in the Global North may find their views.

China’s Overbroad (Draft) Definition of Terrorism

by Kevin Jon Heller

Today’s a travel day, so I don’t have time to write a full post. But I thought I’d flag a very interesting article in The Diplomat about China’s new draft anti-terrorism bill, which seems to have a strong chance of becoming law. Here’s a snippet:

Obviously owing to the worrisome escalation of terrorist acts since the Tiananmen Square attack in October 2013, Chinese authorities decided to enact a comprehensive anti-terrorism law to address the new situation. Such a law requires, first and foremost, a well-reasoned definition of terrorism. Surprisingly, the draft law did not take up the terrorism definition that had been offered by the anti-terrorism Decision in 2011. According to Article 104 of the draft law, “terrorism” means “any thought, speech, or activity that, by means of violence, sabotage, or threat, aims to generate social panic, influence national policy-making, create ethnic hatred, subvert state power, or split the state.”

Article 104 goes on to flesh out the keyword “terrorist activity” as referred to in the “terrorism” definition. Accordingly, “terrorist activities” include (a) propagating, inciting, or instigating terrorism; or (b) forming, leading or participating in an terrorist organization; or (c) organizing, plotting, or implementing a terrorist action; or (d) supporting, assisting, or facilitating a terrorist organization or individual through the provision of information, funds, material, equipment, technologies or venues; or (e) other terrorist activities.


Absent a comprehensive and universal definition of terrorism, individual countries, including China, are left with the authority to interpret the term for themselves. Compared with Western liberal countries, China has greater discretion to combat terrorism in an effective – albeit repressive – manner. However, whenever China resolves to address the scourge of terrorism, it must also face the challenge of how to strike a proper balance between security and liberty.

Before passing the anti-terrorism law, Chinese law-makers need to overhaul the definition of terrorism to guarantee that terrorism is described as a serious crime with an additional quality that calls both for international concern and harsh treatment. In addition, proper procedural safeguards regarding terror lists should be introduced to ensure that the definition of terrorism does not capture an unreasonably wide range of persons, or, if this happens, that the affected persons will not be subject to unreasonable consequences.

The article contains a nice comparison of the draft Chinese law with the elements of most international conventions on terrorism. It’s well worth a read.