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An Important Absence in the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017

by Kevin Jon Heller

On Monday, my friend Beth van Schaack posted an excellent analysis at Just Security of the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017, a bipartisan Senate bill “[t]o require a report on, and to authorize technical assistance for, accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Syria.” Beth summarises the most important aspects of the bill; in this post I want to focus on Section 7, which authorises US technical assistance to certain non-US accountability mechanisms. The most important paragraph in Section 7 is this one (emphasis mine):

(a) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary of State (acting through appropriate officials and offices, which may include the Office of Global Criminal Justice), after consultation with the Department of Justice and other appropriate Federal agencies, is authorized to provide appropriate assistance to support entities that, with respect to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, all forces fighting on its behalf, and violent extremist groups in Syria beginning in March 2011—

(1) identify suspected perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; (2) collect, document, and protect evidence of crimes and preserve the chain of custody for such evidence; (3) conduct criminal investigations; (4) build Syria’s investigative and judicial capacities and support prosecutions in the domestic courts of Syria, provided that President Bashar al Assad is no longer in power; (5) support investigations by third-party states, as appropriate; or (6) protect witnesses that may be helpful to prosecutions or other transitional justice mechanisms.

There a very interesting — and potentially very important — absence in Section 7(a). As the bolded text indicates, the paragraph only authorises the US to provide technical assistance to entities that are investigating international crimes committed by pro-Assad forces and “violent extremist groups.” Note what is missing from that construction: Syrian rebel groups. The bill does not permit the US to support any entity investigating war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide committed by rebels.

Lest anyone think I am reading Section 7(a) too narrowly, consider the wording of Section 3(1), which summarises acts that the US “strongly condemns” (emphasis mine):

(A) the ongoing violence, use of chemical weapons, targeting of civilian populations with barrel, incendiary, and cluster bombs and SCUD missiles, and systematic gross human rights violations carried out by the Government of Syria and pro-government forces under the direction of President Bashar al-Assad; and (B) all abuses committed by violent extremist groups and other combatants involved in the civil war in Syria.

It is difficult to see who “other combatants involved in the civil war in Syria” might be if they are not rebels. Indeed, Section 5(a), which requires the Secretary of State to submit a report on international crimes to Congress, explicitly distinguishes between “violent extremist groups” and rebel groups (emphasis mine):

(b) ELEMENTS.—The reports required under subsection (a) shall include— (1) a description of alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated during the civil war in Syria, including— (A) incidents that may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide committed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and all forces fighting on its behalf; (B) incidents that may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide committed by violent extremist groups, anti-government forces, and any other combatants in the conflict.

In light of Section 5(a), it is clear that Section 7(a) does not authorise the US to support an entity that is investigating international crimes committed by rebels.

That said, the bill is unclear in one important respect: whether the US can support an entity that investigates international crimes committed by both pro-Assad forces and rebel groups. On a literal reading of Section 7(a), the answer would seem to be no. But the sponsors of the bill might disagree. Journalists?

I agree with Beth that the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017 is an important step forward for accountability in Syria. Unfortunately, it also reflects the US’s tendency to take international crimes committed by rebel groups much less seriously than those committed by Assad’s forces and by ISIS.

GOP Wants the US to Leave the United Nations

by Kevin Jon Heller

Finally, a Republican bill we can all get behind! The American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017:

A bill was introduced to the House of Representatives in early January that, among other things, calls for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations. Sponsored by Senator Mike Rogers, the American Sovereignty Restoration Act (aka H.R. 193) had been previously introduced by the Alabama senator to no avail back in 2015 (then H.R. 1205), when he cited reasons ranging from spending waste to enabling an intercontinental “dictators’ club,” which sounds like a manuscript Ann M. Martin decided to leave in her desk drawer.

I believe in sovereignty — and in restoring it when it is lost. So I support the bill. And no more UN membership, of course, means no more permanent veto for the US. So no more holding peacekeeping missions hostage whenever the international community doesn’t let the US play by its own rules. No more US propping up its own preferred dictators while criticising the preferred dictators of others. No more US protecting Israel from the consequences of its actions. Sounds pretty good!

Does anyone know how to introduce similar bills in the Duma and the NPC? I hear Russia and China are suffering a sovereignty deficit, as well.

Addendum to Goodman: Saudis Haven’t Promised to Stop Using Cluster Munitions

by Kevin Jon Heller

The inestimable Ryan Goodman has a new post at Just Security listing all the times the Saudis denied using cluster munitions in Yemen. As Ryan points out, we now know that those denials were what I like to call “shameless lies” (emphasis in original):

On Monday, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told the House of Commons that following the UK’s own analysis, the Saudi-led coalition has now admitted to using UK manufactured cluster munitions in Yemen. Mr. Fallon heralded the “transparent admission” by the coalition, and added, “we therefore welcome their announcement today that they will no longer use cluster munitions.” Many news outlets ran a headline focused on the Saudi-led coalition’s statement that it would stop using cluster munitions in Yemen (including Al Jazeera, Fox, ReutersUPI).

Lost in the news coverage is the Saudi-led coalition’s  consistent pattern of denial of using cluster munitions.

So, let’s take a walk down memory lane. At the end, I will discuss the significance of this pattern of denial for future policy options on the part of the United States and the United Kingdom.

At the heart of Monday’s revelations were allegations of the use of cluster munitions by Amnesty International, and here’s a key point: Riyadh previously assured the UK government that it had not used cluster munitions in response to Amnesty’s allegations.

Ryan’s post is very important, particularly its discussion of how Saudi Arabia’s admission could affect the US and UK. I simply want to point out something that also seems to have been lost in all the media coverage: Saudi Arabia did not promise to stop using cluster munitions in Yemen.

No, it promised to stop using British-made cluster munitions in Yemen. From Al Jazeera:

“The government of Saudi Arabia confirms that it has decided to stop the use of cluster munitions of the type BL-755 and informed the United Kingdom government of that,” said the Saudi statement, carried by state news agency SPA.

If Saudi Arabia only had BL-755 cluster munitions, its announcement today might be meaningful. But we know from investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch that Saudi Arabia has also used US-made cluster munitions in Yemen, particularly the CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon:

yemenclusters0516_map-01

Nothing in the Saudi statement rules out continuing to use American-made cluster munitions in Yemen. Only British ones are off the table. And if you believe that I am parsing the statement too carefully — well, I’d suggest reading Ryan’s post. Saudi Arabia cannot be trusted to tell the truth about the brutal UK- and US-backed counterinsurgency it is waging in Yemen. Full stop.

Homage to California? (More on What Calexit Teaches Us About Secessionist Movements)

by Chris Borgen

Law professors should not be political prognosticators.  That’s probably something on which we can all agree.  Nonetheless, here’s my prediction: despite the current buzz (see also, this), California will not secede from the United States. Sorry, Silicon Valley Hamiltons.  However, the “Yes California” movement, spurred on by a Trump presidential victory can be instructive on the law,  psychology, and incentives behind more robust secessionist movements around the world.

As Julian mentioned in a post earlier today, the “#Calexit”  movement is seeking a referendum on secession in 2019.  The  group’s website states:

“As the sixth largest economy in the world, California is more economically powerful than France and has a population larger than Poland. Point by point, California compares and competes with countries, not just the 49 other states.”

In our view, the United States of America represents so many things that conflict with Californian values, and our continued statehood means California will continue subsidizing the other states to our own detriment, and to the detriment of our children.

Although charity is part of our culture, when you consider that California’s infrastructure is falling apart, our public schools are ranked among the worst in the entire country, we have the highest number of homeless persons living without shelter and other basic necessities, poverty rates remain high, income inequality continues to expand, and we must often borrow money from the future to provide services for today, now is not the time for charity.

This statement, and much about the movement, is like a study in secessionist politics, albeit with a sun-kissed white wine and Jacuzzis twist.  OK, that Jacuzzi quip may be snarky, but I wanted to attach an image to this idea: the yearning for Calexit, such as it is, is an example of a wish for a “secession of the successful” (to use a term political geographers John O’Loughlin, Gerard Toal, and Rebecca Chamberlain-Creanga used to describe the attempted  Transnistrian secession from Moldova, actually). These types of separatist movements, in which the separating group wants to stop paying rents to the central government and/or keep resources within their own territory for themselves, are generally called “tax exits.”

The Transnistrian, Slovenian, and Croatian separations or or attempted secessions all had elements of tax exits. (See P. Collier & A. Hoeffler, ‘The Political Economy of Secession’, in H. Hannum & E. F. Babbitt (eds), Negotiating Self Determination (2006), 46 (concerning Slovenia and Croatia)). This is not even a solely a phenomenon of nation-building.  In the U.S., we have even had new towns made up of wealthy neighborhoods that separated themselves from existing municipalities over tax allocations.

Perhaps the best analogy, though, is Catalonia.  Relatively wealthy,  a large export economy, and the hub of creative industries in Spain, Catalonia even looks like parts of California (or vice versa). A common complaint is that wealth generated in Catalonia is redistributed by the national government to regions that are economically weak.

Now, here’s what the Calexiters argue:

Since 1987, California has been subsidizing the other states at a loss of tens and sometimes hundreds of billions of dollars in a single fiscal year. As a result, we are often forced to raise taxes and charge fees in California, and borrow money from the future to make up the difference. This is partly why California presently has some of the highest taxes in the country, and so much debt. Independence means that all of our taxes will be kept in California based on the priorities we set, and we will be able to do so while repaying our debts and phasing out the current state income tax.

You can’t state more clearly that a tax exit is a significant motivating factor for Calexit.

So, if a majority of Californians say “yes to California,” do they have a right to become their own country under domestic law or international law?

Julian answered the domestic law question in his post.

As for international law, the right to self-determination is described in Article 1 of both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights Covenant and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:

All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

However, while Catalans, for example, can make a credible argument that they are a distinct people with their own language and culture and a heritage as a significant nation in European history, Calexiters are mainly upset about the recent election and would like to hang on to more tax revenues.  Those are disputes over policy, but not claims of an independent national identity.

Regardless, since the birth of the United Nations, diplomats and jurists emphasized that a right of self-determination does not provide a remedy of secession outside of the context of decolonization. A broad right to secession would have clashed with a cornerstone of the UN, the territorial integrity of states. Outside of the context of decolonization, the right of self-determination for communities that are within already existing states is understood as a right to “internal” self-determination: the pursuit of political, cultural, linguistic, and other rights within the existing state (in this case, the U.S.).

However, secession is not in and of itself illegal under international law (although it may be linked to an act that is breach in international law, such as a military intervention by another state: think Russia invading Georgia to assist South Ossetia.)

While secession may be neither a right nor illegal under international law, secessionist acts are usually illegal under domestic laws.  Taken together, whether or not a secession is successful begins as a domestic political struggle, framed by the legal system of the pre-existing country and sometimes implicating international law due to intervention by other countries (or if the secession becomes a non-international armed conflict, but that’s another story).

All this sounds quite exotic in the context of some tech industry founders applying their credo of “disruption” to national politics. (I’m just waiting for the first Calexiter to say he or she aims to “break shit.”)  The short answer is that there is no right for California to secede under either domestic or international law.

However, the rhetoric of self-determination is enticing to would-be nation-builders and Calexiters make many of the same mistakes as other tax exit secessionists:

First, they assume there is a clear path to secession, when that is rarely the case.  Talk to the Catalans about this.  They have mustered hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in (more…)

Would Secession by California and Oregon Be Legal?

by Julian Ku

imgresFollowing Donald Trump’s stunning election victory, ballot measures are already being proposed in California and Oregon to secede from the United States.  Ordinarily, one can just chuckle at these measures as the actions of a radical fringe, but it would be hard to overestimate the depth of anger and opposition to a President Trump in states like California, where he lost by probably 20 percentage points.  If such a measure got on the ballot, we might see a serious campaign akin to Scotland’s 2014 referendum on staying in the United Kingdom.

But it seems settled under US constitutional law that unilateral secession from the United States is unconstitutional.  In the 1869 case Texas v. White, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled:

When Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation. The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration or revocation, except through revolution or through consent of the States.

Some might argue, however, that a unilateral secession by California is authorized by the international law right of self-determination.  This is a much more difficult point to analyze, but I think that neither California nor Oregon would qualify to exercise this murky international law right, at least with respect to seceding.  The Canada Supreme Court’s decision in the Quebec case is probably most on point here.

A state whose government represents the whole of the people or peoples resident within its territory, on a basis of equality and without discrimination, and respects the principles of self-determination in its own internal arrangements, is entitled to the protection under international law of its territorial integrity.

In other words, international law guarantees to every state its “territorial integrity” and it can’t be overridden by “self determination” unless serious freedoms or discrimination against residents in the seceding region are being infringed.  Moreover, this right has generally only been exercised by states under colonization or foreign occupation.  The right might also exist if the state is facing the threat of egregious human rights violations (e.g. Kosovo), but the right in even that circumstance is controversial globally.

But I will admit I am not an expert on the international law of self-determination. If anyone has a good argument for why California or Oregon qualifies to exercise this right under international law, please feel free to share in the comments.

So I am going to go out on a limb here to say that a referendum to secede California or Oregon from the United States is both unconstitutional and unauthorized by international law.  Still, just getting such a measure on the ballot would be significant because they would force the U.S. government to take a position on the legality of such measures. This could affect US government positions on foreign self-determination movements in places like Hong Kong, for instance.

We live in interesting (and dangerous) times.

Congratulations to Duncan Hollis on His Election to the Inter-American Juridical Committee

by Chris Borgen

We at Opinio Juris are very proud that our colleague Duncan Hollis of Temple University Law School was elected on June 15 by the General Assembly of the Organization of American States to the Inter-American Juridical Committee, which

…serves the Organization as an advisory body on juridical matters of an international nature and promotes the progressive development and the codification of international law.

It also studies juridical problems related to the integration of the developing countries of the Hemisphere and, insofar as may appear desirable, the possibility of attaining uniformity in their legislation.

No two members of the Committee may be from the same state and Duncan’s term will start in January 2017, at the end of David Stewart’s three years of service. Duncan is one of three new members of the Committee.

With his wide-ranging expertise on topics ranging from the law of treaties to the challenges that new technologies pose to International Humanitarian Law, Duncan will be a great addition to the Committee.  Congratulations!

AJIL Unbound Symposium on Third World Approaches to International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

AJIL Unbound has just published a fantastic symposium entitled “TWAIL Perspectives on ICL, IHL, and Intervention.” The symposium includes an introduction by James Gathii (Loyola-Chicago) and essays by Asad Kiyani (Western), Parvathi Menon (Max Planck), Ntina Tzouvala (Durham), and Corri Zoli (Syracuse). All of the essays are excellent and worth a read, but I want to call special attention to Ntina’s essay, which is entitled “TWAIL and the ‘Unwilling or Unable’ Doctrine: Continuities and Ruptures.” Here is a snippet that reflects her central thesis:

The similarities between this practice and the prominent role of nineteenth-century international legal scholars in the construction of the “civilizing” discourse of the time are striking, even if “[s]ubsequent generations of international lawyers have strenuously attempted to distance the discipline from that period.” Imperial aspirations tied to such arguments also form a “red thread” that connect “the standard of civilization” with the “unwilling or unable” doctrine. The unequal international legal structure promoted by these arguments is intimately linked to an unequal political structure, characterized by the dominance of the Global North over the Global South. More specifically, states of the Global North are enabled to use force against the sovereignty and—importantly—the life and security of the citizens of states of the Global South in pursuing the former’s “war on terror” and the political and economic agendas accompanying it. Moreover, pressure is exerted upon states of the Global South to transform themselves and adopt policies appealing to powerful states, if they want to avoid being branded “unwilling or unable.” A strong parallel can be detected between this transformative process and the pressure exerted upon peripheral states during the nineteenth century to introduce reforms that would render them “civilized” and, hence, equal to Western states.

Ntina makes a number of points in the essay that I’ve tried to make over the years — but she does so far better than I ever have or could. For anyone interested in the “unwilling or unable” doctrine, her essay is a must read.

Opinio Juris’ New Series on International Law and Presidential Politics

by Roger Alford

Presidential PoliticsWe are pleased to announce that Opinio Juris will begin an occasional series on international law and Presidential politics. Foreign policy and international law have been a central topic of discussion among the U.S. presidential candidates, and there is much fodder for discussion regarding the fidelity of their positions with the United States’ commitments under international law. The series will address the connection between the U.S. presidential election and international law. As long as it relates to international law, any comment, debate discussion, party platform, or candidate position presented by the Republican or Democratic presidential candidates is fair game for a post.

Rather than present these posts as a symposium subject to specific time constraints, we have decided to run it as an occasional series between now and the November 2016 election. As we have done in the past, we welcome academics to submit guest posts for possible publication. We will focus on the international legal aspects of the U.S. presidential election, not the broader political issues. So please keep your posts confined to international law and Presidential politics.

We can’t guarantee we will publish every post submitted, but we would love to broaden the discussion to include other voices. So if you want to write a 500- to 1500-word guest post for Opinio Juris about the U.S. presidential elections and international law, please do so beginning this week and continue to do so through the November election. You can send your post to Jessica Dorsey (her email is linked to the right). Our editorial team will review the posts and publish those selected.

U.S. Appeals Court Holds that “Domestic Takings” Can Violate International Law

by Julian Ku

As I continue to avoid grading my exams, I ran across this interesting recent case (Helmerich & Payne v. Venezuela) from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit which considered whether Venezuela’s expropriation of a Venezuelan subsidiary of a U.S. corporation is a “taking in violation of international law” under Section 1605(a)(3) of the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Helmerich & Payne, a U.S. based company, alleges that the government of Venezuela expropriated its Venezuelan subsidiary and sued Venezuela in U.S. court.  Ven

Helmerich & Payne, a U.S. based company, alleges that the government of Venezuela expropriated its Venezuelan subsidiary and sued Venezuela in U.S. court.  Venezuela argued that it is immune under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because, among other reasons, its expropriation fo the subsidiary is not a “taking in violation of international law” for the purposes of the FSIA.  The FSIA does contain an exception for such claims in the so-called “Hickenlooper Amendment” to the FSIA enacted in the wake of the well-known Sabbatino case from the early 1960s.

What I find fascinating is the Court’s rejection of Venezuela’s argument that as a “domestic takings”, its expropriation of a Venezuelan company cannot violate international law, even if (as in this case) the sole shareholder of that Venezuelan company was a U.S. national and that there is plenty of evidence of anti-U.S. animus motivating the expropriation.      This is indeed a difficult question, and I am struck that the D.C. Circuit held that such a taking “could” violate international law but it relied solely on other U.S. court precedents (the 1962 Second Circuit decision in Sabbatino) and Section 712 of the Restatement of U.S. Foreign Relations Law.  This is pretty thin precedent, as the dissenting judge in this case points out.  I am not ordinarily one to yell for citation of international and foreign sources, but given the clear language of the FSIA (a “taking in violation of international law”), it is odd that no international or foreign sources were consulted.

In any event, I am curious whether any of our readers could help out by pointing to other precedents on the question of “domestic takings” under international law.  I have a feeling the DC Circuit reached the right conclusion here, but I am troubled by the lack of authority for its holding.

 

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.

[snip]

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?

The CIA Violated the Terrorist Bombing Convention

by Kevin Jon Heller

The Washington Post has a long article today about how Mossad and the CIA collaborated to blow up Hezbollah’s chief of international operations in 2008. Here are the key paragraphs:

On Feb. 12, 2008, Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s international operations chief, walked on a quiet nighttime street in Damascus after dinner at a nearby restaurant. Not far away, a team of CIA spotters in the Syrian capital was tracking his movements.

As Mughniyah approached a parked SUV, a bomb planted in a spare tire on the back of the vehicle exploded, sending a burst of shrapnel across a tight radius. He was killed instantly.

The device was triggered remotely from Tel Aviv by agents with Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, who were in communication with the operatives on the ground in Damascus. “The way it was set up, the U.S. could object and call it off, but it could not execute,” said a former U.S. intelligence official.

The United States helped build the bomb, the former official said, and tested it repeatedly at a CIA facility in North Carolina to ensure the potential blast area was contained and would not result in collateral damage.

“We probably blew up 25 bombs to make sure we got it right,” the former official said.

The extraordinarily close cooperation between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence services suggested the importance of the target — a man who over the years had been implicated in some of Hezbollah’s most spectacular terrorist attacks, including those against the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.

The United States has never acknowledged participation in the killing of Mughniyah, which Hezbollah blamed on Israel. Until now, there has been little detail about the joint operation by the CIA and Mossad to kill him, how the car bombing was planned or the exact U.S. role. With the exception of the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the mission marked one of the most high-risk covert actions by the United States in recent years.

The article touches on the legality of Mughniyah’s killing, with the US arguing that it was a lawful act of self-defense under Art. 51 of the UN Charter and Mary Ellen O’Connell claiming that it was perfidy. Regular readers will anticipate my skepticism toward the former claim, and there is simply no support in IHL for the latter claim. Perfidy is an act “inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with intent to betray that confidence.” Mossad and the CIA did nothing of the kind.

Mossad and the CIA did, however, violate the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, which Israel ratified on 10 February 2003 and the US ratified on 26 June 2002. I don’t want to dwell on Mossad in this post; the analysis is the same as the one I provided here with regard to its assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Instead, I want to focus on the US’s complicity in Mughniyah’s death.

To begin with, there is no question that the bombing itself qualifies as a prohibited act of terrorism under the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Here is the relevant definition, Art. 2(1):

1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person unlawfully and intentionally delivers, places, discharges or detonates an explosive or other lethal device in, into or against a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system or an infrastructure facility:

(a) With the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or

(b) With the intent to cause extensive destruction of such a place, facility or system, where such destruction results in or is likely to result in major economic loss.

Mughniyah’s killing satisfies this definition. The attack involved an “explosive device” and it was clearly intended to “cause death.” It also took place on a public street, which qualifies as a “place of public use” under Article 1(5) of the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Article 1(5) defines a place of public use as “those parts of any building, land, street, waterway or other location that are accessible or open to members of the public, whether continuously, periodically or occasionally.”

The CIA was also complicit in that prohibited act of terrorism, pursuant to Art. 2(3):

3. Any person also commits an offence if that person:

(a) Participates as an accomplice in an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2; or

(b) Organizes or directs others to commit an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2; or

(c) In any other way contributes to the commission of one or more offences as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2 by a group of persons acting with a common purpose; such contribution shall be intentional and either be made with the aim of furthering the general criminal activity or purpose of the group or be made in the knowledge of the intention of the group to commit the offence or offences concerned.

The language of Art. 2(3) easily encompasses the CIA’s involvement in Mughniyah’s death, given that the US admits the CIA built the bomb, helped track Mughniyah’s movements, and had the power to call off the attack.

The US will no doubt object to this analysis by arguing that the Terrorist Bombing Convention is intended to apply to bombings by terrorists, not bombings of terrorists. That objection would be valid had the US military been involved in the operation instead of the CIA. Justifiably or not, Article 19(2) of the Convention specifically permits acts that would otherwise qualify as terrorist bombing when they are committed by the military forces of a state:

2. The activities of armed forces during an armed conflict, as those terms are understood under international humanitarian law, which are governed by that law, are not governed by this Convention, and the activities undertaken by military forces of a State in the exercise of their official duties, inasmuch as they are governed by other rules of international law, are not governed by this Convention.

The CIA, however, does not qualify as the US’s “military forces” under the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Art. 1(4) specifically defines “military forces of a State” as “the armed forces of a State which are organized, trained and equipped under its internal law for the primary purpose of national defence or security, and persons acting in support of those armed forces who are under their formal command, control and responsibility.” The second provision does not apply, because there is no evidence the CIA was acting under the “formal command, control and responsibility” of the military when it participated in Mughniyah’s killing. And neither does the first provision: although there is no question that the CIA contributes to the US’s “national defence or security,” it is not an “armed force” under US “internal law.” According to 10 USC § 101, “[t]he term ‘armed forces’ means the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.”

The bottom line: the CIA committed an act of terrorism — actual terrorism, not figurative terrorism — when it participated in blowing up Mughniyah. The US military has the right to kill terrorists with bombs; the CIA does not. There is no doctrine of “close enough” in the Terrorist Bombing Convention.