[Dr Myriam Feinberg is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Minerva Center for the Rule of Law under Extreme Conditions, University of Haifa. The topic addressed in this blog post is based on her monograph Sovereignty in the Age of Global Terrorism – The Role of International Organisations published by Brill/Martinus Nijhoff in May 2016.]
The attacks of 9/11 brought terrorism to the international stage. They raised many legal questions, both on the nature of terrorism itself and on the responses to the phenomenon. One of these questions is the role of international organisations in addressing the terrorist threat, and the ensuing question of the place of States in the international community. More generally, I contend that this can be examined in the wider context of state sovereignty, even though a number of international law analyses consider the concept of State sovereignty obsolete or in need of reform.
It is clear that the concept of sovereignty has evolved and that its validity can be challenged. Its definition was never completely clear but it definitely does not equate absolutism anymore. In fact, sovereignty is today considered to include a number of responsibilities for States. The Global Trust Project for instance, looks at sovereigns as ‘trustees of humanity’ and aims to examine the obligations that States and international organisations have towards various stakeholders, including foreign stakeholders.
However, the notion of sovereignty is also still frequently used as a narrative by States in order to impose certain domestic measures or to question territorial challenges. This is exactly why, to my mind, sovereignty is a useful frame of reference for counterterrorism, an area where issues of legitimacy and power are crucial: not as an ideal concept, not as a strict and defined notion, but rather, as the thermometer of how States consider their status, obligations and capacities in international law and their willingness to work alongside international organisations, especially in order to address security issues.
This post examines State sovereignty in the context of post-9/11 counterterrorism and focuses both on the ability of international organisations to adopt and enforce counterterrorism measures and on the practical example of terrorist asset freezing sanctions.
Terrorism challenges the sovereignty of a State because it questions the State’s ability to protect its citizens against violence and therefore, the States needs to be perceived as acting against it. After the events of 9/11, it also constitutes a challenge to the nature of the State in international law and to the international community as a whole.
In parallel, the attacks of 9/11 questioned the existing counterterrorism regimes of States because they showed that national legislation and jurisdiction were not sufficient to deal with this major issue. In other words, traditional responses appear to have failed and terrorist threats seem to have superseded territorial and nationality concepts. Yet, if terrorism constitutes a challenge to the concept of State sovereignty, any international response will also inherently challenge State sovereignty: since security is a core component of State sovereignty, the actions of international organisations in counterterrorism mean that the State is not the only actor to deal with security threats in its own territory. Instead, international and regional organisations have become fundamental actors in counterterrorism.
This tension between the two challenges to sovereignty is particularly interesting and it shows the trade-offs that States will face and the compromises they will need to adopt in order to balance the protection of their citizens and territory with their desire to retain the primary responsible actor in national security.
In practice, I argue that in the case of counterterrorism, sovereignty remains relevant for the following two reasons.
Firstly, terrorism concerns national security and States consider that they have the primary duty in this regard, with a view to protecting their citizens. This involves sensitive information, as well as political decision-making. In practice, this is a considerable obstacle to true global counterterrorism and it questions whether international organisations can truly make an impact on domestic counterterrorism legislation.
Secondly, the absence of an international definition of terrorism but more significantly, the lack of an international court with specific jurisdiction on terrorism and enforcement power further question the possibility of an international counterterrorism regime. In fact, while there is now an extensive international framework to deal with terrorism, the need for domestic implementation keeps the primary responsibility with individual States.
To further make this argument, we can look at the case of terrorist sanctions: the 2008 Kadi case of the European Court of Justice was a ground breaking decision that re-defined conflict of norms, although more recent case law, such as the 2016 Al-Dulimi case continue to develop the theme of relationships between international organisations and States, as well as between various international organisations.
These cases first show the focus of counterterrorism regimes on executive measures. The nature of terrorist threats has led to a number of emergency measures that took place without the balance of a judicial review or parliamentary oversight. In addition, the sanction regimes of the UN and the EU, as well as their domestic implementation, show the increasing cooperation, in a circular way, between the executive bodies of States and international organisations. Executive measures are the preferred way for counterterrorism for reasons of speed, secrecy and separation of powers. Moreover, the concerted way in which States and international organisations adopt these measures enables a consistency against the evolving threat of international terrorism. In this respect, the sovereignty of States is maintained in that the policy and legislation decided by domestic governments will be replicated at the international level, which is based on an intergovernmental model.
Yet, cases on terrorist sanctions, and in particular cases since Kadi, are also a testimony to the judiciary’s more recent attempt to protect human rights in the context of counterterrorism. In this respect, the main difference between regional organisations and the UN is that most of the former include a judicial enforcement mechanism within their mandate. This has been crucial in the context of counterterrorism, in particular, in order to balance human rights concerns with security needs. The various organisations have set some human rights standards for addressing terrorism within their counterterrorism regimes, but have also made a significant impact through their courts’ case law regarding human rights protection, in particular the EU and the Council of Europe. This role is fundamental given the targeting of individuals, rather than States, by the sanctions regimes.
On the other hand, the case law has created legal uncertainty with regards to the hierarchy between norms and conflicts between legal orders that would traditionally give precedence to the Security Council and its binding resolutions. States condemned by the European courts will want to ensure that their UN obligations do not clash with European human rights. In that respect, this might be the biggest impact on State sovereignty.
The framework of State sovereignty allows all these considerations to be brought to light. It shows that most of the measures adopted by international organisations will tend to contribute to States’ security agenda by remaining intergovernmental. Yet, it also evidences that the
concept of sovereignty as a responsibility to fulfil human rights obligations is continuing to develop, through regional courts. This is all the more significant because of the risk of sovereign abuse that often characterises counterterrorism in relation to to security measures and the focus on executive measures.