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The Strike in Syria – Is the International Law Calculation Different Now Than in 2013?

by Deborah Pearlstein

In 2013, there was I think broad agreement that the United States lacked any international law justification for the use of force against Syria following its initial use of chemical weapons: there was no UN Security Council resolution authorizing such force, and no assertion by the United States (or anyone else) that this was an action taken in national self-defense. The closest anyone came to a theory of international law legitimacy then was the UK’s suggestion that a post-chemical weapons attack was ‘illegal but legitimate’ for humanitarian reasons in the same way NATO’s un-authorized use of force had been in Kosovo in the 1990s. I detailed my reasons for concluding that illegal but legitimate argument seemed inapplicable to the proposed U.S. intervention following Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 here.

There are two significant differences I can perceive between the state of affairs on the ground in Syria today and the state of affairs in 2013 that have some bearing on the success of any international law defense in support of the latest attack. The first is worth noting, but I think unpersuasive. The United States today has its own troops on the ground in Syria – troops that were not present in 2013, troops stationed (at least some of them) as close as 50 miles away from the site of the chemical weapons attack. In the abstract, one might imagine this could lead the United States to offer some sort of self-defense justification (in defense of our own nationals). But given our troops are in Syria (to fight ISIS) without Syrian consent, and given Syria’s apparent determination since 2014 to avoid engaging U.S. troops directly despite this state of affairs, there seems little objective grounds for concern that Assad would soon train his chemical weapons on U.S. forces.

The second difference goes to the relative strength of the illegal-but-legitimate theory – the view that the use of force against the territorial integrity of another country is technically illegal, but should be viewed as ‘legitimate’ under certain limited circumstances (a view I could describe at best as a still nascent norm of international law). In 2013, the UK Prime Minister’s Office put it in the following terms. A state could take “exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, provided” a set of conditions hold. Those conditions: (1) “convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;” (2) it is “objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;” (3) the force used is “necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need…”

There can be little doubt of the horror of the recent chemical attack, albeit on a smaller scale than the attack of 2013. I can imagine few international complaints about the proportionality of a strike targeting only the airfield from which the chemical attack occurred. Where the current administration is in a stronger position than the last is on the question of the objective availability of a practicable alternative to the use of force – thanks to the diplomatic efforts of the past administration, it is far more persuasive now than it was then to argue that the international community has tried through peaceful means and failed to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

That said, there are at least three factors that persuade me against embracing the proposition that this exercise should be seen as akin to the Kosovo intervention in its relative international law ‘legitimacy.’ First, it was done with no apparent international support – neither from our allies, nor from other countries in the region. The response of foreign nations over the next few days will be significant and could change this calculus but for now, it is a glaring distinction from Kosovo. Second, precisely for the reason President Obama regularly cited against more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria repeatedly during his administration, it is deeply unclear whether this highly limited attack will have any impact on the humanitarian situation on the ground. Finally, there is the explanation the President himself offered for why the United States undertook the action it did tonight. His reasons were threefold: (1) “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” (2) “Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council.” (3) “The refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.” I expect we will talk at length in the days ahead about each of these justifications. But while the speech was framed by the President’s own horror at the nature of the attack, none of the reasons given for the action bore any relation to speeding humanitarian relief to the people of Syria themselves.

The Syria Attacks: Haven’t We Had These Debates Already?

by Julian Ku

Reports of another horrific use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria seems to have affected President Trump. In comments today, President Trump said the chemical attacks against civilians “crossed a lot of lines for me” and changed the way he views Syria and leader Bashar al-Assad. Although it is always hard to interpret the President’s comments, he did cite his “flexibility” to change his policies. One might interpret this to mean that the U.S. my change course and directly use military force against the Assad government in Syria.

As tragic as this latest attack is, I also feel like I am in a time-warp that has sent me back to 2012-13 when similar chemical weapons attacks led to similar global outrage which led to an American debate about whether to launch military attacks on Syria.  President Obama famously decided to launch such strikes (without Congress or the UN) and then changed his mind and sought congressional consent.  He never got that, but he did work out an agreement with Russia and the Assad government to remove Syria’s chemical weapons capability.  That didn’t work out as well as he hoped (to use a tragic understatement).  But the factual and legal issues are almost identical today.

So as a service to readers, let me just link to some of the legal analysis we posted back then, much of which still applies today. Updates of course will be necessary, but this is the right place to start.

I argued in 2012 that a strict reading of the U.N. Charter prohibited any U.S. strike on the Syrian government without consent from the U.N. Security Council.  This would be the case even if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians during its civil war.  Former top UK legal adviser Daniel Bethlehem took issue with my formalist reading of the U.N. Charter.

Kevin wondered why the use of chemical weapons itself was so significant as opposed to the civilian deaths it caused.  Put another way, he pointed out that the use of chemical weapons, however horrible, was not necessarily any more of a war crime for legal purposes that the use of non-chemical weapons against civilians and non-combatants.  He also points out in a later post that the Rome Statute does not single out chemical weapons use alone as a crime, despite an initial proposal by drafters to do so.

Finally, we held an “insta-symposium” on Syria with many great contributions from scholars, legal and non-legal, on the difficult questions raised by the Syria conflict.  A list of those posts can be found here at the bottom of the first post in that symposium, from Stephanie Carvin.

Hopefully, this will help all of us refresh ourselves for the great Syria intervention debate, Round II (Donald J. Trump edition).

Can’t Britain Exit Brexit (Redux)?

by Edward Swaine

My earlier Brexit post noted the emerging rigidity of the United Kingdom’s position that its Article 50 notice was irrevocable – not just politically, but to all appearances, also legally.  As the post noted, that evolution has taken place notwithstanding indications that the UK once perceived itself to have the liberty to withdraw that notice.  There are downsides to this new position, particularly if one thinks that Brexit is a bad idea and that history (and the British public) will come to judge it a mistake.  It has also not been well explained, and coverage of the decision has obscured whether the UK is politically or legally committed to this course. Still, the psychology is one familiar to international lawyers, in that the UK is asserting its sovereign authority to bind itself to the mast . . . just in this case, the mast may not be one sailing past a dangerous island and into oceans of multilateral commitment, but rather one that the UK is busy scuttling and directing toward Davy Jones’ locker.

The EU, however, is joining the UK in obscurity.  In a recent press release, the Commission asked and answered the question:

Once triggered, can Article 50 be revoked?

It is up to the United Kingdom to trigger Article 50. But once triggered, it cannot be unilaterally reversed. Notification is a point of no return. Article 50 does not provide for the unilateral withdrawal of notification.

I do not think the irrevocability position is right, for reasons alluded to very briefly in the prior post, and persuasively elaborated in a timely paper by Aurel Sari that has since been brought to my attention. I want here to discuss narrower questions.  First, as with the UK, the EU’s present view is not necessarily the one it has previously had; second, however restrictive both their understandings, there is a potential, meaningful difference, since the EU view is not exactly one of irrevocability. (more…)

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Age of “America First”

by Chris Borgen

Today, April 4, is the anniversary of the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is also the 50th anniversary of his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967.

I wrote a piece about Dr. King and international law over a decade ago on Opinio Juris.  I thought it would be interesting to revise and expand that earlier post and consider MLK’s views about world order once again, but now in the era of the Trump Administration (as well as the rise of nationalistic popular movements in many countries). What to make of “Beyond Vietnam” in the age of “America First?”

King’s voice was not the voice of an international lawyer, but of a pastor. He didn’t parse treaties; he invoked morality. Nonetheless, there is something in Dr. King’s rhetoric and in his argument that can inform and engage the work of international lawyers. This is not to fall into Utopianism but to see how moral and political rhetoric interacts with our practice.

Of course, part of the contrast is that President Trump tries to make everything sound like a real estate deal while Dr. King spoke with the voice of a pastor, which some would dismiss as prophetic rather than pragmatic. But this would miss, I think, how MLK’s words from fifty years ago apply to the challenges we have before us today.

Martin Luther King put himself in the shoes of others and spoke eloquently about their claims for justice.  This technique of looking at the world from the standpoint of others is all the more vital when we are discussing laws or norms that we claim should be applied across national and cultural borders. It is absolutely fundamental in any attempt to resolve a sectarian conflicts in the struggle to support human rights of under-represented communities around the world. Consider, for example, how Dr. King referred to the people of Vietnam in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered on April 4th, 1967:

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologoies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

Not so much a battle for the hearts and minds, but an attempt to understand hearts and minds. He asks us to “appreciate the reciprocal”: think of how the world would look from the standpoint of the average man or woman living in Vietnam. Rather than demonizing the other, take time to understand why they do what they do. And that “why” is not answered by a  simple “they hate us,” but digging deeper, understanding motivations, and responding effectively. That is the real art of the deal.

Towards the end of his speech, Dr. King expands from the concerns of U.S. policy in Vietnam to the challenge of building not so much a “New World Order,” but a “Just World Order.” He argues that truly appreciating the reciprocal, this radical compassion on the individual level, leads to institutional transformation:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values…

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.

While full of references to the problems of the day (the Communist threat; whether to seat “Red China” in the U.N.), Dr. King still gives us a lesson for our day. Keep in mind that he had spoken these words after the demise the previous “America First” movement. He argued that we should see ourselves in the other and that many rights are universal and not the preserve of Western societies. But, at the same time, he counseled humility in international discourse and an openness to learning from others, rather than on insisting that we in “the West” can only be teachers. He emphasized showing what a rights-based view of humanity had to offer, rather than simply criticizing the world-view of others.  While Trump’s rhetoric is that the world is a zero-sum game and we are losing, King framed interactions  across cultures as the possibility of using discussion as a way to enhance mutual understanding, transform relationships, and build norms.

Dr. King spoke in the voice of a preacher. There’s much good in what he said and some that may not seem practical to us today. But, at the very least, he provided a coherent world view that wasn’t so much within international law as encompassing it. And, ahem, MLK had the best words.

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.

As an international lawyer, I read the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Beyond Vietnam” and think not only about how far we’ve come, but about how far we have to go.

Can’t Britain Exit Brexit?

by Edward Swaine

Yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May had hand-delivered to Brussels—via a black Jaguar, taking a secret route!—a notice “in accordance with Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union.”  Brexit is happening, even if, pending negotiations, it has not yet happened. Must it?  Most Brexit questions are political, or raise questions of UK or EU law, but one interesting international law issue is the stickiness of notice under Article 50—whether (legally speaking) the UK’s notice of withdrawal is irrevocable. This issue has grown steadily murkier, but now it’s more relevant than ever, and the UK should make its views clearer. (more…)

International Organizations Event Upcoming in NYC

by Kristen Boon

A terrific event is coming up in NYC Friday,  March 10, 2017, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. at the New York City Bar.   Ian Johnstone, Jacob Katz Cogan, Thomas G. Weiss,  and Anjali Dayal will discuss the Future of International Organizations.  The Moderator will be Mona Khalil of Independent Diplomat.
The speakers are editors and contributors to the Oxford Handbook of International Organizations.
This is the topic of the evening: “Virtually every important question of public policy today involves an international organization. From security to trade to intellectual property to health policy and beyond, governments interact with international organizations in almost everything they do. Yet after decades of progressive institutionalization, the tide seems to be turning. In Africa, states are withdrawing from the International Criminal Court.  In Europe, an “ever closer Union” seems a distant ideal. And the new leadership in the United States has signaled deep scepticism about the value of all international
organizations. Is this the beginning of the end of international organization? What role will international institutions play in the changing geopolitical landscape of the 21st century?”
You can register here if you are interested in attending.

Welcome to the Blogosphere, Lawfire!

by Kevin Jon Heller

Apparently, being named Charles and having vast military experience is all the rage in the blogosphere these days. Last week I mentioned Charles Blanchard’s new blog. And this week I want to spruik Charles Dunlop’s new(ish) blog, Lawfire. Charlie is a retired Major General in the US Air Force (where he served, inter alia, as Deputy Judge Advocate General) and currently serves as Executive Director of Duke Law School’s excellent Center on Law, Ethics and National Security. He is also Professor of Practice at Duke. His bio is here.

Charlie’s blog has been around for about two years. Recent posts discuss the relevance of social justice to the encryption debate, defend prioritizing victims of genocide in US immigration policy, and claim that Chelsea Manning’s commutation is actually likely to harm transgender soldiers.

I often disagree with Charlie about national-security and IHL issues. (I’m on Adil Haque’s side, for example, in the fantastic Just Security debate he and Charlie had last year concerning the new Law of War Manual’s treatment of human shields.) But Charlie’s blogging is unfailingly serious, thoughtful, and informative. If you haven’t already, you should add Lawfire to your newsreader.

You can find Lawfire here.

Welcome to the Blogosphere, A Guy in the World!

by Kevin Jon Heller

The blog is a one-man show, and that man is Charles Blanchard — former General Counsel of both the Air Force and the United States Army, current partner at Arnold & Porter in DC. The blog will focus on national-security law, which Chuck “define[s] pretty broadly — to include topics such as climate change and immigration as well as defense policy.” Recent posts include an excellent primer on emoluments, a discussion of the practical difficulties of stopping North Korean aggression, and a debunking of the right-wing meme that the Ninth Circuit is reversed 80% of the time.

I don’t always agree with Chuck — which is not terribly surprising — but I always find his writing intelligent and insightful. I hope his blog has a long, happy life.

You can find A Guy in the World here.

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

by Kevin Jon Heller

Oh, Fox News, how I love thee:

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PS: In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s real.

Will International Law Matter to the Trump Administration?

by Julian Ku

There are lots of panels and conferences being held around the U.S. (and maybe outside the U.S.) on the new Trump Administration’s policies and their impact on international law. I would like to recommend our readers view some or all of the video from this half-day conference recently hosted in Washington D.C. by the Federalist Society and the American Branch of the International Law Association.  Entitled “International Law in the Trump Era: Expectations, Hopes, and Fears,” the conference has lots of interesting scholars and former U.S. government officials participating.  All of the panels look great, but it is hard to avoid highlighting the panel discussion below with friend of blog John Bellinger and Georgetown lawprof Rosa Brooks tackling the question everyone is asking:

Panel on Travel Ban & Immigration Orders

by Kristen Boon

Seton Hall Law School (where I am a professor) organized an excellent panel on the travel ban and immigration restrictions last Thursday, Feb 2.    For those who wish to learn more about the legal effects of the executive order, I encourage you to watch it here.

You will see presentations by Professors Lori Nessel, Ed Hartnett and Jonathan Hafetz discussing the immigration orders, their constitutionality, and possible challenges to those orders.  The panel was moderated by Professor Jenny-Brooke Condon.

This is a fast moving issue – please note this panel predated multiple developments and decisions by judges in several jurisdictions over the weekend, which considered the constitutionality of the travel ban.

To stay current, you can access all briefs and decisions at this link, which has been setup by the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse at the University of Michigan Law School.

The Draft Executive Order on Detention and Interrogation

by Deborah Pearlstein

It is early days, and much we don’t know – including, indeed, whether the draft Executive Order the new Administration is contemplating (as reported by the New York Times and Washington Post) is indeed an official document of the new Administration. For the time being, let me offer a few reasons why I’m worried, and reasons why I’m not (completely) (yet).

Why Worry

As reported, the draft order calls not only for considering the resumption of a CIA detention and interrogation program (discontinued under the Obama Administration), but also for reassessing existing directives for how law enforcement agencies should proceed following the arrest of a member of Al Qaeda (or associated forces) in determining the propriety of potential military custody (here’s current guidance); and for considering whether to reanimate detention operations at Guantanamo Bay, which has not received a new detainee since 2009. The draft order would revoke Executive Orders on these topics issued by the Obama Administration when it first took office and replace them with guidance that, among other things, pointedly does not make express the requirement that anyone in U.S. custody be treated consistent with the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, or any other relevant treaty obligation the United States has undertaken; the draft order mandates only compliance with the domestic “laws of the United States.”

These are bad – disastrously bad – ideas, for reasons I and more importantly others (including a vast and bipartisan swath of our military and intelligence communities) spent much of the past 15 years establishing in detail. (Perhaps I’ll save a reiteration of the catalog of those reasons for another post.) Of particular concern at this stage, it did not take direct orders to troops to engage in torture across U.S. detention operations. Most of the detainee torture and abuse that happened in the years after 9/11 did not involve the waterboarding of “high value” terrorists. Most of the torture and abuse involved low-level troops and U.S. agents, holding low-level (or wholly innocent) detainees. The reasons for this were several – each important – but one of them was the administration’s equivocal relationship with the international legal regime on which training had long been based. (For a summary description recalling what happened and why at the wholesale level, see, e.g., this old piece of mind that seems unfortunately relevant again.) The Bush Administration’s public and private equivocation on its attention to these rules left, at the very least, a vacuum in guidance, into which vacuum rushed a series of directives that left little doubt that interrogators’ gloves, in any theater of operations, were meant to come off. Even if this administration does nothing else at all from this day forward on detention and interrogation issues, the draft order has already done some damage. Again.

Why Not Worry (Too Much) (Yet)

On the concerning topic of CIA detention, interrogation operations more broadly, and the future of Guantanamo Bay – mostly what the order does is require reconsideration of policies in place. It does not order the re-establishment of a global detention apparatus. Yet. In a functional administration, what would follow from this order is an interagency assessment of the value, including, among others, the Department of Defense and the CIA. Here’s when we get to test whether those internal executive branch checks so many of us have written about in recent years are really capable of slowing the train. There is some reason for optimism. Among others, Secretary of Defense Mattis is on record as an opponent of torture, a view he has (reports indicate) not hesitated to express to his new boss. And while incoming CIA Director Pompeo has expressed differing views in different contexts, there is little doubt members of the intelligence community below the director level retain an acute institutional memory of the personal and professional jeopardy they endured the last time a CIA Director asked them to “get chalk on their cleats” in pushing the line between lawful interrogation and abuse. It seems hard to imagine what more the new president could do to alienate those intelligence community professionals than he has done in the months since his election. Actually re-establishing the system of CIA detention and interrogation would require not only willing cooperation but personal courage of the people the President has compared to the Nazis. Even had that “chalk on their cleats” CIA Director not changed his mind (now agreeing, along with Obama’s former CIA Director, that CIA should never undertake waterboarding again), that is asking, as it were, a lot.

All outside the executive branch, there are checks against detainee torture and abuse now that did not exist in 2001. Some of them are critically important changes in U.S. domestic law since 2001 (Steve Vladeck notes some here), including limits on the kind of interrogation techniques that can be used by any U.S. agency against any detainee in U.S. custody. It would take an act of Congress to undo these laws, and it is not at all clear (I’d say unlikely) the administration could muster 50 votes to support the repeal in the Senate (where Republican Senator (and torture survivor) John McCain stands manifestly in opposition). It is especially less likely in light of the vastly more robust – and today, profoundly energized – domestic NGO community than existed in 2001. In 2001, a tiny handful of (underfunded) domestic NGOs had programs focused specifically on the human rights or civil liberties consequences of U.S. national security policy. Today, one can name a half-dozen such programs off the top of one’s head, all of which boast solid funding and a staff of deep knowledge and experience.

And then there are the allied nations that were essential to hosting the CIA’s secret global detention system the first time around, nations who unblinkingly rushed to our aid in both sympathy and self-interest after the 9/11 attacks. The new administration enjoys no such sympathy now. Indeed, several of the foreign states who aided the CIA in its efforts have faced their own domestic consequences for their role in facilitating U.S. efforts. (Here, for example, is the European Court of Human Rights decision concluding that Poland violated its human rights obligations for hosting a CIA black site in which two CIA prisoners who were waterboarded.) It is difficult to imagine they (or others having witnessed their experience) will be eager to volunteer their services again. Of course the new administration seems keen to make new and different friends.

A student asked me today where I was on a scale of concern to panic. The answer is much closer to the former at this stage than the latter. I’m counting on the constraints we’ve spent the past decade and a half reinforcing to get to work.