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US Diplomacy and National Security

Let Me Be Clear: Taiwan Should Be Defended, Even Though the Defense is Illegal

by Julian Ku

So I managed to anger lots of folks (mostly on twitter) with my post Friday (republished in the Diplomat and RealClearWorld yesterday) on the international legal problems created by any Japanese intervention to defend Taiwan from an attack by China.  I don’t mind angering people (especially on twitter), but I do want to make sure they are angry with me for the right reasons. Many readers seem to think I want China to invade Taiwan, which is in fact the complete opposite of my policy goal.   So let me offer some clarifications of my position on policy, and a few rebuttals of legal responses to my arguments.

1) Policy: I am squarely in favor of U.S. military intervention to defend Taiwan against any PRC military attack. I am even in favor of intervention in the case of a declaration of independence by Taiwan as long as Taiwan acts in a responsible way so as not to threaten China’s national security.(My only hesitation on this is the cost to the US, but not on the merits of Taiwan’s case). Given how strong China is these days, I am pretty sure Taiwan could not be a real military threat to China (nor would it want to be).  Whether the US would actually protect Taiwan is the zillion dollar policy question that I don’t have the answer to.  I hope it does, but I don’t know if it will.

2) Law: However, my favored US policy is in deep tension with, or even direct conflict with, traditional understandings of the international law governing the use of force.  For those of us who love and cherish Taiwan, it is no use pretending as if the law supports a US or Japanese military intervention to defend Taiwan. It doesn’t. It would be better for all concerned if we faced this legal problem head-on rather than try to come up with complicated not-very-persuasive workarounds.  Here are the two most obvious workarounds, raised in this very angry and excited post by Taiwan-expert J. Michael Cole:

a) Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention
Here is a simple response: R2P are non-binding principles that, even if they were binding, seems to require Security Council consent.  Humanitarian intervention remains deeply contested and doubtful in international law, and would not apply to Taiwan in any case until it was probably too late. Kosovo is a great example of how contested this doctrine is. Syria is another.

b) The ROC is a separate legal entity.
I get that this is a complicated issue, but I don’t think I am “misreading” historical documents when I write that i) the US recognizes the PRC as the government of China and that the US accepts that Taiwan is part of China; 2) Japan recognizes the PRC as the government of China, and Japan accepts that Taiwan is a part of China.  Sure, neither country recognizes that Taiwan is a part of the PRC, but both the US and Japan have made clear that China is a single legal entity that includes Taiwan, and that the PRC is the sole government in charge of this entity. We can futz around the details, but there is a reason why neither the US nor Japan (nor almost anyone else) have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Here is one interesting and unexpected policy consequence of Taiwan’s current legal position: it would be safer from a legal perspective for Taiwan to declare independence, since that would protect it from this legal problem I’ve identified. Of course, that legal position would probably be the least safe from a policy perspective, since it is the mostly likely to spark a Chinese attack.

Which brings me to my real point: the increasing irrelevance of Article 51 of the UN Charter to decisions by major powers on whether to use military force. The decision on whether to defend Taiwan should not depend on workarounds for Article 51. It should depend on the combination of moral values and national interests the US and Japan consider worth protecting here in Taiwan. I think Taiwan is worth protecting, but it is important to recognize that the law is not on Taiwan’s side.

Why “Lawfare” Won’t Deter China in the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

Harry J. Kazianis, the managing editor of The National Interest, has a smart post discussing the risk that the U.S. is taking if it tries to take more aggressive action to counter China in the South China Sea.  Essentially, he argues the U.S. has no effective strategy to counter China’s “non-kinetic” strategy to subtly alter the status quo by using non-military assets to expand control and influence in the region.  I agreed with Kazianis all the way until he offered his own solution:

There only seems one solution to the various territorial disputes in the region—specifically, what some are calling “lawfare.” All of the various claimants that have disputes with China in the South China Sea should appeal collectively to any and all international bodies that could possibly hear their claims. Only together can they hope to get Beijing to halt its aggressive actions.

He goes on to cite the Philippines claim against China in the UN Law of the Sea arbitration system as a possible model for other nations.

“Lawfare” or international law litigation is not going to be an effective counter to China here for at least two reasons (one legal, one policy-based):

  • 1) China has opted out of any “compulsory” system of international dispute resolution that would rule on its territorial claims in the South China Sea (or anywhere, for that matter).  This “opt-out” is perfectly legal and may very well prevent the Philippines from even making their full case to the UNCLOS arbitration tribunal.  There are no other legal institutions that have jurisdiction.  So the only way “lawfare” can work here is if China consents to arbitration. But if Kazianis is right that this is a strategy by China’s neighbors to block its expansion, then why would China ever agree to arbitration?
  • 2) Even if compulsory jurisdiction were somehow found in one of these international bodies, there is very little chance that China would feel compelled to comply with any negative ruling.  This is not a China-specific problem, but rather a problem almost every country faces when considering arbitration over territorial disputes.  The effectiveness of tribunals in these contexts is highly limited since they depend for enforcement on the individual state-parties.  This is why voluntary arbitration tends to work better than compulsory arbitration in these kinds of territorial disputes.  The U.S. and Canada, for example, have managed to settle (most of) their often contentious land and maritime borders through a combination of non-arbitral commissions, and then special bilateral arbitrations.  In the famous “Gulf of Maine” case, the U.S. Senate actually approved a special treaty with Canada to send a maritime dispute to a special chamber of the ICJ.  Although clunky, this model is far more likely to succeed in getting state compliance.

So while I agree with Kanianis and other commentators that China needs to be deterred from its current strategy in the South China Sea, I am fairly confident the use of “lawfare” will not be a way to accomplish this goal.

Why Japan Would Violate International Law If It Militarily Intervened to Defend Taiwan (But Why Japan Should Do So Anyway)

by Julian Ku

I’ve been swamped with various projects and distractions here in Taiwan (mostly food-related), so I didn’t notice until today this very interesting Zachary Keck post about how Japan’s recent decision to re-interpret its constitutional provision to allow expanded overseas military activities would enable Japan to help defend Taiwan against an attack from China.  It’s a fascinating post, but it also made me think of an interesting wrinkle that cuts against his argument.  It is almost certainly true that international law prohibits any military action by Japan (or the US) to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack.

In his post, Keck notes that Japan’s decision to reinterpret its constitution does NOT allow Japan to fully exercise its rights to collective self-defense under international law, but it does allow Japan to provide military support to allies where Japan itself is threatened.  But he then argues that even under this more narrow “collective self-defense” right, Japan could  (and probably would) intervene to assist Taiwan in a military defense against a Chinese invasion.

I think this could be right as a matter of Japanese constitutional law if an invasion of Taiwan could be plausibly construed as a threat to Japan, but there is a strange international law flaw to this argument.  Under black-letter international law, Japan cannot use military force in Taiwan absent China’s consent, even if the Taiwan government requests its assistance.  Why? Because the UN Charter’s Article 51 only authorizes an act of “collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, and to make matters worse from Taiwan’s perspective, Japan recognizes the government in Beijing as the rightful government of China, and Japan further recognizes that Taiwan is part of China. 

So unless Japan is able to plausibly claim that an attack on Taiwan triggers Japan’s own inherent self-defense right (and I think this is a non-starter as a legal argument), and unless a Chinese invasion could be said to justify humanitarian intervention (another very difficult argument), Japan would violate the U.N. Charter if it used military force in a way that violated the territorial integrity of another UN member (China).  Japan could not invoke its collective self-defense rights unless it recognized Taiwan as an independent nation.  And even that would probably not be enough to satisfy international law requirements, since Japan’s unilateral recognition of Taiwan as an independent state would necessarily satisfy international law either.  And good luck, Taiwan, getting U.N. membership.

By the way, this analysis applies equally (or even with greater force) to the United States.  The U.S. quasi-defense guarantee to Taiwan has it completely backwards (from a legal point of view):

  • If Taiwan declares independence, the U.S. has signaled it would not consider itself bound to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. Yet that would be (at least in theory) one state (China) committing aggression against another state (Taiwan), and almost certainly illegal.
  • If Taiwan keeps the status quo and does not declare independence, and China still invades, the U.S. has signaled that it would come to Taiwan’s defense. But that would be one state (China) using force within its own territory to put down secessionists (a la Ukraine) and almost certainly legal.

So the U.S (and maybe Japan) are now committed to defend Taiwan only in a situation that would require the US and Japan to violate the U.N. Charter.  It’s international-law-bizarro world!

Of course, this bizarro-from-a-legal-point-of-view policy suits U.S. purposes, since it is the policy most likely to avoid military conflict with China.  But it also reveals how use of force rules in the U.N. Charter have little relevance to shaping the behavior of the U.S., Japan (and probably China) in any conflict over Taiwan.  Japan and the US should (and probably are) ready to ignore these legal rules when making their determinations about whether to defend Taiwan.  And all in all, that’s a good thing (especially while I am still here in Taipei!).

Meanwhile, over at ABC News…

by Kevin Jon Heller

BsJXdWkCYAEhdi_Diane Sawyer had a hard-hitting report tonight at ABC News on the recent hostilities between Israel and Palestine. The segment opens with her saying, “We take you overseas now to the rockets raining down on Israel today as Israel tried to shoot them out of the sky.” As she speaks, a video box next to her shows explosions on an urban landscape. Sawyer then shows a still photo of two haggard men carrying clothes in front of a destroyed building and says, “here is an Israeli family trying to salvage what they can.”

There’s only one problem with Sawyer’s report: the explosions are in Gaza, the result of IDF airstrikes, and the men are Palestinian, not Israeli.

Welcome to the mainstream media’s even-handed coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Name That Pinko!

by Kevin Jon Heller

What Israel-hating, Hamas-loving lefty said the following on Facebook?

Dear friends: Take a few moments to read the following words and share them with others. I see the severe and rapid deterioration of the security situation in the territories, Jerusalem and the Triangle and I’m not surprised. Don’t be confused for a moment. This is the result of the policy conducted by the current government, whose essence is: Let’s frighten the public over everything that’s happening around us in the Middle East, let’s prove that there’s no Palestinian partner, let’s build more and more settlements and create a reality that can’t be changed, let’s continue not dealing with the severe problems of the Arab sector in Israel, let’s continue not solving the severe social gaps in Israeli society. This illusion worked wonderfully as long as the security establishment was able to provide impressive calm on the security front over the last few years as a result of the high-quality, dedicated work of the people of the Shin Bet, the IDF and the Israel Police as well as the Palestinians whose significant contribution to the relative calm in the West Bank should not be taken lightly.

However, the rapid deterioration we’re experiencing in the security situation did not come because of the vile murder of Naftali, Eyal and Gil-Ad, may their memories be blessed. The deterioration is first and foremost a result of the illusion that the government’s inaction on every front can actually freeze the situation in place, the illusion that “price tag” is simply a few slogans on the wall and not pure racism, the illusion that everything can be solved with a little more force, the illusion that the Palestinians will accept everything that’s done in the West Bank and won’t respond despite the rage and frustration and the worsening economic situation, the illusion that the international community won’t impose sanctions on us, that the Arab citizens of Israel won’t take to the streets at the end of the day because of the lack of care for their problems, and that the Israeli public will continue submissively to accept the government’s helplessness in dealing with the social gaps that its policies have created and are worsening, while corruption continues to poison everything good, and so on and so on.

But anyone who thinks the situation can tread water over the long run is making a mistake, and a big one. What’s been happening in the last few days can get much worse — even if things calm down momentarily. Don’t be fooled for a moment, because the enormous internal pressure will still be there, the combustible fumes in the air won’t diminish and if we don’t learn to lessen them the situation will get much worse.

The pinko in question would be Yuval Diskin, the director of Israel’s Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011. Further proof that being outside of government is conducive to honesty — especially when the government in question is overseen by someone like Netanyahu.

2013 U.S. Digest Now Available

by Duncan Hollis

Just a quick note for those of you who, like me, have a fondness for the Digest of U.S. Practice in International Law; the 2013 volume is now available on the State Department’s website (see here).   I find the Digest to be one of the great resources on U.S. views of international law; it regularly includes letters, reports, and other documents that are hard (if not impossible) to locate elsewhere. In doing so, it also offers a contemporary glimpse of where the Executive Branch stands on manifold questions of international law and practice. Here’s how the accompanying press release describes this year’s Digest and the series as a whole:

The Department of State is pleased to announce the release of the 2013 Digest of United States Practice in International Law, covering developments during calendar year 2013. The Digest provides the public with a record of the views and practice of the Government of the United States in public and private international law. The official edition of the 2013 Digest is available exclusively on the State Department’s website at: www.state.gov/s/l/c8183.htm. Past Digests covering 1989 through 2012 are also available on the State Department’s website. The Digest is edited by the Office of the Legal Adviser.

The Digest traces its history back to an 1877 treatise by John Cadwalader, which was followed by multi-volume encyclopedias covering selected areas of international law. The Digest later came to be known to many as “Whiteman’s” after Marjorie Whiteman, the editor from 1963-1971. Beginning in 1973, the Office of the Legal Adviser published the Digest on an annual basis, changing its focus to documentation current to the year. Although publication was temporarily suspended after 1988, the office resumed publication in 2000 and has since produced volumes covering 1989 through 2012. A cumulative index covering 1989-2006 was published in 2007, and an updated edition of that index, covering 1989-2008, was published in 2010.

The CIA and the Public Authority Justification: A Response to Orr

by Kevin Jon Heller

Jamie Orr has responded to my previous post on the drone memo, in which I argue that the OLC fails to adequately defend its conclusion that the CIA is just as entitled to the public-authority justification (PAJ) as the DoD. It’s a thoughtful response, and I appreciate Dean Orr taking the time to write it. But I don’t find his arguments convincing.

Orr begins by citing Art. 43 of the First Additional Protocol (AP I), which defines the armed forces as “all organized armed forces, groups and units which are under a command responsible to that Party for the conduct of its subordinates.” In Orr’s view, that means the CIA qualifies as “armed forces” under Art. 43, because the CIA is responsible to President Obama, the Commander in Chief:

The CIA may not be a part of the US military, not subordinate to the Secretary of Defense, but it is hard to claim it is not in any way an armed “group” or “unit” which is under the Command of the responsible party – the same person with responsibility for the military services, namely the Commander in Chief.

Orr’s argument, however, proves too much. By his logic, every armed organisation in the federal government that is ultimately responsible to Obama would qualify as the “armed forces” of the US — the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, even the US Marshals Service. That can’t possibly be correct.

To be fir, Orr recognises that it is not evident a “paramilitary” group like the CIA qualifies as the armed forces of the US and thus has the right to participate in hostilities. In particular, he acknowledges that, at a minimum, the CIA would have to comply with the four criteria set out in Art. 4 of the Third Geneva Convention (GC III): (1) responsible command; (2) a fixed distinctive sign; (3) open carry of arms; and (4) compliance with IHL. Here is his argument that it does:

(a) and (c) seem to apply (remotely piloted aircraft are operated in the open). The claim is made that (d) applies. Does (b)? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.

I don’t think it’s hard to say at all that (b) is not satisfied. CIA agents does not wear uniforms, nor do they wear anything that identifies them as CIA — particularly at a distance. And why would they? The CIA is an intelligence organisation that operates almost exclusively in secret; as noted by its own website, the CIA’s mission is “conducting effective covert action as directed by the President.” Fixed distinctive signs are the last thing CIA agents would ever wear.

Indeed, that’s almost certainly why Orr downplays the role of a fixed distinctive sign, saying that its “hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.” But that comment gives away the ballgame. Orr is not really arguing that the CIA is entitled to participate in hostilities because its members comply with the four criteria in GC III, art. 4. On the contrary, he is arguing that the CIA only has to comply with three of the four criteria — conveniently, the three with which it can comply. The inconvenient fourth criteria is simply wished out of existence. (And note that the question is not whether the CIA’s weapons have a fixed distinctive sign; it’s whether the CIA’s agents have one. Which they don’t.) Lex ferenda, not lex lata.

Jamie Orr has responded to my previous post on the drone memo, in which I argue that the OLC fails to adequately defend its conclusion that the CIA is just as entitled to the public-authority justification (PAJ) as the DoD. It’s a thoughtful response, and I appreciate Dean Orr taking the time to write it. But I don’t find his arguments convincing.

Orr begins by citing Art. 43 of the First Additional Protocol (AP I), which defines the armed forces as “all organized armed forces, groups and units which are under a command responsible to that Party for the conduct of its subordinates.” In Orr’s view, that means the CIA qualifies as “armed forces” under Art. 43, because the CIA is responsible to President Obama, the Commander in Chief:

The CIA may not be a part of the US military, not subordinate to the Secretary of Defense, but it is hard to claim it is not in any way an armed “group” or “unit” which is under the Command of the responsible party – the same person with responsibility for the military services, namely the Commander in Chief.

Orr’s argument, however, proves too much. By his logic, every armed organisation in the federal government that is ultimately responsible to Obama would qualify as the “armed forces” of the US and be entitled to participate in hostilities — the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, even the US Marshals Service. That can’t possibly be correct.

To be fair, Orr recognises that it is not evident a “paramilitary” group like the CIA qualifies as the armed forces of the US and thus has the right to participate in hostilities. In particular, he acknowledges that, at a minimum, the CIA would have to comply with the four criteria set out in Art. 4 of the Third Geneva Convention (GC III): (1) responsible command; (2) a fixed distinctive sign; (3) open carry of arms; and (4) compliance with IHL. Here is his argument that it does:

(a) and (c) seem to apply (remotely piloted aircraft are operated in the open). The claim is made that (d) applies. Does (b)? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.

I don’t think it’s hard to say at all that (b) is not satisfied. CIA agents does not wear uniforms, nor do they wear anything that identifies them as CIA — particularly at a distance. And why would they? The CIA is an intelligence organisation that operates almost exclusively in secret; as noted by its own website, the CIA’s mission is “conducting effective covert action as directed by the President.” Fixed distinctive signs are the last thing CIA agents would ever wear.

Indeed, that’s almost certainly why Orr downplays the role of a fixed distinctive sign, saying that its “hard to understand how this criteria has modern relevance with stand-off weapons of any sort.” But that comment gives away the ballgame. Orr is not really arguing that the CIA is entitled to participate in hostilities because its members comply with the four criteria in GC III, art. 4. On the contrary, he is arguing that the CIA only has to comply with three of the four criteria — conveniently, the three with which it can comply. The inconvenient fourth criteria is simply wished out of existence. (And note that the question is not whether the CIA’s weapons have a fixed distinctive sign; it’s whether the CIA’s agents have one. Which they don’t.)

It is important to recognize, though, that Orr’s argument concerning Art. 43 of AP I and Art. 4 of the GC III is ultimately beside the point. Orr may think that, as a matter of international law, the CIA is part of the US’s armed forces and thus has the right to participate in hostilities. But the US government doesn’t. Footnote 44 in the drone memo makes that exquisitely clear…

Let’s Call Killing al-Awlaki What It Still Is — Murder

by Kevin Jon Heller

As everyone on Twitter knows by now, the US government has released the notorious memorandum in which the OLC provides the supposed legal justification for killing Anwar al-Awlaki. I’m a bit disappointed not to get a mention in the memo; people in the know have suggested that a post I wrote in April 2010 led the OLC to substantially rewrite it. Vanity aside, though, I’m more disappointed by the memo’s failure to adequately address the most important issue regarding the “public authority justification,” which is at the heart of the memo’s conclusion that it would be lawful to kill al-Awlaki: how can the CIA be entitled to the public-authority justification when the CIA had no authority to use force against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)?

To understand why that’s a problem, let’s step back and consider what the memo says about whether the Department of Defense (DoD) had the legal authority to kill al-Awlaki. Remember, the memo was written before al-Awlaki was killed, at a time when it wasn’t clear which organisation — the DoD or the CIA — would actually kill him. (It was also written long after al-Awlaki was put on the kill list, as Hina Shamsi reminds us.)

The memo begins by emphasizing (p. 14) that its analysis — for both the DoD and the CIA — turns on whether 18 USC 1119, the foreign-murder statute, incorporates the “public authority justification” (PAJ). Indeed, it notes in n. 24 that the PAJ is the only defence it will consider. The memo then concludes (p. 20), after five pages of analysis, that in fact s 1119 does incorporate the PAJ. It’s an impressive analysis, and I find it convincing. So let’s grant that the PAJ potentially applies to the killing of al-Awlaki.

The question then becomes: who can invoke the public authority justification? The memo has little problem concluding that the DoD would be entitled to it, because (p. 20) “the operation would constitute the ‘lawful conduct of war’ — a well-established variant of the public authority justification.” In reaching that conclusion, the memo argues (1) that the AUMF covers AQAP, (2) that al-Awlaki qualifies as a targetable member of AQAP; (3) that the US is involved in a NIAC with AQ, making the laws of war applicable; and (4) that the DoD had pledged to obey the laws of war in any lethal operation.

I would quibble with much of the analysis, particularly the memo’s discussion of the scope of the non-international armed conflict between the US and “al-Qaeda.” But I’m prepared to accept that, in the abstract, the DoD would be entitled to invoke the PAJ. My problem is with the memo’s casual assertion that the PAJ applies equally to the CIA, which actually killed al-Awlaki. Here is its conclusion (p. 32)…

Analysing the US Invocation of Self-Defence Re: Abu Khattallah

by Kevin Jon Heller

Most of the discussion about Abu Khattallah’s capture in Libya has focused on the operation’s basis — or lack thereof — in domestic US law. Less attention has been paid to whether international law permitted the US to use force on Libyan soil. As Marty Lederman recently noted at Just Security, Abu Khattallah’s capture can potentially be justified on two different grounds: (1) Libya consented to the capture operation; or (2) the capture operation represented a legitimate act of self-defence under the UN Charter. The first justification does not appear open to the US; the available evidence indicates that the operation was conducted without Libya’s consent. So it’s not surprising that the US has claimed — in a letter submitted to the UN by Samantha Power on June 17 — that Article 51 permitted the operation:

The investigation also determined that [Abu Khattallah] continued to plan further armed attacks against U.S. persons. The measures we have taken to capture Abu Khattallah in Libya were therefore necessary to prevent such armed attacks, and were taken in accordance with the United States’ inherent right of self-defense. We are therefore reporting these measures to the Security Council in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

Power’s letter obscures far more than it reveals. In fact, the US’s invocation of self-defence raises four very difficult questions:

  • Can a non-state actor launch an “armed attack” that triggers the right of self-defence?
  • If so, must that armed attack be attributable in some fashion to the state whose territory is the object of “self-defensive” force?
  • Do all uses of armed force qualify as an “armed attack” for purposes of Article 51?
  • Does the right of self-defence permit force to be used anticipatorily?

In this post, I want to put aside the first two questions. I have no doubt that a non-state actor can launch an armed attack within the meaning of Article 51, and my views on the “unwilling or unable” test are well-known. It’s worth spending some time, though, on the third and fourth questions.

The third question is interesting because it’s not clear that all uses of force qualify as “armed attacks” for purposes of Article 51. The UN Charter itself distinguishes between the “use of force” (Art. 2(4)) and “armed attack” (Art. 51), and the ICJ has suggested in both Nicaragua and Oil Platforms that at least some uses of force may be so de minimis that they do not entitle the victim state to use force in self-defence. (As opposed to taking other countermeasures.) On the other hand, customary international law seems to indicate that the threshold of force for an armed attack is extremely low. Here is Tom Ruys’ conclusion in his magisterial book “Armed Attack” and Article 51 of the UN Charter (p. 155):

In the end, customary practice suggests that, subject to the necessity and proportionality criteria, even small-scale bombings, artillery, naval or aerial attacks qualify as ‘armed attacks’ activating Article 51 UN Charter, as long as they result in, or are capable of resulting in destruction of property or loss of lives. By contrast, the firing of a single missile into some uninhabited wasteland as a mere display of force, in contravention of Article 2(4) UN Charter, would arguably not reach the gravity threshold.

In sum, the following general conclusions can be made: (1) the travaux of the Definition of Aggression suggest that a minimal gravity is indeed required and seem to rule out the aforementioned Option 3; (2) ‘concrete’ customary evidence nonetheless makes clear that the gravity threshold should not be set too high and that even small-scale attacks involving the use of (possibly) lethal force may trigger Article 51.

If Ruys is right — and he has examined state practice and opinio juris far more carefully than any other scholar writing on the use of force — the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi almost certainly was, in fact, an “armed attack” for purposes of Art. 51.

What, then, about the fourth question? Here is where the US claim of self-defence regarding the Abu Khattallah operation becomes problematic. The US clearly cannot use the original Benghazi armed attack to justify the operation — although a state’s response to an armed attack may not have to be immediate, the prohibition on armed force in Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter would be meaningless if a state could “pocket” an armed attack and respond to it with armed force much later — nearly two years later, in the case of Benghazi. Indeed, Power seems to acknowledge as much when she emphasises that Abu Khattallah was planning further armed attacks. Does that planning mean the capture operation was a legitimate act of self-defence by the US?

Answering that question, of course, requires us to address the temporal limits of self-defence under Art. 51. Three basic positions on that issue are possible:

  • Self-defence permits the use of force only in response to an armed attack; force cannot be used pre-emptively or preventively (“responsive self-defence”)
  • Self-defence permits the use of force to pre-empt an imminent armed attack but not to prevent a temporally more remote armed attack (“pre-emptive self-defence”)
  • Self-defence permits the use of force to prevent even a temporally remote armed attack (“preventive self-defence”)

Unfortunately, because of the US’s typical lack of transparency concerning its use of force, Power’s letter says nothing about the time-frame of the armed attacks Abu Khattallah was supposedly planning. (Nor does it provide any evidence of that planning, but that’s another question.) The time-frame doesn’t matter, however, if responsive self-defence is the correct position – as noted, the capture operation cannot be justified as a response to the original Benghazi attack.

Most readers — at least those in the West — will no doubt be inclined to reject responsive self-defence as too narrow, even though it is the only position consistent with the text of Article 51, which permits self-defence “if an armed attack occurs.” Surely customary international law does not require a state to wait until an armed attack has already taken place to defend itself, no matter what the UN Charter says.

This issue is much more difficult issue than it may appear. Those interested should read the relevant section of Ruys’ book; I’ll just quote his bottom line (pp. 341-42):

In light of the available evidence, it can be concluded that there has indeed been a shift in States’ opinio iuris insofar as support for pre-emptive self-defence, fairly rare and muted prior to 2001, has become more widespread and explicit in recent years. At the same time, it seems a bridge too far to claim that there exists today widespread acceptance of the legality of self-defence against so-called “imminent” threats. Such assertion tends to forego the opposition of a considerable group of mainly Latin-American, north-African and Asian States. In the present author’s view, it would therefore be more appropriate to argue that the crack in opinio iuris among States has widened, without, however, identifying one approach or the other as the majority view. The implication is that, taking account of the Charter “baseline” and the absence of a concrete precedent in State practice which convincingly demonstrates the international community’s support for some form of anticipatory self-defence, it is impossible to identify de lege lata a general right of pre- emptive – and a fortiori preventive – self-defence.

Ruys’ reference to the UN Charter’s “baseline” is important, because Art. 51′s adoption of responsive self-defence indicates that states who support a more relaxed concept of self-defence, such as the US, have the obligation to find sufficient state practice and opinio juris to establish a broader rule. And such state practice and opinio juris is simply lacking — unless, as is too often the case with custom, we simply ignore the views of the Global South.

Even if responsive self-defence is too narrow, however, that does not mean the Abu Khattallah operation was a legitimate act of self-defence. If the US had evidence that Abu Khattallah was about to launch another armed attack, it is reasonable to assume Powers would have said so in her letter. That she failed to do so thus seems to indicate — though is clearly not dispositive — that the US did not believe another armed attack was imminent when it launched the capture operation. Power’s letter may well indicate, therefore, that the US is promoting the broadest understanding of self-defence possible — preventive self-defence instead of pre-emptive self-defence. If so, as Ruys notes (pp. 336-38), the US is on shaky ground indeed:

[T]here can be no doubt that even among States adhering to the “counter-restrictionist” view, support for self-defence against non-imminent threats is virtually non-existent. Apart from the fact that the sponsors of Operation “Iraqi Freedom” avoided this justification, it may be observed that many States, such as Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Uganda, Singapore or Liechtenstein, which professed support for anticipatory self-defence after 2002, nonetheless placed great weight on the imminence requirement. Germany, for instance, expressly denounced an erosion of the Charter framework and State practice via the notion of “preventive self-defence.” Likewise, the French politique de defense unequivocally “rejects… the notion of preventive self-defence.”

What is more, even the “traditional” adherents of the counter-restrictionist interpretation of Article 51 generally appear to uphold the imminence requirement. Despite bold statements by its Prime Minister on the need to adapt the UN Charter, Australia’s response to “In Larger Freedom” was rather cautious: it simply “[supported] reaffirmation by the Secretary-General that Article 51 of the Charter adequately covers the inherent right to self-defence against actual and imminent attack.” Israel called for an explicit recognition in the World Summit Outcome that States may use force in self-defence “in the event of both actual and imminent attacks.” As far as the British position is concerned, Attorney- General Lord Goldsmith in 2004 declared before the House of Lords that: “It is… the Government’s view that international law permits the use of force in self-defence against an imminent attack but does not authorize the use of force to mount a pre-emptive strike against a threat that is more remote.”…

[W]e may therefore conclude that the trend in State practice has been broadly similar to that in legal doctrine: support for anticipatory self-defence has increased, but has by and large restricted this concept to imminent threats.

Again, in the absence of additional information, we cannot categorically reject the US’s insistence that the Abu Khattallah operation was a legitimate act of self-defence. But there is considerable reason to be skeptical. Indeed, the US’s lack of transparency concerning its understanding of Art. 51 of the UN Charter may well indicate it has adopted a position that even its closest allies formally disavow.

Bensouda Accuses UNAMID of Covering Up Sudanese Crimes

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m not sure how I missed this, but these are very strong — and atypically blunt — allegations by Fatou Bensouda:

The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda urged the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to investigate reports that the UN peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID) deliberately contributed in covering up crimes in the restive region.

In reference to US-based Foreign Policy (FP) magazine reports, Bensouda asked the council to authorize a “thorough, independent and public inquiry” probe into allegations that UNAMID being subject to “manipulation” through acts committed “with the intentional effect of covering up crimes committed against civilians and peacekeepers”.

FP obtained confidential internal UN memos from UNAMID ex-spokesperson Aicha ElBasri that asserts how the UN peacekeeping force suppressed negative information on violations that occurred in Darfur by Sudanese government and other parties.

The ICC prosecutor said that the responsibility for the “cover-up” may lie “with a handful of individuals” but warned that it undermines the credibility of the peacekeeping mission.

Africa Review adds some additional detail to ElBasri’s disturbing allegations:

Last April, former Unamid spokeswoman Aicha Elbasri, revealed that the unit had misinformed the UN by withholding important details about Darfur.

Unamid has observed the government forces indiscriminately bombing entire villages, targeting civilian and military targets alike. However, these observations are never publically reported in the regular updates by the UN Secretary General to the UNSC,” Ms Elbasri claimed.

She reported that the UN peacekeeping mission did not tell the world that the Khartoum government failed to disarm the Janjaweed militias; that it, conversely, reintegrated them into paramilitary forces under new names, and let them continue committing their widespread, systematic attacks directed against the civilian population in Darfur.

The UNAMID situation obviously requires a UN investigation, so it’s encouraging to see that Bensouda request was quickly supported by both Australia and Rwanda. The UK’s statement, however, is disappointingly tentative, suggesting that the Secretariat — and not the Security Council — should investigate. Given the seriousness of the allegations, that’s simply not good enough.

The Supreme Court Misses an Opportunity to Place Constitutional Limits on the Treaty Power in Bond v. United States

by Julian Ku

My co-author John Yoo and I have a piece up on Forbes today arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court missed a grand opportunity in Bond v. U.S. to place constitutional limits on the treaty power.  We take aim at Missouri v. Holland head-on.  We criticize the interpretation of the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act adopted by the opinion for the Court of Chief Justice Roberts and argue this decision has echoes of his opinion in Sebelius on the Affordable Care Act. Here is an excerpt:

Holmes was wrong in 1920, however, and the Obama administration is wrong today. The Founders’ original understanding supports a federalism limitation on the treaty power, and this is especially compelling in light of today’s far-reaching and ambitious modern treaties. Unfortunately, the Court’s opinion refused to directly reject Missouri’s mistaken approach.

 

 

A Problematic Study of Drone Strikes in Pakistan (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Lawfare reports today on a study published in Political Science Quarterly about how ordinary Pakistanis view US drone strikes in their country. According to the post, the study “[c]hallenge[s] the conventional wisdom” that there is “deep opposition” among Pakistanis to drone strikes and that “the associated anger [i]s a major source of the country’s rampant anti-Americanism.”

I don’t have access to the study itself, but the polling questions quoted in the Lawfare post seem seriously flawed. Here are the three primary questions about drone strikes:

How much, if anything, have you heard about the drone attacks that target leaders of extremist groups – a lot, little, or nothing at all?

Please tell me whether you support or oppose the United States conducting drone attacks in conjunction with the Pakistani government against the leaders of extremist groups.

Now I’m going to ask you a list of things that the United States might do to combat extremist groups in Pakistan. For each one, please tell me whether you would support or oppose it. [The respondent is then offered]: Conducting drone attacks in conjunction with the Pakistani government against leaders of extremist groups. 

There are two significant problems with these questions. First, it seems like a major stretch to describe the US drone program in Pakistan as being carried out “in conjunction with the Pakistani government” — a formulation that implies that Pakistan and the US are working together. I accept reports that say Pakistan has tacitly or secretly endorsed the US drone program. But the Pakistani government’s public position has always been that the drone program is being conducted without its consent. The “in conjunction with” language is thus seriously misleading — especially given that the ordinary Pakistani will likely be far more familiar with the government’s public position than with the private one revealed in secret cables. Indeed, the second and third questions could easily be interpreted to be asking a hypothetical question (“would you like drone strikes more if they were conducted in conjunction with your government?”), instead of as an assertion of a past and present state of affairs.

The second problem, however, is even more serious. All three questions assert — and assume — that drone strikes in Pakistan target “leaders of extremist groups.” But that is almost certainly not the case. Here, for example, is what the Stanford/NYU “Living Under Drones” report says:

National security analysts—and the White House itself— have found that the vast majority of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan have been low-level alleged militants. Based on conversations with unnamed US officials, a Reuters journalist reported in 2010 that of the 500 “militants” the CIA believed it had killed since 2008, only 14 were “top-tier militant targets,” and 25 were “mid-to-high- level organizers” of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other hostile groups. His analysis found that “the C.I.A. [had] killed around 12 times more low-level fighters than mid-to-high- level” during that same period. More recently, Peter Bergen and Megan Braun of the New America Foundation reported that fewer than 13% of drone strikes carried out under Obama have killed a “militant leader.” Bergen and Braun also reported that since 2004, some 49 “militant leaders” have been killed in drone strikes, constituting “2% of all drone-related fatalities.”

Unless all of these reports are incorrect, the US drone program in Pakistan has never focused on “leaders of extremist groups.” It is thus extremely misleading for the study to ask ordinary Pakistanis whether they support drones strikes that target such leaders. Would the results be the same if the study had asked participants whether they “supported or opposed the United States conducting drone attacks against low-level fighters believed to be members of extremist groups”? I doubt it.

It is a truism of the polling business that poll results are only as good as the questions participants are asked. In the case of the drone study reported in Lawfare, there is reason to be skeptical of both the questions and the answers.

UPDATE: After an email exchange with one of the authors, I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that the questions were formulated and asked by Pew, not by the research team. That said, I still question how useful the answers are, given the problems discussed above.