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US Diplomacy and National Security

Thoughts on Jens’s Post about the Kunduz Attack

by Kevin Jon Heller

I read with great interest Jens’s excellent post about whether the US attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz was a war crime. I agree with much of what he says, particularly about the complexity of that seemingly innocuous word “intent.” But I am not completely convinced by his argument that reading intent in the Rome Statute to include mental states other than purpose or dolus directus would necessarily collapse the distinction between the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population and the war crime of launching a disproportionate attack. Here is the crux of Jens’s argument:

In the civilian tradition, the concept of intent is a wider category that in some circumstances might include recklessness. This equation sounds odd to a common-law trained criminal lawyer, because to an American student of criminal law, intent and recklessness are fundamentally different concepts. But just for the sake of argument, what would happen if intent were given this wider meaning? Could the U.S. service members be prosecuted for intentionally directing an attack against the civilian population because “intentionally” includes lower mental states such as dolus eventualis or recklessness?

I worry about this argument. And here’s why. If intent = recklessness, then all cases of legitimate collateral damage would count as violations of the principle of distinction, because in collateral damage cases the attacker kills the civilians with knowledge that the civilians will die. And the rule against disproportionate attacks sanctions this behavior as long as the collateral damage is not disproportionate and the attack is aimed at a legitimate military target. But if intent = recklessness, then I see no reason why the attacking force in that situation couldn’t be prosecuted for the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against civilians, without the court ever addressing or analyzing the question of collateral damage. Because clearly a soldier in that hypothetical situation would “know” that the attack will kill civilians, and knowledge is certainly a higher mental state than recklessness. That result would effectively transform all cases of disproportionate collateral damage into violations of the principle of distinction and relieve the prosecutor of the burden of establishing that the damage was indeed disproportionate, which seems absurd to me.

I don’t want to focus on recklessness, because it isn’t criminalised by the Rome Statute. The lowest default mental element in Art. 30 is knowledge, which applies to consequence and circumstance elements — “awareness that a circumstance exists or a consequence will occur in the ordinary course of events.” So Jens’s real worry, it seems to me, is that reading the “intentionally” in “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” to include knowledge would mean a proportionate attack could be prosecuted as an intentional attack on a civilian population as long as the attacker was aware that civilians would be harmed “in the ordinary course of events” — a state of affairs that will almost always be the case, given that an attacker will engage in a proportionality assessment only when he knows that civilians will be incidentally affected by the planned attack on a military objective.

I’m not sure I agree. As I read it, the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” consists of two material elements: a conduct element and a circumstance element. (There is no consequence element, because the civilians do not need to be harmed.) The conduct element is directing an attack against a specific group of people. The circumstance element is the particular group of people qualifying as a civilian population. So that means, if we apply the default mental element provisions in Art. 30, that the war crime is complete when (1) a defendant “means to engage” in an attack against a specific group of people; (2) that specific group of people objectively qualifies as a civilian population; and (3) the defendant “is aware” that the specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population. Thus understood, the war crime requires not one but two mental elements: (1) intent for the prohibited conduct (understood as purpose, direct intent, or dolus directus); (2) knowledge for the necessary circumstance (understood as oblique intent or dolus indirectus).

Does this mean that an attacker who knows his attack on a military objective will incidentally but proportionately harm a group of civilians commits the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” if he launches the attack? I don’t think so. The problematic element, it seems to me, is not the circumstance element but the conduct element: although the attacker who launches a proportionate attack on a legitimate military objective knows that his attack will harm a civilian population, he is not intentionally attacking that civilian population. The attacker means to attack only the military objective; he does not mean to attack the group of civilians. They are simply incidentally — accidentally — harmed. So although the attacker has the mental element necessary for the circumstance element of the war crime (knowledge that a specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population) he does not have the mental element necessary for its conduct element (intent to attack that specific group of people). He is thus not criminally responsible for either launching a disproportionate attack or intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.

To be sure, this analysis is probably not watertight. But I think it’s based on the best interpretation of the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.” The key, in my view, is that the crime does not contain a consequence element — no harm to civilians is necessary. If the war crime was “intentionally directing attacks that cause harm to a civilian population,” the analysis would be very different: the crime would then consist of three material elements: a conduct element (intentionally directing an attack), a consequence element (harming a group of people), and a circumstance element (the harmed group of people qualifying as a civilian population).The applicable mental elements would then be quite different: the defendant would commit the war crime if he (1) intentionally launched an attack that harmed a civilian population, (2) knowing that the attack would harm a specific group of people, and (3) knowing that the harmed group of people qualified as a civilian population. And in that case, a proportionate attack on a legitimate military objective would qualify as “intentionally directing attacks that harm a civilian population” — a nonsensical outcome, for all the reason Jens mentions.

In the absence of the consequence element, however, this situation does not exist. As long as the defendant whose attack harms a civilian population meant to attack only a legitimate military objective, his knowledge that the attack would incidentally harm a civilian population would not qualify as the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population. He would be guilty of that crime only if he meant to attack the civilian population itself.

Your thoughts, Jens?

NOTE: This post generally takes the same position Adil Haque took in a series of comments on Jens’s post.

Does the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” Violate International Law?

by Julian Ku

President Obama has threatened to veto a bill pending in the U.S. Congress that would allow private plaintiffs to sue foreign sovereigns for committing (or abetting) terrorist attacks inside the territory of the United States.  The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act has broad bipartisan support in Congress and from all of the presidential candidates (including Hillary Clinton). It would add an exception to the general rule of  immunity for foreign sovereigns in U.S. courts in cases

in which money damages are sought against a foreign state arising out of physical injury or death, or damage to or loss of property, occurring in the United States and caused by the tortious act or omission of that foreign state or of any official or employee of that foreign state while acting within the scope of the office or employment of the official or employee (regardless of where the underlying tortious act or omission occurs), including any statutory or common law tort claim arising out of an act of extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, terrorism, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act, or any claim for contribution or indemnity relating to a claim arising out of such an act...

(emphasis added).

The bill drew more attention this week when the NY Times reported that Saudi Arabia is threatening to dump $750 billion in U.S. assets in retaliation for allowing the bill to become law.  Lawsuits from September 11 victims against the Saudi government would benefit tremendously from this law.

Anything with this much bipartisan support must be wrong in some important way. I suppose one reason to be skeptical is that it would mix delicate political and diplomatic relations into judicial proceedings where private lawyers can demand discovery into a foreign government’s internal deliberations and activities.

 Another reason is that there seems little basis in international law for creating an exception to sovereign immunity for terrorist attacks, or supporting terrorist attacks.  The traditional view of sovereign immunity is that it is absolute, and that remedies against a sovereign must be sought in diplomatic or international fora.  Allowing a domestic judicial proceeding to judge the actions of a foreign sovereign would seem to undermine this basic idea.

But there are exceptions to sovereign immunity, such as for commercial activities, that much of the world accepts. It is just not clear whether a new exception can and should be created here. I am doubtful, but I am willing to be convinced.

Stay in Your Lane! When Political Scientists Become Bad International Lawyers

by Julian Ku

Next month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, a leading journal of highbrow foreign policy in the U.S., features an important article on the United States as “The Once and Future Superpower” (subscription).  Based on their forthcoming book, professors Steven Brooks and William Wohlforth of Dartmouth College argue that China is not going to displace the United States as the world’s leading superpower in the near or even mid-range future.

As an article analyzing global power politics, it seems fairly (although not completely) persuasive.  But I was struck by how the otherwise carefully argued piece descends into complete gibberish when it tries to explain how “international law” can be a tool for the United States to constrain and manage China’s activities in the South China Sea.

And if Beijing tried to extract economic gains from contested regions [in the South China Sea], Washington could facilitate a process along the lines of the proportional punishment strategy it helped make part of the World Trade Organization: let the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague, determine the gains of China’s illegal actions, place a temporary tariff on Chinese exports to collect exactly that much revenue while the sovereignty claims are being adjudicated, and then distribute them once the matter is settled before the International Court of Justice.

Whaaaahhht?

In this one sentence, the authors propose that an arbitral tribunal convened under UNCLOS issue an award granting money damages to the Philippines. This is somewhat unlikely, but it is theoretically possible.  But who exactly is going to place a “temporary tariff on Chinese exports”?  The United States? A country that is not party to the dispute between China and the Philippines? And why exactly wouldn’t this cause a trade war with China and why wouldn’t it violate the WTO Agreement? And when exactly did the International Court of Justice get involved given that China has not consented to that court’s compulsory jurisdiction?  

Not only is this not a plausible mechanism for sanctions against China (the world’s second largest economy), but it is not a plausible mechanism for sanctions against almost any country in the world.  It has never been done before outside of the trade context, where every country specifically agreed to the trade sanction system in advance! 

The authors’ casual, offhand explanation of how “international law” is an asset that can be used for pursuing policy goals irrespective of existing legal institutional frameworks and legal principles is something I’ve noticed before in political science literature.  The “law” argument is not a bad one in principle, but it requires a deeper understanding of law as an independent analytical field than political scientists are willing to give it credit for.

As it stands now, this otherwise interesting article loses credibility with policymakers because the authors didn’t bother to try to understand how law and legal institutions are organized.  Maybe they should just skip over the legal stuff, and stay in their own lanes.  Or maybe they could find a reader up there in New Hampshire with a J.D. (I’m always available!).

The U.S. Embargo on Cuba Should Be Lifted, But It is Not a Blockade, and Perfectly Legal

by Julian Ku

Last week, I accompanied a group of Hofstra Law students on a one-week study abroad “field study” in Havana, Cuba. We visited just a week after President Obama’s historic visit and a day after an almost equally historic Rolling Stones concert.  The trip gave my students and I an opportunity see how some of the effects of President Obama’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba, and also how the U.S. embargo on Cuba is viewed bimage1y Cubans.

It also gave me a chance to think again about my earlier analysis of Cuba’s argument that the U.S. embargo violates international law.  I still think Cuba’s description of the U.S. embargo as a “blockade” is ludicrous. But I am more sympathetic to legal criticisms of the
extraterritorial effects of the U.S. embargo.

First, as the photo suggests, Cuba calls the U.S. embargo a “blockade”.  Indeed, the billboard (which faces visitors as soon as they drive in from the airport), refers to the “bloqueo” as the “longest genocide in history.”  This might be put down simply to rhetorical excess, but the Cuban government has repeatedly used the term “blockade” in public statements at the United Nations. It has demanded upwards of $80 billion in compensation for damages caused by the “blockade.”

Whatever the U.S. embargo on Cuba is, it is NOT a blockade as that term is defined under international law.  According to a U.S. definition, a blockade is a “belligerent operation to prevent vessels and/or aircraft of all nations, enemy as well as neutral, from entering or exiting specified ports, airfields, or coastal areas belonging to, occupied by, or under the control of an enemy nation.” Oppenheim had an even narrower definition, limited to naval blockades “of the approach to the enemy coast or a part of it….to intercept all intercourse and especially commercial intercourse by sea….”

It goes without saying that the U.S. is not imposing a blockade under this definition.  The U.S. embargo is not a belligerent operation using its military forces to prevent commercial intercourse with Cuba.  No military force prevents Cuba from trading with nations other than the U.S.  Calling a refusal by one country to trade with another a “blockade” is an insult to any reasonable definition of the term (or actual blockades).

The Cuban government knows that U.S. is not imposing a blockade, but it is useful for it to keep using the term at the U.N. and even win support from other nations for its characterization of the embargo.  The U.S. doesn’t even bother protesting Cuba’s use of the term anymore, which is a mistake because it grossly mischaracterizes what the U.S. embargo actually is.  Moreover, if the U.S. doesn’t fight back against the “blockade” smear, it subtles undermines the legitimacy of U.S. embargos on other (much more dangerous) countries like North Korea and Iran.

Accepting the term “blockade” uncritically also allows the Cuban government to blame the U.S. for Cuba’s various economic problems.  But while the U.S. embargo definitely is having an impact on Cuba, it is not the nearly as important as the Cuban government’s own economic policies.  It is worth noting that the international Cuban campaign against the embargo really started in the early 1990s after Cuba lost support from the Soviet Union.  Cuba did not “need” the embargo to be lifted until it lost Soviet support.  Relatedly, Cuba’s main high-value exports today are services (e.g. medical doctors and other specialists) that the U.S. probably won’t actually purchase.  There is only so much in cigars and rum that the U.S. market can absorb.  Cuba’s burgeoning tourist industry is growing, but it is hard to imagine Cuba could handle many more tourists than it is already receiving (or until at least they build a new airport).

To be sure, there is one aspect of the U.S. embargo that probably does violate international law. Under the 1996 “Helms Burton” law, the U.S. created a private cause of action against anyone trading in assets expropriated by the Cuban government, even if that person was located in a foreign country.  This, along with a measure requiring denial of visas to anyone who has traded in such expropriated assets, caused consternation in the EU and Canada.   Their pressure (and a threatened WTO case) has led to the U.S. suspending Helms Burton so that it has never actually gone into effect.

U.S. law also extends the embargo to foreign subsidiaries that are “owned or controlled” by U.S. persons.  This is also controversial because it applies U.S. law extraterritorially in violation of other countries’ sovereignty.  I think this is problematic, but this is not as settled as it might seem since the U.S. is arguably simply asserting an aggressive form of nationality jurisdiction.  But this aspect of the embargo is definitely legally questionable.

In the end of the day, I think the U.S. embargo is perfectly legitimate as a matter of international law.  But just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is a good or necessary policy.  Based in part on my trip to Cuba, I am inclined to agree with President Obama that the U.S. embargo is no longer useful, and counterproductive in many ways. Congress should probably (and will eventually) lift the embargo.  But the U.S. should not back down from defending the legality of its use of economic sanctions as a tool of statecraft.

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.

Who Says America Can’t Agree on Anything Anymore: Every US Presidential Candidate is in Favor of U.S. Drone Strikes

by Julian Ku

In a tumultuous U.S. presidential campaign season, it is easy to conclude that the U.S. is hopelessly polarized between a proto-fascism and a proto-communism. But while there may be some truth to that observation with respect to immigration and economic policy, it is worth noting that the presidential candidates of both parties agree on many issues of foreign policy, even those that are controversial among international lawyers.

For instance, it is worth noting that all of the presidential candidates support the current U.S. program of drone strikes against Al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists.

From a legal perspective, the U.S. program of lethal drone missile strikes against ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorist targets is controversial. Not only is the domestic legal authority to strike at ISIS targets under the September 11, 2001 authorization for the use of military force questionable, but the international legality of such strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, and Libya is uncertain because none of those four countries have explicitly given consent to such strikes. More significantly, legal critics of the drone program have questioned whether its use complies with the proportionality and other requirements of international humanitarian law due to the number of civilian casualties injured or killed in such strikes.

All of these legal criticisms are plausible, but none of the remaining U.S. presidential candidates are seriously troubled by these criticisms. None have pledged, for instance, to seek an additional authorization for the use of force from Congress to clarify the legal authority for such strikes against ISIS. None have suggested they would cut back or eliminate the program in any meaningful way.

Both of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates, for instance, have publicly expressed support for the program as it is currently being implemented. Hillary Clinton, as might be expected from a former Obama administration cabinet member, has endorsed such strikes on both a policy and legal basis. But so has her chief Democratic rival Bernie Sanders:

In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press scheduled for broadcast on Sunday, host Chuck Todd asked the independent senator from Vermont if drones or special forces would play a role in his counter-terror plans.

“All of that and more,” Sanders said.

Asked to clarify, he added: “Look, a drone is a weapon. When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive. When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what? … It’s terrible.”

Todd asked Sanders: “But you’re comfortable with the idea of using drones if you think you’ve isolated an important terrorist?”

Sanders answered: “Yes.”

 

Indeed, there has arguably been more criticism of the drone program from the Republican presidential candidates, although that criticism is largely that the program doesn’t go far enough.

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has not specifically addressed the drone program (surprise, surprise!). But Trump has famously called for counter-terrorism activities worse than torture, including the deliberate killing of terrorists’ families (presumably through drone strikes). Although Trump has partially reversed himself in a recent statement pledging to comply with all U.S. “laws and treaties” relevant to counterterrorism operations, none of this suggests he is going to cut back. (But this is Donald Trump, so who the hell knows!)

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, currently Trump’s main rival, has been primarily concerned with limiting or prohibiting the use of drone strikes against U.S. citizens. Cruz, and has sponsored legislation to prohibit drone strikes on U.S. citizens on U.S. soil (with one exception).

Senator Marco Rubio, currently in third place, has also sponsored legislation to require independent review of drone strikes against U.S. citizens. Governor John Kasich, the last remaining GOP candidate, has proposed shifting drone strikes away from the CIA to the military. This last proposal may be the most significant drone reform proposal on the table from any of the remaining candidates. (Kasich is in fourth place on the Republican side).

So who says Americans can’t agree on anything anymore. The U.S. public, and its leading presidential candidates, want drone strikes to continue. All seem to feel like the current drone program is legal under U.S. and international law.  (I should hasten to add that I agree with them on the legal point, although I do think there are many reasonable questions about the program.)  In any event, for U.S. presidential candidates, the only question is whether to do more, not less.

Justice Scalia’s Rule of Law Efforts

by Duncan Hollis

Scalia photo

Justice Scalia’s passing comes as a shock and is generating tributes across ideological lines. Indeed, whether you agreed with his opinions or not (and I was not a fan of his thinking on cases like Sosa or Bond), Justice Scalia’s opinions deserved to be read.  Lines like “never-say-never jurisprudence” and “oh-so-close-to-relevant cases” are some of my personal favorites.  Readers should feel free to add their own in the comment section.

In the meantime, I wanted to pay tribute to a side of Justice Scalia that has garnered relatively little attention — his dedication to promoting the rule of law.  For the last sixteen years, Temple Law has run a rule of law program in Beijing hosted at Tsinghua University’s School of Law.  We offer an LLM to classes of 50 Chinese judges, prosecutors and lawyers, in an effort to acquaint them with the U.S. legal system and the rule of law more generally.  As part of the program, the Chinese students visit Philadelphia for the summer, which includes a day trip to D.C.  And nearly every year the highlight of that D.C. trip was an hour long private audience with Justice Scalia.  Justice Scalia would speak for a few minutes but most of the time was devoted to answering student questions. We conducted the sessions off the record, so I do not feel comfortable opining on who said what, but I always came away impressed by the honesty, vigor and intellectual quality of the exchange. I was universally impressed with Justice Scalia’s wit and candor.  He offered the students a true model of free speech in the U.S. legal tradition.  I don’t know if Temple’s China program was the only time he did this, or if this effort was one of many to expand the rule of law.  But I can say it was a highly effective one.  And so, as the nation mourns the passing of one of its most opinionated justices, I wanted to offer my own small tribute of appreciation to a man who, for whatever else he believed, was committed to the idea of democracy and the values of liberty and equality on which it stood.

Al Jazeera Panel Discussion on Siege Warfare in Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

Sorry for the endless self-promotion, but I thought readers might be interested in the following episode of Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, which includes a 30-minute panel on siege warfare in Syria that I participated in. It was quite a wide-ranging discussion, focusing less on international law than I expected.

As always, comments welcome! I hope readers don’t think I was too soft on either Assad or the UN…

As Ukraine Prepares to Take Russia to UNCLOS Arbitration Over Crimea, I Predict Russia’s Likely Reaction

by Julian Ku

There have been noises coming out Ukraine for years that its government was preparing an international legal action against Russia over Crimea.  It looks like Ukraine has finally prepared to pull the trigger. According to this report, Ukraine is ready to charge Russia with violating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the following ways.

“First, the seizure of fields with mineral reserves and illegal oil and gas on the continental shelf of Ukraine in the Black Sea. Secondly, the unlawful seizure of power to regulate fish catch, unlawful fish catch and not allowing Ukrainian fishing companies to catch fish in the offshore zone near the Crimean peninsula. Third, construction of a gas pipeline, a power line and a bridge across the Kerch Strait without the consent of Ukraine, the unlawful blocking of transit of Ukrainian vessels across the Kerch Strait and the unlawful seizure of navigation rights. Fourth, the conducting of studies of archeological and historical sites in the Black Sea bed without the consent of Ukraine,”

Both Russia and Ukraine have specified arbitration under Annex VII of UNCLOS. So if Ukraine filed a claim, it would follow the same procedure and rules as the one recently followed in the Philippines’ case against China and the Netherlands’ claim against Russia (over the Greenpeace seizures).

Unfortunately for Ukraine, I think I already know how Russia will react to any such arbitral claim.  First, like China has done against the Philippines, it will invoke its declaration under Article 298 excluding disputes “relating to sea boundary delimitations” from the jurisdiction of the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal.

Second, and like China again, Russia will almost certainly boycott the UNCLOS arbitration by refusing to appoint any arbitrators and refusing to show up at the hearings.  It followed this path in the Greenpeace “Arctic Sunrise” arbitration and there is no reason to think it will react any differently this time.

So although Ukraine probably has a good claim under UNCLOS, and it has a good case for jurisdiction as well, it should not get too excited.  Even if it wins its arbitration, it will probably not accomplish a great deal.

Navy SEAL Who Supposedly Killed Bin Laden Under Investigation

by Kevin Jon Heller

The SEAL in question is Matthew Bissonnette, who published the bestselling No Easy Day under the pseudonym Mark Owen. According to the Intercept, the federal government is investigating Bissonnette for revealing classified information and using his position to make money while still on active duty:

A former Navy SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden and wrote a bestselling book about the raid is now the subject of a widening federal criminal investigation into whether he used his position as an elite commando for personal profit while on active duty, according to two people familiar with the case.

Matthew Bissonnette, the former SEAL and author of No Easy Day, a firsthand account of the 2011 bin Laden operation, had already been under investigation by both the Justice Department and the Navy for revealing classified information. The two people familiar with the probe said the current investigation, led by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, expanded after Bissonnette agreed to hand over a hard drive containing an unauthorized photo of the al Qaeda leader’s corpse. The government has fought to keep pictures of bin Laden’s body from being made public for what it claims are national security reasons.

The investigation is a perfect example of the US government’s bipartisan unwillingness to address crimes committed by the military as part of the war on terror. As I noted more than three years ago, Bissonnette openly admits to committing the war crime of willful killing — a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions — in No Easy Day. Here is his description of how he and a fellow SEAL killed bin Laden (p. 315):

“The point man reached the landing first and slowly moved toward the door. Unlike in the movies, we didn’t bound up the final few steps and rush into the room with guns blazing. We took our time.

The point man kept his rifle trained into the room as we slowly crept toward the open door. Again, we didn’t rush. Instead, we waited at the threshold and peered inside. We could see two women standing over a man lying at the foot of a bed. Both women were dressed in long gowns and their hair was a tangled mess like they had been sleeping. The women were hysterically crying and wailing in Arabic. The younger one looked up and saw us at the door.

She yelled out in Arabic and rushed the point man. We were less than five feet apart. Swinging his gun to the side, the point man grabbed both women and drove them toward the corner of the room. If either woman had on a suicide vest, he probably saved our lives, but it would have cost him his own. It was a selfless decision made in a split second.”

With the women out of the way, I entered the room with a third SEAL. We saw the man lying on the floor at the foot of his bed. He was wearing a white sleeveless T-shirt, loose tan pants, and a tan tunic. The point man’s shots had entered the right side of his head. Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull. In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing. Another assaulter and I trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds. The bullets tore into him, slamming his body into the floor until he was motionless.

This is about as clear-cut as IHL and ICL get in a combat situation. Bissonnette did not make a split-second decision to shoot bin Laden; his account makes clear that he had plenty of time to assess the situation. And there is no question bin Laden was hors de combat when Bissonnette pointed his weapon at him and finished him off. Bissonnette wasn’t even the SEAL who first shot bin Laden in the head, so he can’t argue that this was some kind of continuous action designed to eliminate any possibility that bin Laden remained a threat. Ergo: a war crime.

But it’s bin Laden, of course. Inter malum enim silent leges. So instead of prosecuting Bissonnette for murder under the UCMJ, the US government investigates him for hanging onto a trophy of his kill and profiting from his notoriety.

Behold impunity.

PS: In case anyone is wondering, “death throes” refers to the agonal phase of dying, when the body is shutting down. The agonal phase precedes clinical death (when the heart stops and respiration ceases), brain death, and biological death.

Parsing the Syrian-Russian Agreement Concerning Russia’s Deployment

by Chris Borgen

The Washington Post asks (and answers) the following:

When you are a major nuclear power and you want to make a secretive deployment to a faraway ally, what is the first thing you do? Draw up the terms, apparently, and sign a contract.

That’s what the Kremlin did with Syria in August, according to an unusual document posted this week on a Russian government website that details the terms of its aerial support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Among other revelations in the seven-page contract dated Aug. 26, 2015, the Kremlin has made an open-ended time commitment to its military deployment in Syria, and either side can terminate it with a year’s notice.

The “Agreement between the Russian Federation and the Syrian Arab Republic on deployment of an aviation group of the Russian Armed Forces on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic” is similar in purpose to status of forces agreements (SOFAs) that the U.S. signs with countries in which it has military bases. (For an overview of US SOFA practice, see this State Department document (.pdf). ) The agreement sets out issues concerning immunities, transit rights, the movement of property, and so forth.

However, every international agreement is a product of the political and strategic concerns in a particular bilateral relationship. Consequently, there can be a variety of SOFA practice even among the agreements drafted by a single country.  Concerning US practice, GlobalSecurity.org explains:

Status-of-forces agreements generally come in three forms. These include administrative and technical staff status under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Privileges, commonly referred to as A and T status; a “mini” status-of-forces agreement, often used for a short-term presence, such as an exercise; and a full-blown, permanent status-of-forces agreement. The appropriate arrangement is dependent upon the nature and duration of U.S. military activity within the host country, the maturity of our relationship with that country, and the prevailing political situation in the host nation.

To take one example from US practice, the 2008 Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq (the “2008 Iraq SOFA” (.pdf))  was made after the US was already in Iraq for five years; it was in part about responding to tensions between the Iraqi government and the US as well as the mechanics of withdrawal. By contrast, the Russian/Syrian agreement was made early in an intervention of undefined length and scope. responding to issues that already existed, the 2008 Iraq SOFA is twenty-four pages long, covering more topics and also with more provisions within each article. (The 2008 Iraqi SOFA is no longer in force, but I will use it as a comparator.)

By contrast, the Russian/Syrian agreement is a very brief seven pages. But, besides being quite short, the main characteristic of the agreement is that it maximizes Russian prerogatives and flexibility. Article 2 has the transfer “without charge” from Syria to Russia of  “Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province, with its infrastructure, as well as the required territory agreed upon between the parties” for the use of the Russian aviation group to be deployed in Syria.  Article 5 entitles Russia: (more…)

Autonomous Legal Reasoning: Legal and Ethical Issues in the Technologies of Conflict

by Duncan Hollis

One of the highlights of my Fall semester was the opportunity to host a one-day workshop at Temple Law on how autonomous technology may impact the future of international humanitarian law (IHL) and the lawyers who practice it.  With co-sponsorship from the International Committee of the Red Cross (specifically, Rob Ramey and Tracey Begley) as well as Gary Brown of Marine Corps University, we wanted to have an inter-disciplinary conversation on the way autonomy may implicate the practice of law across a range of new technologies, including cyberwar, drones, and the potential for fully autonomous lethal weapons.  Although these technologies share common characteristics — most notably their ability (and sometimes their need) to operate in the absence of direct human control — discursive silos have emerged where these technologies tend to be discussed in isolation.

Our workshop sought to bridge this divide by including experts on all three technologies from an array of disciplinary backgrounds, including IHL, political science, and ethics (see here for a list of participants).  Fortunately, the day itself lived up to the hype, with a detailed agenda that prompted a wide-ranging set of conversations on the nature of the technology, the ethical issues, as well as IHL’s current regulations and its likely future evolution.  Subject to the Chatham House Rule, the ICRC has published summaries of these conversations on their blog, Intercross.

In addition to those blog posts, the Temple International and Comparative Law Journal will publish a series of short (and often provocative) think-pieces written for the workshop.  My own contribution, Setting the Stage: Autonomous Legal Reasoning in International Humanitarian Law is now available on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract:

This short essay seeks to reorient — and broaden — the existing discourse on international humanitarian law (IHL) and autonomous weapons. Written for a conference co-sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross, it employs a contextual analysis to pose new questions (and reformulate others) regarding the relationship between IHL and autonomous weapon systems. It asks six questions: (1) Who should IHL regulate in this context? Does IHL only regulate States and individuals, or can it provide rules for autonomous weapon systems themselves? (2) What types of autonomous technology should IHL regulate? Should the current focus on kinetic weapons expand to encompass cyber operations? (3) Where should this discourse occur? How do the trade-offs involved in locating legal discourse in a particular forum impact the elaboration of IHL vis-à-vis autonomous systems? (4) When should IHL regulate autonomous weapons? Should IHL ban autonomous weapons now or allow its regulation to emerge incrementally over time? Can IHL only apply when an autonomous system’s operations constitute an attack, or should IHL’s application reach more broadly? (5) How should IHL regulate autonomous weapon systems? Are prohibitions better or worse than prescriptive authorities? Should IHL regulate via rules, standards, or principles? Finally, (6) why should IHL regulate autonomous weapons? How can IHL best prioritize among its foundations in military necessity, humanitarian values, and the practical reality that the development of such systems now appears inevitable. In asking these questions, my essay offers a critical lens for gauging the current scope (and state) of international legal discourse on this topic. In doing so, it sets the stage for new lines of inquiry that States and other stakeholders will need to address to fully understand the perils — and potential — of increasing autonomy in technology for IHL and the international lawyers who practice it.

Fans of Thomas Aquinas may be particularly interested in this piece since I ask these questions using the same analytical frame Aquinas deployed to delineate those circumstances that define human acts.  Otherwise, interested readers should keep an eye out for the Symposium volume itself, which should be out sometime later this Spring or early this coming Summer.