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US Diplomacy and National Security

The Puzzling US Submission to the Assembly of States Parties

by Kevin Jon Heller

The US submission to the ASP has finally appeared. It is not very long — about 1.5 pages — but manages to pack in a good number of false claims and bizarre interpretations of the Rome Statute.

In terms of falsity, the US repeats its longstanding claim that the Court has no jurisdiction over the nationals of non-state parties, even when those nationals are responsible for an international crime committed on the territory of a state party (p. 1):

As an initial matter, and as we have consistently emphasized, the United States is not a party to the Rome Statute and has not consented to any assertion of ICC jurisdiction, nor has the Security Council taken action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to establish jurisdiction over U.S. personnel. It is a fundamental principle of international law that a treaty is binding only on its parties and that it does not create obligations for non-parties without their consent. The Rome Statute cannot be interpreted as disposing of rights of the United States as a non-Party without U.S. consent.

This is wrong, for reasons Dapo Akande has patiently explained. It’s also completely hypocritical, because the US had no objection to the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) prosecuting Charles Taylor, a Liberian national, even though the SCSL was created by an international agreement — between the UN and Sierra Leone — to which Liberia was not a party. Indeed, the current US submission emphasises that it was “one of the most vocal supporters for the creation of tribunals to try those most responsible for atrocities committed in Rwanda and Sierra Leone.”

The most bizarre argument in the submission has to do with the principle of complementarity (p. 1):

Additionally, we are concerned about any ICC determination — as required by the Rome Statute’s core principle of complementarity — on, for example, the genuineness of U.S. legal proceedings without United States consent. The principle of complementarity fundamentally limits the ICC’s exercise of jurisdiction to those cases in which a State is genuinely unwilling or unable to comply with its duties, such as those under the Geneva Conventions, to investigate and prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Just as we have not consented to jurisdiction over our personnel, we have not consented to the ICC’s evaluation of our own accountability efforts.

This is literally nonsense. The ICC would only formally assess complementarity in the context of a specific prosecution of an American national — and would only do so (practically, if not because of a legal limitation) if the US decided to challenge the admissibility of a case. So the US would have to “consent” to the Court examining the genuineness of American proceedings if it wanted to head off a prosecution. Beyond that, consent has nothing to do with complementarity.

I will avoid making snarky comments about the US’s claim (p. 2) that it “has undertaken numerous, vigorous efforts to determine whether its personnel have violated the law and, where there have been violations, has taken appropriate actions to hold its personnel accountable.” But I can’t let the following claim (p. 2) go unremarked:

Indeed, we note the irony that in seeking permission to investigate the actions of U.S. personnel, the Prosecutor appears to have relied heavily upon information from investigations that the United States Government itself decided to make public. We question whether pursuing this investigation will make other countries less willing or able to engage in similar examinations of their own actions and to be transparent about the results.

This is, well… ironic. The OTP’s request to open an investigation into Afghanistan notes multiple times (see para. 27 for an example) that the US refused to cooperate with the preliminary examination. And the request relies very heavily on the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program” — which the White House and CIA tried desperately to keep from ever seeing the light of day.

All that said, I am delighted by the following statement in the US submission (p. 1; emphasis mine):

The principle of complementarity fundamentally limits the ICC’s exercise of jurisdiction to those cases in which a State is genuinely unwilling or unable to comply with its duties, such as those under the Geneva Conventions, to investigate and prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

The US has now formally acknowledged that it has a duty under international law “to investigate and prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity”! That is a bold and progressive claim, especially with regard to crimes against humanity, for which there is no treaty that demands either investigation or prosecution. I imagine that position will come as something of a surprise to the parts of the US government that were not involved in drafting the submission…

The US’s ASP submission: wrong, bizarre, but surprisingly — and probably inadvertently — progressive.

Call for Submissions / Nominations: The Francis Lieber Prize

by Chris Borgen

The American Society of International Law’s Lieber Society on the Law of Armed Conflict awards the Francis Lieber Prize to the authors of publications that the judges consider to be outstanding in the field of law and armed conflict.  Both monographs and articles (including chapters in books of essays) are eligible for consideration — the prize is awarded to the best submission in each of these two categories.
Criteria:         Any work in the English language published during 2017 or whose publication is in final proof at the time of submission may be nominated for this prize.  Works that have already been considered for this prize may not be re-submitted.  Entries may address topics such as the use of force in international law, the conduct of hostilities during international and non‑international armed conflicts, protected persons and objects under the law of armed conflict, the law of weapons, operational law, rules of engagement, occupation law, peace operations, counter‑terrorist operations, and humanitarian assistance. Other topics bearing on the application of international law during armed conflict or other military operations are also appropriate.
Eligibility:       Anyone may apply for the article or book prize.  For those in academia or research institutions, the prize is open to those who are up to 8 years post-PhD or JD or those with up to 8 years in an academic teaching or research position. Membership in the American Society of International Law is not required.  Multi-authored works may be submitted if all the authors are eligible to enter the competition.  Submissions from outside the United States are welcomed.
Submission:     Submissions, including a letter or message of nomination, must be received by 10 January 2018.  Three copies of books must be submitted.  Electronic submission of articles is encouraged. Authors may submit their own work.  All submissions must include contact information (e‑mail, fax, phone, address) and relevant information demonstrating compliance with eligibility criteria.  The Prize Committee will acknowledge receipt of the submission by e‑mail. 
Printed submissions must be sent to:
Professor Laurie Blank
Emory University School of Law
1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, Georgia  30322
Electronic submissions must be sent to:
Please indicate clearly in the subject line that the email concerns a submission for the Lieber Prize.
Prize:   The Selection Committee will select one submission for the award of the Francis Lieber Prize in the book category and one in the article category. The Prize consists of a certificate of recognition and a year’s membership in the American Society of International Law.  The winner of the Lieber Prize in both categories will be announced at the American Society of International Law’s Annual Meeting in April 2018. 
In 2017, the winners were:
Book prize:
— Kenneth Watkin, “Fighting at the Legal Boundaries: Controlling the Use of Force in Contemporary Conflict” (OUP 2016)

Article prize:

— Tom Dannenbaum, “Why Have We Criminalized Aggressive War?,” 126 Yale Law Journal (2017)


Initial Thoughts on the ICC’s Decision to Investigate Afghanistan

by Kevin Jon Heller

Very significant news out of the ICC today: after a decade-long preliminary examination, the OTP has finally decided to ask the Pre-Trial Chamber to authorize a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan. Here is a snippet from Fatou Bensouda’s announcement:

For decades, the people of Afghanistan have endured the scourge of armed conflict.  Following a meticulous preliminary examination of the situation, I have come to the conclusion that all legal criteria required under the Rome Statute to commence an investigation have been met.  In due course, I will file my request for judicial authorisation to open an investigation, submitting that there is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in connection with the armed conflict in Afghanistan.  It will be for the Judges of the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber, constituted by the Presidency, to decide whether I have satisfied them that the Statute’s legal criteria to authorise opening an investigation are fulfilled.

Given the limited temporal scope of the Court’s jurisdiction, my request for judicial authorisation will focus solely upon war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed since 1 May 2003 on the territory of Afghanistan as well as war crimes closely linked to the situation in Afghanistan allegedly committed since 1 July 2002 on the territory of other States Parties to the Rome Statute.  The Court has no jurisdiction respecting crimes alleged to have been committed before those cut-off dates.

Assuming the PTC grants the OTP’s request — which is basically a foregone conclusion — Afghanistan will become (following Georgia) the second ICC investigation outside of Africa.

It will be very interesting to see how the US reacts to the announcement. The OTP made it clear in its 2016 preliminary-examination report that it intends to investigate crimes committed by the US military and the CIA:

211. The information available provides a reasonable basis to believe that, in the course of interrogating these detainees, and in conduct supporting those interrogations, members of the US armed forces and the US Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) resorted to techniques amounting to the commission of the war crimes of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape. These acts are punishable under articles 8(2)(c)(i) and (ii) and 8(2)(e)(vi) of the Statute. Specifically:

  • Members of US armed forces appear to have subjected at least 61 detained persons to torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity on the territory of Afghanistan between 1 May 2003 and 31 December 2014. The majority of the abuses are alleged to have occurred in 2003-2004.
  • Members of the CIA appear to have subjected at least 27 detained persons to torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity and/or rape on the territory of Afghanistan and other States Parties to the Statute (namely Poland, Romania and Lithuania) between December 2002 and March 2008. The majority of the abuses are alleged to have occurred in 2003-2004.

212. These alleged crimes were not the abuses of a few isolated individuals. Rather, they appear to have been committed as part of approved interrogation techniques in an attempt to extract ‘actionable intelligence’ from detainees. According to information available, the resort to such interrogation techniques was ultimately put to an end by the authorities concerned, hence the limited time-period during which the crimes allegedly occurred.

213. The Office considers that there is a reasonable basis to believe these alleged crimes were committed in furtherance of a policy or policies aimed at eliciting information through the use of interrogation techniques involving cruel or violent methods which would support US objectives in the conflict in Afghanistan. Likewise, there is a reasonable basis to believe that all the crimes identified herein have a nexus to the Afghanistan conflict.

If the US formally challenges the investigation — a big if, because it would probably see doing so as an acknowledgment of the investigation’s legitimacy — it will no doubt rely on Mike Newton’s argument in the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law that the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Afghanistan and the United States precludes the ICC from exercising jurisdiction over American soldiers. (The SOFA presumably doesn’t apply to CIA operatives, who are not part of the US armed forces.) Oversimplifying a bit, Mike argues that Afghanistan has no jurisdiction that it can delegate to the ICC, because the SOFA provides that the US retains exclusive jurisdiction over crimes committed by American soldiers. I disagree with the argument, for reasons ably laid out by Roger O’Keefe and Carsten Stahn. But it is a serious argument that deserves serious consideration.

Like Dov Jacobs, I am also intrigued by the OTP’s stated intention to investigate crimes committed by the CIA in Romania, Lithuania, and Poland. There is no jurisdictional problem, because those states are all members of the ICC and the the SOFA that applies to NATO states is based on shared jurisdiction, not exclusive jurisdiction. And I don’t think anything in the Rome Statute prohibits the OTP from defining a situation to include territory of multiple states. But we have definitely never seen a situation like this before.

I doubt that we will see the ICC issue arrest warrants for an American soldier or CIA operative anytime soon. My guess is that the OTP will begin with crimes committed by the Taliban, which will be much easier to investigate and prosecute than American crimes. (If only because Donald Trump might be crazy enough to actually invade The Hague if the Court ever got its hands on an American.) But this is still a momentous — if long overdue — day for the ICC. Opening an investigation that could lead to Americans being prosecuted, even if only in theory, is a remarkable act of bravery for a Court that has proven largely impotent with regard to crimes committed by government officials.

Kudos to Fatou Bensouda and the OTP.

New Essay: Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have just posted on SSRN a draft of a (very) long article entitled “Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom.” It represents my first real foray into both “classic” public international law and postcolonial critique. Here is the abstract:

Although the US has consistently relied on the ICJ’s doctrine of specially-affected states to claim that it and other powerful states in the Global North play a privileged role in the formation of customary international law, the doctrine itself has been almost completely ignored both by legal scholars and by the ICJ itself. This article attempts to fill that lacuna. In particular, by focusing on debates in a variety of areas of international law – with particular emphasis on the jus ad bellum and jus in bello – it addresses two questions: (1) what makes a state “specially affected”? and (2) what exactly is the importance of a state qualifying as “specially affected” for custom formation? The article concludes not only that the US approach to the doctrine of specially-affected states is fatally flawed, but also that a more theoretically coherent understanding of the doctrine would give states in the Global South power over the development of custom that the US and other Global North states would never find acceptable.

You can download the article here. As always, comments most welcome!

Symposium: Aeyal Gross’s “The Writing on the Wall”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the next three days we will be featuring an online discussion of my SOAS colleague and TAU law professor Aeyal Gross‘s new book for Cambridge University Press, The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017). The book develops ideas that Aeyal discussed on Opinio Juris — in a symposium on the functional approach to occupation — more than five years ago. So it’s fitting that we discuss his book on the blog now!

We are delighted to welcome a number of commenters, including Eliav Lieblich (TAU), Valentina Azarova (Koç) (who also contributed to the earlier symposium), Diana Buttu (IMEU), and Eugene Kontorovich (Northwestern). Aeyal will respond to the comments at the end of the symposium.

We look forward to the conversation!

William Bradford Fails Upward — and Is Still Lying About His Credentials

by Kevin Jon Heller

When last we met William Bradford, he had just published an article in the National Security Law Journal (NSLJ) accusing centrist national-security-law professors of treason and advocating prosecuting them for providing material support to terrorists. After many scholars, including me, pointed out that the article was both absurd and deeply offensive, the NSLJ repudiated the article. (Alas, the journal has since scrubbed the repudiation from its website.)

Bradford’s article was not his first brush with controversy He was forced to resign from Indiana University at Indianapolis after Inside Higher Education revealed that he had lied about his military service, falsely claiming, inter alia, that he had fought in Desert Storm and Bosnia and had won a Silver Star. Bradford then later resigned from West Point — whose decision to hire him still boggles the mind — after it came to light that he had falsely claimed that he had been an assistant professor at the National Defense University (NDU), run by the Department of Defense. According to the NDU, to quote the Guardian, “he was not a professor there, nor even a staff employee…. He is said to have worked for a Waynesboro, Virginia-based translations and business consultant, Translang, which had a contract with the university.”

You would be forgiven for thinking that someone who has accused respected law professors of committing treason and who was forced to resign from two academic institutions for lying about his credentials might have a difficult time finding a new — and more important — position. But if you do think that, you have never met Donald J. Trump, for whom no one is too dishonest or too incompetent to hire. Because Trump has recently appointed Bradford to the be the Director of the Office of Indian Energy at the Department of Energy (DoE).

That’s appalling in and of itself. But the awfulness doesn’t end there, because Bradford is still lying about his credentials. Here is a screenshot of Bradford’s bio on the DoE website (in case the DoE reads this and decides to scrub it):

Notice the text inside the red rectangle: Bradford is still claiming to have been a faculty member at the NDU — the same claim that led to his resignation from West Point.

In any sane administration, Bradford would be fired in the next 48 hours. But this is the Trump administration, so I’m not holding my breath.

Comparing U.S. Strategies in Constructing Cybernorms with China

by Duncan Hollis

I’ve got a new draft article up on SSRN (you can download it here) entitled China and the U.S. Strategic Construction of Cybernorms: the Process is the Product.  It was written for a really great inter-disciplinary workshop held at Stanford Law School earlier this Spring by the Hoover Institution’s National Security, Technology and Law Working Group (which is chaired by Ben Wittes and Jack Goldsmith). The article will be published shortly in Aegis, the Hoover Institution’s Paper Series with some cross-linking on Lawfare (Hoover already has one of the Workshop’s other papers posted – a great piece by by Adam Segal on Chinese Cyber Diplomacy).

In the meantime, here’s my abstract:

This paper explores the role norms—shared expectations about appropriate behavior within a given community—play in advancing U.S. interests in changing Chinese behavior in cyberspace. It focuses on two recent normative achievements: (1) the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts’ consensus that international law applies in cyberspace; and (2) the U.S.-China understanding that neither State would pursue cyber-espionage for commercial advantages. To date, both agreements have been studied largely in terms of their contents – on what they say.

In contrast, this paper undertakes a broader, process-based analysis of U.S. efforts to generate cybernorms. It compares and contrasts the two projects by examining (a) their respective normative ingredients (i.e., the type of desired behavior, the identity of the group subject to the norm, the source of the norm’s propriety, and the extent of any shared expectations); (b) where the norm promotion occurred (i.e., grafted onto an existing institution or deployed in a newly established process); and (c) the choice of mechanisms—incentives, persuasion, socialization—by which the United States sought to develop and evolve each norm. Doing so reveals a diverse range of choices that offers a new lens for analyzing and assessing how cybernorms may emerge (or change) in a global, dynamic and pluralistic environment. As such, this paper provides a framework for strategizing about the potential risks and rewards of pursuing different normative processes, whether in U.S. efforts to impact China’s behavior in cyberspace or vice-versa. States and scholars would thus do well to assess current and future efforts to construct cybernorms with China and other States by looking at not just one, but all the aspects of normative processes.

As always, comments and feedback are most welcome.

Sound and Fury on the Paris Agreement – But Does It Signify Anything?

by Daniel Bodansky

[Daniel Bodansky is Foundation Professor of Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.]

As usual, in his announcement yesterday about the Paris Agreement, President Trump spoke loudly but carried a small stick.  Duncan laid out the options for withdrawal in his post earlier this week.  Rather than choosing the “nuclear option” of withdrawing from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which President Trump could have initiated immediately and would have resulted in US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement a year from now, he opted to withdraw from the Paris Agreement pursuant to the Paris Agreement itself – a much slower process that requires him to wait until November 2019 to provide notice of withdrawal, and another year before the withdrawal takes effect.  Needless to say, a lot can happen between now and then.   Whether Trump feels the same way in 2019 as he does today is by no means certain, particularly since, judging from both his words and deeds, Trump views consistency as the hobgoblin of little minds.  As a result, his announcement throws red meat to his supporters and gives the finger to the rest of the world  (much the same thing) – but it doesn’t do anything concrete to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement.

But if the Trump announcement was weak on substance it was strong on rhetoric.  David Roberts has an excellent post over at Vox on “The 5 Biggest Deceptions in Trump’s Paris Climate Speech.” So I’ll be brief.  Suffice it to say that, in justifying his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, President Trump trotted out the same warmed-over arguments that the Bush Administration made about the Kyoto Protocol:  it’s unfair to the US because it lets China and India off the hook; it’s a threat to US sovereignty, by putting the United States under the thumb of UN bureaucrats; and it would wreck the US economy.  These agreements may have had a kernel of truth with respect to the Kyoto Protocol, but they are completely wrong about the Paris Agreement.  The Paris Agreement was, in fact, designed to be the un-Kyoto. In contrast to Kyoto, it calls on all countries to make commitments to control emissions.  Rather than imposing internationally negotiated targets on countries, it gives parties complete flexibility to nationally-determine their emission reduction plans.  And rather than putting countries in a legal straightjacket that threatens their sovereignty, countries’ national emission commitments under the Paris Agreement are not legally binding.

Although the US will remain in the Paris Agreement through at least 2020, President Trump said that the US would stop implementing it in the meantime.  This appears directly at odds with general rule of treaty law, reflected in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, requiring states to perform in good faith treaties to which they are a party.  So long as the United States is a party to the Paris Agreement, it is obligated to comply with its commitments under the agreement.

For Trump, announcing his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was a win-win-win: it shored up support among his base, diverted attention away from the Russia investigation, and allowed him to look decisive (after weeks of dithering about what to do).  For the rest of the world (including non-Trump America), the announcement was a significant setback in the international effort to address climate change.  But how serious a setback will depend, in part, on the reaction by other countries and by sub-national actors within the United States.   So far, the response has been encouraging.  Other countries, including China, Russia, India and European countries, have reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement and states and cities within the United States have created the United States Climate Alliance, dedicated to achieving the US goal of reducing emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.  If the United States reengages with the Paris Agreement after the 2020 elections, the Trump announcement may turn out to be a pothole for the United States, rather than a plunge off the cliff for the world.

What to Look for in any U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

by Duncan Hollis

President Trump has indicated that he will announce a decision on future U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement later today at 3 pm. Reports suggest that he has already made up his mind to withdraw. That decision is likely to receive extensive attention (not to mention criticism) on the merits. And certainly that attention is warranted. But I believe an equally important issue will be how the Trump Administration pursues its withdrawal.

Contrary to popular opinion (and this erroneous NY Times Q&A), the Paris Agreement was never intended to be non-binding. It is, on its face, pretty clearly a treaty in the international law sense of that term (see the standard definition in Art. 2(1)(a) of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law Treaties (VCLT)). True, one key provision of the Paris Agreement (Article 4) contains language that does not evidence an intention to create legal rights or obligations (and the negotiation of which almost blew up the original deal). But the rest of the agreement was clearly intended to create a treaty and the language used manifests such intentions. For confirmation, one only has to look to the U.N. Treaty Office (which is home to some of the world’s leading experts on treaties) and note how it has always regarded the Paris Agreement as a treaty.

The United States formally joined the Paris Agreement on November 4, 2016, following its acceptance of that treaty on September 3, 2016. It is true that the United States did so without seeking the U.S. Senate’s advice and consent under Art. 2, cl. 2, section 2, nor did Congress specifically authorize U.S. participation as it did for treaties like NAFTA or the WTO Agreement. But U.S. treaty law and practice has long accommodated other means for the United States to enter into treaties in the international law sense, including through the President’s sole executive powers or where prior Congressional authorization supports U.S. participation. In the case of Paris, the precise grounds for U.S. acceptance are contested (see Dan Bodansky and Peter Spiro’s impressive take on these issues here).

As far as international law is concerned, however, there is little question that the United States is currently bound by its acceptance. The law of treaties is most famous for the foundational principle pacta sunt servanda, or as VCLT Art. 26 puts it, “Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.” And for those less familiar with the VCLT, it is important to note that although the United States never joined the “treaty on treaties” every Administration since Richard Nixon’s has regarded almost all of its provisions as customary international law (the exceptions being provisions on signature and consultations in the event of breach). Thus, to withdraw or otherwise end its obligations under the Paris Agreement, the United States will have to look to the law of treaties. Indeed, VCLT Article 42 provides that a treaty’s validity or a State’s consent can only be impeached through the VCLT’s application and, more pertinently, “[t]he termination of a treaty, its denunciation or the withdrawal of a party, may take place only as a result of the application of the provisions of the treaty or of the present Convention.”

So, how can the United States get out from the Paris Agreement? I predict the Trump Administration will invoke one of four possible avenues for its exit later today.

States Are Failing Us in Syria — Not International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last month, Just Security published a long and thoughtful post by Rebecca Ingber with the provocative title “International Law is Failing Us in Syria.” The international law she is talking about is the jus ad bellum — the illegality of unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI) in particular. In her view, the failure of the international community to use force to end the humanitarian crisis in Syria indicates that an exception to Art. 2(4) for UHI is “the only means of preserving international law’s credibility in the use of force realm”:

The reality is that there will be times that states use force out of a sense of moral imperative and long-term strategic importance, and not out of a specific self-defense rationale. International law – and we international lawyers – can try to stand in the way, at times constraining morally imperative action, at times getting bulldozed; or we can look the other way and be sidelined, perhaps even tell policymakers and our clients to move forward without us. Or, we can engage and work with them to help craft the most sound, narrow, acceptable grounds possible, together with our allies. This view is not an acceptance that international law does not matter. It is an acceptance that international law – like so much public law – operates in a dynamic space that is inevitably interwoven with the reality of how states act and the widespread acceptance of its legitimacy.

I don’t want to focus here on the legal aspects of Ingber’s post, other than to note that when she claims “our allies… have become comfortable stretching the outer bounds of what international law has historically been thought to permit” with regard to the use of force, she links almost exclusively to UK practice. (The one exception is “unwilling or unable,” where she refers to the flawed Chachko/Deeks post that tries to categorise state positions on the doctrine.)

The legal questions are, of course, interesting. But what I find most problematic about Ingber’s post is its most basic assumption: namely, that the international community has failed to do more in Syria because UHI is not legal. That assumption, I think, is categorically false. If the King of International Law announced tomorrow that UHI was consistent with Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter, it would have no effect on the international response to the Syrian crisis. Literally none.

And that is because international law is not failing us in Syria. States are.

Or, more precisely, the self-interest of states is failing us. States have not intervened in Syria to end the humanitarian crisis because doing so would be immensely costly in terms of both blood and treasure, not because Art. 2(4) doesn’t permit UHI. There is no easy solution for states concerned about Syria, such as a Kosovo- or Libya-style airpower campaign. If they want to end the crisis, they will have to invade Syria and destroy the large and generally well-equipped Syrian army — a task that would make the invasion of Iraq look positively economical by comparison. And the sad truth is that the US is not going to spend billions of dollars and accept thousands of dead American soldiers to save a bunch of defenceless Syrian civilians. Nor is the UK. Or France. Or Germany. Or any other state.

Do intervention-minded scholars disagree? Does anyone really believe that there is a head of state out there — actual or even potential — who at this very moment is saying to herself “I could end the Syria crisis tomorrow if that damn Art. 2(4) didn’t prohibit unilateral humanitarian intervention”? The idea beggars belief. I am on record with my insistence that UHI is not only unlawful but criminal, but I’m not stupid. A successful UHI in Syria would result in a Nobel Peace Prize, not a confirmation of charges hearing.

What is most striking about Ingber’s post is that she barely attempts to defend her claim that international law is preventing the kind of UHI she believes is necessary in Syria. All she says is that “with respect to Syria alone, the fact that international law may have played a role in taking intervention off the table during the Obama presidency (and there are subtle indications that it did) should weigh heavily on us now.” I’ve read both of the documents to which she links, and the indications are subtle indeed. In the press conference, Obama openly acknowledges the real reason why the US did not intervene in Syria while he was President — it wasn’t worth the cost:

So with respect to Syria, what I have consistently done is taken the best course that I can to try to end the civil war while having also to take into account the long-term national security interests of the United States.

And throughout this process, based on hours of meetings, if you tallied it up, days or weeks of meetings where we went through every option in painful detail, with maps, and we had our military, and we had our aid agencies, and we had our diplomatic teams, and sometimes we’d bring in outsiders who were critics of ours — whenever we went through it, the challenge was that, short of putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, uninvited, without any international law mandate, without sufficient support from Congress, at a time when we still had troops in Afghanistan and we still had troops in Iraq, and we had just gone through over a decade of war and spent trillions of dollars, and when the opposition on the ground was not cohesive enough to necessarily govern a country, and you had a military superpower in Russia prepared to do whatever it took to keeps its client-state involved, and you had a regional military power in Iran that saw their own vital strategic interests at stake and were willing to send in as many of their people or proxies to support the regime — that in that circumstance, unless we were all in and willing to take over Syria, we were going to have problems, and that everything else was tempting because we wanted to do something and it sounded like the right thing to do, but it was going to be impossible to do this on the cheap.

Obama takes the same position in the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Nothing in the interview suggests that the illegality of UHI had anything to do with Obama’s unwillingness to intervene more dramatically in Syria. On the contrary, as Goldberg explains by means of contrasting Obama with Samantha Power, he simply doesn’t believe in UHI:

Power is a partisan of the doctrine known as “responsibility to protect,” which holds that sovereignty should not be considered inviolate when a country is slaughtering its own citizens. She lobbied him to endorse this doctrine in the speech he delivered when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but he declined. Obama generally does not believe a president should place American soldiers at great risk in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States.

Goldberg recounts many of the factors underlying Obama’s realist view of American military power. The key one, though, is pragmatic, not legal — the disaster of NATO’s supposedly humanitarian intervention in Libya:

But what sealed Obama’s fatalistic view was the failure of his administration’s intervention in Libya, in 2011. That intervention was meant to prevent the country’s then-dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, from slaughtering the people of Benghazi, as he was threatening to do. Obama did not want to join the fight; he was counseled by Joe Biden and his first-term secretary of defense Robert Gates, among others, to steer clear. But a strong faction within the national-security team—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, who was then the ambassador to the United Nations, along with Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and Antony Blinken, who was then Biden’s national-security adviser—lobbied hard to protect Benghazi, and prevailed. (Biden, who is acerbic about Clinton’s foreign-policy judgment, has said privately, “Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.”) American bombs fell, the people of Benghazi were spared from what may or may not have been a massacre, and Qaddafi was captured and executed.

But Obama says today of the intervention, “It didn’t work.” The U.S., he believes, planned the Libya operation carefully—and yet the country is still a disaster.

The Libya fiasco is particularly important, because it is tempting to believe that collective UHI in Syria might be more successful than individual UHI. It probably would — except that the benefits of collective action would still not outweigh the reluctance of powerful states to spend blood and treasure for merely humanitarian concerns. Libya is a case in point: NATO countries were willing to drop bombs on the Libyan army, but they would never have committed soldiers to a ground invasion. They are not willing to put them in Libya now, when the risks are minimal. So even if Ingber is right that states have shown “widespread support for military action in response to humanitarian crises” (and I don’t think she is), she is still missing the fundamental point: they support military action by others, not by them. It’s not an accident, for example, that interventionists like John McCain and Lindsey Graham expect Arab soldiers to do the fighting for them in Syria.

And, of course, Syria is not Libya. Or even Kosovo. On the contrary: unlike in those situations, UHI in Syria, whether individual or collective, risks a shooting war with Russia, the second most powerful military in the world, and perhaps with Iran. That unpleasant possibility provides a far more effective deterrent to military action against Assad than the text of Art. 2(4) ever will.

What, then, is to be gained by “divining” or “crafting” an exception to Art. 2(4) for UHI, as Ingber suggests? The legality of UHI would not lead to humanitarian interventions in Syria or in any other comparable situation. But it would give powerful states like the US yet another pretext for using force to promote their national interests. Why invoke an inherently selfish rationale such as self-defence as a pretext for aggression when you could invoke humanitarian intervention instead? Who is opposed to helping innocent civilians? And if we take your land and oil and other resources along the way, well, we have to pay for our selflessness somehow, don’t we?

Legalising UHI, in short, will not lead to more humanitarian uses of force. It will lead to more aggression. And that is because international law is not the problem in Syria and elsewhere. States are.

Charlie Dunlap’s Defence of Israel’s Attacks on Hezbollah in Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, Asaf Lubin offered a compelling post at Just Security wondering why Israel’s repeated attacks on Hezbollah arms shipments in Syria have not received the same kind of jus ad bellum scrutiny as the US’s recent attack on a Syrian airfield. Today, Charles Dunlap provides his answer on the same blog: the Israeli attacks are clearly legal, so why would anyone scrutinise them? Here are the relevant paragraphs:

[I]t appears to me that the Israeli strike sought to destroy weapons in transit before Hezbollah can burrow them into densely-populated areas.  Of course, some JAB scholar might argue about the imminence of the threat as justifying anticipatory self-defense, but if one carefully reads the Obama administration’s “Report on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations” on that point (p. 9), it would be hard not to conclude that the strike would fit the criteria.

It is especially telling that the Obama administration concluded – correctly in my view – that it is “now increasingly recognized by the international community, the traditional conception of what constitutes an ‘imminent’ attack must be understood in light of the modern-day capabilities, techniques, and technological innovations of terrorist organizations.”

Along that line, this past January UK Attorney General Jeremy Wright gave a speech which echoed much of the Obama Administration’s approach.  Wright does caution that “remote threats or threats that have not yet materialized” would not fit the necessary criteria, but I don’t think in the case of Hezbollah those exclusions would apply.  Additionally, Wright endorsed – as does the Obama framework – Sir Daniel Bethlehem’s principles laid out in 2012 that included assessing whether there will be another “clear opportunity to act” defensively.

In other words, the analysis of “imminence” in this instance could properly take into account Hezbollah’s history of hostile actions against Israel, as well as its adaption of a “technique” which is “designed to exacerbate civilian risk.”  A strike on the Damascus warehouses makes sense as it could well be the last “clear opportunity to act” before the weapons could be embedded into civilian areas in easy range of Israel where they could be countered only at great risk to noncombatants.

Thus, the lack of JAB discussion about the reported Israeli bombings in Syria may simply reflect that the bulk of the international community finds that the use of force under these circumstances is an acceptable act in anticipatory self-defense.  We can’t ignore the fact that few nations other than Russia or Syria evinced much concern about the legality of the strike.

I don’t find Charlie’s argument convincing. The first problem concerns his claim that the lack of attention to Israel’s attacks “may simply reflect that the bulk of the international community finds that the use of force under these circumstances is an acceptable act in anticipatory self-defense.” He cites only two states in defence of the idea that the “international community” accepts this type of anticipatory self-defence: the US and the UK. Needless to say, two Global North states known for their aggressive interpretation of the jus ad bellum do not an “international community” make. Moreover, Charlie fails to acknowledge the repeated denunciations of anticipatory self-defence by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which represents 120 states. 120>2.

To be fair, Charlie seemingly tries to address this problem by implying that the failure of states (other than Russia and Syria) to specifically condemn the Israeli attacks indicates that they accept the US and UK understanding of imminence. But that clearly isn’t the case. As he acknowledges, Israel itself has not claimed that the attacks are legitimate anticipatory self-defence. Nor has any other state on Israel’s behalf — the US and UK included. The “silence” of the international community can thus hardly be interpreted as acquiescence — particularly in light of NAM’s repeated denunciation of anticipatory self-defence. States are not required to respond to scholarly interpretations of the use of force. When Israel claims its actions are legal because they represent anticipatory self-defence and NAM remains silent, we’ll talk.

It’s also worth noting that Charlie’s account of Israel’s attacks in Syria does not even bring them within the ambit of anticipatory self-defence — or at least not easily. According to him, “the Israeli strike sought to destroy weapons in transit before Hezbollah [could] burrow them into densely-populated areas.” Charlie finds such “burrowing” problematic — justifiably! — because it makes it more difficult for Israel to destroy the weapons caches without causing disproportionate civilian harm. But that is a jus in bello problem, not a jus ad bellum one. The fact that Hezbollah weapons are in a difficult to attack location does not mean that those weapons will be immediately used against Israel. And that is true even in light of Hezbollah’s “history of hostile actions,” which hardly indicates that Hezbollah attacks Israel whenever it has the material means to do so. The mere presence of the weapons in a location near to Israel thus seems to represent precisely the kind of “remote threat[] or threat[] that [has] not yet materialized” that Jeremy Wright, the UK Attorney General whom Charlie cites in defence of his position, says does not give rise to the right of self-defence.

I will say, though, that Charlie’s explanation of the Israeli attacks raises an interesting issue concerning the relationship between the  jus in bello and the jus ad bellum. We are accustomed to the idea that the two legal regimes are independent, and it is beyond doubt that failing to comply with the jus ad bellum does not affect the equal application of the jus in bello. But the converse is not true, as the ICJ specifically affirmed in the Nuclear Weapons case (para. 42):

[A] use of force that is proportionate under the law of self- defence, must, in order to be lawful, also meet the requirements of the law applicable in armed conflict which comprise in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.

The jus ad bellum requirement that self-defence comply with IHL does, in fact, suggest that the imminence of an attack should be assessed in light of the victim state’s ability to defend itself in a way that complies with IHL. So I don’t think we can reject the “last clear opportunity to act” understanding of imminence out of hand. On the contrary, if an attack will only become imminent under the traditional conception at a time when the victim state cannot defend itself in an IHL-compliant way, I think the victim state should be entitled to defend itself at a temporally earlier moment, when IHL compliance is still possible.

Even that “relaxed” idea of imminence, however, presupposes that the defended-against attack is more than merely hypothetical. So it’s difficult to see how Israel’s strikes on Hezbollah’s arms shipments could qualify as legitimate acts of self-defence. On the contrary: they are precisely the kind of anticipatory self-defence that international law prohibits.

Why Unilateral Humanitarian Intervention Is Illegal and Potentially Criminal

by Kevin Jon Heller

I read Jennifer Trahan’s post yesterday with great interest — but not surprisingly I disagree with it. Before I get to my disagreements, though, I think it’s bizarre that we are all debating the legality of unilateral humanitarian intervention in the context of the recent US missile attack on Syria. It simply beggars belief to think that the attack was in any way motivated by humanitarian concerns. Chemical weapons, which have killed perhaps 2,000 civilians, are not the problem in Syria; conventional weapons, which have killed hundreds of thousands, are the real threat. And the US has done absolutely nothing to protect Syrians from conventional weapons — it has simply funnelled even more into the country to support various rebel groups (including some that are allied with al-Qaeda) in their struggle against Assad. The US cares about protecting its own interests in Syria, such as preventing chemical weapons from being used against Americans. (The real message of the completely ineffectual attack.) It does not care about the lives of ordinary Syrians, as the ever mounting death-toll indicates.

But let’s put aside the context of the missile attack and focus on Trahan’s legal claims. The first is that unilateral humanitarian intervention (UHI) — the qualifier, of course, is critical — can be legal in the right circumstances. The post, however, doesn’t even come close to establishing that claim. Just consider what Trahan cites in defence of it:

[1] NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, in which “all NATO members supported the intervention designed to stave off ethnic cleansing.” Trahan openly acknowledges that “many did not defend it as ‘humanitarian intervention’ per se, except Belgium” — but that gives away the ballgame. If the 26 other NATO states did not invoke UHI, the attack does not help establish UHI’s legality. As the ICJ pointed out in the Nicaragua case (para. 207), not even the Court itself has the “authority to ascribe to States legal views which they do not themselves advance.” So it doesn’t matter whether Trahan and other scholars would like to describe Kosovo as an example of UHI. All that matters is that NATO states could have invoked UHI but chose not to.

It is also telling that Trahan fails to point out that the Kosovo intervention met with significant international criticism. Here are Vaughan Lowe and Antonios Tzanakopoulos in the Max Planck Encyclopedia:

33  The response of other, non-NATO, States to arguments that there was a legal basis for the Kosovo bombing campaign and for a right of humanitarian intervention was overwhelmingly negative. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), numbering well over half of the Member States of the UN, unequivocally condemned the use of force against the (then) FRY, as did many other States, some of which are nuclear powers. In these circumstances, no right of unilateral forcible humanitarian intervention can be said to have emerged as a rule of customary international law.

[2] UK and US no-fly zones in Iraq. Once again opinio juris is lacking: the coalition initially provided no legal justification for the no-fly zones, and the US later justified them as self-defence (against threats to coalition aircraft, a wonderfully circular argument).

[3] ECOWAS’s interventions in Liberia in 1990 and Sierra Leone in 1998. Same problem: as Adam Roberts has pointed out, ECOWAS never invoked UHI to justify its actions. It relied instead on provisions in its own founding treaty.

[4] The UK’s endorsement of UHI in Syria, particularly in the context of the 2013 sarin gas attack that killed hundreds if not thousands. Unlike the other examples, this endorsement does, in fact, contribute opinio juris in favour of UHI.

So, there we have it: one state that explicitly and regularly endorses a right of UHI.  And against that, we have the unequivocal rejection of UHI by the 120 states that are part of the Non-Aligned Movement and the 134 states that are part of the Group of 77, which includes major powers like China, India, and South Africa. (The two groups obviously overlap.) How any scholar could conclude that customary international law nevertheless recognises a right of UHI, however limited, is simply beyond me.

For similar reasons, I also reject Trahan’s confident claim that UHI could never be criminal. Here is what she says:

Humanitarian intervention, narrowly construed, then clearly also would not constitute the crime of aggression, which is poised to activate this December 2017 before the International Criminal Court. (Anything in a legal “grey area” is excluded from that definition—and, at minimum, humanitarian intervention (sometimes supported and sometimes invoked) is within that legal grey area. The U.S., a non-State Party to the ICC’s Rome Statute, would be exempt from the crime’s jurisdictional reach, even if it does activate.)

I disagree. To begin with, during the Kampala Review Conference in 2010, states soundly rejected the US’s attempt to specifically exclude UHI from the crime of aggression. Here is the text of the US’s failed Understanding:

It is understood that, for purposes of the Statute, an act cannot be considered to be a manifest violation of the United Nations Charter unless it would be objectively evident to any State conducting itself in the matter in accordance with normal practice and in good faith, and thus an act undertaken in connection with an effort to prevent the commission of any of the crimes contained in Articles 6, 7 or 8 of the Statute would not constitute an act of aggression.

More importantly, the fact that scholars insist UHI can be legal does not make the legality of UHI fall into a “grey area.” On the contrary, it is difficult to imagine any issue that is more black and white given state practice. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter is clear: force is legal only when authorised by the Security Council or in self-defence. UHI does not involve the former by its very definition, and there is no argument de lege lata that UHI can be justified as a form of self-defence, because it does not involve an armed attack on the intervening state. Adil Haque made that point in response to Jens’s recent post, and here are Lowe and Tzanakopoulos again:

23  Humanitarian intervention in order to alleviate the suffering of a local population cannot, without more, be justified as self-defence. Self-defence under Art. 51 UN Charter requires that an armed attack occur against a State. In most cases, widespread violations of human rights will not reach the gravity threshold of an armed attack. Even if the oppression does reach the threshold of an armed attack, however, there will be no armed attack against a State, but at most an armed attack against the population of the State by or with the support or inaction of State authorities. The right to self-defence under international law vests in States and not in sub-State entities such as the local population. Moreover, the oppression will, ex hypothesi, not emanate from another State, but will be by the government upon its own people.

The illegality of UHI under Art. 2(4) is, of course, not set in stone. As Lowe and Tzanakopoulos rightly note, UHI could become legal through subsequent state practice that results in a new interpretation of the provision or (possibly) through the emergence of a supervening customary rule. But that has clearly not happened, given G77 and NAM’s ongoing and unwavering opposition to UHI.

It is unlikely, of course, that the ICC will ever prosecute a government official who is responsible for preparing, planning, initiating, or executing a UHI — and not simply because of the new crime of aggression’s crimped jurisdictional regime. But that does not mean UHI does not manifestly violate the UN Charter. It most certainly does.