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The UK Government’s Position on Unwilling & Unable

by Jens David Ohlin

Happy Thanksgiving.  As those of us in the United States celebrate our Thanksgiving holiday, it is of course imperative to remember that many people outside our country are facing serious problems and perilous circumstances.

In response to the terror attacks in Paris (and in Mali), the government of UK Prime Minister David Cameron has once again called on British lawmakers to authorize the use of military force in Syria. Cameron released a document that not only articulates the strategic necessity for military action against ISIS, but also outlines the Cameron administration’s legal position regarding the legality of the proposed strikes under international law. Unsurprisingly, the argument relies on the fact that the Syria government is unwilling or unable to stop the ISIS threat.

The following excerpt is taken from a longer document released by Cameron and sent to the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Here is the critical section dealing with international law:

There is now a UN Security Council Resolution. Resolution 2249 (of 20 November 2015) has now made a clear and unanimous determination that ISIL “constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security”, and called upon Member States to take “all necessary measures … to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL… and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.” There is a clear legal basis for military action against ISIL in Syria. The legality of UK strikes against ISIL in Syria is founded on the right of self-defence as it is recognised in Article 51 of the UN Charter. The right to self-defence may be exercised individually where it is necessary to the UK’s own defence, and collectively in the defence of our friends and allies. This reflects the multi-faceted and evolving threat that ISIL poses, and the response that is required to bring that threat to an effective end.

Collective Self Defence of Iraq

On 20 September 2014 the Government of Iraq wrote to the President of the UN Security Council seeking international assistance to strike ISIL sites and military strongholds, in order to end the constant threat to Iraq, protect Iraq’s citizens and, ultimately, arm Iraqi forces and enable them to regain control of Iraq’s borders. The main basis of the Global Coalition’s actions against ISIL in Syria is the collective self-defence of Iraq. The UK is already supporting the Coalition’s efforts to degrade ISIL in Syria as a necessary aspect of effectively bringing an end to ISIL’s armed attack on Iraq. On 21 October 2014, the Defence Secretary announced to Parliament that he was authorising flights of manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft over Syria to gather intelligence against ISIL. There is a solid basis of evidence on which to conclude, firstly, that there is a direct link between the presence and activities of ISIL in Syria and their ongoing attack on Iraq and, secondly, that the Assad regime is unwilling and/or unable to take action necessary to prevent ISIL’s continuing attack on Iraq.

In light of these considerations and the scale of the threat posed by ISIL, military action that is necessary and proportionate to bring an end to ISIL’s attack on Iraq is justified in accordance with the right of collective self-defence that is preserved in Article 51 of the UN Charter. The Coalition has relied on this legal basis for military action in Syria. Numerous States, including the USA, Australia, Canada and France have written to the UN Security Council explaining that they are taking action on the basis of the right of collective self-­defence. In accordance with the requirements of Article 51 of the UN Charter, the UK notified the UN Security Council that it was taking military action as part of the Coalition’s efforts in the collective self-defence of Iraq by a letter of 25 November 2014. The underlying considerations which justified collective self-defence of Iraq for UK activity in Syria in 2014 remain today. The collective self-defence of Iraq provides a clear legal basis for the UK to increase its contribution to the Coalition’s efforts against ISIL in Syria by taking direct military action itself, provided such activity meets the ongoing requirements of necessity and proportionality.

ISIL’s threat to the UK and its attack on our Allies and partners

The threat from ISIL continues to evolve and now goes far beyond Iraq and Syria, as is all too clear from the external attack planning disrupted by the precision UK strike of 21 August (as I reported to the House on 7 September) and the tragic events of 13 November in Paris. For several months now, UK security agencies have been monitoring the development of ISIL’s external attack planning capacity, which seeks to target both the UK and our allies and partners around the world. Resolution 2249 (2015) both condemns the ISIL’s horrendous attacks that have taken place and notes ISIL’s intent and capability to carry out further attacks. It then calls upon States to take lawful action to prevent such attacks. It is clear that ISIL’s campaign against the UK and our allies has reached the level of an “armed attack” such that force may lawfully be used in self-defence to prevent further atrocities being committed by ISIL. As well as the collective self-defence of Iraq, there is therefore an additional legal basis to take action in our own self-defence and that of other allies and partners as well, where they request our assistance. The use of force in self-defence is of course limited to what is necessary and proportionate and we have made clear that we will act at all times in accordance with the law.

So How Is China Taking Its Loss at the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal? Not Well.

by Julian Ku

I have been curious to see how China would respond to yesterday’s UNCLOS Annex VII Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling finding it has jurisdiction to hear the Philippines South China Sea related claims.  Well, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was ready with this blistering response:

Q: The Arbitral Tribunal established at the request of the Republic of the Philippines rendered the award on jurisdiction and admissibility of the South China Sea arbitration. What is China’s comment on that?

A: The Chinese government will not accept nor participate in the South China Sea arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has immediately released a statement to elaborate on China’s solemn position. The award is null and void, and has no binding effect on China. I would like to highlight three points.

First, China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters. As a sovereign state and a State Party to the UNCLOS, China is entitled to choose the means and procedures of dispute settlement of its own will. China has all along been committed to resolving disputes with its neighbors over territory and maritime jurisdiction through negotiations and consultations. China and the Philippines have repeatedly reaffirmed in bilateral documents since the 1990s and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 that they shall resolve relevant disputes through negotiations and consultations.

Second, disregarding that the essence of this arbitration case is territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation and related matters, maliciously evading the declaration on optional exceptions made by China in 2006 under Article 298 of the UNCLOS, and negating the consensus between China and the Philippines on resolving relevant disputes through negotiations and consultations, the Philippines and the Arbitral Tribunal have abused relevant procedures, misrepresented the law and obstinately forced ahead with the arbitration, and as a result, have severely violated the legitimate rights that China enjoys as a State Party to the UNCLOS, completely deviated from the purposes and objectives of the UNCLOS, and eroded the integrity and authority of the UNCLOS.

Third, as a State Party to the UNCLOS, China firmly opposes the acts of abusing the compulsory procedures for dispute settlement under the UNCLOS, and calls upon all parties concerned to work together to safeguard the integrity and authority of the UNCLOS. China urges the Philippines to honor its own commitments, respect China’s rights under international law, change its course and return to the right track of resolving relevant disputes in the South China Sea through negotiations and consultations. That is the correct path with bright prospects.

The full MFA statement is here, and includes a swipe at the Philippines for using the “cloak of law as a political provocation.”  It is worth noting that China is still aiming most of its rhetorical fire at the Philippines, but it has also now directly criticized the Arbitral Tribunal for “abus[ing] relevant procedures [and] misrepresent[ing] the law….”  I also detect a slightly larger emphasis in China’s complaint about the “unilateral” nature of this arbitration.

I am also impressed by China’s willingness to just ignore the clear provisions of Article 288(4) of UNCLOS, and simply declare that the Tribunal’s ruling is “null and void” and has “no binding legal effect.”  At some point, someone in China is going to have to gin up a legal argument to get past UNCLOS’ clear language giving the Tribunal the power to determine questions of jurisdiction.  But for now, it looks like China is going to stick to its guns.

So It’s Settled: The President Can Violate Customary International Law

by Julian Ku

There is a lot of interesting material revealed in the Charlie Savage NYTimes article on the legal justification for the Bin Laden raid (including how the Attorney General and Office of Legal Counsel were kept in the dark and out of the loop).  But I want to focus on one paragraph in the article, which explained the lawyers’ backup justification for their conclusion:

There was also a trump card. While the lawyers believed that Mr. Obama was bound to obey domestic law, they also believed he could decide to violate international law when authorizing a “covert” action, officials said.

Deborah has done some very good analysis here on the CIA’s views on this question, as applied to non-self-executing treaties. I think that is a tricky question. But there is also an easier question that was also probably settled in the lawyers’ legal memos.  Like the Bush administration lawyers, the Obama Administration lawyers concluded that the President can choose to violate that customary international law without violating the Constitution or other domestic law.

Although this may seem obvious, it used to be a highly contested question.  I dug up this discussion from a 1986 panel between leading international law scholars Louis Henkin, Anthony D’Amato, Michael Glennon, Abe Chayes and others.  Almost none (even President Reagan’s legal adviser Abe Chayes) would have openly admitted that the President could violate customary international law. The Restatement of U.S. Foreign Relations Law suggests, but does not completely endorse the view that the President can openly violate customary international law.  Indeed, there used to be a fair number of law review articles explaining why the President’s obligation to “Take Care” that the laws are faithfully executed include customary international law. But, if Savage’s reporting is accurate, the U.S. government (under both George Bush and Barack Obama) is no longer troubled by this question, and has moved on. So should the rest of us, apparently.

Breaking: UNCLOS Tribunal Rules Against China, Unanimously Finds It Has Jurisdiction Over Philippines South China Sea Claims

by Julian Ku

It’s been a rough week for China’s South China Seas policy. In addition to facing a US Freedom of Navigation operation near one of its artificial islands, the arbitration tribunal formed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has decided that it has jurisdiction to proceed to the merits on the Philippines’ legal challenge to certain Chinese activities in the South China Sea.

I will blog more about this later, but for now it is worth noting that the tribunal unanimously ruled that it can proceed to the merits on seven out of 15 of the Philippines’ claims, and that it reserves the question of jurisdiction on seven other claims as being so interwoven with the merits that it cannot be resolved without first considering the merits.

I will note that the tribunal reserved the question of jurisdiction over the Philippines’ biggest and most flashy claim: the argument that China’s Nine Dash Line “historic rights” claim is inconsistent with UNCLOS. It held that:

The Philippines’ Submission No. 1 does, however, require the Tribunal to consider the effect of any historic rights claimed by China to maritime entitlements in the South China Sea and the interaction of such rights with the provisions of the Convention. This is a dispute concerning the interpretation and application of the Convention. The Tribunal’s jurisdiction to consider this question, however, would be dependent on the nature of any such historic rights and whether they are covered by the exclusion from jurisdiction over “historic bays or titles” in Article 298. The nature and validity of any historic rights claimed by China is a merits determination. The possible jurisdictional objections with respect to the dispute underlying Submission No. 1 therefore do not possess an exclusively preliminary character. Accordingly, the Tribunal reserves a decision on its jurisdiction with respect to the Philippines’ Submission No. 1 for consideration in conjunction with the merits of the Philippines’ claims.

On the other hand, the Tribunal did find that the question of whether the Scarborough Shoal is a “rock” or an “island” is clearly within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, irrespective of the merits. It did so because it held that there are no overlapping sovereignty or sea boundary claims that might impact the determination.

Overall, it should never be surprising when an arbitral tribunal finds that it has jurisdiction to hear a case. The Tribunal did throw China a bone by noting that it is still possible that seven of the Philippines’ claims (including the Nine Dash Line challenge) could be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction at the merits stage.

But by reserving the question of jurisdiction, and guaranteeing it will rule on the merits for several other claims, the Tribunal shoves the ball back onto China’s court.  Will China continue to claim it is not bound by the Tribunal for lack of jurisdiction, when the Tribunal has now found it has jurisdiction?  China would more clearly be in violation of UNCLOS now than it was before, because UNCLOS Article 288(4) makes it clear that “[i]n the event of a dispute as to whether a court or tribunal has jurisdiction, the matter shall be settled by decision of that court or tribunal.”  My guess is China will pretend that Article 288 doesn’t exist and continue to refuse to participate.  The interesting question is whether China will pay any serious price (in reputational terms) if it does so.

More Memos Anyone?

by Jens David Ohlin

Today the New York Times reported on the existence of four secret memos covering the various aspects of the U.S. Navy Seals raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.  It would be great to see the memos, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. They aren’t likely to be released in the very near future, though I think each of them would, in very significant ways, increase our understanding of how the United States executive branch understands crucial questions of international law.

For now, until the memos arrive, here are a few brief comments about the underlying issues contained in them. First, let’s discuss the duty to capture. I think the memo (at least from its description in the New York Times) gets this exactly right. If Bin Laden effectively communicated his intention to surrender, the attacking forces are required to respect that decision and take him into custody instead of killing him. However, there is no affirmative obligation under IHL to offer targets the opportunity to surrender before attacking them. In other words, one does not need to ask a target if they wish to surrender before killing them. Based on this analysis, it is entirely legal under IHL for a military operation to proceed with the intention to kill the targets rather than to capture them (although query whether Ryan Goodman, presently at DoD, might disagree with this conclusion).

Another memo dealt extensively with the putative violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty caused by the Navy Seals raid. According to the Times article, the focus of the memo was the Unwilling or Unable standard, which has been extensively vetted on this blog in the past (including some intense back-and-forth between Kevin Heller and Marty Lederman). I wanted to make two quick points about the nature of this debate. First, I think the discourse is focused far too much on customary international law, which to my mind is of limited–or even no–relevance to the issue. (In this respect, various statements regarding self-defense from the ICJ, including in Nicaragua, have contributed to this confusion.) In reality, the law of self-defense is a question of treaty interpretation, governed by article 51, which recognizes and preserves, but strictly speaking does not create, an inherent right under international law. Indeed, even if customary international law were to purport to eliminate the right of self-defense, the right would still endure as legally effective, in part because it is an inherent right that cannot be taken away–a point recognized by the text of article 51 as central to the UN Charter regime. Consequently, the real test of the unwilling or unable standard is whether it is consistent with both the natural right of self-defense and the text of article 51–something that the current debate has shown insufficient attention to. And, dare I say it, the text of article 51 suggests that the provision was designed to carve out, as an exception from the general prohibition on the use of force, the defensive rights that existed pre-charter going back as far as natural law. That should be the focus of the analysis.

OK, now back to watching the GOP debate.

Contra CIA, Non-Self-Executing Treaties Are Still the Supreme Law of the Land

by Deborah Pearlstein

Let’s set aside for now the apparent reliance on the “unwilling or unable” exception to justify the U.S. invasion of Pakistan without that country’s consent – even without having asked the country for its consent. Let’s also set aside the apparent designation of the bin Laden operation as a “covert action” under U.S. law – when it’s not at all clear the operation was intended “to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad,” as the U.S. law of covert action requires (as opposed to, for example, just killing or capturing bin Laden). The most troubling sentence in Charlie Savage’s new New York Times piece on the legal theory underlying the United States’ 2011 incursion into Pakistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden is this: “While the lawyers believed that Mr. Obama was bound to obey domestic law, they also believed he could decide to violate international law when authorizing a ‘covert’ action, officials said.” (more…)

Guest Post: Norm Diffusion in the Transpacific Partnership

by Ardevan Yaghoubi

[Ardevan Yaghoubi is a Ph.D Student at Princeton University’s Department of Politics.] 

“As we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules.”  – President Obama, State of the Union Address, January 20, 2015

Proponents of the recently-concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) typically argue that the agreement will do one of two things: increase economic growth through exports and jobs, or advance favorable geopolitical and national security objectives. The economic perspective on the agreement sees a rational-choice model of expected economic utility; the geopolitical frame emphasizes the TPP’s role in creating reputation, prestige, and soft power.

But the strictly material and abstractly ideational explanations of the TPP both miss an important feature of the agreement: that the TPP is designed to create norms that spread across the international system. It is not only intended to bring about economic benefits or directly buttress American allies in Asia to counter a rising power. In the study of international politics, this process is called norm diffusion. I argue that understanding norm diffusion helps to articulate the implicit theory behind President Obama’s metaphor of “writing the rules”. By melding insights about norm diffusion to the frame of a traditional trade agreement, the TPP is a unique and noteworthy innovation in international law and institutionalism. Whatever one’s thoughts about the merits of the TPP, the basic hypothesis undergirding its intended effects deserves greater clarity.

In this post, I explore the logic of norm diffusion in the TPP: Is norm diffusion an objective of the TPP? If so, how exactly is the process of diffusion expected to occur? And what obstacles might block the reproduction of the TPP’s rules? I will address these questions in turn.

Is the TPP Really About Norm Diffusion?

Alongside their traditional role of merely cutting tariffs and lowering trade barriers, today’s FTAs are a tool of international economic competition: the rules contained in these agreements regulate and shape industries from agriculture to manufacturing to finance. It is hardly controversial, then, that FTAs will tend to reflect the economies and economic priorities of the states who have negotiated them. States don’t have total latitude in determining the content of FTAs, since WTO rules still exert substantial influence. But there are many parts of the world economy where the WTO’s influence is limited.

What norms are these? Well, the TPP text agreed on in Atlanta contains chapters regulating norms spanning the right to organize, the illegal trade of wildlife and environmentally protected species, generic medicines, copyright infringement, 3D printing and manufacturing, financial investments, state-owned enterprises and government procurement, and of course, tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade.

But the TPP came into being at the end of a two-decade period in which American influence in the global trade system has been waning. While the number of new agreements negotiated has increased dramatically since the millennium, the U.S. has signed just a handful of notable new FTAs: with Korea (2012), Dominican Republic-Central America or DR-CAFTA (2005), Singapore (2004), Chile (2004), and Australia (2004). Taking stock of the total number of agreements by region, the U.S. lags behind the Asia Pacific, South America, Eurasia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Seen against this economic and geopolitical backdrop, the necessity of the TPP from an American policy perspective should be evident: it represents approximately 40% of global GDP across North and South America and the Asia Pacific, and nearly one-third of global trade. Without it, the U.S. loses leverage and potential economic opportunities in a century where its percentage share of the global economic pie will continue to shrink. It also brings post-war allies, like the U.S. and Japan, closer together as a key element of the “pivot to Asia”, while integrating non-allied states like Vietnam and Malaysia.

Many geopolitical analyses of the TPP end with vague references to “soft power” or U.S. national security interests and little explanation of how the TPP will actually further those aims. What these narratives miss is that the logic of the agreement is based on a theory of norm diffusion. In its essence, norm diffusion (or sometimes called norm “cascade”) refers to “an active process of international socialization intended to induce norm breakers to become norm followers”. International relations scholars have given careful attention to the way in which norms and rules circulate and achieve legitimate compliance in international politics and international law.

But what is striking about the TPP is that its architects are themselves conscious of these socialization effects. For instance, here is a representative statement by USTR Ambassador Michael Froman writing in Foreign Affairs: (more…)

Oxford Bibliography on the Nuremberg Trials

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m delighted to announce that — at long last — Oxford Bibliographies Online has finally published an annotated bibliography on the Nuremberg Trials that I co-authored with Catherine Gascoigne, an utterly brilliant young PhD student in law at Cambridge. The bibliography covers both the IMT and my beloved NMTs; here is the introduction:

The “Nuremberg trials” generally refers to a series of thirteen trials held in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The first—and by far the most celebrated—trial was conducted by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (IMT) between 20 November 1945 and 1 October 1946. The IMT was created by the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union pursuant to an agreement signed by the four Allies on 8 August 1945. Twenty-four high-ranking Nazi leaders were initially charged, including Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Arthur Seyss-Inquart (the architect of the Final Solution), and Albert Speer, but Robert Ley committed suicide and Gustav Krupp was found mentally unfit to stand trial. Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, was tried in absentia. The indictment contained four counts: (1) common plan or conspiracy (later limited by the Tribunal to crimes against peace); (2) crimes against peace; (3) war crimes; and (4) crimes against humanity. Eighteen defendants were convicted on at least one count, with 12 being sentenced to death and three to life in prison. Three defendants—Hans Fritzsche, Franz von Papen, and Hjalmar Schacht—were completely acquitted. The next twelve trials were held by the Americans between 1946 and 1949 pursuant to Law No. 10, which the Allied Control Council—the de facto government in Germany—adopted after the four Allies responsible for the IMT failed to agree to hold a second international trial. The twelve trials, collectively known as the Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMTs) or the “Subsequent Proceedings,” generally followed the substantive and procedural law of the IMT. The NMTs prosecuted 177 defendants representing, in the words of chief prosecutor Telford Taylor, “all the important segments of the Third Reich”: doctors; Nazi judges and prosecutors; SS officers; military leaders; German industrialists and financiers; members of mobile killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen; and Nazi ministers and diplomats. One hundred forty-two defendants were convicted; twenty-five were sentenced to death, twenty were sentenced to life imprisonment, and ninety-seven received terms of imprisonment. One convicted defendant—Alfried Krupp—was also required to forfeit his property. Nevertheless, because of Cold War pressures on the United States to enlist Germany in the nascent fight against Communism, no convicted NMT defendant remained incarcerated by the end of 1958.

You can find the bibliography here, though an institutional subscription is required. I hope it proves helpful!

Constitutionality of Congressional Restrictions on Guantanamo Prisoner Transfers

by Deborah Pearlstein

Harold Koh has an interesting post over at Just Security thinking through what options would remain available to President Obama to close Guantanamo if Congress once again imposes restrictions on the transfer of prisoners off the base. Congress has imposed a range of such restrictions in annual legislation since 2009, invariably prohibiting the transfer of prisoners to the United States. As Koh notes, Congress has accomplished this on each occasion not by imposing an outright ban, but through its capacious Spending Clause power under Article I of the Constitution. Congress famously holds the purse strings for all U.S. government spending, and it has prohibited the expenditure of any funds for the purpose of such transfers. Are these restrictions an unconstitutional infringement by Congress on the President’s own powers under Article II (as Commander in Chief, etc.)? Koh stops short of answering directly, but he does say this (quoting President Obama’s recent veto statement and past signing statement):

“[M]ost likely, the President’s action would stand even if challenged, as Prosecutor-in-Chief to ‘determine when and where to prosecute them, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests,’ and as Diplomat-in-Chief and Commander-in-Chief to decide and arrange through negotiations ‘when and where to transfer them consistent with our national security and our humane treatment policy.’”

Koh is surely right there must be some limits to Congress’ power to act through spending restrictions, as with all constitutional power; legislation will be held unconstitutional if it violates Bill of Rights prohibitions, for example. Particularly to the extent the legislative restrictions impinge on the President’s prosecutorial powers (although only to that extent – it seems clear the administration still contemplates criminally prosecuting only a fraction of the remaining detainees), the President has a constitutional case to make that the Constitution gives him, and only him, not only the power but the duty to execute the laws that are established. Koh might also have added that the weight of history, such as it is, is on the President’s side. As I’ve written in detail elsewhere, in all of the major wars of the 20th and 21st centuries in which U.S. detention operations are now concluded – World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam, the 1991 and 2003 Iraq Wars – conflicts during which the United States held hundreds of thousands of prisoners in total, the imprisonment of enemies held pursuant to wartime authorities has always come to an end, and the resolution of these detentions has always been handled by the executive branch. Indeed, Congress has not imposed anything like the current restrictions on the exchange, transfer or release of prisoners, during or after the period of armed conflict in any of the previous conflicts over the past century.

Nonetheless, I remain deeply skeptical of the strength of the constitutional argument that the President has sufficient Article II power to succeed in demonstrating that the spending restrictions are an unconstitutional infringement on presidential power. (more…)

China’s Weak Legal Basis for Criticizing the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

The US Navy executed a much anticipated “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) today within 12 nautical miles of Subi reef, the site of one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.   Predictably, China has reacted sharply to this operation by sending two Chinese destroyers to shadow the U.S. ship and planes, summoning the U.S. ambassador, and issuing angry public statements (see below).  Although it is not the main focus of their complaints, the Chinese have repeatedly described the U.S. operation as “illegal” thus highlighting the legal conflict underlying this naval showdown.

The most detailed official reaction was presented by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lu Kang.

The USS Lassen illegally entered waters near relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands without the permission of the Chinese government on October 27. Relevant authorities of the Chinese side monitored, followed and warned the US vessel. Relevant actions by the US naval vessel threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, put the personnel and facilities on the islands and reefs at risk and endangered regional peace and stability. The Chinese side hereby expresses strong dissatisfaction and opposition.

It is unclear exactly how the U.S. ship put personnel on the islands and reefs at risk, but in any event, the spokesperson went on to assure the world that China has, and always will, respect the freedom of navigation consistent with international law.

China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui echoed these remarks, although this statement focused more on China’s “indisputable sovereignty” than on the legality of the U.S. actions.  China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi simply warned the U.S. against “stirring up trouble.” Perhaps more seriously, China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson called the U.S. action an “abuse” of the principle of “freedom of navigation under international law” that would cause “harm” to bilateral trust and relations.

As I suggested in a previous post, the US and China might have chosen to downplay this incident by treating the U.S. naval visit as an “innocent passage” through China’s territorial seas.  But China believes even innocent passage requires its permission, and the U.S. Navy made sure that its destroyer was accompanied by naval surveillance aircraft. The inclusion of the aircraft makes it clear that the U.S. is not trying to claim an “innocent passage.” Rather, the U.S. is stating (through its actions) that it does not believe Subi reef (where the Chinese have added an artificial island) is a rock or island generating a territorial sea.  Therefore, US naval vessels should be free to conduct any activity they wish in this area.

It is interesting that at least one Chinese media outlet is claiming that there is no real conflict over international law between the two sides.  In this portrayal, China’s actions in building artificial islands is “completely legal” and the U.S. is just trying to flaunt its power by “harassing” China.  China’s legal position appears to be that it is building artificial islands on reefs that are entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea.  Or, as another commentator sympathetic to China’s position has argued, because China claims every land feature in the South China Sea, even if the relevant reef is not entitled to a territorial sea, other nearby land features (also claimed by China) probably generate such rights.

In my view, the U.S. has a much stronger legal position.  Indeed, China is barely offering any serious legal defense other than repeating the words “indisputable sovereignty” repeatedly.  China is not doing itself any favors by calling US actions illegal, but failing to offer any specific criticism or explanation of its own legal position.

On the other hand, perhaps it is China’s interest to downplay the legal aspects of this dispute, and to feed the narrative that the U.S. is “provoking” a confrontation.  To some degree,this is working, as the global and Chinese media are feeding the narrative about a US-China naval showdown and ignoring the niceties of the U.S. legal position.  Indeed, if China raises the stakes by threatening some military response (as it is getting close to doing), it will be hard to convince the world (or the U.S. public) that such a conflict is worthwhile in order to vindicate an abstract legal principle like “freedom of navigation.”

Missing Charges in the OTP’s Georgia Request

by Kevin Jon Heller

I  have finally made my way through the OTP’s 162-page request to open an investigation into the situation in Georgia. I hope to write a few posts in the coming days on various aspects of the request; in this post I simply want to note my surprise that the OTP has not alleged that Georgia is responsible for two interrelated war crimes: Art. 8(2)(b)(ix), “[i]ntentionally directing attacks against… hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives”; and Art. 8(2)(b)(xxiv), “[i]ntentionally directing attacks against buildings, material, medical units and transport, and personnel using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions in conformity with international law.” Paragraph 175 of the request, which discusses an attack by Georgian armed forces on Russian Peacekeeping Forces Battalion headquarters (RUPKFB HQ), would seem to amply justify both charges (emphasis added):

According to information provided by the Russian authorities, at around 06h35 on 8 August 2008 a Georgian tank, located on the road leading from Zemo-Nikozi to Tskhinvali, fired at the Glaz observation post, located on the roof of the RUPKFB HQ barracks, wounding Jun Sgt I.Ya. Lotfullin.240 Following this attack on the RUPKFB HQ, Georgian armed forces carried out a larger attack on the RUPKFB HQ using small arms, mortars, artillery and tank guns. The attack lasted around 20 minutes. At approximately 07h00, Georgian tanks moving towards Tskhinvali allegedly fired on and destroyed an infantry fighting vehicle (type BMP-1, hull number 619) and an armoured patrol car (type BRDM) that had been placed on the Tshkinvali road to separate the opposing sides. Two peacekeepers on duty are alleged to have been killed. The Georgian armed forces allegedly reopened fire on the RUPKFB HQ at 07h40 and 8h00, killing another two Russian peacekeepers. In the course of the attack on the RUPKFB HQ, the Georgian armed forces also allegedly targeted a medical aid post and ambulances which were located inside the compound and appropriately marked with Red Cross symbols. The shelling of the RUPKFB HQ is said to have continued through the day until 9 August 2008.

The absence of charges involving the medical facility and the ambulances is particularly baffling given that, as Patryk Labuda has ably discussed, the OTP might find it difficult to prove its more general allegations concerning Georgia’s attacks on Russian peacekeepers. The attacks on the medical facility and ambulances would be criminal even if the Russian soldiers at the RUPKFB HQ did not legally qualify as peacekeepers at the time of the attack. So it is clearly in the OTP’s interest to pursue Art. 8(2)(b)(ix)&(xxiv) charges in addition to the Art. 8(2)(b)(iii) peacekeeper charges — even if only as a fallback should the peacekeeper charges fail.

Chase Madar on the Weaponisation of Human Rights

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, the inestimable Chase Madar gave a fascinating talk at SOAS entitled “The Weaponisation of Human Rights.” More than 100 people showed up, and I was privileged — along with Heidi Matthews, a British Academy postdoc at SOAS — to respond to Chase’s comments. Here is Chase’s description of the talk:

Human rights, once a rallying cry to free prisoners of conscience and curb government abuses, is now increasingly deployed as a case for war, from Yugoslavia to Iraq, from Libya to Afghanistan. Human rights lawyers in and out of government are weighing in on how wars should be fought: in the United States, the phrase “human rights-based approach to drones” passes without much comment in the legal academy and mainstream media. As the grandees of the human rights movement enter high office throughout North America and Western Europe, what is the effect of this legal doctrine on warfare–and vice versa?Will this blossoming relationship bring about more humanity in warfare? Or is human rights being conscripted into ever more militarized foreign policy?

SOAS has now made the video of the event available on YouTube; you can watch it below:



The video contains Chase’s talk, along with my response and Heidi’s response. We apologize for the middle section, where the lighting is bad; I don’t know why that happened. But the audio is excellent throughout.

Please watch!