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The Drafters Knew Best: Corporate Liability and the Alien Tort Statute

by Heather Cohen

[Heather Cohen is a Legal & Policy Associate with the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), which harnesses the collective power of progressive organizations to push governments to create and enforce rules over corporations that promote human rights and reduce inequality.]

Can corporations be held accountable in the United States for violations of international law? This question is back before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) this fall. On October 11, 2017, SCOTUS will hear oral arguments in Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC on the question of whether corporations can be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). In the case, the plaintiffs, victims of terrorism in Israel, allege that Arab Bank knowingly and willfully used its U.S. branch to provide financial services to the terrorist organizations that harmed them and their family members.

On August 21, Arab Bank filed its respondent brief in the proceedings, arguing that corporations should not be held liable for violations of international law under the ATS. This argument is inconsistent with the intent of the drafters of the Constitution who enacted the law, as well as with the legal interpretation that has followed.

An analysis of the language and historical context of the ATS demonstrates that the drafters of the Constitution intended for the ATS to be applied broadly to both individuals and legal persons, such as corporations. By placing no categorical limits on who can be sued under the legislation, it is clear that corporations can and should be held liable for violations of international law under the ATS.

The Enactment of the ATS and its Application to Legal Persons

The ATS was passed by the First Congress in 1789 to demonstrate the commitment of the new country to upholding the “law of nations,” thereby granting the United States legitimacy on the world stage. Its enactment was spurred by two incidents of offences against foreign ambassadors, but the law would also provide merchants plagued by piracy with a legal avenue to obtain remedy for the harm and losses suffered.

In passing the ATS, the First Congress chose not to limit who can be sued under the legislation:

The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.

By choosing not to exclude any particular class of defendant, the ATS places no limitation on who can be sued. This is made even more clear by the contrasting restriction on who can sue, i.e. only “aliens.”

Historical context suggests that the First Congress intended the law to hold both legal persons as well as natural ones accountable. Courts have held legal persons liable for their abuses as far back as the 1600s. A number of piracy cases provide a clear example of this. For instance, in 1666, Thomas Skinner sued the East India Company for “robbing him of a ship and goods of great value.” The U.K. House of Lords ruled in favor of Mr. Skinner and held that the company owed him compensation. Even where piracy was not committed by corporations, courts have imputed corporate form to the ships themselves. Similarly, early American courts held that ships, as entities, could be ordered to pay damages for piracy. They reasoned that it made financial sense to direct judgment against a captured ship, which had substantial value, while pirates were unlikely to pay the compensation ordered.

These piracy cases demonstrate that courts during the era of the drafters of the Constitution were not only familiar with the concept of liability for legal persons, but that they regularly imposed it for violations of international law. In light of this familiarity, the fact that the First Congress did not limit the language of the ATS suggests that it intended for legal persons, such as corporations, to be sued under the statute.

A Modern Interpretation of the ATS

This interpretation has been supported by courts in subsequent decisions. For example, the D.C. Court of Appeals, in Doe VIII v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 654 F.3d 11, 48 (D.C. Cir. 2011), vacated on other grounds, 527 F. App’x 7 (D.C. Cir. 2013) held that “[t]he notion that corporations could be held liable for their torts… would NOT have been surprising to the First Congress that enacted the ATS” [emphasis added]. For decades, corporations have been sued under the ATS “without any indication that the issue [of their liability] was in controversy, whether in ruling that ATS cases could proceed or that they could not on other grounds.

Since its passage in 1789, the ATS has remained the law of the United States for more than two hundred years, without ever being limited, narrowed, or amended by Congress. In contrast, Congress has made it abundantly clear when it does mean to exclude a particular class of defendants, namely corporations, from liability. For instance, the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) explicitly excludes suits against corporations. While one can argue that failure to amend the ATS does not necessarily mean acceptance, one cannot negate the fact that both times that the issue of corporate liability under the ATS has come before SCOTUS, the U.S. Government has argued in favor of it. The Government has made it clear that it supports the original words and meaning of the ATS.

Arab Bank’s Interpretation of the ATS

Faced with this evidence of the intent of the drafters of the Constitution, all Arab Bank can do is endeavor to chip away at little pieces of it by attempting to undermine the piracy cases raised by the petitioners and their amici. In Arab Bank’s brief, it attacks the British case by claiming that the East India Company functioned more like a sovereign than a corporation, and that the case was ultimately vacated by King Charles II.

While it is beyond the scope of this blog to offer an analysis of the differences between the East India Company and the modern day corporation, the broad power and scope of today’s multinational corporations suggest that these differences may be much smaller than they initially appear. For example, one often cited variance is the power the East India Company had to “operate its own courts and establish its own law.” However, modern corporations likewise operate their own courts through grievance mechanisms, such as that offered by Barrick Gold in response to sexual violence at its mine in Papua New Guinea. In any event, what is relevant is that “the East India Company was on any number of occasions judged by English courts to be a legal person subject to both English common and civil law.

Also problematic with Arab Bank’s critique of the British case is the weight that it places on the intervention of the monarchy, namely, the decision by King Charles II to vacate the case. This decision is simply emblematic of the politics and the central role the Monarch played at the time. Using this political dynamic to criticize the case is unpersuasive.

To undermine the American piracy cases, Arab Bank argues that a ship is not a corporation and that holding a ship liable for the acts committed by the people operating it is not equivalent to accepting the concept of corporate liability. However, this argument is purely a matter of semantics and ignores the very basic concept of corporate liability, which is to hold a legal entity liable for the acts of individuals operating within it. This is exactly what the court did when imposing liability on the ships in these piracy cases.

Conclusion

If SCOTUS rules that corporations cannot be held liable under the ATS, it will be overturning hundreds of years of legal tradition, as well as undermining the chosen words and understanding of the drafters of the Constitution. Such a ruling would similarly undercut the legal interpretation adopted by numerous courts and policymakers following the First Congress. Furthermore, Arab Bank’s arguments are not convincing and fail to undermine the evidence that the ATS was intended to apply to both legal and non-legal persons.

Will SCOTUS respect the wishes of the drafters of the Constitution by holding Arab Bank liable for providing financial services to terrorist organizations? Those of us who believe in the underlying principles of this Nation certainly hope so.

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.

Symposium on Israeli Settlements

by Kevin Jon Heller

AJIL Unbound has just posted the contributions to a symposium entitled “Revisiting Israel’s Settlements.” The contributors are all superb: Eyal Benvenisti, Pnina Sharvit Baruch, David Kretzmer, Adam Roberts, Omar M. Dajani, and Yaël Ronen. The true highlight, though, is the essay that accompanies the symposium and will be published in the next issue of the American Journal of International Law: Theodor Meron’s “The West Bank and International Humanitarian Law on the Eve of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Six-Day War,” which can be downloaded for free. Meron’s essay revisits the famous memo he wrote in 1967 as the Legal Adviser of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in which he made clear, inter alia, that Israel was occupying the West Bank and that building settlements there would violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. Once again Meron painstakingly vivisects the frivolous legal arguments that Israel and its apologists have offered to excuse the occupation and the settlements. But it’s his conclusion that is particularly important:

But if the continuation of the settlement project on the West Bank has met with practically universal rejection by the international community, it is not just because of its illegality under the Fourth Geneva Convention or under international humanitarian law more generally. Nor is it only because, by preventing the establishment of a contiguous and viable Palestinian territory, the settlement project frustrates any prospect of serious negotiations aimed at a twostate solution, and thus of reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is also because of the growing perception that individual Palestinians’ human rights, as well as their rights under the Fourth Geneva Convention, are being violated and that the colonization of territories populated by other peoples can no longer be accepted in our time.

It’s a shame that Israel didn’t listen to Meron in 1967. Israel might be geographically smaller if it had, but it would also be far more safe and secure. Instead, the settlements metastasise, Israel’s democracy deteriorates, and Palestinians continue to suffer.

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.

Evening Panel on International Law and National Security

by Deborah Pearlstein

Hope our New York-area friends will be around for this one – Cardozo Law School and the ICRC are hosting an evening panel discussion: “A View from Abroad on Current Trends in Targeting, Detention and Trials.” The panel will be at Cardozo Law School, 55 Fifth Avenue in New York, May 18, 6:00-7:30p.m., and features OJ’s own Kevin Jon Heller, along with Marko Milanovic, Noam Lubell, and Joanna Harrington — all moderated by the superb (and currently visiting Stanford professor of human rights) Beth van Schaack. RSVP here.

Nuremberg Prosecutor Ben Ferencz Profiled on 60 Minutes

by Chris Borgen

A great profile of an incredible man. When some people call his tireless work pursuit of the rule of law idealism, he responds that he is a realist who sees the actual progress we have made and that…

..you shouldn’t– you know– be despairing because it’s never happened before. Nothing new ever happened before.

The video and text are available via this link.

My UN Presentation on the Aggression Amendments

by Kevin Jon Heller

I had the great honour last week of giving a presentation to ICC member-states about Art. 15bis and Art. 15ter of the aggression amendments — the conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction. The presentation was sponsored by the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) and organised by Austria, part of a series of presentations designed to prepare delegations to participate in the December meeting of the ASP, where the amendments are likely to be adopted (again).

I had a great time at the UN — the first time I had ever set foot in the building! The presentation itself went very well, but it was the subsequent discussion that was the standout. I found the delegations impressively knowledgeable about the aggression amendments, although it’s clear that they remain deeply divided over a number of critical issues concerning their interpretation. My presentation focused on what is perhaps the most controversial issue of all: which acts of aggression will be within the ICC’s jurisdiction once the crime of aggression is activated. Many delegations believe that member-states have to formally opt-out of the aggression amendments to be completely insulated from the Court’s jurisdiction, while others insist that states need only decline to accept the amendments. I did not take a position on that issue in my presentation — although I did during the discussion afterward. Instead, I simply laid out the stakes in the debate as clearly as possible, following up on two blog posts (here and here) I wrote on the issue a few years ago.

I am posting all of my UN materials here, in case readers are interested. They include the text of my presentation, the accompanying Powerpoint slides, and two tables that lay out the jurisdictional consequences of the so-called “negative” and “positive” understandings of Art. 121(5) of the Rome Statute, the key provision in the dispute.

Thoughts most welcome!

Humanitarian Intervention

by Kevin Jon Heller

Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce:

Speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference on Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recalled the scene at Mar-a-Lago on April 6, when the summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping was interrupted by the strike on Syria.

“Just as dessert was being served, the president explained to Mr. Xi he had something he wanted to tell him, which was the launching of 59 missiles into Syria,” Ross said. “It was in lieu of after-dinner entertainment.”

As the crowd laughed, Ross added: “The thing was, it didn’t cost the president anything to have that entertainment.”

Can’t wait for Trump to nuke North Korea. What a great show that will be!

Taking Complementarity Seriously: Why is the International Criminal Court Not Investigating Government Crimes in Congo?

by Patryk Labuda

[Patryk I. Labuda is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and a Teaching Assistant at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. He is currently on exchange at Harvard Law School.]

The International Criminal Court (ICC) faces many problems. Some of them are well known, for instance its inadequate budget, accusations of anti-African bias, and withdrawals from the Rome Statute. But there is a far more insidious cancer that is eating away at the Court’s legitimacy: complementarity. As with so many other developments at the ICC, it is the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that foreshadows some of the Court’s long-term dilemmas, many of which received too little attention in Rome. This post explores how the Prosecutor’s confused approach to complementarity undermines the Court’s mission in the DRC and, potentially, in other situation countries going forward.

The ICC and Congo

To hear Fatou Bensouda tell it, the ICC’s intervention in the DRC is something of a success story. The Court’s track record there seems positive, especially when contrasted with other ICC situations: Thomas Lubanga and Germain Katanga have been tried and convicted, and Bosco Ntaganda is currently on trial. Another Congolese, Jean-Pierre Bemba, is the Court’s only high-profile convict to date, even if his conviction formally stems from the situation in the Central African Republic. Thus, with the possible exception of Mathieu Ngudjolo’s acquittal in 2012, Congo is usually portrayed as a beacon of hope for an otherwise beleaguered institution struggling to gain legitimacy in Africa. But is this narrative of success compelling?

A cloud of suspicion has hung over the ICC’s activities in the DRC ever since Joseph Kabila ‘invited’ the first Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, to launch an investigation in 2004. Kabila’s ‘self-referral’ succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: lacking a strategy for a country the size of Western Europe, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) initiated sporadic prosecutions which targeted only Kabila’s rivals, including Bemba who had almost defeated him in the 2006 presidential election. In stark contrast, the Congolese government’s crimes received no scrutiny in The Hague.

Thirteen years after Kabila’s invitation, the ICC’s neglect of government crimes is coming home to roost. The DRC is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Kabila’s refusal to relinquish power, despite being constitutionally required to do so, has stoked mass violence on several occasions, leaving dozens dead in the streets of Kinshasa and other cities. After a series of damning reports (see here and here), last month the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights formally requested a commission of inquiry to examine ‘recurrent reports of grave violations’. Most importantly from the ICC’s perspective, these reports show beyond a shadow of a doubt that the violence is part of a governmental strategy to keep Kabila in power at all costs. The pattern is familiar: each time the political opposition organizes protests, state agents – police and military – resort to deadly force. Yet despite thousands of cumulative deaths, reports of dozens of mass graves, and even graphic videos of summary executions by government troops, the ICC has been virtually absent from the debate about accountability.

Why, despite such overwhelming evidence of state criminality, has the ICC not investigated Kabila and his supporters? (more…)

Congratulations, thanks to International Law Reporter

by Edward Swaine

Most readers are probably keenly familiar with International Law Reporter, the brainchild of Professor Jacob Katz Cogan (Cincinnati).  For those not aware, ILR provides notices of scholarship, conferences, calls for papers, and the like — and it’s available in RSS feeds and via Twitter.  (There’s even a tip jar!)  It’s invaluable for anyone in international law and, I expect, anyone entering the discipline or considering doing so. It’s a broad field, it’s fair to say, and given the diversity of subjects, sources, and places of origin (and, sometimes, limited university budgets), it’s really easy to overlook what others are up to . . . which is one reason ILR is so useful.

Next week brings us May and, in addition to May flowers, what I happened to notice is the 10th anniversary of ILR.  This represents quite an accomplishment and, I expect, a tremendous amount of effort. (Did I mention the tip jar?) Congratulations and thanks!

The Legality Surrounding the US Strikes in Syria

by Nancy Simons

[Nancy Simons is a Belgian lawyer and serves on the International Bar Association’s Drones Task Force. Her professional background lies in international law generally. She has worked at a number of international non-governmental organisations and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.]

It has been almost two weeks since the United States (US) initiated several missile strikes on a Syrian airfield. From the US perspective, the justification for this use of force was that it was in response to the use of chemical weapons allegedly by the Assad regime. The use of these prohibited weapons on the Syrian population resulted in the death of dozens of civilians and left many more injured. There has been much discussion surrounding this attack (see, for example, here, here, here and here). There are also many different legal and political factors attached to this situation, some of which have yet to come to fruition. These include, inter alia, the absence of US Congress approval, the outcome of the investigation into the use of chemical weapons, and how to justify and reconcile the US strikes with the United Nations (UN) Charter and the general prohibition on the use of force under international law. This post will focus on this last matter. Before delving into some of the key legal issues, it should be noted that the US strikes contrast with the position previously adopted by the US, whereby it directed its military force towards the fight against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) under its umbrella of ‘the war on terror’ on the basis of self-defence, as opposed to directing such attacks toward the Syrian regime. The question here is what is the legal basis for these attacks against a sovereign state? The US strikes have been supported by numerous states, such as the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, Israel, and Turkey. However, the US has yet to come up with a clear legal foundation justifying this attack.

Legal justifications?

International law, through the lens of the UN Charter, only allows for two exceptions to the prohibition on the use of force, as expressed in Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter. The first exception is the system of collective security under Chapter VII of the Charter, whereby the UN Security Council (UNSC), after having made a determination of the existence of a threat to international peace and security, authorises states to take military action. However, although several UNSC resolutions condemn the use of chemical weapons (see here, here and here), the UNSC has not used any language in these resolutions that could legally justify the US strikes. UNSC resolution 2209 (2015), para.7 decides that in the event of further violations to the prohibition of the use of force, the UNSC would be ready to undertake further actions under Chapter VII, thus potentially opening the door to the use of force. A further resolution is thus necessary to authorise the use of force under chapter VII, which has not been adopted so far.

The second exception is self-defence, as materialised in Article 51 of the Charter, which provides that states have the right to use military force in response to an armed attack. With respect to the current situation, the US Strikes targeted Syrian territory with no impact on US territory or sovereignty, thereby excluding self-defence as a possible justification.

It is possible (but unlikely in my view) that a third exception exists, which has been argued stems from customary international law: humanitarian intervention, which would allow States to intervene in the event of ‘gross and systematic violations of human rights’ as a last resort. The Charter only allows for two exceptions (as discussed above), and searching for an exception outside the Charter is a challenging path considering the importance of the prohibition enshrined in Article 2(4). However, as States are reluctant to use this exception as a justification for their military actions, it is heretofore difficult to argue that the principle is a legal one. As a matter of law, humanitarian intervention is not part of customary international, but depending on the reactions of States to situations such as the US strikes against Syria, this principle could one day become an exception to article 2(4). It is true that the use of chemical weapons certainly qualifies as a gross violation of human rights, which arguably triggers the right to invoke humanitarian intervention in response to such an act, assuming of course such a principle is a rule of international law. However, unless part of a broader strategy aimed at protecting the civilians from further atrocities, it is difficult to understand how the attack of 7 April 2017 satisfies such a purpose, rather than just being a punitive and deterrent act in reaction to the use of chemical weapons. The statement made by Trump (‘It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons’), further highlights that humanitarian intervention would be a questionable basis for the use of force exercised in this case. On the other hand, the United States has also shown its readiness to use force in the event of further attacks on civilians, not just through chemical weapons, but also regarding barrel bombs, perhaps denoting humanitarian concern.

One must also acknowledge that states have increasingly construed the exceptions to the prohibition on the use of force in innovative ways, such as the self-defence against non-state actors – a position adopted by many states in the fight against ISIL. However, there is no similar argument to be made in this case. This begs the question as to whether some states consider the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, which now forms part of the rules of customary international law, to be so imperative that it warrants a breach of the prohibition on the use of force, which is a cornerstone of the UN Charter. The fact that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited does not provide a legal avenue for states to resort to force as a basis for intervention, unless an exception was established, which is currently not the case.

The only conclusion from an international law standpoint is that the missile attack that occurred on the Syrian airfield is illegal. Does this mean that it is acceptable (not legal) to act outside the framework of the UN Charter when deemed necessary or when pursuing a ‘legitimate aim’? States’ reactions supporting the attack are formulated in non-legal terms, which denote a political understanding for this course of action chosen by the US in the face of the crimes committed, rather than legal approval. It is not the first time that the prohibition on the use of force has been violated and not sanctioned by the international community. However, this should not necessarily mean that the legitimacy of the UN Charter is diminished. This case does perhaps highlight the limits of international law and its inexorable tie to international relations, a clear reason why the UNSC is blocked and thus unable to take legal action, as the deadlock stems from the political nature of this organ and the UN system as a whole. The risk that such action creates is that although the attack may be seen as morally or ethically legitimate, acting outside the purview of the law means that legal requirements are not to be respected. This dangerously opens the door to using force under possible false pretences. Of course, the same false pretences could be pursued within the boundaries of the legal framework, but at least the law acts as a barrier in limiting the recourse to force in such situations.

Potential legal consequences?

Despite the current absence of sanction (and quite the opposite, the support of the attack), the strike may not come without legal consequences. The first consequence is hypothetical and unlikely to occur at this time. Having suffered an armed attack, Syria is entitled to exercise its inherent right to self-defence (along with allies if asks for help). This hypothetical would be an unlikely (but possible) outcome for two key reasons. Firstly, the political picture with the powers at force is not in favour of such a response. Secondly, the lapse of time between the attack and the response along with the limited impact of the attack would prove difficult to ascertain that the actions taken pursuant to the right of self-defence are necessary and proportionate. The second potential consequence relates to the law applicable to the conflict that is affecting Syria. Until today, there was a conflict between ISIL and the Assad regime together with a conflict between the US (and the international coalition) and ISIL, which both, it is generally accepted, qualify as non-international armed conflicts (NIAC). This first attack from the US could change this picture. The ICRC has not hesitated to advance that there is now an international armed conflict (IAC) between the US and Syria, meaning that a different and more extensive set of rules apply. Depending on the position adopted, this could lead to either the internationalization of the conflict in Syria, meaning that there would be an IAC between all the actors (including ISIL) or that there would be a situation of mixed conflicts, IAC between the US and Syria and a NIAC for all the other actors, which in turn would lead to different applicable rules.  It remains to be seen how this will materialize.

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.