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Home Articles posted by James Kraska

Misunderstanding of International Aviation Law May be Behind Iran’s Shootdown of the U.S. Global Hawk Drone

Published on July 1, 2019        Author: 

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On Thursday, June 20, the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) shot down an unarmed U.S. surveillance drone, nearly igniting open conflict between the United States and Iran. The $180 million U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk was struck by an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGCN) surface-to-air missile launched from near Goruk, Iran. With strained relations over new U.S. sanctions against the regime and coming after weeks of drama over evidence suggesting Iran was emplacing limpet mines on commercial oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, the incident caused President Trump to order – and then to abruptly cancel – strikes against Iranian military facilities. After first promising quick retaliation, President Trump took a step back, stating, “ have a feeling — I may be wrong and I may be right, but I’m right a lot — I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody that shouldn’t have been doing what they did.”

Apparently, the decision to cancel the counterattack was made because U.S. intelligence assessed that the shootdown was made by a local IRGCN commander and was not sanctioned by the regime in Tehran. Intelligence reports suggest that the Iranian regime was “furious” with the wayward commander’s decision to attack the drone, and the U.S. President deescalated the situation.

The U.S. has suffered decades of Iranian violations of the freedom to transit through and above the oceans near Iran. The IRGCN appears as a matter of policy to selectively harass foreign commercial and naval ships conducting lawful transit in the Strait of Hormuz, and in 2016 it unlawfully detained two U.S. small boats and their crews, which were exercising innocent passage in Iranian territorial seas. Yet the recent shootdown of the U.S. drone likely arose from a lack of understanding of international aviation law and Iran’s rights and responsibilities as a party to the 1944 Convention on Civil Aviation (the Chicago Convention) and the rules promulgated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

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Attribution of Naval Mine Strikes in International Law

Published on June 24, 2019        Author:  and

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On Thursday, June 13, two ships were damaged within forty-five minutes by (current evidence suggests) limpet mines, while transiting the Gulf of Oman at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. The Japanese product tanker, Kokuka Courageous sustained damage from either a limpet mine or a projectile, just as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran to try to reduce regional tensions. The Front Altair, also a tanker, suffered far more severe damage to its starboard hull, including a hole at the waterline, which – it has been suggested – was the result of a torpedo strike. This is very difficult to confirm – torpedoes tend to cause much more significant damage, and the damage sustained by Front Altair might also be consistent with a moored or floating mine strike, or the detonation of an attached limpet mine. Both ships caught fire and their crews abandoned ship. Four ships were also damaged by limpet mines off the coast of Fujairah on May 12, 2019. A UAE inquiry pinned responsibility on an ‘unidentified state actor.’

World oil prices increased as daily freight rates for oil supertankers climbed as much as fifty percent to reflect the heightened risk. Insurance rates for a seven-day transit have increased fifteen percent. Some seventy of the world’s supertankers are in the region – ten percent of global capacity – but many remain idle due to the threat. The United States blamed Iran for the attacks, and indeed there is evidence that points to Iranian involvement. The UK also attributes responsibility to Iran. Iran has denied responsibility, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded on twitter that the United States or its allies were likely behind the assaults and that the charge was ‘[without] a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence.’

The United States has pledged to keep the Strait of Hormuz (SOH) open to traffic. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attributed the attacks to Iran based upon ‘intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.’ On June 17 he doubled down, promising to present in the coming days ‘lots of data, lots of evidence’ linking the attacks to Iran. President Trump stated flatly, ‘Iran did do it.’ U.S. Central Command released a video which appears to show an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp Navy (IRGCN) patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from the Kokuka Courageous. Trump added, ‘I guess one of the mines didn’t explode and it’s probably got essentially Iran written all over it… It was them that did it.’

In this piece, we explore the available evidence for attribution in light of the international law on point. May the attacks be attributed to Iran, and if not, what additional evidence would have to be produced? And once (if) attribution of the attacks is made out, what measures may affected states then take in response? Since there is no evidence that there exists an international armed conflict under Common Article 2 of the Geneva Conventions, we do not address international humanitarian law, although in the last few days the shoot down of a US UAV and reports of a bombing mission switch off are starting to complicate this assessment.

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Did ITLOS Just Kill the Military Activities Exemption in Article 298?

Published on May 27, 2019        Author: 

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In a May 25, 2019 interlocutory decision, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) prescribed provisional measures in the case brought by Ukraine against Russia, ordering Russia to release three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 Ukrainian service members seized on November 25, 2018 in an incident in the Kerch Strait. During the incident last fall, Russian Coast Guard forces, operating in concert with a Russian naval corvette and a military aircraft, fired on two Ukrainian warships and a naval auxiliary as they attempted to transit the strait against the orders of Russian authorities. The ships and their crews were captured and remain in detention in Russia, charged with violating Russian criminal law.

On April 29, Ukraine filed a case with ITLOS requesting provisional measures to order their immediate release. Such measures are authorized under article 290 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in urgent situations to prevent a real and imminent risk of irreparable prejudice to the rights of a party, in this case Ukraine. Article 290(5) permits such measures before the merits of the case so long as the Tribunal has prima facie jurisdiction in the case. The key question was whether the Russia’s operation constituted a “military activity,” and was therefore exempt from jurisdiction in accordance with a previous Russian declaration under article 298 of UNCLOS. The Tribunal determined that Russia’s operations were not a military activity, but the decision is likely to generate unintended consequences.

The ITLOS order has effectively diminished the military activities exemption which will give pause to the 27 nations that have made such declarations, including China, France, Norway, Denmark, and the United Kingdom – and in the future, most likely the United States, which intends to make such a declaration once it accedes to the Convention. (The states are identified in paragraph 11 of Judge Gao’s separate opinion). In a decision that suggests outcome-based legal reasoning to constrain Russia, ITLOS questions the viability of the military activities exemption based on any rationale.

As part of its analysis for jurisdiction, the Tribunal avoided a determination on whether there was an armed conflict between the two states, as would appear from the application of the Geneva Conventions in article 2 common, and as I suggested in an earlier piece. Instead, the ITLOS order accepts without analysis that Ukraine and Russia are interacting during a time of peace, a dubious assumption. In doing so, the Tribunal vindicates two important rights that will be welcomed by maritime powers: sovereign immunity of warships and other government vessels and the peacetime right of freedom of navigation by Ukrainian military vessels. But in reaching this conclusion, the Tribunal diminished the military activities exemption. In a departure from the broader understanding of military activities evident in the 2016 Philippines v. China arbitration, the Tribunal found that the confrontation over innocent passage was a navigational issue, rather than one concerning a military activity, because innocent passage is a right enjoyed by all ships. The Tribunal also determined that Russia’s temporary suspension of innocent passage declared conveniently to halt the transit of Ukrainian warships was a law enforcement activity rather than a military activity. These factors led the Tribunal to conclude that Russia’s actions were “in the context of a law enforcement operation rather than a military operation.”

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The Kerch Strait Incident: Law of the Sea or Law of Naval Warfare?

Published on December 3, 2018        Author: 

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On Sunday 25 November 2018 Russian coast guard patrol boats, including the Don and the 630-ton Izumrud, first intercepted and later fired on three Ukrainian naval ships near the entrance to the Kerch Strait. Two Ukrainian sailors were injured, the Ukrainian ships seized and the crews arrested. The attack has been roundly condemned in the United States and around the world.

The Russian ships intercepted two Ukrainian Gyurza-M-class artillery boats, Berdyansk and Nikopol and a tugboat, Yany Kapu, as they sailed toward the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Russian forces seized the vessels and arrested 24 crew members. The Don twice rammed the tugboat and the Russian vessels opened fire on the two smaller Ukrainian warships. The incident occurred in the territorial sea along the approaches to the Kerch Strait, which is bordered in the east by Russia and in the west by Russian-occupied Ukrainian Crimea. The Russian government stated that its forces fired only after the Ukrainian ships violated articles 19 and 21 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) concerning innocent passage in the territorial sea.

Exploring the legal circumstances of the incident requires selection between peacetime rules of the law of the sea and the law of naval warfare, which applies to international armed conflicts. This post concludes that the actual incident on the water is part of a continuing aggression by Russia against Ukraine, in violation of the UN Charter. While unlawful as a matter of the jus ad bellum, the incident would be a lawful in bello use of force by Russia in accordance with the law of naval warfare, notwithstanding Russia’s unlawful invasion of Crimea in 2014 or subsequent unlawful treatment of the Ukrainian sailors as common criminals rather than prisoners of war. In this case the law of naval warfare is lex specialis and supplants mutatis mutandis the peacetime rules of the international law of the sea for Russia and the Ukraine.

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