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Pigs, Positivism, and the Jus ad Bellum

Published on April 27, 2018        Author: 

Now that the dust from the U.S.–U.K.–French operation against Syria has settled, I want to follow up on something I said when news of it first broke. Like most commentators, I argued that the operation did not satisfy the formal legal doctrine on the use of force. By this I meant that it was inconsistent with the longstanding interpretation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and not justifiable under any of the recognized exceptions. Yet I also contended that the doctrine was not the end of the legal inquiry. Given how the jus ad bellum actually operates, I argued, “the best answer to the question of whether the Syria strikes were lawful is not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

Many international lawyers took issue with that claim, so I want to defend it—and use it to expose what I consider to be a fairly fundamental flaw in how the jus ad bellum is usually analyzed. To do this, I’ll take a detour through one of my all-time favorite law review articles: Hendrik Hartog’s Pigs and Positivism.

Pigs and Positivism

Hartog’s article is not about international law. It uses the 19th century practice of keeping pigs in New York City as a case study for thinking about law and legal analysis. Here is the background: pigs were once an ordinary and integral part of life in New York City. People ate the pigs, and the pigs ate the waste that lined city streets. But pigs were “mean, dangerous, and uncontrollable beasts” (p. 902). In 1819, after various efforts to legislate against them had failed, a court determined, in a case called People v. Harriett, that loose pigs in public streets were a public nuisance and, for that reason, prohibited. The decision established that “[t]o keep pigs on municipal streets was to commit a crime” (p. 920). Read the rest of this entry…


The Attack on Syria and the Contemporary Jus ad Bellum

Published on April 15, 2018        Author: 

The United States, Britain, and France have attacked various chemical weapons facilities in Syria. Even before they acted, a number of commentators claimed that any such attack would be internationally unlawful. Below, I explain why that claim is too simplistic and how we should situate the operation in the jus ad bellum going forward. Let me say at the outset that I don’t support this operation and have serious doubts about the capacity of the United States, in particular, to implement a coherent policy in Syria. (I also think the operation violates U.S. law.) So, I’m not arguing that the operation was a good idea or even that it should be lawful. I’m making an analytic argument about how the jus ad bellum works.

The April 2017 Incident

This was not the first attack against Syria for its use of chemical weapons. In April 2017, the United States struck Syria for the same asserted reason: as a reprisal for the regime’s use of chemical weapons in violation of international law. At the time, most commentators said that the U.S. operation was unlawful. It was inconsistent with the longstanding interpretation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and not covered by the Charter exceptions. Assad didn’t consent to the operation, the Security Council hadn’t authorized it, and it wasn’t taken in self-defense.

There is an ongoing debate about whether the jus ad bellum contains another exception for humanitarian interventions. The dominant view is that it does not. States (as a group) have periodically condoned unilateral operations that can be labeled “humanitarian,” but the vast majority of them have declined to support a generally applicable humanitarian exception to 2(4). They have instead insisted that no such exception exists. Further, even if there were one, its application to the 2017 operation would have been dubious. The operation looked more like a reprisal than like what we usually mean by a “humanitarian intervention.” President Trump said that it was designed “to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” not to avert the many other atrocities that were being committed in Syria. Forcible reprisals are by almost all accounts unlawful. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: Syria, Use of Force

International Law in “Turbulent Times,” Part II

Published on March 6, 2018        Author: 

Note from the Editors:  This week we hold the first EJIL:Talk! Contributing Editors’ Debate, where some or all of our distinguished Contributing Editors lend their views on broad themes of international law and the state of the art, science, and discipline of international law.  Our thanks to Andreas Zimmermann (Co-Director of the Berlin-Potsdam Research Group, ‘The International Rule of Law – Rise or Decline?’) for leading the charge with yesterday’s post, and to Monica Hakimi, Christian Tams, and Lorna McGregor for thought-provoking responses throughout this week’s Debate.

In my previous post, I argued that international law does not foster cooperation at the expense of conflict. It fosters both simultaneously. It helps the participants overcome their differences and achieve a shared agenda, while helping them have and sharpen their disputes. The two kinds of interactions are symbiotic, not antithetical, so the fact that international law cannot stop global actors from inflaming or continuing to have a conflict is not good evidence of its weakness or decline; international law itself enables such interactions. Below, I take my argument a step farther. I claim that the conflicts that are had through international law are not just something to grin and bear; they are often quite productive for the legal project. I then return to the central question that Andreas posed: how might we assess whether international law is in decline?

Read the rest of this entry…

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International Law in “Turbulent Times,” Part I

Published on March 6, 2018        Author: 

Note from the Editors:  This week we hold the first EJIL:Talk! Contributing Editors’ Debate, where some or all of our distinguished Contributing Editors lend their views on broad themes of international law and the state of the art, science, and discipline of international law.  Our thanks to Andreas Zimmermann (Co-Director of the Berlin-Potsdam Research Group, ‘The International Rule of Law – Rise or Decline?’) for leading the charge with yesterday’s post, and to Monica Hakimi, Christian Tams, and Lorna McGregor for thought-provoking responses throughout this week’s Debate.

Andreas Zimmermann’s interesting post raises foundational questions about international law’s role in the global order. In suggesting that international law is in decline, he assumes a particular vision of what international law does or should do, and thus of how we might evaluate its decay. The vision seems familiar. Many contend that the role of international law is to help global actors curb their disputes and promote their common interests, policies, or values. Of course, these actors will at times disagree. But according to this view, conflicts—normative disputes that manifest in materially relevant ways—are impediments to international law or problems for international law to overcome. They detract from or betray the limits of international law, at least insofar as they persist without final or authoritative resolution.

For example, Andreas suggests that states’ noncompliance with judicial decisions is evidence of international law’s weakness or decline. It shows that international law cannot effectively or legitimately resolve a dispute that is impeding the realization of the prescribed (and presumably shared) agenda. He thus ends his post by arguing that, “in turbulent times,” like the current one, international lawyers and legal scholars ought to insist that the law be applied as it is, and ought not push it in more contentious, value-laden directions that would further destabilize it.

Below and in a follow-up post, I draw on two of my recent articles to explain why that vision for international law is flawed. I then use this analysis to bring into sharper focus one of the principal challenges that international law now confronts.

Read the rest of this entry…


Macron’s Threat of Reprisals and the Jus ad Bellum

Published on June 2, 2017        Author: 

A few days ago, French President Macron reportedly said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line” for France and result in reprisals. Macron’s statement comes less than two months after the United States conducted airstrikes against Syria for its use of chemical weapons. The vast majority of states that spoke about the U.S. operation supported or were non-committal about it. Very few states condemned it as unlawful. By contrast, most commentators contended that the operation was unlawful. (See the blog posts collected here.) The operation was inconsistent with the longstanding interpretation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and not covered by either of the Charter exceptions. Moreover, though there is an ongoing debate about whether the jus ad bellum contains a third exception for humanitarian interventions, the majority view is that it does not. The reason for this view is that, even when states (as a group) appear to condone particular operations that might be characterized as unilateral humanitarian interventions, states decline to articulate the opinio juris that is necessary to establish a new, generally applicable exception to Article 2(4). And in any event, the U.S. operation in April seemed more like a reprisal than like a humanitarian intervention.

So, what should we make of Macron’s statement? When news of it broke, I tweeted this comment:

Several people objected to my tweet. I am continuing the conversation here because I thought it might be of interest to a broader audience, and because its implications go far beyond Macron’s statement. It has to do with how we understand and assess the jus ad bellum. Read the rest of this entry…


US Strikes against Syria and the Implications for the Jus ad Bellum

Published on April 7, 2017        Author: 

The blogosphere is abuzz with reactions to the U.S. strikes against Syria. My guess is that most international lawyers will agree with Marko Milanovic that the strikes were unlawful. Article 2(4) of the Charter prohibits the use of force by one state against another, except in self-defense or with the UN Security Council’s authorization. Neither exception seems to apply here. Moreover, although some have argued that international law also recognizes (or is in the process of recognizing) an exception for humanitarian interventions, that view is not widely endorsed. In any event, it would not obviously apply in Syria. Even Harold Koh — who has articulated one of the best justifications for unilateral humanitarian interventions — has recognized that “[i]t is too early to judge” whether the Syria strikes are lawful. In particular, it is not clear that the strikes “would demonstrably improve the humanitarian situation” in Syria.

My goal in this post is not to advance a different position on the law. It is instead to examine the implications of the U.S. action for the broader legal order.

A. Supporting the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons are not the only means with which the Assad government has committed atrocities, but they are a particularly barbaric and indiscriminate means. Assad’s repeat use of them, with apparent impunity, has weakened the absolute prohibition of chemical weapons — and with it, international humanitarian law (IHL) more generally. Those who are not steeped in international law inevitably interpret this fact pattern to mean that, IHL notwithstanding, anything goes in wartime, at least for those who have the right allies.

The U.S. strikes were intended to convey a different message – to show that the world is willing to enforce, however imperfectly and inconsistently, the prohibition of chemical weapons. To be sure, the humanitarian crisis in Syria will almost certainly continue. The point was not to address that crisis as a whole but rather to say that some things are never permissible, even in wartime. Indeed, most states that have expressly commented on the incident have suggested that they, too, view the strikes as appropriate. As such, the strikes are likely to have the effect of bolstering a prohibition that had been deteriorating. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: EJIL Analysis, Syria, Use of Force

North Korea and the Law on Anticipatory Self-Defense

Published on March 28, 2017        Author: 

Media reports over the last few weeks indicate that the already tense relationship between North Korea and the United States is getting worse. Now that North Korea is nearly ready to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, the United States has said that it will get more confrontational. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even suggested that U.S. military action against North Korea is “on the table.” Such talk is sometimes part of a broader strategy to pressure other countries to negotiate, whether at the Security Council or elsewhere. But it can also be a precursor to war. And it comes at an acute time for the law on anticipatory self-defense.

As readers of this blog no doubt know, Article 51 of the UN Charter recognizes that states have an “inherent” right to use force in self-defense “if an armed attack occurs.” There is an ongoing debate about whether and, if so, when Article 51 permits states to use force to avert an attack that has not yet occurred. Claims for interpreting Article 51 expansively—to permit defensive force even if the attack is only speculative—have been made with respect to “rogue” states that are developing nuclear weapons. In this post, I situate the North Korea case within that debate and explain why the United States might find it to be a particularly challenging case in which to press its expansive claim.

I. The Law on Anticipatory Self-Defense

A. A Restrictive Position

 The majority view on anticipatory self-defense is probably a restrictive one: that anticipatory self-defense can be lawful only if an attack is truly “imminent”—as in, about to occur. Under this view, states may not use force unilaterally to nip in the bud latent threats or attacks that are still conjectural. They must instead address those situations using non-forcible means or by obtaining the UN Security Council’s authorization. Read the rest of this entry…


International Law in the Age of Trump

Published on February 28, 2017        Author: 

In the second month of Donald Trump’s presidency, we still know little about his foreign policy agenda. He regularly said things during the campaign that suggested a radical departure from longstanding tenets of U.S. foreign policy. And during his first month in office, he caused more than his fair share of diplomatic offense and confusion. But as the New York Times has reported, Trump’s foreign policy has already become more centrist. It’s fair to say, then, that we don’t really know what Trump will do on the international stage.

Still, there’s good reason to believe that the Trump administration will pose unprecedented challenges to international law. In this post, I’ll discuss the three principal ways in which the administration is likely to undercut the existing international legal order. My goal is simply to outline the distinct risks so that we can better appreciate them. I don’t at this point propose any solutions.

  1. Corroding Legal Norms

The first possibility is the most obvious one and has already received some attention: the United States might more readily violate substantive rules of international law or disregard accepted processes for making legally relevant decisions. International legal theorists sometimes claim that legal violations—particularly, high-profile violations by one of the most powerful countries—risk unraveling the entire enterprise of international law. For example, this is how Thomas Franck expressed his concerns about the George W. Bush administration in 2006: “When a community loses faith in law’s power to restrain and channel conduct, this perception propels the descent into anarchy.”

Even if that rhetoric is hyperbolic (and I think it is), repeat violations might corrode specific legal norms. After all, any interaction that puts a particular norm at issue communicates not only whether the norm was effective in the case at hand but also what the norm requires going forward and to what extent it reflects an operative commitment. If the United States repeatedly and blatantly violates a norm, and suffers little repercussion, it will, if nothing else, weaken that norm. In my view, this process of normative evolution is not necessarily bad. Eroded norms might be replaced by new ones that better reflect current problems or expectations. Even so, the transition could be destabilizing. And it would be undesirable if its effect is to increase the threats to global security or human lives.

To be sure, the United States has violated international law before. Reasonable people can disagree about the frequency of those violations, but they are all but certain to accelerate under the Trump administration. President Trump has made clear that he intends to put “America first.” He has also indicated that he defines America’s interests very differently than his predecessors. It’s not a stretch, then, to assume that putting America first means exploiting U.S. power to evade legal rules and processes that the United States has long accepted. Moreover, while other global actors might at times push back against the United States—while they might use international law to try to condemn or constrain it—its raw power could well frustrate these efforts. Read the rest of this entry…


The UK’s Most Recent Volley on Defensive Force

Published on January 12, 2017        Author: 

The legal position that Attorney General Wright presented yesterday is similar to the one that the United States has advanced in recent years. Here’s what I take to be the core elements of the UK claim:

  • The use of force is sometimes permissible to defend against an imminent attack. For an attack to be imminent, the threat must actually be operational: “It is absolutely not the position of the UK Government that armed force may be used to prevent a threat from materialising in the first place.”
  • The attack’s imminence is part of why defensive force is necessary. But imminence alone does not make it necessary. For defensive force to be necessary, other options for defending against the anticipated attack, including law enforcement options, must be inadequate.
  • Defensive force is permitted against an imminent attack, even if the perpetrators are not state agents. Where non-state actors are involved, the relevant inquiry is whether the attack is being planned in another state that is unable or unwilling to prevent it.

I have three initial reactions to Wright’s speech. First, I applaud him for articulating an official UK position on this area of international law. The United States has, of course, pushed hard to advance novel legal positions to justify its counterterrorism operations. But other states have repeatedly responded to the U.S. claims and practice with silence, at least publicly. That dynamic undercuts the law’s (perceived or actual) relevance. International law can’t adequately serve its functions if states stop using it to engage with one another and communicate their expectations—and to do so even, perhaps especially, when they disagree. So, I would encourage other states to follow Wright’s lead and be more forthright about their own legal positions on the contours of the right to use defensive force.

Second, I think the devil is very much in the details here—in the application of the UK’s position to concrete cases. Read the rest of this entry…


Taking Stock of the Law on Targeting, Part II

Published on December 15, 2016        Author: 

On Monday, I used the recently released U.S. report on military operations to assess the law on targeting. I argued that the dominant mode for analyzing these operations — asking whether international humanitarian law (IHL), international human rights law (IHRL), or a combination of both regimes governs — is problematic. The targeting rules in each regime are context-dependent, so the rules that have been developed for one context would not necessarily require the same thing if they were extended to a different context. Focusing so heavily on the regime choice is not only unhelpful but can be counterproductive. It reinforces the idea that the regime choice is ultimately what determines the codes of conduct. And so, it makes it harder to develop the law for situations that fit neatly into neither regime. Today, I’ll use U.S. targeting policies to amplify on my argument.

U.S. Position on Targeted Killings

The U.S. position is significant precisely because it pushes past the stale IHL-versus-IHRL debate. The United States does not treat the regime choice as particularly relevant to question of which targeting rules apply.

The U.S. legal claim seems to be that, although IHRL might apply to certain cross-border targeting operations, IHL defines or supersedes what IHRL would require; IHRL does not have independent force. Yet for years now, the United States has made clear that it does not intend to exploit, in all contexts in which it says IHL applies, the expansive authorities that are usually associated with IHL. The United States claims that, outside designated areas of active hostilities, it generally will use force only when someone “poses ‘a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons’” and “only when capture of an individual is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.” (See p. 25 of the U.S. report.) Read the rest of this entry…