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Home Archive for category "Self Defence"

The Diversity of Rules on the Use of Force: Implications for the Evolution of the Law

Published on November 11, 2019        Author: 

Last month, I had the pleasure and honour to deliver one of the keynote lectures at the Canadian Council of International Law Annual Conference. The theme of the conference was “Diversity and International Law” and I chose to speak about the diversity of rules on the use of force and the implications of that diversity for the evolution of the law. I am pasting the text of my lecture here

In this lecture I wish to address the question whether the law relating to the use of force – as set out in the UN Charter – has been capable, and is capable, of adapting to meet new threats and challenges facing the international community. My focus is not on the substance of the rules but rather on how they change. In particular, I wish to show that we need to be attentive to the nature of diverse nature of the rules in this area as we think about the possibility of their evolution.

Yesterday was the 74th anniversary of the entry into force of the United Nations Charter. It was around the time of the 50th anniversary of the UN that literature began to emerge suggesting that we might think of the UN Charter as a constitution for international society. Whether one agrees with that characterisation or not the Charter shares at least a couple of features with constitutions – it aims to lay down an overarching framework for the community it applies to, and is intended to be an abiding document in terms of duration. This immediately raises questions about whether the document can continue to regulate new and unforeseen challenges. This is particularly true of the Charter rules relating to the use of force.

Areas Where Evolution of the Charter Rules on Use of Force Have Been Called For

One can think of at least four areas where it has been argued that rules of the UN Charter ought to be adapted (or have been adapted, depending on one’s point of view) to meet new challenges : Read the rest of this entry…

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Turkey, Aggression, and the Right to Life Under the ECHR: A Reaction to Professor Haque’s Post

Published on October 22, 2019        Author: 

Professor Haque yesterday published a thought-provoking piece on this blog arguing that the Turkish incursion against Kurdish forces in Syria, beyond being a violation of the UN Charter, also amounts to a violation of the right to life under the ECHR. His reasoning, which is sound, is based on the Human Rights Committee’s rather controversial new General Comment 36 on the right to life under the ICCPR, where the Committee concludes that States Parties to the Covenant engaging in acts of aggression resulting in deaths violate ipso facto Article 6 (for its part, the HCRttee itself draws on the opinion of academics such as William Schabas who originally developed the argument).

I do not disagree with Professor Haque’s logic, which is, like that of the HRCttee, internally sound. However, I disagree with the exceptionalism which often seems to characterize attempts to include jus ad bellum in the lawfulness test for arbitrary deprivation of life– and, respectfully, Professor Haque’s piece suffers from that same exceptionalism.

The classical view of permissible violence in armed conflicts, based on the long-standing distinction between jus in bello and jus ad bellum, is actually a coherent and credible legal position – one that has the additional advantage of being the mainstream interpretation. It is entirely plausible to maintain that the UN Charter does not mix very well with human rights or humanitarian law instruments. The whole structure of IHL has been built on the premise of its separation from the lawfulness of resorting to force, and the ICRC itself continues to strongly defend this position.

But the emerging understanding of the right to life in light of jus ad bellum is also a coherent, well-structured and convincing interpretation of treaty law, from the point of view of human rights law taken in relative isolation. The fact that this interpretation has also been authoritatively endorsed by a treaty body gives it an aura of credibility that few “progressive” interpretations raised in doctrine can usually aspire to. But the mere fact that a particular interpretation of treaty law makes sense does not mean that it should actually be made.

Read the rest of this entry…

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Turkey, Aggression, and the Right to Life Under the ECHR

Published on October 21, 2019        Author: 

Turkey’s latest invasion of Syria violates the prohibition of interstate armed force. It cannot be justified by Turkey’s right of self-defense (see here and here). What follows? Among other things, each and every person killed by Turkish forces and agents is killed in violation of her human right to life. Every civilian killed in violation of international humanitarian law. Every combatant or fighter killed without violation of international humanitarian law. Everyone. Let me explain.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” According to the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 36 on the right to life, “[d]eprivation of life is, as a rule, arbitrary if it is inconsistent with international law.” It follows that “States parties [to the Covenant] engaged in acts of aggression as defined in international law, resulting in deprivation of life, violate ipso facto article 6 of the Covenant.” This much is well known.

The European Convention on Human Rights provides that “[n]o one shall be deprived of his life intentionally” except in cases of capital punishment or when absolutely necessary to defend a person from unlawful violence; to effect a lawful arrest or prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; or to quell a riot or insurrection. It follows that States parties to the Convention engaged in acts of aggression as defined in international law, resulting in intentional deprivation of life, violate ipso facto article 2 of the Convention. I am told this is less well known. Read the rest of this entry…

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A Collective Failure to Prevent Turkey’s Operation ‘Peace Spring’ and NATO’s Silence on International Law

Published on October 14, 2019        Author: 

Since last week Turkey has been using massive military force in Syria. Turkey has decided to call her military operation ‘Peace Spring’. ‘Peace Spring’ seems to be even more extensive than ‘Olive Branch’, Turkey’s preceding invasion of Syria. ‘Peace Spring’ has already resulted in the flight of tens of thousands of civilians. Worldwide, observers fear that ‘Peace Spring’ could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, a country whose people have been suffering from unspeakable pain for many years now. There is also widespread fear that the so-called ‘Islamic State’ could benefit from ‘Peace Spring’ as the use of force is being directed against precisely those Kurdish forces that had helped keeping the ‘Islamic State’ at bay. It thus appears that a depressingly large number of indications suggest that the name ‘Peace Spring’ is a cynical euphemism for a brutal military course of action possibly ending in a bloody disaster.     

In her letter to the United Nations, Turkey invokes her right of self-defence, as recognized in Article 51 of the UN Charter, ‘to counter’ an ‘imminent terrorist threat’. The ‘facts’ that Turkey refers to in this letter are essentially those:

‘In particular, PKK/PYD/YPG units close to Turkish borders in the north-east of Syria, continue to be a source of direct and imminent threat as they opened harassment fire on Turkish border posts, by also using snipers and advanced weaponry such as anti-tank guided missiles.’

Under international law, the right of self-defence exists if an armed attack against another State occurs. In such a case, cross-border defensive forcible action is permissible to the extent that the action is necessary and proportional to counter the attack. The existence of a right of anticipatory self-defence has long been controversial. An arguable case can be made that such a right exists if an armed attack against a State is imminent. It is also a matter of fierce debate whether a right of self-defence exists in case of a non-State armed attack and whether it may justify forcible defensive action on the territory of another State. An arguable case can be made that such a right exists where a State is either unwilling or unable to prevent a non-State group from conducting a large-scale cross-border armed attack from the territory of that State – under strict conditions of proportionality.

Even on the basis of such a broad understanding of the right of self-defence, which is being fiercely rejected by a significant number of States and by a significant number of highly respected international lawyers as being unduly permissive, it is impossible to see how Operation ‘Peace Spring’ could be justified under international law. Read the rest of this entry…

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“Sustainable Self-Defense”? How the German Government justifies continuing its fight against ISIL in Syria

Published on October 2, 2019        Author: 

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria”, US President Trump, tweeted on 19 December 2018. “We just took over 100% caliphate. That means the area of the land.”, he added in March 2019. Nonetheless, until to date, the global coalition against the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) continues its military operations in Iraq and Syria. May States in Syria still use armed force against ISIL, now deprived of territorial control, under the right of (collective) self-defense?

The German Government answered this question in the affirmative. On 18 September 2019, the Government formally requested the German Parliament to extend the (national) mandate “for German armed forces to safeguard the stabilization of Iraq and Syria, to promote their reconciliation, and to prevent ISIL’s regaining of strength in those regions” (all translations by the author). The Parliament is currently debating the issue. With the governing parties endorsing the request, Parliament is expected to agree despite critique on the operation’s legality by opposition parties.

In its formal request, the Government details the legal basis for the continuation of operations against ISIL. As a matter of principle, it does not significantly depart from its previous justifications. It bases the use of armed forces in Iraq on the “Iraqi government’s continuously valid request and continued consent”. For its operations in Syria, the Government continues to invoke collective self-defense on behalf and on request of Iraq against attacks from ISIL, “in connection with” Security Council resolution 2249 (2015).

But importantly, the Government has also updated its justification in light of ISIL’s loss of territorial control. This, in short, would not affect the coalition’s right to continue military operations against ISIL in Syria. This updated justification is worth discussing in regard to three aspects of self-defense: whether it can be used against non-State actors, its endorsement by the Security Council, and the question of continuing armed attacks.

Read the rest of this entry…

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Drone Attacks on Saudi Aramco Oil Installations

Published on September 17, 2019        Author: 

Half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production has been stopped by air attacks involving drones and possibly cruise missiles on 14 September 2019. Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility. United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asserted by tweet that Iran is responsible because there is “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen” and Iran is behind “100” attacks on Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has since released satellite imagery showing immense smoke clouds. Unnamed American officials say 19 sites were struck. According to the BBC, on 16 September, ‘UK, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was not yet clear who was responsible for what he described as a “wanton violation of international law”’.

Regardless of who is responsible, the attacks are unlawful for a variety of reasons. For several of those same reasons and others, however, Saudi Arabia has no right to use military force outside its territory in a response. The limits on other states responding with military force or other forms of coercion are equally restricted. Lawful responses are available, ones that would avoid further ‘wanton’ law violations.

The important starting place of the analysis is with the fact that the Houthi rebels are not the government in effective control of Yemen, so they do not qualify as having authority to use military force on the basis of the one relevant justification in this case, United Nations Charter exception to Article 2(4), Article 51. The fact Saudi Arabia has been attacking them in Yemen does not give rise to their right to attack Saudi Arabia.

The most accurate characterization of the Houthis is as a belligerent party engaged in internal armed conflict or civil war from which all non-Yemeni armed groups—state or nonstate—are barred. Saudi Arabia has apparently based its participation in the Yemeni civil war on an invitation from Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi, however, fled and thereby lost effective control or status as the government in March 2015. The conflict remains undecided with the Houthis holding the capital Sanaa as well as territory that is home to more than half the population. While Hadi continues to claim ‘international recognition’ plus Yemen’s seat in the United Nations, under international law, the government for purposes of authorizing force in self-defence must for practical reasons and reasons of self-determination be based on the effective control rule as applied in the Tinoco Claims Arbitration (1 U.N. Rep. Int’l Arb. Awards 369 (1923). Read the rest of this entry…

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Did the US Stay “Well Below the Threshold of War” With its June Cyberattack on Iran?

Published on September 2, 2019        Author: 

On 20 June 2019, the United States conducted a major cyberattack against Iran in response to Iran’s (alleged) attacks on oil tankers in the Hormuz Strait and the downing of an American surveillance drone. The attack was widely reported at the time, but on 28 August the New York Times published important new details, which included information about the legal-strategic thinking of the Americans. Specifically, it was reported that the US cybercampaign against Iran was “calibrated to stay well below the threshold of war”. Translated into legalese, this seems to imply that the Americans aim to keep their activities at a level that undoubtedly fall short of legal thresholds like article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which defines use of force, and common article 2 of the Geneva Conventions, which de facto triggers the laws of war. In this post, I discuss whether the Americans succeeded in keeping their distance from such thresholds.

The attack

In the original reporting on the attack by Yahoo! News, it was noted that the operation targeted “an Iranian spy group” with “ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps”, which supported attacks on commercial ships in the Hormuz Strait. The precise object of attack was not specified, but it was mentioned that the group had “over the past several years digitally tracked and targeted military and civilian ships passing through the economically important Strait of Hormuz”.

The New York Times’ report explains that the cyberattack successfully “wiped out a critical database used by Iran’s paramilitary arm to plot attacks against oil tankers and degraded Tehran’s ability to covertly target shipping traffic in the Persian Gulf, at least temporarily”. The Iranians, it is noted, are “still trying to recover information destroyed in the June 20 attack and restart some of the computer systems — including military communications networks — taken offline”. Accordingly, the attack seems to have crippled the targeted system in a way that has taken it offline and, presumably, rendered it useless for months. The effects of the attack were “designed to be temporary”, officials said, but had “lasted longer than expected”. In terms of the specific target of the attack, it was reported that the target was the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence group. Read the rest of this entry…

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How International Law Restricts the Use of Military Force in Hormuz

Published on August 27, 2019        Author: 

We await whether an allied action will protect shipping in the Persian Gulf, and whether it will be led by the USA or by European states. The UK’s new government will support US action, while at least some other European states are reluctant to be seen as supporters of US aggressive policy towards Iran. Political arguments aside, there are important international law concerns with participation in such action, whether American or European-led (see also this recent post by Hartwig).

Absence of a Security Council mandate

The first concern is that such an action would not have a UN mandate. The Security Council can authorize military actions to ensure peace and security, even setting aside other rules of international law. Admittedly, protection of shipping might not fall under the Security Council’s competencies to maintain peace and security. Regardless, a mandate for a military action in the Persian Gulf is in any case politically unlikely.

The law of the sea

Without a mandate from the Security Council, there are strong arguments against the legality of such action. Read the rest of this entry…

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Filed under: Law of the Sea, Self Defence
 
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President Trump admits US strike against Iran would have been illegal

Published on June 21, 2019        Author: 

Yesterday President Trump apparently aborted a US strike against Iran, in response to Iran’s destruction of an unmanned US surveillance drone. US and Iranian accounts continue to differ on whether the drone was shot down in Iranian airspace or in international airspace. Ashley Deeks and Scott Anderson have helpfully analyzed the international legal framework applicable to any US strike in response to the destruction of the drone over on Lawfare, to which I have little to add in principle. In particular, they’ve explained the more expansive and the more restrictive theories of self-defence on which the legality of a US strike would hinge (see also Ashley’s previous post here).

But, President Trump has tweeted in the past hour, as he does, and his tweets effectively (if inadvertently) admit the illegality of the aborted US strike under any conceivable theory of self-defence, no matter how expansive:

 

Note, first, how President Trump describes the aborted US strike as being meant ‘to retaliate’ against Iran for the destruction of the drone. But it is black letter jus ad bellum that the purpose of self-defence can only be to stop an ongoing attack, or (possibly) to prevent imminent future attacks. It cannot, however, simply be to retaliate against an attack committed in the past. Thus, even if US historically expansive views on the right to self-defence were to be accepted in their totality, and even we were to accept that the US drone was in international airspace when it was shot down and that this was an armed attack by Iran against the US in the sense of Article 51 of the UN Charter, the US head of state has just admitted to the world that the strike he authorized, and then rescinded, was retaliatory and not defensive in nature.

Similarly, he expressly admitted that the attack would have been disproportionate, as 150 lives would likely have been lost for one destroyed unmanned drone. And as we all know, proportionality is a key requirement of the customary law of self-defence. Thankfully, President Trump ultimately decided to abort the strikes, and therefore no violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter took place. Hopefully any conflict between the US and Iran will be avoided. But that said, it is also clear from what the US President tweeted to all of us, so explicitly and so ungrammatically, that the proposed military action of his government, had it taken place, would have been illegal. And again, under the President’s own admission, it would have been illegal regardless of whether one embraces a more restrictive or a more expansive theory of self-defence.

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Justifying Self-defense against Assisting States: Conceptualizing Legal Consequences of Inter-State Assistance

Published on May 23, 2019        Author:  and

Cause for thought: Israel’s airstrikes directed against Iran and Syria

Israel has acknowledged to have repeatedly struck Iranian military targets in Syria. While confrontations occur frequently, the incident of January 21, 2019 has received  particular attention. Israeli guided missiles, apparently fired over Lebanese territory (UN Doc. S/PV.8449, p. 31f), hit Iranian military targets in Syria, also leading to personal and material damage of Syria. Israel invoked its right to self-defense, apparently reacting to Iran firing a surface-to-surface missile towards the Golan Heights on Sunday, January 20 from Syrian territory. Syria’s precise role in the Iranian action beyond this territorial link remains murky.

The problem: self-defense affecting assisting states

The Israeli claim to self-defense faces various legal questions (e.g. whether the attack meets the necessary threshold or whether annexed territories can be defended). This contribution does not aim to assess the Israeli claim, but shall use this example to shed light on one problem only: May the victim of an armed attack defend itself not only against the attacker state, but also against an “assisting” state?

Even if the use of force by the defending state (here Israel) against the attacking state (here Iran) is assumed to be justified by self-defense, it also forcefully infringes upon the territorial integrity of the assisting State (here Syria), as protected under Article 2(4) UNC, and warrants justification, too. The claim that strikes directed against an actor within the territory of another state are not a prohibited use of force against the territorial state has been repeatedly rebutted.

In fact, in the Security Council debate on the January incident, Syria labelled the Israeli strikes as “acts of aggression targeting the Syrian Arab Republic”, a “gross violation of international law” (S/PV.8449, p. 31f). Iran like Russia condemned the Israeli action, emphasizing the infringement of Syria’s sovereignty. Interestingly, Israel (unlike the USA or Germany) showed awareness of the problem by holding “the Syrian regime responsible for the missile that was launched against Israel from Syrian territory” (S/PV.8449, p. 8). The IDF added that “Syria paid the price for allowing Iran to conduct attacks from its soil.”

While the permissibility of self-defense against states supporting non-state actor violence is being extensively discussed, self-defense against states assisting another state has received little attention Read the rest of this entry…

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