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Home Archive for category "Syria" (Page 4)

The Airstrike Killing Members of the Syrian Armed Forces was not an International Crime

Published on October 19, 2016        Author: 

The US coalition formed to combat the Islamic State was recently involved in a drone strike in Syria which mistakenly killed at least 62 Syrian government troops. The air strike involved US, British, Danish and Australian forces. An investigation into how the incident occurred is currently underway.

The attack was described by Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad as ‘flagrant aggression’ and led to the Russians calling an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Suggestions have since been made by some that at least the British nationals involved in the attack could face the possibility of an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation.

The purpose of this post is not to explore the likelihood or unlikelihood of an ICC investigation. Rather, it is to consider whether an international crime has been committed in attacking and killing the Syrian soldiers.

There are three possibilities: firstly, that the act was a war crime; secondly, that it was a crime against humanity committed during an armed conflict; and thirdly, that it was a crime against humanity committed during peacetime. Read the rest of this entry…

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Justice for Syria? Opportunities and Limitations of Universal Jurisdiction Trials in Germany

Published on August 12, 2016        Author: 

During the ongoing conflict in Syria, horrific international crimes are being committed on a daily basis. With impunity for these crimes prevailing on an international level, the attention of Syrian and international actors is turning towards trials under the principle of universal jurisdiction in national courts. This blog post provides a systematic overview of current trials and investigations in Germany relating to Syria and discusses the possibilities and limitations of such trials.

Impunity Prevailing on International Level

Many of the grave human rights violations in Syria are well documented by international bodies, international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (which rely on evidence from Syrian activists who are documenting these kind of crimes under great personal risk), and national organizations such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Violations Documentations Centre.

However, geopolitical concerns impede effective and timely prosecution of human rights violations and international crimes: The hands of the International Criminal Court (ICC) appear to be tied and a double Security Council Veto by the permanent members, Russia and China, blocked a resolution to refer the situation to the Court. Despite the draft of a Statute as early as 2013, the call for the establishment of a hybrid tribunal by the UN Commission of Inquiry and academic support for this approach as the next best alternative (Van Schaack, Just Security; Sayapin, EJIL Talk), no tangible mechanism has resulted thus far. It follows that the only remaining and realistic avenue to seek justice for international crimes perpetrated in Syria is for other countries to prosecute these crimes by way of universal jurisdiction. Read the rest of this entry…

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Belgium’s Article 51 Letter to the Security Council [UPDATED]

Published on June 17, 2016        Author: 

On 7 June, the government of Belgium sent an Article 51 letter to the President of the Security Council, justifying its military action on the territory of Syria against ISIS by way of collective self-defense. The ODS link to the letter is here (S/2016/523), and here is the key paragraph articulating Belgium’s legal position:

ISIL has occupied a certain part of Syrian territory over which the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic does not, at this time, exercise effective control. In the light of this exceptional situation, States that have been subjected to armed attack by ISIL originating in that part of the Syrian territory are therefore justified under Article 51 of the Charter to take necessary measures of self-defence. Exercising the right of collective self-defence, Belgium will support the military measures of those States that have been subjected to attacks by ISIL. Those measures are directed against the so-called “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” and not against the Syrian Arab Republic.

Interestingly, this paragraph is taken almost word-for-word from the letter Germany had sent to the Council on 10 December 2015, S/2015/946:

ISIL has occupied a certain part of Syrian territory over which the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic does not at this time exercise effective control. States that have been subjected to armed attack by ISIL originating in this part of Syrian territory, are therefore justified under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations to take necessary measures of self-defence, even without the consent of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic. Exercising the right of collective self-defence, Germany will now support the military measures of those States that have been subjected to attacks by ISIL.

Note, however, some of the differences: Belgium calls this an exceptional situation, somewhat diplomatically removes the reference to the lack of any need for Syria’s consent, even though that’s implicit in its invocation of Article 51, and adds a sentence saying that measures taken in self-defence are directed at ISIS rather than against Syria (even if Belgian airplanes are flying in Syrian airspace and discharging weaponry on Syrian territory without its consent). Both Germany and Belgium endorse a position whereby action against a non-state actor operating from the territory of another state is permitted without that state’s consent if the state lost effective control over the relevant area – this is very close to, but not necessarily exactly the same thing, as the ‘unwilling and unable’ test.

UPDATE: Many thanks to everyone contributing in the comments. I’d say that perhaps the most valuable lesson to be learned from this discussion is how all of these states are strategically using ambiguity in their various letters to the Council. They know perfectly well that the formulations that they have chosen are open to several possible interpretations, and they were deliberately chosen precisely with that in mind – not simply as a matter of diplomacy, but in order to create legal cover for what they want to do today while keeping their options open for the future. Nothing less could be expected, of course, when we bear in mind that the Council’s ISIS resolution 2249 is itself a masterful example of such a use of ambiguity. But ambiguity of this kind is also obviously detrimental when it comes to solidifying a clear position with regard to self-defence against non-state actors on the basis of state (and UNSC) practice.

In that regard, a kind reader also let me know that Norway has also sent a letter to the Council, dated 3 June, S/2016/513. The three key paragraphs are quoted below the fold – note how simply wonderful Norway is in saying nothing, beyond simply stating that it is exercising the right to collective self-defence without directing its actions against Syria.

Read the rest of this entry…

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A “Hybrid” Tribunal for Daesh?

Published on May 4, 2016        Author: 

On 21 April 2016, Professor Robert Cryer published a concise analysis of the possible consequences of a resolution adopted by the UK House of Commons a day earlier, including of a possible referral of the situation involving crimes – war crimes, crimes against humanity, and, in particular, genocide – committed by members of Daesh to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although Professor Cryer noted, quite appropriately, that “political realities in the S[ecurity] C[ouncil] mean that there may be a veto on a resolution sending the matter to the ICC”, there are even more limitations to the likelihood of this proposal. This post briefly discusses these other limitations and suggests an alternative way to proceed.

Legal and Practical Limitations of the ICC Jurisdiction

It is unlikely that the ICC would get to deal with Daesh’s crimes in the foreseeable future. The Court does not presently have territorial jurisdiction with respect to the situation in Syria and Iraq, since neither of these States is a Party to the Rome Statute. Theoretically, the Court might exercise personal jurisdiction with respect to crimes committed by foreign members of Daesh who are nationals of States Parties to the Statute – but this is also unlikely, by virtue of the ICC principle of complementarity: if such individuals are found in the territory of a State Party to the Rome Statute, they are likely to be handed over to the States of which they are nationals, or to be tried in the State where they are apprehended (aut dedere aut judicare).

In turn, the likelihood of the situation in Syria being referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council is close to zero, because such a referral would imply the Court’s jurisdiction not only with respect to crimes under international law committed by members of Daesh (for the concept of crimes under international law, see: G. Werle and F. Jessberger, Principles of International Criminal Law, p. 32) but also with respect to those committed by Syrian armed forces, their internal opponents, and – last but not least – by members of foreign armed forces currently present in the country. Yet, there seem to be further good reasons not to refer the situation involving crimes committed by members of Daesh to the ICC at all, but to follow an alternative route. Read the rest of this entry…

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The United States is at War with Syria (according to the ICRC’s New Geneva Convention Commentary)

Published on April 8, 2016        Author: 

The United States is currently engaged in an armed conflict with an organized armed group operating from the territory of two foreign states. Is this armed conflict an international armed conflict (IAC), a non-international armed conflict (NIAC), both, or neither? The question matters because the answer determines which international legal rules apply to the conflict and regulate its conduct.

In his recent speech to the American Society of International Law, U.S. State Department Legal Adviser Brian Egan noted that “some of our foreign partners have asked us how we classify the conflict with ISIL and thus what set of rules applies. Because we are engaged in an armed conflict against a non-State actor, our war against ISIL is a non-international armed conflict, or NIAC.”

So far, so good. Few would deny that the United States is in a NIAC with ISIL. However, Egan continues: “Therefore, the applicable international legal regime governing our military operations is the law of armed conflict covering NIACs.”

Not so fast. In its recently released Commentary on the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross writes that “an international armed conflict arises between the territorial State and the intervening State when force is used on the former’s territory without its consent.” If the territorial state consents to the use of force on its territory—including force directed at an organized armed group—then there is no international armed conflict between the two states. Since Iraq has consented to the United States using force against ISIL on its territory, there is no international armed conflict between the United States and Iraq. It follows that only the law of armed conflict covering NIACs governs U.S. military operations in Iraq.

Again, so far, so good. But what about U.S. military operations in Syria? According to the ICRC, if the territorial state does not consent to the use of force on its territory—even force directed exclusively at an organized armed group—then an international armed conflict arises between the two states. Importantly, “[t]his does not exclude the existence of a parallel non-international armed conflict between the intervening State and the armed group.”

It seems to follow that, according to the ICRC’s approach, the United States is both in a NIAC with ISIL and in an IAC with Syria. Accordingly, both the law of armed conflict covering NIACs and the law of armed conflict covering IACs govern U.S. military operations in Syria. Read the rest of this entry…

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Austria and the Fight Against the “Islamic State”: Whither Neutrality?

Published on February 3, 2016        Author: 

The most recent escalation of the conflict in Syria and the Paris attacks have once again led to intense debates over the still unresolved question of self-defence against non-state actors, the role of UN Security Council resolution 2249 in this regard, and the EU’s mutual defence clause enshrined in Article 42(7) of the Treaty on European Union. While these issues are of particular importance for those states that recently joined the military efforts against the “Islamic State’s” safe haven in Syria , i.e. the UK or Germany, they also affect one of the most delicate topics in Austria: its permanent neutrality.

In September 2015 foreign minister Sebastian Kurz declared that Austria had joined the alliance against the “Islamic State”, albeit without any military consequences. After France invoked the EU’s mutual defence clause, however, Austrian Defence minister Gerald Klug – emphasizing that he was voicing his personal opinion – openly stated that “there cannot be neutrality against terrorism.” From this point of view, measures typically deemed as being incompatible with neutrality, particularly flight permits for military aircraft on their way to Syria, do not pose a problem. Upon closer inspection, however, things are less clear.

Austria’s status as a permanently neutral state is a product of the negotiations with its four occupying powers – the US, the UK, France, and the Soviet Union – following the Second World War. According to Article I of the “Federal Constitutional Law on the Neutrality of Austria”, Austria “is resolved to maintain and defend its [permanent] neutrality with all the means at her disposal” and “will never in the future accede to any military alliances nor permit the establishment of military bases of foreign States on her territory.” Back in 1955, Austria notified all 63 states it entertained diplomatic relations with at that time of this law and asked for recognition of its status as a permanently neutral state. Hence, it is not only bound internally but also under international law to this very day (although it could, in the opinion of the Austrian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, unilaterally revoke this status regardless of whether other states take note or agree). Read the rest of this entry…

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Self-defense Operations Against Armed Groups and the Jus in Bello

Published on December 16, 2015        Author: 

The Paris shootings and France’s reaction have once again triggered debate on states’ right to self-defense against attacks by non-state actors (see here, here, or here). Discussions normally focus on jus ad bellum issues, such as the ‘unwilling or unable’ test or when a threat is imminent. A question that receives strikingly little attention is whether the invocation of the right to self-defense against a non-state armed group under jus ad bellum would provide a sufficient legal basis for attacking this group by military means. As Marko Milanovic pointed out on this blog, the lawfulness of strikes against a non-state entity does not only depend on jus ad bellum but also on a second layer of legal examination: does the attack form part of an armed conflict and complies with international humanitarian law, or is the attack in questioned governed by international human rights law and possibly infringes on the targeted person’s right to life? This post examines how the use of military force in self-defense against non-state armed groups may be justified under jus in bello. Read the rest of this entry…

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Strange Angel: Some Reflections on War

Published on December 14, 2015        Author: 

The philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin owned a print, Angelus novus, by Paul Klee. In his essay, Theses on the philosophy of history, Benjamin’s Ninth Thesis recalled that it depicted:

An angel…who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment…to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

This image and idea has been influential in philosophy and culture, for example, check out this song by Laurie Anderson.

A while ago, I was asked to write some reflections on war and international law. Deadlines whooshed past, but it is finally finished. International law, at least traditionally, saw war and peace as mutually exclusive—“there is no middle ground between war and peace” (Grotius, De iure belli ac pacis (1625) Book III, Ch.XXI, 1), although this dichotomy predated Grotius by centuries. At least since the end of the First World War, peace has been seen as the normal condition in international relations, with war characterised as an abnormal state of affairs. But what is the function of war in the international community? Read the rest of this entry…

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“Legitimized Self-Defense” – Quo Vadis Security Council?

Published on December 10, 2015        Author: 

I submit that United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2249 (2015) is – at least de facto – another step towards a reconfiguration of the UN collective security system. The call upon UN members to take “all necessary measures” has to be seen in the context of the self-defense narrative employed by most states forming the “Global Coalition to Counter ISIL” to justify their operations. Irrespective of the resolution’s ambiguity, it is hardly doubtful that it de facto yields a legitimizing effect for this narrative, inevitably endorsing it – even if the term “self-defense” is not mentioned once. Against this background, it seems that the UNSC actually assists in installing self-defense measures as a substitute for collective action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (UNC). This recalibration of the UNSC’s role in the context of the use of force deserves a second thought. Self-defense is – irrespective of the legality of its invocation in specific cases de lege lata – hardly the right tool to deal with the global and permanent threat of terrorism.

As has already been excellently illustrated by Dapo Akande and Marko Milanovic, the resolution’s main characteristic is its ambiguity (see EJIL talk! Blog). Its vagueness is obviously the result of political necessities and compromise. In my view, however, interpreting the resolution from the perspective of an objective observer, it is clear that the UNSC did not authorize measures based on Art. 39 et seq. of the UNC. It is true that the term “necessary measures” is generally connoted with the authorization of force. It is likewise true that the preamble of the resolution which classifies “terrorism in all forms and manifestations” as “threats to international peace and security” alludes to the wording of Art. 39 UNC. But any “authorizing” tenor is neutralized by the clauses “calls upon” and “in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter […].” The UNSC neither authorizes nor decides. It is generally acknowledged that an authorization within Chapter VII of the UNC requires explicit wording – a requirement the resolution (deliberately) does not meet. The call upon the members to “eradicate” ISIL safe havens, however, implies the use of force. Since the UNC establishes a comprehensive ban on the use of force, only self-defense or consent remain as justifications for military operations against ISIL within Iraq and Syria outside of a UNSC authorization.

So to put the resolution’s message in a nutshell: States are called upon to use force against ISIL by exercising their right to self-defense if its prerequisites are given or to urge states hosting ISIL to give their consent to armed operations on their territory if self-defense cannot be invoked. To this extent it could be argued that the resolution says nothing, but merely refers to the law as it stands. Neither does it authorize the use of force nor does it give the self-defense narrative of the “Global Coalition” unequivocal blessing. But this is only true if the context of the resolution is not also taken into account. Read the rest of this entry…

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German Parliament decides to send troops to combat ISIS − based on collective self-defense “in conjunction with” SC Res. 2249

Published on December 8, 2015        Author: 

On 4th December 2015, after a parliamentary debate on 2d December, the German Parliament decided, with 445 positive votes (146 negative votes and seven abstentions), to honour the German’s Government’s formal request (BT Drucksache 18/6866 of 1st Dec. 2015 ) to send up to 1200 troops to combat ISIS. A formal parliamentary decision to deploy military abroad is required by the German Constitution (Basic Law) and a German 2005 law (Parlamentsbeteiligungsgesetz) which codifies prior constitutional case law.

The international legal basis for the deployment decision, as officially claimed by the Government, is “Art. 51 of the UN Charter in conjunction with Art. 42(7) TEU as well as resolutions 2170 (2014), 2199 (2015), 2249 (2015) of the Security Council.” In its request to Parliament, the Government explained that action against IS (by the US, Australia, the UK, and France) “in exercise of collectives self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter is covered by resolution 2249 (2015).” (BT Drs. 18/1866, p. 3). The EU-assistance clause as invoked by France on 13th November, to which all EU member States responded on 17th November with the promise for assistance, has been analysed here by Carolyn Moser. The substance of the IS resolution 2249 has been analysed on EJIL talk! by Marc Weller, by Dapo Akande and Marko Milanovic.

Read the rest of this entry…

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