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Home Archive for category "Use of Force"

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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Tanker Games – The Law Behind the Action

Published on August 20, 2019        Author: 

The conflict between some western States and Iran has reached a new phase. Last month, both sides arrested tankers off their coasts. Whereas the political intentions of either side are evident, difficult questions come up with regard to the legal assessment of these actions. They concern the extraterritorial application of a sanction regime, the law of the sea and countermeasures. The post will describe the facts related to the detention of a tanker off Gibraltar (1). It will be investigated if the regime of the transit passage (2) or of innocent passage (3) is applicable under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Thereafter, the post will study which State may rely on the respective rights (4). The post then will turn to the facts of the second case which happened in the strait of Hormuz (5). It will shortly mention Iran’s right to take measures for the safety of navigation beyond its territorial waters (6), and the regime of countermeasures (7). In part (8) the compatibility of military patrols by western States in the strait of Hormuz with the law of the sea will be studied.

The Facts related to the case off the coast of Gibraltar

On July 4, 2019 the British navy detained the tanker Grace 1, allegedly in the territorial waters of Gibraltar. The vessel was passing through the strait of Gibraltar after having circumnavigated Africa. The chief minister of Gibraltar declared in a press release that the vessel was seized in order to enforce EU sanctions against Syria. The decision was based on the EU regulation 36/2012, a law of Gibraltar of 29 March 2019 and a regulation of Gibraltar of 3 July 2019. According to art. 14 para. 2 of the EU regulation it is prohibited to make available economic resources to corporations listed in Annex 2 to the regulation which includes the Banyas Oil Refinery Company. The chief minister of Gibraltar alleged that the oil carried by the tanker came from Iran and was destined to the refinery; this is denied by Iran.

The EU regulation and the above-mentioned legislation of Gibraltar is applicable on the territory of Gibraltar and the territorial waters. Gibraltar claims territorial waters up to 3 nm.

Grace 1 is owned by a shipping company located in Singapore and flew the flag of Panamá. However, according to the Autoridad Marítima de Panamá the vessel was removed from the open registry of Panamá on 29 May 2019.

Transit Passage

It is generally recognized that this strait falls under art. Read the rest of this entry…

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Silence and the Use of Force in International Law

Published on July 18, 2019        Author: , and

States frequently take actions and make statements that implicate international law. But because they do not — and, indeed, could not — express a view on each such act or statement by all other states at all times, silence seems to be the norm, rather than the exception, in international relations.

When states and other international actors do not express their views on a particular incident, issue or statement that implicates international law, what is the legal significance, if any, of their silence? Does it denote acquiescence or quiet protest? Might it not have legal significance at all? Who makes this determination? Who benefits, and who loses, from a finding that a particular silence does or does not yield legal consequences?

Over the years, several scholars — despite some calls for caution — have invoked the silence of states and other international actors as proof of support for particular legal views. This practice has been noticeable and increasingly frequent in jus ad bellum — the field of international law governing the threat or use of force in international relations. For example, writings on the following military actions (among others) invoke silence as having some type of legal significance: Read the rest of this entry…

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A Reply to Professor Kraska on the Iranian Shootdown of the US Global Hawk Drone

Published on July 17, 2019        Author: 

Prof. Kraska has argued in his latest EJIL: Talk! article that the incident regarding the downing of a US drone by Iran happened due to the scarce knowledge of international law by an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander. While I do appreciate Prof. Kraska’s discretion in referring to US intelligence sources, on the other hand the US President himself openly provided to the media the same assessment.

I will now concentrate on some points raised by Prof. Kraska:

  1. The US counterattack was cancelled.

This observation implies by default and without any specifics that the action conducted by Iran was in fact an attack confirming the US policy on the equivalence of  use of force with armed attack. One might disagree and follow the difference between the two as expressed by the ICJ in the Nicaragua case (para. 191). It is also difficult to understand this point of view, as the author did not state from the beginning that he was taking the US declarations on the position of the drone as a given fact. Even so, Iran’s declarations to the UN Security Council (UNSC) would have been worth mentioning to the reader for awareness purposes. In his letter, the Iranian Ambassador defines the US violation of his Country’s airspace as a “hostile act” to which Iran responded in self-defense. This is a shift on the interpretation of self-defense by Iran that actually aligns with the US view (use of force = self-defense). For more insights on the topic see here. Read the rest of this entry…

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Filed under: Iran, Use of Force
 

Protecting the Environment in Non-International Armed Conflicts: Are We There Yet?

Published on July 16, 2019        Author:  and

The International Law Commission (ILC) during its current 71st session has provisionally adopted, on first reading, the Draft principles on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict. The first-reading text had taken five years to prepare, under the successive leaderships of Special Rapporteurs Ms. Marie G. Jacobsson (2013 – 2016), and Ms Marja Letho (2017-2019). The last report of Special Rapporteur Letho (2019) completed the work on this topic, focusing in particular on the question of environmental stresses related to non-international armed conflicts (NIACs). This blog post deals first with certain general issues as to the scope and form of the draft principles, and then discusses whether the draft principles are sufficiently responsive in the context of NIACs.

Scope and methodology of the topic

With respect to the ratione temporis of the draft principles, the ILC employed a temporal approach by drafting provisions structured according to three phases of an armed conflict: before (preventive measures, but also principles of a more general nature of relevance to all three temporal phases), during (the conduct of an armed conflict) or after (post-conflict measures in relation to environmental damage) an armed conflict. The rationale of the topic was to address the law of armed conflict but also other areas of international law. The scope of the topic (peacetime and wartime obligations) inevitably influenced the outcome, which led the ILC to adopt “principles” at a more general level of abstraction, albeit with different normative values, from recommendations to fully binding rules. Read the rest of this entry…

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Filed under: Armed Conflict, Use of Force
 
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Callamard Report on the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: Part II

Published on June 26, 2019        Author: 

In my second post on the report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, I will discuss some of its most interesting legal findings. The key finding, obviously, is that Saudi Arabia is responsible for committing an extrajudicial execution in violation of Mr Khashoggi’s right to life. The Special Rapporteur notes in that regard, quite correctly, that it is ultimately legally irrelevant whether Khashoggi’s killing was premeditated, ordered at the highest levels of the Saudi state, or was done as part of some ‘rogue’ operation. Saudi Arabia bears responsibility for the conduct of its organs, done in their official capacity, even if it was committed ultra vires (para. 219).

In addition to finding Saudi Arabia responsible for violating Khashoggi’s right to life and for failing to comply with obligations towards Turkey under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the report also finds that Khashoggi’s killing constituted an unlawful use of force by Saudi Arabia against Turkey, contrary to the prohibition in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter (paras. 227-230). The report’s analysis in this regard focuses somewhat excessively on whether the killing of a journalist would be an act contrary to the purposes of the United Nations, but does not really engage with the prior question of whether the furtive assassination of a single individual can constitute ‘force’ in the sense of Article 2(4). This is in effect the question of whether there is any de minimis, lowest limit to the concept of force in Article 2(4), and is a point of some controversy, since a finding that interstate force has been used has a number of important implications. Most recently the same issue was raised with regard to the Salisbury chemical attack, when the UK government formally accused Russia for violating the prohibition on the use of force (which, as far as I’m aware, Turkey did not do here). For detailed discussions in this respect see this post by Tom Ruys on Just Security and Dapo’s post here on EJIL: Talk.

Read the rest of this entry…

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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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The Distinction between Military and Law Enforcement Activities: Comments on Case Concerning the Detention of Three Ukrainian Naval Vessels (Ukraine V. Russian Federation), Provisional Measures Order

Published on May 31, 2019        Author: 

International Tribunal for Law of the Sea (ITLOS) issued a provisional measures order to Russian Federation to release three Ukrainian naval vessels and their servicemen on 25 May 2019. In deciding that the Annex VII arbitral tribunal would have prima facie jurisdiction as required under Article 290(5) of United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Tribunal held that the case was not “disputes concerning military activities” as provided under Article 298(1)(b) (see Kraska).

This is an important decision considering that there is no settled definition of “military activities” which allows state parties to be exempted from the compulsory dispute settlement procedure under UNCLOS. This is the first time that ITLOS held its interpretation on the former half of Article 298(1)(b) (while the latter half was dealt in the provisional measures order in Arctic Sunrise, para.45), and South China Sea arbitration case of 2016 before Annex VII Arbitral Tribunal remains the only precedent where a third-party dispute settlement institution held its interpretation of the same text.

There seems to be a common understanding that in this order, the Tribunal interpreted the scope of the “military activities” under Article 298(1)(b) quite narrowly, if not diminished, and thereby lowered its jurisdictional bar. While assessments of this decision have already been posted (see Kraska, Schatz), this post adds some comments on the legal framework that the Tribunal relied upon.

Preliminary Remarks

One thing that should be kept in mind is that, since it is a provisional measures order, it suffices if the provisions invoked by the applicant prima facie appear to afford a basis on which the jurisdiction of the Annex VII arbitral tribunal could be founded, and need not definitively satisfy itself that the tribunal has jurisdiction over the dispute (Order, para. 36; see also ARA Libertad, para. 60). Judge Lijnzaad’s commented that the questions of the applicable law and of whether the issues raised are solely to be understood as being related to the interpretation and application of UNCLOS were left to Annex VII arbitral tribunal at a later stage, as they are “matters that go well beyond the prima facie analysis of a request for provisional measures (Declaration, Lijnzaad, para.8).” Read the rest of this entry…

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

Published on May 27, 2019        Author: 

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.”

Read the rest of this entry…

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