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Home Posts tagged "Syria"

“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…

 

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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Private Investigators Helped Germany Arrest Two Former Syrian Secret Service Officers

Published on February 26, 2019        Author: 

On 7 February 2019, the investigative judge of the German Federal Court of Justice issued arrest warrants against two former secret service officers from the Syrian government, since they were strongly suspected of having carried out or aided torture and crimes against humanity. On 12 February 2019, the German Federal Prosecutor – through officers of the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt) – arrested the two suspects in Berlin and Zweibrücken. As a result of the creation of a French-German Joint Investigation Team, another Syrian alleged to have worked for the secret service was arrested by Parisian prosecutors. This is the first time western criminal prosecutors have arrested alleged torturers working for Bashar al-Assad.

The strong suspicion that the suspects had carried out the alleged crimes is based – to a considerable extent – on evidence that has been collected by private individuals and entities: First, the photographs taken by the “Group Caesar”, the code name of a former Syrian military photographer who brought over 50,000 photographs out of the country, 28,000 of which show detainees in Syrian prisons killed by torture, outright execution, disease, malnutrition or other ill-treatment. Second, the assistance of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which provided the testimony from six survivors of torture in Al Khatib detention center in Damascus. Third, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), who provided documentary evidence against one of the two former secret service officers. Nerma Jelacic, CIJA’s deputy director, announced on Twitter: “#CIJA is proud to have supported the #German prosecutor’s investigation and arrest of the first high-ranking Syrian regime official”.

This shows that the appeal of private investigations has now reached the level of International Criminal Justice. Of course, investigatory work done by private non-state agencies is not novel, considering that there are countless Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Inter-Governmental Organisations (IGOs) who interview witnesses and collect documents. The aim is that this material may be used in International(ised) Criminal Tribunals or before a national court trying international crimes. Private investigations are indispensable on the international level, and privately funded international human rights organisations have been crucial to hold perpetrators of international crimes accountable. Read the rest of this entry…

 
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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…

 
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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
 

Unlawful Reprisals to the Rescue against Chemical Attacks?

Published on April 12, 2018        Author: 

Donald Trump has threatened Syria with a ‘big price to pay’ for an alleged chemical attack on 7 April in a Damascus suburb. Last year, in similar circumstances, Trump authorized an attack of 59 Tomahawk missiles that reportedly killed 9, including 4 children. The French and German governments responded with a joint press release finding it a ‘just and proportionate’ response. They did not say ‘lawful’–nor could they.

Armed reprisals are uses of military force that follow an incident, usually to punish or in retaliation or revenge and which do not fit the exception to the prohibition on the use of force for self-defence. See the same conclusion here  and here. Reprisals need Security Council authorization to be lawful. The Security Council has never authorized a reprisal and will not in the case of Syria.

In 1970, the General Assembly stated clearly in its Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States that among the fundamental rights and duties of states, is the ‘duty to refrain from acts of reprisal involving the use of force’ against other States. The International Court of Justice found in its 1994 advisory opinion on the Legality of Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons that ‘armed reprisals in time of peace […] are considered to be unlawful.’ In the Oil Platforms case, it further held that US attacks on Iranian sites were not lawful acts of self-defense because of their retaliatory nature.

Thus, unauthorized reprisals are always unlawful Read the rest of this entry…

 

Turkey’s Military Operations in Syria

Published on February 20, 2018        Author: 

Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) carried out ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ for 216 days from August 2016 to March 2017 in the triangle between Azaz, Jarablus and al-Bab in northern Syria. Thanks to this military operation, Turkey cleared Daesh from the region and halted the risk of the PYD/YPG exercising control of the Syrian side of the shared 911km border by wedging itself between two PYD/YPG controlled areas. In addition, some displaced Syrians voluntarily returned to this region from Turkey, which currently hosts around 3.5 million Syrian refugees — more than any other country.

In line with this previous operation, the TAF launched ‘Operation Olive Branch’ on 20 January 2018 in Afrin, which has been controlled by the YPG. In its letter to the UN Security Council (UN Doc. S/2018/53), Turkey justified this operation on the basis of self-defence and various Security Council resolutions calling on Member States to fight terrorism. 

Since the indicated UN Security Council resolutions do not explicitly authorize the cross-border use of force, Turkey’s reliance on it as a justification of its extraterritorial military operation is unacceptable in international law. As far as I see in legal discussions, there is no dispute over this. However, the question of whether Operation Olive Branch can be justified on the basis of self-defence has brought with it some controversy.

Armed attack

According to both Article 51 of the UN Charter and related customary international law, occurrence of an ‘armed attack’ is required for the activation of the inherent right of self-defence. The ICJ identified ‘scale and effects’ as the criteria that ‘distinguish the most grave forms of the use force (those constituting an armed attack) from other less grave forms,’ but has not specified indicators of these criteria (Nicaragua judgment, 1986, para. 191). It should be noted that the scale and effects criteria have nothing to do with numbers. Rather, it is a legal assessment depending on facts and circumstances at hand. Read the rest of this entry…

 
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The Turkish Operation in Afrin (Syria) and the Silence of the Lambs

Published on January 30, 2018        Author: 

Operation Olive Branch

On 20th January 2018, the Turkish military started to attack the Kurdish-populated region of Afrin in Syria (“Operation Olive Branch“). With its letter to the Security Council of 22nd January 2018, Turkey justified this action as self-defence in terms of Art. 51 UN Charter. The relevant passage of the letter is: “[T]he threat of terrorism from Syria targeting our borders has not ended. The recent increase in rocket attacks and harassment fire directed at Hatay and Kilis provinces of Turkey from the Afrin region of Syria, which is under the control of the PKK/KCK/PYD/YPG terrorist organization, has resulted in the deaths of many civilians and soldiers and has left many more wounded.” (UN Doc. S/2018/53; emphasis added). Two elements are troublesome in this official Turkish justification.

Non-state armed attacks?

First, it is controversial whether armed attacks of the YPG, a non-state actor, suffice to trigger self-defence in terms of Article 51 UN Charter and underlying customary law. The current law (both Charter-based and treaty-based) is in flux, and still seems to demand some attribution to the state from which the attacks originate. (See for a collection of diverse scholarly opinion, ranging from “restrictivists” to “expansionists”: Anne Peters, Christian Marxsen (eds), “Self-Defence Against Non-State Actors: Impulses from the Max Planck Trialogues on the Law of Peace and War”, Heidelberg Journal of International Law 77 (2017), 1-93; SSRN-version in Max Planck Research Papers 2017-17).

The ICJ case-law has not fully settled the question (see for state-centred statements: ICJ, Oil platforms 2003, paras. 51 and 61; ICJ Wall opinion 2004, para. 139). Read the rest of this entry…

 

Excusing Illegal Use of Force: From Illegal but Legitimate to Legal Because it is Legitimate?

Published on April 14, 2017        Author: 

The US missile strikes on Syria have, inter alia, revived the debates on humanitarian intervention, the argument of ‘illegal but legitimate’ and more generally on the exceptions to the prohibition of the use of force. For some examples see here, here and here. Some contributors have pointed out that the US did not even try to bring this action within the ambit of the Charter rules on the use of force, and that the absence of Charter-based arguments may even be a good thing as it preserves the strength of Article 2(4). Others have cautioned that the strength of the rules on the use of force might nevertheless be undermined, as singular ‘exceptional’ cases result in a pattern.

This post argues that, analogous to the concept of defences in municipal legal systems, international law on the use of force should adopt a systematic distinction between justifications and excuses. As responses to the US missile attack in Syria demonstrate, the two concepts are conflated. The result is that legality is often assessed on the basis of excuses. If the trend of conflation continues, the controversial doctrine of ‘illegal but legitimate’ will move toward an even more controversial doctrine of ‘legal because it is legitimate’.

Justifications are legally-warranted exceptions to the general prohibition. As such, they are a way out of illegality. Excuses, on the other hand, are not a way out of illegality, but act as mitigating circumstances that preclude responsibility for an otherwise illegal conduct. Under some circumstances, breaching the law may indeed be the choice of a lesser evil. As noted by Vaughan Lowe in his 1999 EJIL article, a legal system may wish to provide a defence for emergency drivers who breach the speed limit on the way to hospital. There are two ways of achieving this goal. One way is to give them an explicit authorization to breach the speed limit. The other one, however, does not authorize speeding, but rather ensures that emergency drivers are not prosecuted upon such a breach of traffic rules. The first (justification) relaxes the norm itself and may well result in wider disobeying of the speed limit than the second, which merely provides for a carefully weighed excuse of culpability where the norm was doubtlessly breached. In other words, it is better if the general norm is strong and ‘catches’ more violators whose excuses are then considered on a case-by-case basis. I elaborate on these issues in more details in this 2015 concept paper. In the present context, might the ‘emergency driver logic’ apply to the US strike in Syria? Even if it did, it would not make this action legal. Possibly, the US could only escape responsibility for this internationally wrongful act.  Read the rest of this entry…

 

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…