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How and Why International Law Matters – Lessons from the UK’s Iraq Inquiry

Published on January 31, 2010        Author: 

Much of the debate in the UK regarding the Iraq war has centred on the legality of the use of force. There was much public debate on the issue in the lead up to the war in 2003 and sustained interest in it since. The appearance before the UK inquiry, this past week, of Tony Blair and of the main UK government legal advisers involved in considering the legal position has revived this debate (see Marko’s posts here and here). What last week’s proceedings have also demonstrated is that international law played a significant role in the internal deliberations of the UK government and had a role in shaping policy. In short international law mattered! In this post, I do not intend to discuss the substance of whether the legal position ultimately taken by the UK Attorney General was correct. Many (Marko included) have demonstrated the flaws in it. What I wish to consider are the ways in which international law mattered in policy formation and why did it matter to the relevant policy makers in the UK.

The first evidence to support to the claim that international law mattered in the process is that there was much discussion within government of whether the use of force would be legal or not and discussion of the conditions under which the use of force would be legal. Much of the relevant internal documents can now be found on the Inquiry’s website by scrolling to the bottom of the page for 26 January. As would be expected, the legal advisers at the Foreign Office (FCO) and the Attorney General devoted much time and paper to advising on the legality of the war. However, what is perhaps more important here is the relevant policy makers also devoted much time and attention to the question of legality of the conflict. The then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, debated this question both with his own legal advisers and with the Attorney General. Marko has discussed some of this correspondence  between Jack Straw and Michael Wood (the FCO Legal Adviser) in his earlier post. Readers can view the correspondence and record of meetings between Straw and the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith here and here. Perhaps more important is the discussion of the legal question by the Prime Minister. In his own evidence before the Iraq Inquiry, Tony Blair spent quite some time dealing with the legal question.

Of course, the fact that the legal issue was discussed does not by itself indicate that the legality of the war under international law was regarded as important by policy makers. However, what is significant is not just that the matter was discussed but that senior policy makers engaged with it seriously. As it happens the two political figures in the UK that had primary responsibility for shaping the Iraq policy in 2002 were lawyers – Tony Blair and Jack Straw. Perhaps this made it easier and more natural for them to engage with the law. Jack Straw in a letter of 6 Feb. 2003 spent 6 pages on the interpretation and significance of Res. 1441. In all probability he drafted this letter himself since we know that his legal advisers took a different from the view expressed in this letter.  Not only did senior policy makers engage with international law seriously, they regarded it as a matter of importance. In his appearance before the Inquiry, Tony Blair stated that: 

 There was then the legal question, which was very important, because Peter [Lord Goldsmith] had drawn my attention to that. [p. 99 Transcript of Blair Evidence]

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Canadian Supreme Court decision in Khadr

Published on January 29, 2010        Author: 

Late last year, we posted some reflections by myself and Elizabeth Prochaska on the pending Canadian Supreme Court case of the Prime Minister & Ors v Omar Khadr.

The court handed down its decision today, allowing the Prime Minister’s appeal in part. The court held that the trial court’s remedial discretion had miscarried and that an order directing the Prime Minister of Canada to seek Khadr’s repatriation was – at least for now – an impermissible intrusion upon the Executive’s prerogative in foreign affairs.

The result is disappointing, from the point of view of those of us who had hoped that the Supreme Court might force the hand of the Harper government by ordering to do what it has steadfastly refused to do – request Khadr’s return to Canada after seven and a half years in GTMO.

However, the decision (which was unanimous) is an interesting combination of deference to executive decision-making on the matter of requesting repatriation, and categorical condemnation of Canadian agents’ complicity in an abusive detention and interrogation regime.

The court held:

[24] We conclude that Canadian conduct in connection with Mr. Khadr’s case  did not conform to the principles of fundamental justice. That conduct may be briefly reviewed.  The statements taken by CSIS and DFAIT were obtained through participation  in a regime which was known at the time to have refused detainees the right to challenge the legality of detention by way of habeas corpus.It was also known that Mr. Khadr was 16 years old at the time and that he had not had access to counsel or to any adult who had his best interests in mind. As held by this Court in  Khadr 2008, Canada’s participation in the illegal process in place at Guantanamo Bay clearly violated Canada’s binding international obligations (Khadr 2008, at paras. 23-25; Hamdan v. Rumsfeld).  In conducting their interviews, CSIS officials had control over the questions asked and the subject matter of the interviews (Transcript of cross-examination on Affidavit of Mr. Hopper, Exhibit “GG” to Affidavit of Lt. Cdr. William Kuebler, March 2, 2005 (J.R., vol. III, at p. 313, at p. 22)). Canadian officials also knew that the U.S. authorities would have full access to the contents of the interrogations (as Canadian officials sought no restrictions on their use) by virtue of their audio and video recording (CSIS’s Role in the Matter of Omar Khadr, at pp. 11-12).  The purpose of the interviews was for intelligence gathering and not criminal investigation.  While in some contexts there may be an important distinction between those interviews conducted for the purpose of intelligence gathering and those conducted in criminal investigations, here, the distinction loses its significance.  Canadian officials questioned Mr. Khadr on matters that may have provided important evidence relating to his criminal proceedings, in circumstances where they knew that Mr. Khadr was being indefinitely detained, was a young person and was alone during the interrogations.  Further, the March 2004 interview, where Mr. Khadr refused to answer questions, was conducted knowing that Mr. Khadr had been subjected to three weeks of scheduled sleep deprivation, a measure described by the U.S. Military Commission in Jawad as designed to “make [detainees] more compliant and break down their resistance to interrogation” (para. 4).

[25] This conduct establishes Canadian participation in state conduct that violates the principles of fundamental justice. Interrogation of a youth, to elicit statements about the most serious criminal charges while detained in these conditions and without access to counsel, and while knowing that the fruits of the interrogations would be shared with the U.S. prosecutors, offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.

[31] The acts that perpetrated the Charter breaches relied on in this appeal lie in the past.  But their impact on Mr. Khadr’s liberty and security continue to this day and may redound into the future.  The impact of the breaches is thus perpetuated into the present.  When past acts violate present liberties, a present remedy may be required. Read the rest of this entry…

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Legal Advisors before the Iraq Inquiry, Part 2

Published on January 27, 2010        Author: 

Part 1 available here.

Today’s testimony of Lord Goldsmith before the Iraq Inquiry (BBC report) was mostly focused on revisiting the revival argument for the invasion of Iraq. Lord Goldsmith gave a reasonably strong performance in defending his sudden change of position in the advent of the war, when he in the space of a few weeks or so first provisionally advised that Resolution 1441 was insufficient to revive the UNSCR 678 authorization to use force, only to come the other way around in his final advice just a few days before bombs started raining on Baghdad. Though my impression is that the Inquiry members were less impressed by his testimony than they were by the FCO legal advisors’ yesterday, it still cannot be said that the Inquiry exposed Lord Goldsmith as cravenly caving to political pressure or giving manifestly mistaken advice – he is far too good a lawyer for that to have been reasonably expected, let alone happened.

In short, his explanation of his change of position was as follows: it was the result of his combined discussions with Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK ambassador to the UN at the time, Jack Straw, and US legal advisors in Washington, who were all intimately involved in the drafting of Resolution 1441. Their account of the drafting history, which he took into consideration, was that the Americans had a so-called ‘red line:’ because they already thought that they had implied UNSC authorization to act and did not need Resolution 1441 for that purpose, they would have never allowed the adoption of this resolution if its terms held or implied that a further UNSC decision would be needed for the invasion to take place. Thus, because it would have been highly improbable that the resolution as adopted did this since the American negotiators were far too skilled to have allowed this, Goldsmith now thought that the better view was that the Resolution did not require a further decision, implicitly or otherwise, and that the revival of the prior authorization could properly take place.

Now, this is all extremely confusing, and both Goldsmith and his most persistent inquisitor, Sir Roderick Lyne, were running circles around each other for quite some time. Sir Roderick rightly pointed out that this argument presumes that the American negotiators could not have failed in their endeavours and that other parties did not have their own ‘red lines’, and also, as Michael Wood said yesterday, that it is somewhat odd to rely so much on essentially private accounts of the drafting history, rather than on the officially recorded public statements made by various state representatives in the UNSC after the adoption of Resolution 1441. These are all valid criticisms – but there is also a more subtle non sequitur here, which the questioning did not expose fully.

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Filed under: EJIL Analysis, Iraq, Use of Force

Legal Advisors at the Iraq Inquiry, Part 1

Published on January 26, 2010        Author: 

Today was the start of an extraordinary week for assessing the impact international law had on the decision of the US, the UK and their allies in going to war with Iraq in 2003. The UK Iraq Inquiry today heard the testimony of Sir Michael Wood, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Legal Advisor from 1999 to 2006, and Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the Deputy Legal Advisor at the time of the Iraq war, who resigned from her post once the invasion began (BBC report). Tomorrow the Inquiry will hear the testimony of Lord Goldsmith, at the time the Attorney General , empowered to give authoritative legal advice to the government, who ultimately, after much procrastination and indeed after shifting his own position, ruled the invasion to be lawful. On Friday it will be Tony Blair’s turn.

The Inquiry, which is advised on legal matters by the former ICJ President Rosalyn Higgins (for more, see Dapo’s earlier post), focused on the main legal rationale for the invasion – the so-called revival argument. In brief, this argument posits that Resolution 1441’s finding that Iraq was in material breach of previous Security Council resolution, and Iraq’s failure to take the final opportunity that the UNSC gave it to comply, revived the authorization for the use of force in UNSC Res 678, that was suspended but not extinguished by UNSC Res 687. The Inquiry’s investigation also raises many issues regarding the proper role of government legal advisors, that will be the main subject of this post.

The readers might recall our previous post on declassified memoranda on the lawfulness of the Iraq war by the US Department of Justice Office of the Legal Counsel, which like the Attorney-General in the UK provides authoritative legal advice to the executive. Like Lord Goldsmith, the OLC thought the revival argument to be correct, but it did so with far less caveats than their UK counterpart. On the other hand, it now transpires that the FCO Legal Advisor’s consistent advice had been that the revival argument just does not work on the text of Resolution 1441, which if properly interpreted requires further UNSC action. The Iraq Inquiry website now has several declassified memos and other correspondence from the FCO Legal Advisor to various government officials. (Incidentally, I don’t think that the US State Department Legal Advisor’s memoranda on the Iraq war have been declassified yet, unlike the OLC ones). These documents are invaluable for assessing the decision-making process in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

As Sir Michael’s testimony began, several new documents were declassified and were contemporaneously used by the Inquiry. The one which struck me the most was a letter by Jack Straw, then the Foreign Secretary, to Sir Michael in response to his legal advice that the invasion would be unlawful without further UNSC action, stating the following:

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The Relationship between National Law and International Law in the Report of the Georgia Fact-Finding Mission: A Rejoinder

Published on January 23, 2010        Author: 

Editor’s Note: This post is a continuation of a discussion engendered by a previous post by André de Hoogh. Readers will benefit from reading that previous post and the comments made in response to it. The previous post is available here

Earlier this month, I posted some thoughts on the aspects of the Report of the Georgia Fact-Finding Mission dealing with the relationship between international law and national law. That post generated some interesting questions and comments from Dapo Akande, John Dehn and Tobias Thienel. Somewhat belatedly, I am taking the opportunity to respond and to make some observations on some of the issues raised by that discussion.

First of all, Dapo, I would answer that I both reject the justification of rescuing nationals as an exercise of the right of self-defence, and the application of the suggested justification to that effect to the facts of the situation. Population as an essential ingredient of statehood cannot be taken to refer to the population (or citizens) of a State wherever located, but only to the population resident or present on the territory of a State (article 1 of the Montevideo Convention refers to a permanent population). Additionally, I have my doubts as to whether a self-standing justification to rescue nationals exists under customary international law.

Secondly, John, your reference to an international obligation that would relate solely to a matter of internal governance, and the possibility for a State to invoke its own foundational constitutional requirements, does not clarify why an appeal to that State’s constitutional law would be required at all. If the matter refers to an area within the domestic jurisdiction of States, there will be no need for a State to invoke its constitutional law since all it needs to do is to invoke the absence of any rule of international law regulating the topic. Where an international obligation does exist, whether under a treaty or a rule of customary international law, a State is barred from invoking its internal law including its constitution. Read the rest of this entry…


A Human Right to Water? The South African Constitutional Court’s Decision in the Mazibuko Case

Published on January 13, 2010        Author: 

Peter Danchin is Associate Professor of Law at The University of Maryland Law School.  His recent articles have been published in the Journal of Law and Religion, the Yale Journal of International Law, and the Harvard International Law Journal. His most recent book United Nations Reform and the New Collective Security (with Horst Fischer) has just been published by Cambridge University Press.  In 1999, he served as a foreign law clerk to Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson of the Constitutional Court of South Africa.

Is there a human right to sufficient or adequate water?  If so, what is the right’s normative basis, its scope and content, and how might this differ in international law, constitutional law, and the domestic law and policy of States?  These were the questions recently before South Africa’s Constitutional Court in Mazibuko v. City of Johannesburg (also known as “the Phiri case”) decided on 8 October 2009, the country’s first test case on the right to water.

The case is of interest for a number of reasons.  First, it is the most recent precedent in South Africa’s closely watched economic and social rights jurisprudence following in the wake of such decisions as Soobramoney (1998), Grootboom (2001), Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) (2002), Modderklip (2005) and Olivia Road (2008).  Second, it sheds critical light on the debate over whether economic and social rights have minimum legal content or a “minimum core” as posited by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its 1990 General Comment No. 3 on the Nature of States Parties’ Obligations.  And third, it provides a useful case study of both the potential and limits of strategic public interest litigation and the justiciability and enforcement of economic and social rights in the national sphere.

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Drones and Targeted Killings: Can Self-Defense Preclude Their Wrongfulness?

Published on January 10, 2010        Author: 

Ken Anderson has an excellent, very interesting post regarding the US strategy of using drones for targeted killings of suspected terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere (a topic we’ve addressed at the blog before). He argues that, as a matter of both law and policy, the current justification of the US government for its targeted killing practices is insufficient, because it relies far too much on IHL concepts like ‘combatant’ and IHL rules on targeting which are dependent on such concepts.

Such a justification is of course deeply problematic because IHL applies only in armed conflict, while the position taken by the Bush administration that the ‘war on terror’, or the US struggle again Al-Qaeda, is some sort of armed conflict unlimited in time and space to which IHL applies, is not very tenable. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has also used IHL in this way, if with some adjustments, while in Hamdan the US Supreme Court ruled that Common Article 3 was applicable and that the US is in some sort of global, amorphous non-international armed conflict with Al-Qaeda. (The Hamdan judgment is however quite unclear, and would bear other readings as well, such as that there is a non-international armed conflict between the US and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan).

There has long been a consensus outside the US legal academia that IHL is inappropriate to regulate the fight against terrorism, outside specific situations where armed hostilities actually occur and have a certain level of intensity, as in Iraq or Afghanistan. For God’s sake, just how absurd would it be to look at the most recent Christmas/Underwear Bomber as some sort of ‘unlawful combatant’ in a global armed conflict?

Ken has thus valiantly argued on several occasions that the US government should desist from invoking IHL in this unconvincing manner, and that it should rely instead on its customary right of self-defense to justify the targeted killings of suspected terrorists:

That’s the legal authority that permits the US to strike at its enemies whether in a combat theater or not, in safe havens far away from any regular battlefield, and it is the traditional authority on which the US has always relied. And it is the authority on which the Obama administration is actually relying, if one looks to how it behaves. That is, if you asked US government lawyers twenty or twenty-five years ago on what basis the US would strike Al Qaeda targets in Somalia, the answer would likely be, customary law of self-defense — if a state is unable or unwilling to control its territory, the non-state actor safe havens are liable to attack.

Now, assuming that targeted killings of certain suspected terrorists are desirable in at least some cases as a matter of policy, is Ken’s self-defense argument for justifying them sufficiently persuasive? I respectfully submit that it’s not.

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The Relationship between National Law and International Law in the Report of the Georgia Fact-Finding Mission:

Published on January 4, 2010        Author: 

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series discussing the the Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia. Other posts in this series include Gazzini, “Criteria for Statehood as Applied by the EU’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia” , Andre de Hoogh, “Georgia’s Short-Lived Military Excursion into South Ossetia: The Use of Armed Force and Self-Defence” and Zoran Oklopcic’s “Reflections on self-determination, and the status of Kosovo in light of the Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia

Under the heading of ‘rescuing Russians as a case of self-defence’, the Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia quite sensibly and with good cause rejects this claim on the part of Russia and observes that attacks on nationals or members of the nation abroad cannot be equated to an attack against the territory of a State. However, in its application to the specific case, it then observes (volume 2, p. 288) that:

“[t]he constitutional obligation to protect Russian nationals (…) cannot serve as a justification for intervention under international law. Domestic law can in principle not be invoked as a justification for a breach of an international legal rule” (italics not in original; the attached footnote 211 then refers to article 26 VCLT, which is probably intended as a reference to article 27 VCLT).

But the Report then surprisingly, not to say shockingly, appears to envisage the possibility that:

“[a]t most, domestic constitutional law could be invoked as a defence against obligations imposed on a state by international law if those obligations contradict core elements of the national constitution” [italics not in original].

 The Report then claims that article 61(2) of the Russian Constitution, which proclaims that “[t]he Russian Federation guarantees its citizens defence and patronage beyond its boundaries”, is not a basic principle of Russian constitutional law.

Aside from the already mentioned fleeting reference in footnote 211 to article 26 VCLT, laying down the principle of pacta sunt servanda, the Report fails to address article 27 which precisely excludes an appeal to internal law as a justification for the non-performance of treaties (the reference in that provision to article 46 VCLT is not relevant for present purposes, as it only allows an appeal to rules of internal law of fundamental importance for the expression of consent to treaties). Nor is any thought given to the provision of article 3 of the Draft on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (DSR; cf. also article 32 DSR) which observes “… The characterization of an act of a State as internationally wrongful is governed by international law. Such characterization is not affected by the characterization of the same act as lawful by internal law.” Similar provisions have been introduced into the 1986 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties between States and International Organizations or between International Organizations (article 27(2-3)), and the Draft on the International Responsibility of International Organizations (DIOR, adopted on first reading by the International Law Commission this year (article 31(1) DIOR; inclusion of a provision into the DIOR similar to article 3 DSR has been rejected by the ILC, cf. ILC, Report 2009, pp. 54-55).

What has moved the drafters of the Report to even consider allowing the invocation by a State of its own constitutional law as a justification for non-observance of international obligations cannot be fathomed. Read the rest of this entry…