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JASTA Keeps Saudi Arabia on Trial for 9/11 Terror Attacks: The US and its Foreign Sovereign Immunity Issue

Published on April 17, 2018        Author:  and

In its decision of 28 March 2018 the US District Court for the Southern District of New York denied Saudi Arabia’s motion to dismiss a high-profile lawsuit for its alleged involvement in the September 11 terror attacks, In Re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001 (03-MDL-1570(GBD)) (“the Decision”). In doing so, the Court applied the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, 28 USC §1605B (“JASTA”), for the first time since it was passed by the US Congress on 27 September 2016.

The JASTA created, inter alia, a new exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, 28 USC §1602 (“FSIA”), to the effect that sovereign immunity under the FSIA is waived:

“in any case in which money damages are sought against a foreign state for physical injury to person or property or death occurring in the United States and caused by –

(1) an act of international terrorism in the United States; and

(2) a tortious act or acts of the foreign state, or of any official, employee, or agent of that foreign state while acting within the scope of his or her office, employment, or agency, regardless of where the tortious act or acts of the foreign state occurred.” (“JASTA exception”)

The Bill generated significant debate both within and outside the US, and whilst under consideration by Congress, Victor Grandaubert warned in a well-reasoned post on this blog that if passed the JASTA would “entrench the isolated and unlawful position of the US in this area”. We take the opportunity of this first application of the Act to provide an update on the recent developments. The post will examine first the Decision, and will then move to address the position of the US in relation to customary international law on sovereign immunity. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: Terrorism
 
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The Syria Strikes: Still Clearly Illegal

Published on April 15, 2018        Author: 

The strikes conducted this week against Syrian government targets by the US, UK and France are as manifestly illegal as the strikes conducted by the US alone last year. With one exception, the strikes are identical in the arguments made by the intervenors, in the reactions to those arguments by other states, in the deliberate use of silence and ambiguity, and in the consequent inability of this breach of international law to actually cause a shift in international law.

Like last year, the US (and France) failed to put forward any legal argument as to the source of their authority to act under the UN Charter system of the prohibition on the use of force. Their leaders spoke of the imperative need to avoid normalizing the use of chemical weapons; President Trump stated that the purpose of the strikes ‘is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons;’ Prime Minister May said that there was ‘no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Regime;’ President Macron spoke of the operation being directed solely against the clandestine chemical arsenal of the Syrian regime.

The language of deterrence used has the flavour of armed reprisals. Not only are such reprisals widely regarded as unlawful, but none of these governments actually clearly sets out an argument on the basis of reprisals. As the ICJ has explained in Nicaragua, para. 207, it is for states to articulate their own legal views, and it is on the basis of these views that other states can react, perhaps towards the creation of a novel rule or exception to an existing rule. In the absence of such a position, however, the approval of the strikes or lack of condemnation by third states has no bearing on the formation of customary international law, or on the evolving interpretation of the Charter. This is the barest minimum of formality required in a legal system, even a flexible one. This is not, as Monica argues in her post, a ‘simplistic’ position lacking in nuance – even if it is conceptually simple, and should be conceptually simple. This is the only dividing line we can have between law and politics, between legal and political arguments.

Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: EJIL Analysis, Syria, Use of Force
 

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
 

Copenhagen – much ado about little?

Published on April 14, 2018        Author:  and

The Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted the ‘Copenhagen Declaration’ Friday April 13 concerning the perpetual reform of the European Human Rights System. Previous installments were agreed at Interlaken, Izmir, Brighton and Brussels.

On the face of it not much is new in the Declaration. It is still interesting, not least for what the Ministers agreed not to include from the draft circulated by the hosts April 5. The Danish draft urged states to reign in the Court by a dramatic extension of the ‘margin of appreciation,’ and by more control through political ‘dialogue.’ The robust rejection of these proposals also show us how the Court is independent yet accountable, to states committed both to protect human rights in Europe, and to complex conceptions of sovereignty and subsidiarity.

The agreed declaration is strikingly different:  Instead of being skeptical to the Court’s achievements and its course, the final Declaration is explicitly supportive of the Court and its independence from the states. The large backlog of cases gives reasons for “serious concern”, though the principal problem is not the Court, but rather some states’ failure to implement the Court’s judgments.  Read the rest of this entry…

 

OPCW Confirms the Identity of the Chemical Agent in Salisbury Attack

Published on April 13, 2018        Author: 

The OPCW Technical Secretariat released yesterday the findings of its investigation into the Salisbury affair. The report confirms the UK account of the nerve agent, without however specifically naming it in the unclassified executive summary; it also states that the agent was of a high purity, implying its manufacture by a state, but without naming Russia as the source (much in the same way as the UK’s own chemical weapons lab). Here are the key bits:

8. The results of analysis of biomedical samples conducted by OPCW designated laboratories demonstrate the exposure of the three hospitalised individuals to this toxic chemical.
9. The results of analysis of the environmental samples conducted by OPCW designated laboratories demonstrate the presence of this toxic chemical in the samples.
10. The results of analysis by the OPCW designated laboratories of environmental and biomedical samples collected by the OPCW team confirm the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury and severely injured three people.
11. The TAV team notes that the toxic chemical was of high purity. The latter is concluded from the almost complete absence of impurities.
12. The name and structure of the identified toxic chemical are contained in the full classified report of the Secretariat, available to States Parties.

UPDATE: See also this letter from the UK National Security Advisor to the NATO Secretary-General, providing some previously classified intelligence about the Skripal poisoning.

 

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…

 

The Dispute between Guyana and Venezuela over the Essequibo Region

Published on April 11, 2018        Author:  and

Introduction

On 29 March 2018, Guyana filed an Application against Venezuela before the International Court of Justice (‘ICJ’) concerning the two States’ long-standing dispute over the Essequibo region. This Application was filed after the UN Secretary General decided on 30 January 2018 that the dispute between Guyana and Venezuela should be submitted to the Court. The Secretary General’s decision was welcomed in Guyana and received support from Caribbean countries. But it was received with some hostility in Venezuela. A decision by the ICJ could be the final act in a dispute which has, sometimes bitterly, divided the neighbouring countries for over a century. The dispute between the two States includes both procedural and substantive elements.

Procedurally, the parties disagree (and have disagreed for some time) as to whether the ICJ has jurisdiction to hear the dispute. As will be discussed below, the Secretary General’s role in the dispute is based on the provisions of the Geneva Agreement of 1966 between the UK (the colonial power in Guyana at that time) and Venezuela. Under this agreement, in the event that bilateral efforts to solve the dispute fail, the Secretary General is empowered to choose ‘…another of the means stipulated in Article 33 of the Charter of the United Nations…’. However, questions arise as to whether the Secretary General may submit the dispute to the ICJ in a manner which is binding on both parties. As for the substantive aspect of the dispute, the parties disagree as to the alleged nullity and invalidity of an arbitral award handed down in 1899 which found that the Essequibo region lies on British Guiana’s side of the border with Venezuela.

The resolution of the dispute is of significant economic interest to the parties, as the area is rich in natural resources: the world’s largest untouched oil reserves lay in the east of Venezuela, around the Orinoco river delta, close to the disputed border with Guyana. Natural resources are also present in the (as yet undelimited) coastal waters, and Guyana’s exploratory activities in the area have been protested by the Venezuelan government. In 2015, a Venezuelan Presidential Decree (1787, as amended by Decree 1859) laid claim to Atlantic waters off the Essequibo coast, and Venezuela’s navy has intervened in the disputed area on numerous occasions. The Decree met with protest from Guyana. As is common in these disputes, nationalist sentiment rides high as sovereignty over the area is seen as a matter of national honour and pride, and the rhetoric concerning the dispute has intensified on both sides. Venezuelan officials and civil society (see here and here) have decried the UNSG’s decision to submit the dispute to adjudication by the ICJ as a ‘hostile’ act against Venezuela. In Guyana, where Venezuela’s conduct is often perceived as a form of bullying by its more powerful neighbour, the Government is organising a public awareness campaign, including educating schoolchildren about the controversy. Read the rest of this entry…

 

Was the UN Human Rights Council Wrong to Back China’s “Shared Future” Resolution?

Published on April 10, 2018        Author: 

On March 23rd, the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution (A/HRC/37/L.36) introduced by China, calling for “mutually beneficial cooperation” among states to promote human rights, with “the aim of building a community of shared future for human beings.” The vote was contested, with 28 states voting in favor, 17 abstaining, and one, the United States, voting against the motion. There has also been considerable criticism by legal experts and political officials in the West, who have argued that China’s resolution is an attempt to indirectly excuse its own rights lapses or to dilute the idea of international monitoring.

The substantial opposition, or at least discomfort, with the resolution seems somewhat inconsistent with the general thrust of the text, which consists largely of affirmations of the importance of human rights and endorsements of existing UNHRC practices and procedures. However, two aspects of the document (aside from the dissonance between rhetoric and practice) have been identified as problematic by critics. The first is the apparent focus on “state to state” obligations rather than on individuals as the focus on international human rights law, and the associated invocations of “cooperation” and “multilateralism” as opposed to “unilateral” critique. The second, and as I will argue the less convincing of these criticisms, is that by giving international endorsement to China’s “community of shared future” concept, the UNHRC is being made a vehicle for ideological propaganda of the Xi Jinping administration.

Dividing Positions from Practice

There are reasons to take the first ground of critique quite seriously. There is no question that China has historically sought to shift focus from individuals as rights-bearers to the rights and obligations of states, as well as to avoid external criticism for its rights record. It has opted out of optional protocols that establish individual complaint mechanisms in international human rights treaties and has, for example, issued reservations to Article 20 of the Convention against Torture allowing confidential inquiries by the Committee of the CAT. In terms of its practice on the UNHCR and in other UN human rights contexts, it has by various means discouraged NGOs and individuals from engaging with reporting mechanisms, rising to the level of harassment or detention of civil society members seeking to do so. In one of the more infamous such cases, the activist Cao Shunli, who sought to participate in China’s Universal Periodic Review in 2013, was apprehended by police at Beijing’s airport and then detained for several months—only to die while in custody, allegedly due to refusal of state security agents to provide medical care for several long-term illnesses. Read the rest of this entry…

 
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The Katanga and Al Mahdi Appeals Judgments and the Right of Access to Justice for Victims: Missed Opportunity?

Published on April 9, 2018        Author: 

On 9 March 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Appeals Chamber rendered two judgments on reparations, namely the Al Mahdi and Katanga cases. The general principles and approaches of ICC reparations have been previously addressed in this blog (here and here). This time, the two appeals judgments were the first occasions for the Court to review the right of access to justice for victims during these reparations proceedings. InAl Mahdi, the Trial Chamber delegated the task of eligibility screening to the Trust Fund for Victims (TFV), thereby allegedly failing to accord victims a right to judicial assessment of their applications for reparations by a competent tribunal. In Katanga, it was argued that the right of victims to receive continuous legal representation was essential for a meaningful and practical right to claim reparations, given the complexity of the proceedings.    

At the outset, both rights to judicial assessment by a tribunal and to legal representation come within the purview of the right of access to justice, a right guaranteed in international human rights instruments (ICCPR article 14(1); ECHR article 6(1); ACHR article 8(1); ACHPR article 7(1)). The purpose of this post is not to say that the appeals judgments were incorrect in affirming the Trial Chamber’s decisions on these issues because the rights of victims had been violated. Rather, it takes a helicopter view on the way these issues have been dealt with. Whereas the Al Mahdi judgment recognises that the judicial assessment of reparations must ultimately be before trial chambers, the Katanga judgment dodged the relevance of continuous legal representation of victims to their right of access to justice during the reparations proceedings.

Bearing in mind that chambers are obliged to ensure the compliance of international human rights law (Rome Statute, article 21(3); ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence, Rule 97(3)), both judgments may have indicated a judicial practice of non-interventionism within the Court by over-relying on procedural discretions.

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Revising the verdict in Ireland v UK: time for a reality check?

Published on April 6, 2018        Author: 

There is a general misunderstanding about the revision judgment that was delivered by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on 20 March 2018.  The Court does not have the power under the Convention (ECHR) to revise a past final judgment because it considers it is wrong or was wrongly decided.  It only has an inherent power to revise a judgment where an error has been made concerning matters that were unknown to the Court and which, had they been known, might have had a decisive influence on the outcome of the case.  This power is exercised sparingly and reluctantly because there is almost a presumption that judgments have been correctly decided and should not be revised.  All revision requests will thus be subject to strict scrutiny in the interests of preserving legal certainty.

The newspaper headlines that the Court had found that the five techniques did not amount to torture is thus misleading.   The Court has decided not to alter the original judgment’s characterisation of the five techniques.  It has made no finding of its own about torture and it has made this clear.

Apart from the victims’ understandable sense of injustice and bewilderment there is an air of unreality surrounding these proceedings.

Firstly, it is beyond doubt that if the same issue was decided today the five techniques would be held to amount to torture.  The law on torture has evolved considerably since 1978 – the date of the Court’s original judgment – to take account of society’s sensitivity to and condemnation of the use of torture. The present Court has expressed the view that an increasingly high standard is required in the protection of human rights and that this “inevitably requires greater firmness in assessing breaches of the fundamental values of democratic societies.” The decision of the Court in 1978 to characterise the five techniques as only amounting to inhuman and degrading treatment which was strongly criticised at the time by many commentators is arguably one of the reasons for this increasingly high standard. Another is the realisation that torture has not been eradicated and that it can involve many different and sophisticated forms of unlawful treatment, such as water-boarding, and other variants of sensory deprivation techniques. It is a sad consequence of the old Court’s characterisation that it was used by the US government to assert that ‘water-boarding’ did not amount to torture. This was entirely spurious and self-serving since US government lawyers chose to ignore the marked evolution of the concept of torture that had occurred since 1978.

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