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The Use of Nerve Agents in Salisbury: Why does it Matter Whether it Amounts to a Use of Force in International Law?

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Over the past few days, there has been discussion of whether the attempt to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter, in the UK, by the use of a nerve agent amounts to an unlawful use force by Russia in breach of Art. 2(4) of the United Nations Charter and customary international law (see posts by Marc Weller, Tom Ruys, and Ashley Deeks). There is agreement that if the action was attributable to Russia, it would amount to a breach of at least some obligation under international law. Marc Weller, points out that the act would amount to an unlawful intervention and a violation of the territorial sovereignty of the UK. Marko argues that these acts would also be a violation of the human rights of the individuals concerned. However, the British Prime Minister characterised the act as an unlawful use of force. What I wish to do in this post is to ask why this categorisation might matter in international law. What exactly are the implications, as a matter of law, of characterising the act as a use of force? This was an issue that was raised in the comments to Marc Weller’s post and some of the points I make below have already been made in that discussion though I expand on them. As discussed below, this characterisation might have far reaching implications in a number of areas of international law, extending beyond the possibility of self-defence, to the possibility of countermeasures, the law relating to state responsibility, the qualification of a situation in the law of armed conflict, and international criminal law. I accept that many of the points discussed below are not clear cut, and some are even contentious. However, I think that having a catalogue of the possible consequences of the arguments relating to the use of force helps us to see more clearly what is at stake when we make these arguments.  

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An International Use of Force in Salisbury?

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In the afternoon of Sunday, 4 March, Mr Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on a park bench in Salisbury. Mr Skripal is a former Russian agent convicted of espionage for the West, exchanged in a spy swap and brought to live in the UK. He, his daughter and a number of individuals who had attended to them were found to have been exposed to a nerve agent known as Novichok. At the time of writing, both remained in critical condition in hospital, with uncertain prospects of recovery. One of the first responders, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, was also kept in hospital in a serious condition.

On 12 March the British Prime Minister addressed the House of Commons. She claimed that it was ‘highly likely’ that the government of the Russian Federation was responsible for the action. She asserted that ‘either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.’ She demanded a ‘credible response’ by Russia within a day, indicating that, failing such a response, the UK would conclude that this action ‘amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.’ [The Prime Ministers statement can be viewed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43377856.]

The responsibility for the action was placed on the Russian Federation by the UK government in view of its previous suspected involvement in the assassination in the UK of former Russian security operative Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 using the similarly exotic means of radioactive polonium, instances of politically motivated killings allegedly undertaken by Moscow elsewhere, and Moscow’s perceived generally aggressive attitude towards the West, and the UK in particular, especially after its purported annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The Russia government dismissed the allegations and requested samples of the nerve agent in order to mount its own investigation, ignoring Ms May’s deadline. Moscow instead offered cooperation through the relevant mechanism of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). While Russia’s responsibility for the action will evidently remain contested, this post considers the claim of the UK government that it amounts to a ‘use of force’.

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The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: Immunities, Inviolability and the Human Right to Life – Part III: During the Attack

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The previous post in the series looked at the situation that preceded the attack on Khashoggi by Saudi agents; in this one we move to the time of the attack itself. Saudi Arabia’s violation of its obligation not to deprive individuals arbitrarily of their life under Article 5 of the Arab Charter and customary IHRL is manifest, in the sense that Saudi Arabia could not offer any kind of justification for Khashoggi’s killing that could be regarded as even potentially legitimate from the standpoint of the right to life. What is not obvious, however, is whether the Charter and the relevant customary rule even applied to Khashoggi, i.e. that they protected him while he was located outside Saudi territory.

Extraterritoriality

This is again a question of extraterritorial application, but this time of the negative obligation to refrain from using lethal force without justification. And this is a question that is in no way unique to the Khashoggi killing. We have confronted it repeatedly in the past couple of decades, whether in the context of the use of lethal force in armed conflict or in plain or not-so-plain state-sponsored assassinations. From drone strikes in the war on terror, to the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by US special forces, to the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by Russian secret agents, to the killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia on the orders of his half-brother, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – all of these cases raise the fundamental threshold question of whether the target of the use of force is protected by human rights law at all. As a general matter, powerful states have been reluctant to accept that human rights treaties would apply to kinetic uses of force outside their territory, especially in areas not within their control, because they tend to see IHRL as an excessive constraint on their freedom of action.

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The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: Immunities, Inviolability and the Human Right to Life – Part I: Introduction

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On 2 October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist residing in the United States, where he was a columnist for the Washington Post, was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He was visiting the consulate to obtain a certificate of divorce from his former wife, so that he could proceed to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting for him in a car outside the consulate. According to media reports relying on the findings of the governments of Turkey and the United States, Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents and his body was then dismembered with a bone saw; his remains are yet to be found.

It has now been six months since Khashoggi’s killing. Saudi Arabia is conducting a secret trial of 11 individuals accused of his murder; the trial is widely regarded as an attempt to whitewash the involvement in the killing of the highest levels of the Saudi government. The UN Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, has launched an investigation into Kashoggi’s death as part of her mandate; as of the time of writing, she has published a set of preliminary observations and plans to submit a final report to the UN Human Rights Council in June. Her report, based inter alia on a field visit to Turkey, concluded (paras. 10 and 7) that the evidence ‘demonstrates a prime facie case that Mr. Khashoggi was the victim of a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia and others acting under the direction of these State agents,’ a ‘grave violation’ of the human right to life.

Some legal issues that arise in that regard are trivial, even if they are politically extremely controversial. For example, it is legally irrelevant whether, in fact, the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death or not. Per the customary rule codified in Article 7 of the ILC Articles on State Responsibility, Saudi Arabia incurs state responsibility for an internationally wrongful act committed by its organs acting in their official capacity, such as intelligence and state security officials, even if that act was committed ultra vires. Whether the crown prince’s underlings exceeded his orders or failed to inform him of the supposedly unauthorized operation – which involved a team of 15 agents, including a forensics expert specializing in rapid dissections, and two private jets – simply does not affect the attribution of, and hence responsibility for, the operation to Saudi Arabia.

It is similarly unquestionable, as Steve Ratner explained on Lawfare, that the Saudi operation against Khashoggi was a violation of Turkey’s sovereignty and of its rights under diplomatic and consular law. But while condemning Saudi Arabia for these violations would be both right and without difficulty, for international law to care only about the violations of the rights of the state in which he was killed would also profoundly fail to legally capture our sense of moral outrage over Khashoggi’s death. In addition to any criminal responsibility that may exist under either Turkish or Saudi domestic law, the most serious violation of international law at stake here is that of Khashoggi’s human right to life, and an attempt – ultimately unsuccessful due to the operation’s public exposure – to forcibly disappear him. This violation is compounded by that of the freedom of expression, since the reason for Khashoggi’s killing was his speech critical of the Saudi regime, and that of the prohibition of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment regarding Khashoggi’s next of kin, due to the manner of his killing and the desecration and disappearance of his corpse.

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The Salisbury Attack: Don’t Forget Human Rights

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It is fascinating to observe how international law has provided the frame for the escalating political dispute between the UK and Russia regarding the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent in Salisbury. The dispute is of course primarily factual. In that regard, both states generate their own facts, and the dispute revolves primarily on whom one chooses to trust – what does the average citizen (or international lawyer) know, after all, about the Novichok-class of nerve agents, their deployment, properties and effects? The attribution of the attack will thus inevitably depend on the credibility of the relevant experts, investigators and intelligence officials.

But again – note the framing effect of international law on this dispute. We saw how Theresa May chose her language very carefully when she accused Russia of an unlawful use of force (but not necessarily an armed attack). Both the UK and Russia have accused each other of failing to abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Russia has challenged the credibility of the UK’s investigation, asking for the involvement of the OPCW as an independent, expert and competent third party. The UK itself has engaged with the OPCW, asking it to verify its forensic analysis. The debate in the Security Council yesterday was replete with references to the Convention and OPCW specifically and international law generally. So was the debate earlier in the day in the British Parliament (Hansard transcript).

There is, however, one part of international law that has been largely and unjustifiably missing from this debate, and that is human rights. The attempted killing of Mr Skripal and his daughter is not simply  a violation of the UK’s sovereignty, as set out in today’s joint statement of the UK, US, France and Germany. It is a violation of these individuals’ right to life. In that regard, while I think the discussion that Marc Weller and Tom Ruys have so ably led about the de minimis thresholds (if any) of the concepts of the use of force in Article 2(4) and armed attack in Article 51 of the UN Charter is both interesting and very important, it is in my view somewhat distracting, as is the focus on chemical weapons. It is these two people (and others incidentally affected) who are the main victims here, not the British state. It is their rights in international law that we should primarily be concerned with, not those of the British state (or for that matter Russia). It is their life that was endangered, not that of the British state. And their right to life would have been no less harmed if they were simply shot or stabbed or even poisoned a bit more subtly by an FSB agent.

I am thus struck by the absence of public references to the violation of Skripals’ right to life. That, too, is I think calculated. The Prime Minister has repeatedly referred to the event as a (presumably domestic) crime; the UK ambassador to the UN has also said that ‘[t]he reckless act in Salisbury had been carried out by those who disregarded the sanctity of human life.’ But neither the Prime Minister nor the ambassador directly accused Russia of failing to comply with its obligations under human rights law. Why? Because if they did so, they would effectively be arguing that Russia’s obligations under say the ICCPR and the ECHR extend extraterritorially to a killing in the UK. And that, recall, is not what the British government wants to do, because it does not want to have to comply with these obligations if it used kinetic force abroad to kill an individual in an area outside its control, say by a drone strike.

Here, in other words, we can also see how international law shapes the arguments that are used, or not used. I have long argued that the 2006 killing of Alexander Litvinenko was – as far as the extraterritorial application of human rights was concerned – not legally distinguishable from cases of aerial bombardment a la Bankovic. The same goes for last year’s macabre killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia, at the orders of his half-brother, the North Korean dictator. And the same is true here. Those arguing for a restrictive application of human rights – as the US and UK governments have both done – must be aware of the consequences of doing so. That argument necessarily implies that the interests of individuals like the Skripals, attacked so brutally by a hostile state, are not protected at all in international law. That vision of international law, in which individuals are the mere objects, and not subjects, of its regulation, is not terribly attractive, even – especially even – in 2018. And so I say: when talking about Salisbury, whether it is this Salisbury or some other Salisburys, don’t forget human rights.