The European Court today issued a landmark right to life judgment in Tagayeva and Others v. Russia, dealing with the hostage crisis in the school in Beslan in 2004, in which hundreds of hostages lost their lives. The exceptionally detailed (and for the most part unanimous) judgment does the Court great credit, as does the nuance it shows in much of its factual assessment. (Kudos are also due to Kirill Koroteyev and the EHRAC/Memorial team representing some of the applicants). Together with the Finogenov v. Russia judgment, on the Dubrovka theatre hostage crisis, this will be a leading case on the right to life in extraordinary situations. Unlike in Finogenov, the Court here finds a violation of the preventative aspect of Article 2 – indentifying the risk engaging the positive obligation is perhaps the most innovative part of the judgment. The Court also finds violations with regard to the effectiveness of the investigation and the planning of the operation. All in all its approach is somewhat less deferential towards the state than in Finogenov. UPDATE: Ed Bates has some early comments here.
I have always thought that proponents of humanitarian intervention simply cannot make a persuasive case that it is already an existing rule of international law (even if they can make a case that it should be a rule of international law). I have similarly always thought, on the other hand, that the position that an intervention is legally prohibited but that it can nonetheless be politically legitimate or morally justified in exceptional circumstances is conceptually perfectly coherent. (Maybe – well, certainly – my views on this are coloured by my shamelessly comprehensive adoration of Bruno Simma, but there you go.) If we are operating in a positivist framework, even the mildest forms of positivism by definition mean that something that is lawful is not necessarily just. And since we are endowed with free will, we can choose to break the law for higher-order considerations, morality and justice, if we are willing to pay the price of non-compliance.
Whenever people talk about an act being illegal but legitimate I also always remember this scene from Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi – in the scene Gandhi is tried, in 1922, for fostering disaffection against the British government of India, thereby causing several major outbreaks of violence. And here is what happens:
Yesterday, the United States launched a missile strike against an airbase of the Syrian armed forces, in response to the recent chemical attack that the US claims was launched from this airbase. This is the first time that the US has directly used force against the Syrian regime. It is also the first time that its use of force in Syria is clearly illegal. Clearly, in the sense that I can’t imagine even a remotely plausible argument (let alone a persuasive one) as to why this act is not a breach of Article 2(4) of the Charter. (And arguably of US constitutional rules on the use of force – for which see Marty Lederman’s post on Just Security).
While the US use of force against ISIS on Syrian territory also implicates Article 2(4) of the Charter, the US at least has a reasonably plausible claim to collective and/or individual self-defense in that respect, even if this issue is hugely controversial. In this case, however, no self-defense claim can be made, since the Assad regime targeted its own population (assuming that the facts as alleged by the US are correct). Nor is the US publicly making such a claim. The official statement of the Pentagon quoted in Marty’s post states that ‘[t]he strike was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again.’ Its purpose was therefore clearly retaliatory or deterrent, rather than defensive.
International law does not permit forcible reprisals that would breach Article 2(4), even if the purpose of the reprisal is to induce the other party to comply with its legal obligations. The US also has no Security Council authorization to do this act. Nor is the US claiming, or has ever espoused, a doctrine of humanitarian intervention (like the UK government does, for instance). And even if there was a customary humanitarian intervention exception from the prohibition on the use of force (and there isn’t), its requirements would clearly not be met in this instance. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria even without the use of chemical weapons, and thousands of people will continue to die even if the Assad regime never uses such weapons again. There is, in other words, nothing legally or morally unique about the use of chemical weapons as opposed to other war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria which did not (and will not) provoke an interventionist response.
In short, this is a situation in which the US government doesn’t have even a colourable argument that its conduct is lawful. It may, of course, decide to break the law (as it did), by thinking that the breach of the law is justified by higher moral considerations (‘illegal but legitimate,’ etc), and by thinking that under the circumstances it is unlikely to pay a high political cost for its breach. At a moral or political plane, this argument rests on an (at this time untestable) assumption that the strike will do more good than harm. But the Charter has nonetheless been broken, and at that with a rare clarity.
I’ve seen you change the water into wine
I’ve seen you change it back to water, too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don’t get high with you
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine
Ah, they’re dancing in the street—it’s Jubilee
We sold ourselves for love but now we’re free
I’m so sorry for that ghost I made you be
Only one of us was real and that was me
As Dapo explains in his post from this morning, the President of the International Court of Justice last week sent what was probably one of the weirdest letters to a government (and one of the weirdest related press releases) in its history, and it is only appropriate that it pertains to one of the Court’s strangest cases. The Court essentially dismissed in limine an attempt to make an application to institute proceedings for the revision of the 2007 Bosnian Genocide judgment, finding that the application was not made by an authorized state representative.
In a 2008 article, the late Vojin Dimtrijevic and I wrote about the strange story of the Bosnian Genocide case, a case which was more than any other, from its very beginning, subservient to its political context. It was a case pursued by a changing applicant against a changing respondent before a changing Court. It was a case which one part of the applicant state actively tried to subvert, which all segments of the political elite constantly miscast and misinterpreted, which witnessed some truly unprecedented procedural manoeuvres, and which was indeed from the Bosnian side not even funded from the state budget. So many hopes were pinned on it, that when the ultimately completely predictable and underwhelming, jurisdictionally severely constrained judgment was handed down, it was perceived by most Bosniaks as a massive disappointment and by most Serbs as a kind of exoneration, despite the finding of a violation of Article 1 of the Genocide Convention by Serbia. Today, after the Court’s swift termination of the revision application and the lapse of the time-limits for any further application, the case has gone away with finality, if only with a whimper.
Over on Just Security, David Scheffer, the ranking international expert in the revision team appointed by the Bosniak leader, Mr Izetbegovic, purports to explain to an equally expert audience ‘some realities’ behind the revision request. In so doing, he calls the President’s letter and a previous letter by the Registrar ‘shallow exercises that fail to explain the legal reasoning of their conclusions,’ and concludes that ‘History will not look kindly on the ICJ’s decision to reject the Application for Revision.’
Oh, please; history, humbug. History really won’t care one whit about this whole episode, which after a few days even the Bosnian and Serbian media won’t be writing about. And while I myself normally wouldn’t write critical comments about cases which I litigated and lost, or engage in debates with people who conversely think that it is sensible to do so, this kind of self-righteous, pontificating pooh-poohing of the ICJ is something I feel compelled to respond to. Here are, to quote Mr Scheffer, some (very hard) realities about this whole episode.
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The night is dark and full of terrors. But sometimes the terrors are just too damn funny. Consider the circumstances of the untimely demise of Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, assassinated in Malaysia apparently at the orders of his imperial sibling.
- He was not just poisoned (so very old-school), but was poisoned by VX, the most potent of all chemical warfare agents, which is 100 times more toxic than sarin; less than a drop on the skin can kill you. Being poisoned at the orders of your family is one thing; your family killing you with a weapon of mass destruction is another. (Remember, though, that time when Kim Jong-un had some officials executed by anti-aircraft guns. All around nice guy.)
- The immediate executioners were two young women, one Vietnamese and one Indonesian; they claim to have been duped into doing this by North Korean agents and that they thought they were just pulling a prank on someone; Malaysian police reject this version of events.
- The Vietnamese woman was a failed “Vietnam Idol” contestant in 2016; a panel of judges rejected her after she sang just one line: “I want to stop breathing gloriously so that the loving memory will not fade.” The Indonesian woman wore a t-shirt with an “LOL” sign while carrying out the assassination. ROFL.
- The most likely method of delivering the VX was not the spray or liquid on the assassins’ hands, but a drop of the toxin on a cloth which was then touched against Kim’s skin.
- The Malaysian special forces are guarding the morgue in which Kim Jong-nam’s body is being kept, after an attempted break-in, the purpose of which may have been to tamper in some way with the corpse.
- North Korea refuses to accept that the person who was killed was Kim Jong-nam, while at the same time requesting the surrender of the body.
- There is apparently such a thing as a North Korean Jurists Committee. And they made a real gem of a statement on the assassination which I commend to every, erm, jurist out there. Among other things, the statement claims that (1) Malaysia violated international law by carrying out an autopsy on a bearer of a DPRK diplomatic passport, who had ‘extraterritorial right according to the Vienna Convention;’ (2) that the autopsy was an ‘undisguised encroachment upon the sovereignty of the DPRK, a wanton human rights abuse and an act contrary to human ethics and morality’; and that (3) ‘DPRK will never allow any attempt to tarnish the image of the dignified power of independence and nuclear weapons state but make a thorough probe into the truth behind the case.’ So the violation of international law and human rights is not the person’s death but the investigation. Note also the oh-so-subtle reference to nuclear weapons. Creepy/scary, but still LMAO.
Both factually and legally Kim’s assassination resembles the 2006 killing by radioactive polonium of Alexander Litvinenko in London, ostensibly by Russian agents. This is in effect Litvinenko redux, except it additionally has that very special DPRK flavour of crazy. The legal issues are more or less the same. One possible violation of international law is the infringement on the sovereignty of the territorial state. Another is the violation of Kim’s right to life – the DPRK is in fact a party to the ICCPR (recall the denunciation issue some time ago), but Malaysia (and China) are not and cannot invoke the DPRK’s responsibility directly in that regard even if they wanted to, although they may rely on customary law. There’s also the issue of the ICCPR’s extraterritorial application to the killing of a person by a state agent; I have argued that such scenarios are covered by human rights treaties, assuming that there is proof of the DPRK’s involvement in the killing, which of course remains to be conclusively established.
With all the daily going-ons of our new era of resurgent populist nationalism, it’s no wonder that concepts such as ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ are so very much en vogue, or that Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian classics are once more hitting the best-seller lists. But the sad truth is that there’s nothing really new about ‘post-truth’, except that it is today afflicting developed, democratic societies that until now did not experience the phenomenon, or at least did not experience it in full force.
Nor did post-truth start in these societies just out of the blue – it was preceded by decades of democratic de-norming, institutional erosion, increasing polarization and identity politics (think, for example, of how climate change became a point of polarized partisan politics in the US, or of the distorting power and influence of the (mainly right-wing) tabloid press in the UK).
Even in democracies politicians are not a species generally known for its love of the truth. It is no wonder then that in a favourable climate a sub-species of particularly cynical manipulators who are either ready to routinely lie outright or are just simply indifferent to the truth will emerge. Coupled with the natural inclination of the human mind to evaluate evidence in a biased way and to reason about it in a way that confirms pre-existing beliefs and protects one’s sense of identity, in much (most?) of the world post-truth politics are the rule, rather than the exception. Trump may be the most important exponent of the current wave of mendacious populism, but he is hardly avant-garde. For decades now, for example, many of the Balkan states have experienced their own ego-maniacal, soft-authoritarian mini-Trumps, and let’s not even mention all of the Putins, Dutertes and Erdogans out there.
Which brings me to my point. Post-truth and alternative facts have historically been perfectly standard when it comes to inter-group conflicts, especially in societies which are not genuinely pluralist. Pick any random group conflict in the world, and you are likely to find that each group lives and breaths its own particular truth. In our international legal community, many have thought that it is the role of international criminal courts and tribunals to generate the ‘real’ truths that will eventually garner acceptance in societies riven by conflict. Unfortunately, however, there is little evidence that such truth-generating potential is anything but theoretical.
This morning the UK Supreme Court delivered three important judgments dealing with various claims alleging wrongful acts by the UK when fighting international terrorism (UK Supreme Court page; Guardian news report). In Belhaj and Rahmatullah No. 1 the Court unanimously dismissed the Government’s appeal, and found that the claim against the UK for its alleged complicity in torture and mistreatment of the claimants was not barred by rules of state immunity and the foreign act of state doctrine (press release; judgment). In Rahmatullah No. 1 and Mohammed the Court unanimously allowed the Government’s appeals, holding that, insofar as the respondents’ tort claims are based on acts of an inherently governmental nature in the conduct of foreign military operations by the Crown, these were Crown acts of state for which the Government cannot be liable in tort (press release; judgment). Finally, and perhaps of greatest interest to most of our readers, in Al-Waheed and Serdar Mohammed the Court, by 7 votes to 2 in a set of very complex judgments, held that British forces had power to take
and detain prisoners for periods exceeding 96 hours if this was necessary for imperative reasons of security, but that its procedures for doing so did not comply with ECHR article 5(4) because they did not afford prisoners an effective right to challenge their detention (press release; judgment). We will be covering these judgments in more detail soon.
I have only had the time to read Serdar Mohammed, which I am yet fully to digest, but here are some initial thoughts (we have of course extensively covered this case on the blog before). The two key judgments are those of Lord Sumption for the majority and Lord Reed for the minority; I must say that by and large I incline towards the latter. I am also troubled by some of the ipse dixit, rather casual references in the judgments of the majority justices to the lex specialis principle; the supposedly restrictive original intentions of the drafters of the ECHR with regard to its application extraterritorially and in armed conflict, which are in reality completely unknowable; similarly casual constructions of coherent narratives of a very messy field that confirm one’s own predispositions (e.g. that in Al-Skeini the Strasbourg Court unprecedentedly expanded the reach of the Convention to extraterritorial armed conflicts, when one could just as easily say that in Bankovic the Court unprecedentedly restricted the Convention’s reach); or the supposed unavailability of extraterritorial derogations, on which see more here. That said, the judgments are thoughtful and rigorous even when one might disagree with them, which brings me to the Court’s main findings.
Yesterday we had the privilege to publish the speech by the UK Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC MP, setting out some of the UK Government’s views on the law of self-defence. The speech focused in particular on the criteria for assessing the imminence of an armed attack by a non-state actor, and essentially endorsed some of the principles set out in Daniel Bethlehem’s 2012 AJIL article. Thus, the Attorney stated in particular (following a speech by the US State Department Legal Adviser, Brian Egan, at last year’s ASIL meeting) that:
[Bethlehem’] Principle 8 on imminence, as part of the assessment of necessity, is a helpful encapsulation of the modern law in this area.
Sir Daniel’s proposed list of factors was not exhaustive, but included (at Principle 8), the following:
- The nature and immediacy of the threat;
- The probability of an attack;
- Whether the anticipated attack is part of a concerted pattern of continuing armed activity;
- The likely scale of the attack and the injury, loss or damage likely to result therefrom in the absence of mitigating action; and
- The likelihood that there will be other opportunities to undertake effective action in self-defense that may be expected to cause less serious collateral injury, loss or damage.
It is my view, and that of the UK Government, that these are the right factors to consider in asking whether or not an armed attack by non-state actors is imminent and the UK Government follows and endorses that approach.
In each exercise of the use of force in self-defence, the UK asks itself the questions that flow from that articulation. Questions like – how certain is it that an attack will come? How soon do we believe that attack could be? What scale of attack is it likely to be? Could this be our last clear opportunity to take action? And crucially – is there anything else we could credibly do to prevent that attack?
I don’t think the Attorney broke any new ground here, nor do I wish to dispute the accuracy or normative desirability of this analysis. But what struck me most about it is the lack of conceptual clarity, in particular the lack of clear delineation between the concepts of imminence, necessity and proportionality and the legal role that these concepts are playing. (I would highly recommend, in that regard, this piece in the AJIL by Dapo and Thomas Liefländer). For example, what is the work that the idea of imminence does here? Is its main purpose to delineate between permissible anticipatory and prohibited preemptive self-defence, which goes around the Article 51 Charter language ‘if an armed attack occurs‘? Or is imminence an aspect of the broader concept of necessity? And can a word such as imminence encompass non-temporal elements? Conceptual clarity matters because without a common understanding of the words we are using we cannot actually properly debate the soundness or desirability of any given approach. Without it, it is hard to even have a conversation.
So here’s a hypo that I hope might be helpful in this regard. Again, the point of the hypo is not to argue for any particular interpretation of self-defence, whether expansive or restrictive. It is only to help us understand how people use particular words, such as imminence, and for what precise purpose.
Dr. Evil is a very capable terrorist, who has decided to attack the United Kingdom, even though he has never done so before. He manages to get his hands on a mid-range cruise missile with a 150 kt thermonuclear warhead, in perfect working order. He places the missile launching system in a building in a Paris suburb, and uploads a video of himself to YouTube showing him arming a very specific firing mechanism. The missile is aimed at London, and will launch in exactly 30 days; there is no off-switch, code or remote signal that can disarm it. Absent forcible intervention in the causal chain, there is complete certainty that the missile will fire in 30 days and that it will destroy a substantial part of London.
Is this armed attack ‘imminent’ in any legally relevant jus ad bellum sense?
Note that this hypo is specifically designed to eliminate most of the real-world uncertainties about armed attacks – the reliability of the intelligence, the likelihood of the attack, not knowing the exact time, location or scale of the attack. In this hypo, we know everything with absolute certainty. And if you have a problem with the non-state actor nature of the attacker, we can easily turn him into a French state agent. Again, the main point here is that a causal chain has been set in motion which, without some further action, as its certain end has the destruction of London. Does this mean that the attack is ‘imminent’? If so, would it be imminent even if the timer was set to 60 days, 120 days, or 10 years? At what point (if any) is there a switch from an anticipatory to a preemptive scenario? When does imminence end, and necessity begins?