The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has been very active recently: from hearing a major case on domestic violence; to issuing an advisory opinion on LGBT rights in which it ruled, inter alia (and contrary to the European Court) that the American Convention provides for a right to same-sex marriage, a decision which has polarized public opinion in Costa Rica, in the midst of the presidential election; to another major advisory opinion on environmental protection under the ACHR, including an extensive discussion on the Convention’s extraterritorial application. We will have more detailed coverage of these cases over the next few weeks.
Just a quick heads-up to our readers that yesterday Advocate General Wathelet of the Court of Justice of the EU delivered his opinion in Case C‑266/16, Western Sahara Campaign UK, The Queen v Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This is a very important opinion, dealing with numerous issues of international law, above all the principle of self-determination; the AG concluded that the Fisheries Agreement between Morocco and the EU was invalid because it was in violation of self-determination, as the Agreement applied to the territory and waters of Western Sahara. This is the first time that a request was made under the preliminary ruling procedure for a review of validity of international agreements concluded by the EU and their implementing acts. In that regard, the AG concluded that it was possible to rely in such proceedings on the rules of international law which are binding on the EU, where their content is unconditional and sufficiently precise and where their nature and broad logic do not preclude judicial review of the contested act. These conditions were in the AG’s view satisfied here. In addition to self-determination, the AG also examines the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources and the law of occupation, including the capacity of the occupying power to concluded treaties for the occupied territory.
The AG’s opinion is rich and rigorously argued – obviously it remains to be seen whether the Court will follow it. I would only add that the opinion and the case concern the validity of the Agreement from the perspective of the internal legal order of the EU, which then incorporates (other) rules of international law. But one could also look at the validity question purely from the perspective of general international law, and the rule set out in Art. 53 VCLT. In that regard, the necessary implication of the AG’s analysis seems to me to be that the Agreement was void ab initio and in toto as it conflicted with a peremptory norm of international law, the right to self-determination. For background on the UK litigation from which this case arose, see this post by David Hart QC on the UK Human Rights Blog. For analysis of the earlier Polisario litigation before EU courts, see here.
All of us at EJIL: Talk! wish a happy festive season to our readers and their families. And may 2018 be just a tad less execrable than its unfortunate predecessor… Posting will be light for the next week or so. In the meantime, here is some holiday cheer in the spirit of the times – “Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?”
Yesterday the ICTY delivered its very final appeals judgment, in the case of Prlic et al, finding all of the defendants – political and military leaders of Bosnian Croats – guilty of crimes against Bosnian Muslims, and affirming the sentences passed on them by the trial chamber (summary; judgment). Yesterday, also, one of the defendants in the case, Slobodan Praljak, a general during the Bosnian conflict but by formal training a rather eclectic individual with degrees in philosophy, sociology, and theatre from the University of Zagreb, committed suicide in the courtroom. He did so by standing up in the dock, loudly declaiming to the judges that: “Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal and I reject your judgment with contempt” [yes he did that very nice thing of referring to himself in the third person], and then drinking a vial of poison in full view of the (visibly shocked) judges, and the cameras. The video of this dramatic one-upmanship of Socrates and Hermann Goering, the first (and hopefully last) for an international courtroom, is here.
Like in the Mladic case, the reaction to the judgment was predictably nationalist and predictably depressing. The prime minister of Croatia – a member state of the EU – completely rejected the judgment, saying that it constituted a grave moral injustice against the defendants and the Croatian people as a whole. So did the Croat member (and current chairman) of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who stated that Praljak was prepared to sacrifice his very life to show to the world and to a political court that he was in fact innocent. This martyrdom narrative is now bound to feed Croat nationalism for a long, long time. The principal reason for all this ire is not so much the conviction as such, but the Appeals Chamber’s confirmation of the finding at trial that the defendants participated in a joint criminal enterprise together with leaders from Croatia, including President Tudjman, whose purpose was to consolidate a Croat entity in Bosnia through the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. This is also coupled with the findings about Croatia’s control over Bosnian Croat forces and the characterization of the armed conflict as international, i.e. inter-state, in nature.
What of the judgment more generally? It is very long (more than 1400 pages), longer than most ICTY appeals judgments. This is largely the product of numerous problems, errors in law and reasoning in the trial judgment – itself caused to no small degree by the peculiarities of the presiding trial judge (remember the Seselj acquittal? Yes, that guy.). Yet despite the many problems, and reversals on numerous points, the Appeals Chamber essentially endorsed the basic factual and culpability account of the trial judgment, saying that the totality of the crimes for which the defendants have been convicted suffices for the sentences they have been given. Throughout its judgment the Appeals Chamber is in a constructive, repair mode in relation to the trial judgment, especially when compared to the hypercritical deconstructivism in the Gotovina judgment.
There are many legally interesting issues in the case of broader import. First, the Chamber’s approach to the classification of the armed conflict in Bosnia and the scope of application of the Geneva Conventions. Second, similarly, the Chamber’s application of the law of occupation, and its finding that Croatia was occupying parts of Bosnia through its proxies. Third, and most controversially, its reversal of the majority trial chamber finding that the destruction of the Old Bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar constituted a war crime of wanton destruction of property not justified by military necessity. Judge Pocar dissented on this point very energetically. Essentially the Chamber found that (1) the bridge was a military objective, as it was being used by Bosnian Muslim forces; (2) therefore the destruction of the bridge could not be ‘wanton’, even if it was disproportionate in its impact on the civilian population under IHL; (3) the Trial Chamber found no other property destroyed in this event; (4) therefore an element of the crime was missing or unproved. The judgment thus does not directly engage with the ‘pure’ IHL proportionality question, as the majority and dissent did at trial. Finally, the analysis of JCE is very dense and fact-specific; one particularly interesting set of issues dealt with the inconsistent terminology used in the French original of the trial judgment and its impact on the relevant mens rea standard.
Last week the ICTY rendered its trial judgment against Ratko Mladic, the wartime military commander of the Bosnian Serbs (summary; the judgment itself is available here, in four volumes at some 2500 pages). The outcome was basically as I predicted in my previous post: Mladic was convicted on all counts except for count 1, genocide in Bosnian municipalities other than Srebrenica. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Justice was done, and that is a very good thing; the nationalist reactions to the judgment in the Balkans were unfortunately also as predicted, and that is not. In this post I will briefly give a few thoughts on the two issues I raised in my previous post – the count 1 genocide acquittal and the shelling of the Markale marketplace in Sarajevo.
As for the former, the basic outcome here was the same as in the Karadzic case – the Trial Chamber unanimously found that no genocide was committed in Bosnian municipalities other than Srebrenica. The road taken to get to that outcome was, however, different. In the Mladic case the majority of the Trial Chamber (Judge Orie dissenting) found that the physical perpetrators of the killings in (some, but not all of) the municipalities DID have an intention to destroy a part of the Bosnian Muslim group as such (para. 3456 / p. 1764 et seq of the judgment, conclusion in para. 3526); however, they then found that this intention was not to destroy a SUBSTANTIAL part, as required by the jurisprudence of the ad hoc tribunals (para. 3527 et seq, conclusion in para. 3536).
This substantiality criterion has admittedly never been conceptually clear, or easy to apply in practice. Even so, the majority was probably in error here – essentially they inferred the intent to destroy from the massive scale of the crimes and the fact that individual victims were targeted on a discriminatory basis, i.e. they were killed because of their ethnicity. But that confuses killings on the basis of a discriminatory motive with an intention to destroy (a part, however defined) of a group, as such. The majority’s approach also invites problematic line-drawing with regard to how Srebrenica was in fact genocide, which essentially boils down to the number of people killed, or available to be killed, belonging to a certain ethnic group. (That said, I have personally never been comfortable with this arithmetic of genocide or with essentially morally arbitrary distinctions between genocide and crimes against humanity, which we are legally compelled to get into.)
By contrast, Judge Orie in his very brief dissenting opinion (the Chamber was otherwise unanimous on all counts, which is again a good thing), finds that the only reasonable inference that could be drawn from the evidence is that the physical perpetrators had the intention to displace Bosnian Muslims (killing many in the process) from certain areas, but not destroy them as a group. The Trial Chamber was unanimous that a genocidal intent could not be attributed by inference to the high-ranking leadership or members of the overarching joint criminal enterprise, whose purpose was ethnic cleansing rather than genocide (paras. 4234-4237).
As things stand, with unanimous trial chambers in both the Mladic and Karadzic cases finding on the facts that genocide was not committed in the Bosnian municipalities, I think it is unlikely in the extreme that this conclusion will be disturbed by the MICT Appeals Chamber on appeal, especially because the trial chambers are due some deference on their factual findings. (Not, again, that this will stop Bosniak nationalists from saying that the totality of the conflict was a genocide.)
On the Markale shelling, unlike in Karadzic, the Mladic Trial Chamber was unanimous that the shelling was perpetrated by Bosnian Serb forces. Reading through the judgment, it is clear that the defence strategy was to raise reasonable doubt as to the identity of the perpetrators by any means necessary. For that purpose it called a host of different factual and expert witnesses, virtually each of which had a different (conspiracy) theory as to what had actually happened. The Trial Chamber essentially demolished each of these witnesses in turn; perhaps the most amusing example (if a macabre one) was the testimony of defence expert Zorica Subotic who claimed that the shell that had hit the marketplace was planted on the scene rather than fired from Serb positions. Her basis for claiming so is that a particular piece of the shell could never be detached from it, but was found detached on the scene. This is what happened then (paras 2091-2092):
Subotić testified that the mortar shell that exploded at Markale Market was planted there. In this respect, the Trial Chamber observes with concern the lengths to which the witness was prepared to go to ‘prove’ that the evidence regarding the Markale market incident had been staged. One of the most disconcerting theories offered by the witness was her evidence that bodies at the scene of the explosion had been ‘staged’ or planted there for the occasion. This theory, besides falling squarely outside her area of expertise, rested on rampant speculation. … The witness’s basic claims were that (i) the mortar shell which hit Markale Market could not have fallen at the angle which other experts concluded it had, and (ii) that the tail fin of the mortar shell – also called the stabilizer – was planted at the Markale Market site after the explosion. The witness testified that she examined whether there were two stabilizers. The witness’s research on the Markale incident was based on examining photographs of the tail fin that was found at Markale Market and using a similar tail fin she had brought into court. On this basis, the witness drew her conclusions. The claim that the stabilizer was planted at the site was, in the witness’s opinion, supported by the fact that the mortar shell’s base charge could not by any kind of force before, during, or after the mortar shell exploded, be disconnected from the body of the stabilizer. To prove this point, the witness brought a stabilizer attached to base charge to court and stated that they could not be unscrewed from each other which, the witness claimed, was a technical matter not in dispute. When the charge was handed to the bench, the judges managed to unscrew the charge within a matter of seconds using a plastic ballpoint pen. For her research on the Markale incident, the witness used firing tables from 2001 and testified that she did not have firing tables from before that time. At the same time, the witness acknowledged that precise firing tables are essential to calculate matters such as a mortar’s velocity or its angle of descent.
And so forth. The judges found none of the evidence presented by the defence in this regard to be persuasive. Thus, 5 of the 6 ICTY trial judges who last looked at the matter thought that the shell was fired from Bosnian Serb positions. That should be good enough for anyone, but unfortunately it will not be so in the Balkans, where the conspiracy theories dispelled in the courtroom will continue to persist.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia will tomorrow render its very final trial judgment, in one of its most important cases, that of Ratko Mladic, the commander of the army of the Bosnian Serbs during the conflict in Bosnia. As with the case of Radovan Karadzic, the wartime president of the Bosnian Serb republic, there are few unknowns in Mladic’s case – he will be convicted, and he will spend the remainder of his life in prison, whether his sentence is formally that of life imprisonment or not (for our coverage of the Karadzic judgment see here, here and here). Let me nonetheless address two of the remaining uncertainties, and one clear certainty.
The first count of the indictment charges Mladic with genocide in several Bosnian municipalities in 1992; the second charges him with genocide in Srebrenica in 1995. And it is on the former that Mladic actually has a realistic chance – even a likelihood – of being acquitted. This is exactly what happened with Karadzic, and the ICTY has ‘only’ been able to find genocide in Srebrenica, not in any of the other municipalities. This whole issue was also of great relevance to the botched attempt to revise the 2007 Bosnian Genocide judgment of the ICJ earlier this year. That said, while in the Karadzic case the Trial Chamber deciding on a rule 98 bis motion originally found that Karadzic could not be convicted of genocide in the municipalities by a reasonable trier of fact – a finding later reversed by the Appeals Chamber – in Mladic the Trial Chamber’s rule 98 bis decision found that the prosecution did, in fact, make it out its initial evidentiary burden (see here, at p. 24). The possibility thus remains that the Mladic and Karadzic trial chambers will disagree on the existence of genocide outside Srebrenica; that possibility is relatively low, but it is not zero. The whole thing will in any event receive its judicial epilogue before the Appeals Chamber of the MICT.
Secondly, one difficulty with the Karadzic judgment was the factual 2:1 divide among the judges regarding the first shelling of the Markale marketplace during the siege of Sarajevo. As I explained in my Karadzic post:
[W]hen it comes to the siege of Sarajevo the Trial Chamber confirmed the overall picture of the terrorization of the civilian population as established in the ICTY’s previous cases, such as Galic. There is however one politically very big issue here – the two shellings of the Markale marketplace in Sarajevo, on 5 February 1994 and 28 August 1995, in which dozens of people were killed and injured. The standard Bosniak narrative is that the marketplace was deliberately shelled by the Bosnian Serb army to terrorize the civilian population; the standard Serb narrative is that the shellings were done by the Bosniaks themselves in order to demonize the Serbs and provoke an international military response (which the latter one did). The Trial Chamber found (starting at p. 1662) that both incidents were perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs. However, Judge Baird dissented (p. 2542 et seq.) with respect to the 5 February 1994 incident, finding that there was reasonable doubt that the Bosnian Serbs did not commit the attack. Clearly this opens the door for Karadzic to appeal (rightly or wrongly), but even more importantly the division in the Trial Chamber reinforces the divided realities lived by the different communities in Bosnia as well.
It will be interesting to see what the Mladic Trial Chamber decides on these two attacks.
Finally, one thing that is absolutely certain is how the trial judgment will be received in the former Yugoslavia. Again, absent massive judicial aneurysms Mladic is going to be convicted; there is no conceivable reality in which he walks from the courtroom tomorrow morning as a free man. That conviction will not, however, persuade any ethnic Serbs in Bosnia or Serbia who previously believed in his innocence that he is in fact guilty; rather, they will treat the judgment as yet another example of a Western conspiracy against the Serbs. For example, a 2011 public survey of the Serbian population commissioned by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights found that 55% of ethnic Serbs thought that Mladic was not guilty of the crimes he was charged with by the ICTY, only 17% felt that he was guilty, and 28% did not know or did not want to give their opinion. I have no reason to believe that these results would be any different if the poll was conducted today (if anything they are probably worse), or that the trial judgment convicting Mladic would change anyone’s views. Similarly, if Mladic is – like Karadzic – acquitted on count 1, genocide in the municipalities, the negative reaction among Bosniak nationalists and victim groups is similarly going to be quite predictable. (For more on this, see the series of articles I did on the impact of the ICTY and other criminal tribunals on local audiences – here, here and here).
That said, while the bottom line of the Mladic case is clear, there are bound to be various different legal and factual issues in the judgment that are worth exploring in more detail. We will have more coverage on the blog in the days to follow.
The surrealism of the moment defies description. Who would have thought, even only a short while ago, that on a nice November morning a US military commission judge in Guantanamo would be holding a Marine general and chief defense counsel for the commissions in contempt, sentencing him to 21 days of confinement in, well, Guantanamo? Who would have thought that on that same day the President of the United States would be deriding the US criminal justice system as a “joke” and a “laughingstock,” while suggesting that the “animal” who perpetrated a deadly vehicular terrorist attack in New York City be sent to that same Guantanamo, with its oh-so-successful, cost-effective military commissions? That he and his White House would, in 2017, be calling this individual an “enemy combatant”? That he would be joined in doing so by prominent US senators, lamenting the fact that the individual concerned has not yet been shipped off to Gitmo, despite the fact that he essentially committed his crime in full public view and on camera, so that the likelihood of his acquittal before any regular civilian court would effectively be nil?
Surrealism is by definition unexpected. Slippery slopes are not. They can often be seen from a very, very long way off. And many of us have spent years warning some of our US colleagues of the dangers of some of the theories they have been advancing in the pursuit of the global conflict against terror. Just a few weeks ago we had just such an “IHL party” on the blog, provoked by a post of Ryan Goodman on Just Security. I pointed out in that discussion that while there was a measure of agreement on the geographic scope of application of IHL, that issue was part of a broader package, and that some items in that package – above all the definition of the relevant armed conflict and the classification of individuals with a nexus to that conflict – continued to attract controversy, inter alia because of the manifest possibility of abuse of some of the lines of argument put forward and their lack of basis in conventional and customary IHL.
So I therefore have a question for our American colleagues, including my friends on Just Security and Lawfare – let us assume that the facts about the New York terrorist continue to be as we know them today, i.e. that he essentially self-radicalized by looking at ISIS materials on the Internet and that he, beyond professing allegiance to ISIS, was at no point subject to the chain of command of that armed group fighting in Iraq and Syria. On these facts, are we in agreement that there is no way that this individual could be qualified, under the relevant rules of international law, as a fighter in any IHL-cognizable armed conflict? I am not asking what consequences this would have under US domestic law, including the AUMF; I am only interested in IHL. Under IHL, it seems to me that there is not even a remotely plausible, let alone genuinely persuasive, argument that this individual has a nexus to any armed conflict/was a member of a non-state armed group engaging in hostilities in such a conflict. He is not an “enemy combatant” in any international legal sense of the word; he is only a (vicious) criminal. This is not a hard or difficult case – it’s an easy, obvious one, again assuming the facts as we know them today. Do we agree?
We have had a very rich debate on secession on the blog in recent weeks, and we will have more posts to follow. For my part, I would agree with much of what Jure Vidmar has said in his post this week, with the proviso that I personally don’t think the argument out of comparative constitutionalism necessarily has much purchase – that argument is contextually specific, and what works constitutionally in Canada or in the UK need not be the position in Spain. The ultimate arbiter of the Spanish constitutional order – the Constitutional Tribunal – has (for good or ill) not gone the Quebec Reference path. I agree in particular that international law has little to say on the secession of Catalonia specifically; Kurdistan is a more difficult question (on which a bit more below). What I would like to do in this post, however, is take a step back and reflect more generally on how secession is regulated by international law – and it is indeed regulated, if not wholly so.
It seems to me most useful to conceptualize international law’s regulation of secession in a three part model. First, there are cases where international law explicitly prohibits secession, when it is being effected through the violation of some fundamental norm of international law, such as the prohibition on the use of force or the prohibition on racial discrimination – this was the case, for example, with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Such fundamental illegality is an impediment to the achievement of statehood which otherwise satisfies the relevant factual criteria, and thus bounds effectiveness. Crucially, as the ICJ has confirmed in the Kosovo AO, among these norms is NOT the principle of territorial integrity insofar as it does not govern the relationship between the parent state and an internal secessionist movement; that principle is only relevant if a third state assists a secessionist entity, as with Turkey and the TRNC.
Second, there is a middle ground, a zone of tolerance, where international law is neutral towards secession, neither prohibiting it nor creating a right to it. This neutral zone is what is left over from the classical position towards secession in international law, which was essentially that in order to establish itself as a state against the wishes of its parent, the secessionist entity needed to fight – and win – a war of independence against its parent (e.g. the USA, or most of the states of Latin America).
Finally, in the third part, a zone of entitlement, international law creates a right to secession under external self-determination, or perhaps remedial secession. The argument of Serbia and most of its allies in the Kosovo advisory proceedings was essentially that no zone of tolerance existed between prohibition and entitlement; the argument of Kosovo and its supporters that international law at the very least tolerated the declaration of independence/secession. Serbia could also have argued that even if the territorial integrity principle did not generally prohibit non-state actors from declaring independence, it did so here because Kosovo’s independence was as a matter of fact enabled by an unlawful use of force contrary to the Charter by NATO in 1999. Serbia of course deliberately chose not to do so, and for three basic reasons: it did not want to antagonize the NATO powers, as this argument would inevitably do, the Resolution 1244 regime came after the initial use of force and authorized the presence of international forces in Kosovo, and it was highly unlikely that the Court would want to rule on it in the context of the advisory proceedings.
On Whether IHL Applies to Drone Strikes Outside ‘Areas of Active Hostilities’: A Response to Ryan Goodman
Over on Just Security, Ryan Goodman has an excellent post entitled Why the Laws of War Apply to Drone Strikes Outside “Areas of Active Hostilities” (A Memo to the Human Rights Community). In sum, Ryan argues that human rights activists have been too radical in their critique of US drone strike policy, as reflected in the Presidential Policy Guidance adopted during the Obama administration, and in the context of the Trump administration’s recent proposal to revise this standing policy and relax some of its requirements, especially with regard to the procedure for authorizing lethal strikes. In particular, Ryan argues that human rights activists have been portraying as clearly unlawful decisions which legally fall within the bounds of reasonable disagreement.
In that regard, Ryan argues – persuasively in my view – that the mere fact that a drone strike takes place outside an area of active hostilities under the PPG does not mean that the strike takes place outside armed conflict under IHL. The former, as Ryan correctly notes, is not even a legal term of art. I also agree with Ryan that some US positions that used to be regarded as novel or anomalous have become mainstream with time, in part through the acceptance of these positions by European and other states, by the ICRC and scholars – viz., for instance, the idea of ‘spillover’ NIACs (for more on the operation of this mainstreaming process see here; on spillover NIACs see here).
That said, Ryan in some respects significantly overstates his argument. Yes, states have accepted the idea that they can be engaged in an armed conflict with a terrorist group – but I would say that this really was never in doubt. What was in doubt is whether this NIAC can be global in scope, and this US position has not been mainstreamed – or at least I am unaware of any other state which agrees with it. What do I mean by this?
For the past week or so I’ve been enjoying the start of my sabbatical in New York, as a visiting professor at Columbia this semester. And for the past couple of days I’ve been enjoying – well, experiencing – the chaotic collapse of parts of the city during the UN General Assembly. And today I could enjoy – well, behold – the spectacle of the President of the United States threatening another UN member state with nuclear destruction at the podium of the General Assembly:
If this is not twisted enough, now North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life.
It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime, but would arm, supply, and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict. No nation on earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.
The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.
Note the nature of the threat – if the US is forced to defend itself or its allies, it will totally destroy North Korea (not – react to the extent necessary and proportionate; presumably even a preemptive self-defense theory would be on the table). Note also how the United Nations is a ‘they’ rather than a ‘we.’ Question for the readers: has this ever happened before? Shoes have been banged at that podium, of course, and sulfur has been smelt. Yet even at the height of the Cold War, has a head of state of a nuclear-weapons state used this kind of directly threatening language? Or is this simply old-fashioned nuclear deterrence inartfully expressed?