In my previous post I explained how the European Court’s Article 1 jurisprudence allows it to avoid the question of sovereignty over Crimea, since it can ground Russia’s jurisdiction over the territory, and thus the applicability of the ECHR, simply on the fact of its control and need not say anything else. But there are at least two issues on the merits of the Ukraine v. Russia re Crimea case that could directly engage the question of sovereignty over the territory. As a preliminary matter, I now need to say that I have not had the benefit of reading the pleadings of either party in the case – the Court has an inexplicable policy of not putting the pleadings online, but only allowing them to be consulted in its building in Strasbourg. That said, I am reasonably certain that the two issues I examine here are properly raised in the case. I will therefore now turn to the first of these, the mass imposition of Russian citizenship on the people of Crimea.
Does the European Court of Human Rights Have to Decide on Sovereignty over Crimea? Part I: Jurisdiction in Article 1 ECHR
On 11 September the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held oral hearings on the admissibility of the interstate claim Ukraine brought against Russia regarding Crimea (no. 20958/14). The webcast of the hearing is available here. There are many different admissibility issues that the case raises, some of them heavily factual (e.g. the existence of an administrative practice on the part of Russia that makes individual recourse to domestic remedies impossible). The case may well flounder on one of them. But the one issue that concerns me here is simply this: should the European Court make any pronouncements on whether it is Ukraine or Russia who is the rightful sovereign of Crimea?
To be clear, sovereignty over Crimea is not to my mind a legally difficult question – Russia’s annexation of Crimea was as clearly illegal as anything can be. But there is wider, much more fraught, question of principle and prudence: should international human rights bodies pronounce on issues which, while capable of legal determination, are not part of their central mission of human rights protection and may negatively affect that mission? This is especially the case in situations in which it is entirely predictable that, in the political context, any such pronouncement would provoke intense backlash, even possibly leading to Russia’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe.
In my second post on the report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, I will discuss some of its most interesting legal findings. The key finding, obviously, is that Saudi Arabia is responsible for committing an extrajudicial execution in violation of Mr Khashoggi’s right to life. The Special Rapporteur notes in that regard, quite correctly, that it is ultimately legally irrelevant whether Khashoggi’s killing was premeditated, ordered at the highest levels of the Saudi state, or was done as part of some ‘rogue’ operation. Saudi Arabia bears responsibility for the conduct of its organs, done in their official capacity, even if it was committed ultra vires (para. 219).
In addition to finding Saudi Arabia responsible for violating Khashoggi’s right to life and for failing to comply with obligations towards Turkey under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the report also finds that Khashoggi’s killing constituted an unlawful use of force by Saudi Arabia against Turkey, contrary to the prohibition in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter (paras. 227-230). The report’s analysis in this regard focuses somewhat excessively on whether the killing of a journalist would be an act contrary to the purposes of the United Nations, but does not really engage with the prior question of whether the furtive assassination of a single individual can constitute ‘force’ in the sense of Article 2(4). This is in effect the question of whether there is any de minimis, lowest limit to the concept of force in Article 2(4), and is a point of some controversy, since a finding that interstate force has been used has a number of important implications. Most recently the same issue was raised with regard to the Salisbury chemical attack, when the UK government formally accused Russia for violating the prohibition on the use of force (which, as far as I’m aware, Turkey did not do here). For detailed discussions in this respect see this post by Tom Ruys on Just Security and Dapo’s post here on EJIL: Talk.
Last week the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Agnes Callamard, submitted to the Human Rights Council her long-awaited final report on the investigation she conducted on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. In this post I’ll offer a few thoughts on some of the legal and factual findings of this report, which is the result of the only independent inquiry to-date into Khashoggi’s assassination in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October last year. Readers may recall that I’ve recently written extensively on the blog on the international legal aspects of Khashoggi’s murder, based on my forthcoming article in the Human Rights Law Review.
The Callamard report is extensive, detailed and rich in its legal and factual analysis. Indeed it is far too extensive to be summarized and discussed in a blog post, which I will not attempt to do. Rather, this two-part post will focus on a selection of the report’s most novel factual and legal findings; the first part will examine the former, and the second, to be published tomorrow, will look at the report’s legal analysis.
The report itself is comprised of two documents. First, the formal report to the Human Rights Council, submitted for its 41st regular session starting this week – UN Doc. A/HRC/41/36. Second, a one-hundred page annex to that report, which contains the Special Rapporteur’s detailed factual and legal findings with regard to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – UN Doc. A/HRC/41/CRP.1. The former document by and large summarizes the contents of the latter, while emphasizing some important points of principle, e.g. regarding the duty to warn (on which more tomorrow). I will hereinafter thus only refer to the annex, i.e. whenever I cite a paragraph of the report, I mean to refer to the longer document, A/HRC/41/CRP.1.
Again, I will not cover the report exhaustively. The media coverage of the report, including succinct summaries of its main findings, has been extensive (e.g. here and here; see also this VoA interview with Ms Callamard). In a nutshell, the Special Rapporteur found that Saudi Arabia bears state responsibility for the extrajudicial killing of Mr Khashoggi, in violation of his human right to life, and that it has similarly violated its positive obligation to effectively investigate his killing. She has inter alia called on the UN Secretary-General, the Human Rights Council, and the Security Council, to establish an independent international criminal investigation into Khashoggi’s murder, and has specifically found that credible evidence existed for the potential responsibility of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his principal henchman, Saud al-Qahtani.
As one could expect, Saudi Arabia has already rejected the report, alleging that it is biased, contains ‘nothing new,’ repeats allegations already made in the media, and is based on ‘false accusations confirmed as stemming from Callamard’s preconceived ideas and positions towards the kingdom.’ In reality, however, there are quite a few new significant factual findings in the report, which have been made with a commendable degree of care and rigour – all the more commendable in light of the very limited resources that the Special Rapporteur had at her disposal. In fact, the report expressly tries not to rely on media reporting, whenever possible, and acknowledges possible sources of bias when appropriate (see paras. 36-37, 42-47). The Special Rapporteur established as proven or credible only those facts that she herself could independently substantiate. And, of course, she applied in great detail the applicable rules of international law to the facts that she has established. As we will see, most of her legal findings are (at least in my view) unassailable, while others are somewhat more tenuous.
What, then, of the report’s novel factual findings?
Yesterday President Trump apparently aborted a US strike against Iran, in response to Iran’s destruction of an unmanned US surveillance drone. US and Iranian accounts continue to differ on whether the drone was shot down in Iranian airspace or in international airspace. Ashley Deeks and Scott Anderson have helpfully analyzed the international legal framework applicable to any US strike in response to the destruction of the drone over on Lawfare, to which I have little to add in principle. In particular, they’ve explained the more expansive and the more restrictive theories of self-defence on which the legality of a US strike would hinge (see also Ashley’s previous post here).
But, President Trump has tweeted in the past hour, as he does, and his tweets effectively (if inadvertently) admit the illegality of the aborted US strike under any conceivable theory of self-defence, no matter how expansive:
….proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
Note, first, how President Trump describes the aborted US strike as being meant ‘to retaliate’ against Iran for the destruction of the drone. But it is black letter jus ad bellum that the purpose of self-defence can only be to stop an ongoing attack, or (possibly) to prevent imminent future attacks. It cannot, however, simply be to retaliate against an attack committed in the past. Thus, even if US historically expansive views on the right to self-defence were to be accepted in their totality, and even we were to accept that the US drone was in international airspace when it was shot down and that this was an armed attack by Iran against the US in the sense of Article 51 of the UN Charter, the US head of state has just admitted to the world that the strike he authorized, and then rescinded, was retaliatory and not defensive in nature.
Similarly, he expressly admitted that the attack would have been disproportionate, as 150 lives would likely have been lost for one destroyed unmanned drone. And as we all know, proportionality is a key requirement of the customary law of self-defence. Thankfully, President Trump ultimately decided to abort the strikes, and therefore no violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter took place. Hopefully any conflict between the US and Iran will be avoided. But that said, it is also clear from what the US President tweeted to all of us, so explicitly and so ungrammatically, that the proposed military action of his government, had it taken place, would have been illegal. And again, under the President’s own admission, it would have been illegal regardless of whether one embraces a more restrictive or a more expansive theory of self-defence.
Yesterday international investigators charged three Russian nationals and one Ukrainian national before Dutch criminal courts for the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine. According to a report in the Guardian:
The suspects were named as Igor Girkin, a former colonel of Russia’s FSB spy service; Sergey Dubinskiy, employed by Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency; and Oleg Pulatov, a former soldier with the GRU’s special forces spetsnaz unit. All were Russian soldiers previously sent abroad.
A fourth suspect, Leonid Kharchenko, is a Ukrainian. He led a military combat unit in the city of Donetsk as a commander, it was alleged.
Girkin was minister of defence in the Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). He was the commander of the DNR when the plane was shot down on 17 July 2014. Dubinskiy served as Girkin’s deputy in the DNR, and Pulatov was Dubinskiy’s deputy. Kharchenko was under their command.
Investigators said the soldiers “formed a chain linking DNR with the Russian Federation”. This link was how the separatists obtained heavy equipment from Russia including the Buk launcher used to fire at MH17 with “terrible consequences”.
The accused did not push the button themselves but were responsible for bringing the anti-aircraft system to eastern Ukraine. They could therefore be held criminally liable and charged with murdering 298 people, investigators said.
Readers will recall that last year the investigators and the Dutch and Australian governments formally attributed the downing of MH17 to Russia. Yesterday, however, saw the first criminal charges brought against specific individuals. Obviously, it remains highly unlikely that any of them will face trial in the Netherlands in the foreseeable future, unless they are unwise enough to travel abroad, although they will likely be tried in absentia.
There have also been interesting developments about litigation regarding MH17 in the European Court of Human Rights. Back in 2014 I suggested that the families of the victims may decide to bring cases against both Russia and Ukraine:
In addition to whatever direct involvement these states may have had in the destruction of the aircraft, they could also be held liable for other internationally wrongful acts. For example, Ukraine could be responsible for failing to secure the right to life of the victims and failing to comply with its substantive positive obligations under Article 2 ECHR by deciding not to close the relevant airspace for civilian traffic. Russia could be held responsible for providing the rebels with anti-aircraft weaponry without sufficient safeguards (e.g. appropriate training of the missile crews), thus creating the risk that this weaponry could be used against civilian targets. Both states could be held responsible for failing to secure an effective investigation into the incident. Obviously the facts could yet develop and some very complex preliminary issues could arise (e.g. the extent of Russia’s control over the Ukrainian rebels and the question of the ECHR’s extraterritorial application), but all these points seem arguable.
At least two such cases have indeed been brought and have been communicated by the Court to the respondent governments for pleadings on admissibility and merits.
I recently wrote on the blog about the obligation of states, arising from their duty to protect the right to life under human rights law, to warn individuals subject to their jurisdiction of any real and immediate risk to their life, bodily integrity, or liberty and security of person, posed by foreign intelligence services. That duty arises if the state knows, or ought to know, of such a threat, i.e. if the threat is reasonably foreseeable to it. I’ve argued in that regard how it cannot be conclusively established, but may be so established after further factual inqury, that the United States or Turkey had enough relevant information in their possession to trigger their protective obligation with regard to Jamal Khashoggi and the threat posed to his life by agents of Saudi Arabia. If that obligation was triggered, however, the duty to warn Khashoggi arose, whereas no such warning was given to him before his assassination in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
As I have explained in my previous post, and in more detail in my full paper, the duty to warn does not impose unreasonable burdens on states engaged in intelligence-gathering activities. First, it is subject to a jurisdictional threshold, which may be looser, per the Human Rights Committee’s new functional approach to the extraterritorial application of the right to life, or stricter, per the more traditional spatial or personal conceptions of jurisdiction. Opinions will clearly differ in this regard as to which approach should prevail. The key point here, however, is that a state lacking the capacity to fulfil the duty to warn will never be expected to have to do so. Second, the duty will only be engaged if a specific unlawful threat to the life of an individual was reasonably foreseeable to the state. Third, the duty to warn is one of due diligence, and the state can take a number of relevant considerations into account in deciding on how to fulfil it. It might, for example, choose to convey the substance of the threat in a way that will avoid any risk of compromising intelligence-gathering sources and methods. It might choose to do so through an intermediary, such as a relevant agency of a partner state. In the vast majority of conceivable circumstances the state will be able to convey a warning without compromising its essential interests in any meaningful way. Granted, the state will have to devote some resources towards actually complying with the obligation. But such an expectation is not unreasonable, especially bearing in mind that this rather modest burden will usually fall on the wealthiest, most powerful states in possession of an extensive foreign intelligence apparatus, whose ultimate purpose should after all be the safeguarding of human life.
Importantly, in the past month or so, the CIA and partner security services have actually warned three associaties of Khashoggi of a Saudi threat against them, demonstrating that the duty to warn does not, in fact, impose unreasonable burdens on state authorities and that it can effectively be complied with.
First, after obtaining information about a specific threat from the CIA, the Norwegian security services warned a prominent Arab pro-democracy activist and vocal critic of the Saudi crown prince, who has been granted asylum and is living in Norway. As the Guardian reports:
In light of today’s rather extraordinary statement by Prof. Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, that Julian Assange has been subjected not only to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, but also to a sustained campaign of collective persecution, the results of which were tantamount to psychological torture, here’s a brief hypothetical that can hopefully shed some light on Assange’s legal situation:
Variant 1: A is a human rights defender living and working in Dystopia, a highly authoritarian police state. He has helped countless people in his work, to much international acclaim. One day he receives reliable information that a Dystopian court has ordered his arrest, on charges of sedition, and that if convicted (which seems very likely) he could spend many years in prison. A decides to evade the police seeking to arrest him. With the help of friends, A finds refuge in a cave in a remote location. He spends 7 years in that cave, with very little human contact, fearful that if he ever left the cave the police would find him and arrest him. The years take their toll. A starts suffering from a number of physical ailments. Even worse, the virtually total separation from his family, friends and the outside world eventually leads to serious impairment to his mental health, including severe anxiety and depression. After 7 years, the Dystopian police discover A’s hiding place and arrest him.
Questions: (1) While A was in the cave, was he subjected to a deprivation of liberty by the state of Dystopia? (2) If so, was that deprivation of liberty arbitrary? (3) In any event, do the accumulated consequences to A’s mental and physical health, due to the extended period of time he spent in the cave hiding from Dystopian authorities, qualify as torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of A on the part of the state of Dystopia?
Variant 2: R is the highest-ranking general of the army of a separatist regime in Anarchia, a country ravaged by a sectarian civil war. The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for R’s arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale; he is suspected of leading a campaign of ethnic cleansing which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. After the Anarchian civil war ends in the victory of his opponents, R decides to go into hiding. With the help of friends, R finds refuge in a cave in a remote location. He spends 7 years in that cave, with very little human contact, fearful that the Anarchian government authorities will arrest him and send him to The Hague for trial. The years take their toll. R starts suffering from a number of physical ailments. Even worse, the virtually total separation from his family, friends and the outside world eventually leads to serious impairment to his mental health, including severe anxiety and depression. After 7 years, the Anarchian police discover R’s hiding place and arrest him.
Questions: (1) While R was in the cave, was he subjected to a deprivation of liberty by the state of Anarchia? (2) If so, was that deprivation of liberty arbitrary? (3) In any event, do the accumulated consequences to R’s mental and physical health, due to the extended period of time he spent in the cave hiding from Anarchian authorities, qualify as torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of R on the part of the state of Anarchia? (4) If you have answered any of the preceding questions differently than their counterparts in Variant 1, please explain why you have done so.
The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: Immunities, Inviolability and the Human Right to Life – Part V: Conclusion
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is in many respects a truly extraordinary case. But it is by no means unique – authoritarian states assassinate journalists and political dissidents with some frequency. The use of consular premises as the scene of the killing is, of course, one special feature of this affair. And while diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities are abused all the time, this is not normally done in so spectacular a fashion.
What makes Khashoggi’s killing so fascinating from the standpoint of an international legal analysis is the interplay between the human right to life and the rules of diplomatic and consular law. However, as I have explained, most of the possible norm conflicts between immunities and the right to life could have been avoided in Khashoggi’s case. This is primarily because Khashoggi was killed on the premises of a consulate and not those of a diplomatic mission, and because consular privileges and immunities are significantly weaker than diplomatic ones.
It is therefore unclear why Turkey acted as if international law laid such obstacles in front of it, when in doing so it actually exposed itself to legal liability under IHRL for failing to effectively investigate Khashoggi’s death. There are several possible explanations. First, Turkey could have genuinely misunderstood the legal position, failing to appreciate the attenuated nature of consular immunities. The confusion of consular privileges and immunities with the more expansive diplomatic versions has certainly been pervasive in the coverage of the Khashoggi affair. In fact, in a speech in parliament President Erdogan lamented the fact that the ‘Vienna Convention’ – he did not specify which – inhibited the investigation through the ‘diplomatic immunity’ it provided for, commenting that it may need to be reviewed or revised.
The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi: Immunities, Inviolability and the Human Right to Life – Part IV: After the Attack
Prior posts in this series examined the legal situation before and during the attack on Khashoggi; this one examines its aftermath. After Khashoggi’s death, the substantive negative and positive obligations were extinguished, but the positive procedural obligation to investigate his death was triggered for both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Khashoggi was subject to the jurisdiction of both states at the moment of his death. Like the substantive positive obligation to protect life, the procedural obligation to investigate is also one of due diligence, i.e. it does not require the state to do the impossible, but only what could reasonably be expected of it in the circumstances. In other words, it is inherently flexible. Investigations into allegations of violation of the right to life must always be independent, impartial, prompt, thorough, effective, credible and transparent, and in the event that a violation is found, full reparation must be provided.
It is manifest that Saudi Arabia is in violation of its procedural obligation to investigate Khashoggi’s death, on multiple grounds. Its agents covered up the evidence of the murder and actively obstructed Turkish efforts to investigate it. Its own internal investigation has lacked any transparency. It is obvious that Saudi law enforcement authorities have no real independence from the executive, the conduct of which they are supposed to be investigating, particularly with regard to the question of whether the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s killing or knew that the operation would take place. It is equally obvious that the outcome of the Saudi trial of 11 unnamed individuals charged with Khashoggi’s death, which is shrouded in secrecy, is going to be determined by whatever the Saudi royals want the judges to say rather than by any kind of genuine pursuit for the truth.
In short, there is simply no doubt that Saudi Arabia is in violation of the procedural limb of the right to life. The position of Turkey is, of course, very different. As a general matter Turkish authorities have demonstrated willingness to effectively investigate Khashoggi’s death, and indeed much of what we know of his killing is directly the product of their investigative efforts. Had Turkey wanted to be complicit in the Saudi cover-up of the murder, it easily could have been, but it chose differently.
That said, the work of the Turkish investigators has also been subject to considerations of high politics. In particular, it has been limited and will be limited by whatever goals President Erdogan – no huge champion of the freedom of the press or human rights more generally – wishes to achieve in his management of the Khashoggi affair. And there are a number of specific decisions made by Turkish authorities that are at the very least arguably inconsistent with Turkey’s obligation under the ECHR and the ICCPR to effectively investigate Khashoggi’s death: (1) allowing the members of the Saudi hit-team to leave Turkey; (2) allowing the Saudi consul-general to leave Turkey; (3) delaying the search of the premises of the consulate; (4) delaying the search of the residence of the consul-general; (5) possible issues with searches of the consulate’s vehicles.