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.
The Use of Nerve Agents in Salisbury: Why does it Matter Whether it Amounts to a Use of Force in International Law?
In his State of the Union speech on January 30, 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his signing of a new executive order aimed at keeping open the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as approving its repopulation. This post considers how the law of war governing detention in armed conflicts constricts the ability of the U.S. to hold persons in military prisons at Guantanamo in the manner suggested by this new order.
Formally speaking, Trump’s executive order repeals a critical portion of President Obama’s 2009 order calling for the Guantanamo prison site to be closed “as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order.” The 2018 order also provides that the U.S. may “transport additional detainees” to the facility “when lawful and necessary to protect the nation.”
On the one hand, this executive order simply makes explicit what has already been President Trump’s de facto Guantanamo policy since taking office. While the Obama Administration worked to reduce the Guantanamo population considerably, resettling 197 of the 242 detainees remaining at the facility, President Trump has resettled none — not even five detainees cleared for release by the Department of Defense prior to Trump’s taking office. On the other hand, the order reflects a radical shift in policy. Read the rest of this entry…
Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) carried out ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ for 216 days from August 2016 to March 2017 in the triangle between Azaz, Jarablus and al-Bab in northern Syria. Thanks to this military operation, Turkey cleared Daesh from the region and halted the risk of the PYD/YPG exercising control of the Syrian side of the shared 911km border by wedging itself between two PYD/YPG controlled areas. In addition, some displaced Syrians voluntarily returned to this region from Turkey, which currently hosts around 3.5 million Syrian refugees — more than any other country.
In line with this previous operation, the TAF launched ‘Operation Olive Branch’ on 20 January 2018 in Afrin, which has been controlled by the YPG. In its letter to the UN Security Council (UN Doc. S/2018/53), Turkey justified this operation on the basis of self-defence and various Security Council resolutions calling on Member States to fight terrorism.
Since the indicated UN Security Council resolutions do not explicitly authorize the cross-border use of force, Turkey’s reliance on it as a justification of its extraterritorial military operation is unacceptable in international law. As far as I see in legal discussions, there is no dispute over this. However, the question of whether Operation Olive Branch can be justified on the basis of self-defence has brought with it some controversy.
According to both Article 51 of the UN Charter and related customary international law, occurrence of an ‘armed attack’ is required for the activation of the inherent right of self-defence. The ICJ identified ‘scale and effects’ as the criteria that ‘distinguish the most grave forms of the use force (those constituting an armed attack) from other less grave forms,’ but has not specified indicators of these criteria (Nicaragua judgment, 1986, para. 191). It should be noted that the scale and effects criteria have nothing to do with numbers. Rather, it is a legal assessment depending on facts and circumstances at hand. Read the rest of this entry…
The trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) of Dominic Ongwen, commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has attracted widespread legal and political debate. Much of the commentary has focused on the former child soldier’s status as a victim-perpetrator. Missing from mainstream legal discourse is consideration of another status Ongwen holds as a result of his alleged crimes: fatherhood. Relatedly, and more importantly, also overlooked is a group of victims of his crimes: children born as a result of rape. Within the LRA “forced marriage” system, thousands of children were born from the rape of girls held in captivity.
Drawing primarily upon the Ongwen case and the crime of forced pregnancy, this post considers the ICC’s role in recognising the rights of children born of rape and repairing harms against them, consistent with their right to reparation under international law. Stigmatisation within “post-conflict” communities is a key harm suffered by children born of rape, often driven by their perceived association with perpetrator fathers. The ICC’s capacity to redress or, inadvertently, exacerbate stigma against this group of victims requires attention. Read the rest of this entry…
Hybrid Threats and the United States National Security Strategy: Prevailing in an “Arena of Continuous Competition”
The dividing line between war and peace is blurred. This is one of the messages emerging from the National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States of America adopted in December 2017. The United States is accustomed to viewing the world through the binary lens of war and peace, yet in reality, warns the new National Security Strategy, international relations is an “arena of continuous competition” (p. 28).
This is not exactly a new theme. The idea that war and peace are relative points on a continuous spectrum of confrontation, rather than mutually exclusive conditions, has become quite popular in recent years. Writing in 2013, General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, observed that the 21st century has seen a tendency “toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace”. Speaking in 2015, Sir Michael Fallon, the former British Secretary of State for Defence, declared that contemporary adversaries are deliberately seeking to “blur the lines between what is, and what is not, considered an act of war”. More recently, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, suggested that in the past “it was easy to distinguish whether it was peace or war … [b]ut now there’s a much more blurred line”.
The fluidity of war and peace is central to the vocabulary of “gray zone conflict” and “hybrid warfare”. Both concepts are preoccupied with the strategic challenges that adversaries operating across multiple domains present. The notion of gray zone conflict puts the emphasis on the sphere of confrontation, concentrating on the fact that adversaries operate in the area of ambiguity that lies between the traditional state of war and state of peace (see US SOCOM, The Gray Zone). By contrast, the notion of hybrid warfare emphasises the modus operandi adopted by certain adversaries and competitors, focusing on their use of the full range of military and non-military means in a highly integrated manner (see NATO, Wales Summit Declaration, para. 13). Read the rest of this entry…
Freeing up the Rules on The Treatment of Detainees from the Debate on the Geographical Scope of International Humanitarian Law
A few weeks ago, my great friend Elvina Pothelet analysed, on this blog, the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor’s to request authorization to investigate, inter alia, acts of ill-treatment of detainees allegedly committed since 2002 by the CIA in black sites in Poland, Romania and Lithuania, in connection with the armed conflict occurring in Afghanistan. Elvina affirmed that there may be an added value in qualifying these alleged behaviours as war crimes, but she also hinted that such qualification might support the idea that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) applies globally, even outside the borders of the States where active hostilities take place. In this post I will argue that a wide geographical scope of application of the IHL rules on the treatment of detainees — especially those contained in common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions and reflected in customary international law — does not necessarily imply an equally wide applicability of the rules on the conduct of hostilities.
To put my intervention in context, I should recall the obvious: a war crime presupposes a serious violation of an IHL rule. And for a rule of IHL to be applicable, there must be a sufficient link of correlation (so-called ‘nexus’) between the behaviour in question and an armed conflict (see ICTY AC, Kunarac, § 57 ff., referring to acts that are ‘closely related to the armed conflict’; see also Cassese). Although these sources refer to international criminal law (ICL), they build on the principle that IHL only applies to conducts and events which are sufficiently related to an armed conflict, as recognized e.g. in the ICRC Introduction to IHL, at pp. 28 and 59 (see also Practitioners’ Guide to Human Rights Law (HRL) in Armed Conflict, § 4.23). When such behaviour occurs outside the theatre of hostilities — e.g. where acts of torture were allegedly perpetrated in Poland/Romania/Lithuania, but the supposedly related hostilities took place in Afghanistan — one should ask whether such ‘sufficient nexus’ exists and, additionally, whether are there any geographical limitations to its establishment. In other words, is IHL applicable to conduct or an event as soon as it is sufficiently connected to an armed conflict, regardless of the territory where it took place (as contended, e.g., by Lubell-Derejko)? Or should the applicability of IHL be limited only to behaviour occurring in the area where active hostilities are being fought, or in the territory of a State party to the conflict (as deemed preferable by the ICRC in its 2015 report, at p. 15)?
Like ‘global battlefield’ theorists, I am convinced that geographical considerations per se do not necessarily limit the applicability of IHL. But, as also accepted by Lubell and Derejko, I believe that they are a fundamental factor to be taken into account when assessing the existence of the necessary nexus between an event under scrutiny and an armed conflict. Geographical distance from the actual conflict may be an indication that the relevant conduct or event is sufficiently ‘closely related to the hostilities’. And that is where I think the difference between the rules on the treatment of detainees and other IHL rules (especially those on the conduct of hostilities) lies. Read the rest of this entry…
In addition to the activation of the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression (see previous post), the recently concluded Assembly of States Parties (ASP) to the Statute of the ICC, also adopted three amendments adding to the list of war crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court. These new war crimes relate to the use of prohibited weapons in international as well as non-international armed conflicts. However, in the lead-up to the ASP there was controversy regarding the wisdom and even the legality of adding to the list of war crimes. One of the concerns was that there would be fragmentation of the Rome Statute system with different crimes applicable in differing situations to different individuals. This is because under the amendment procedure to the Rome Statute (Art. 121(5)) these new crimes would not apply to nationals of, or conduct on the territory of, non-ratifying states parties. Another concern was that the new crimes (or at least some of them) are, in the view of some states, not criminalised under customary international law and thus not suitable for addition for inclusion in the ICC Statute. It is this latter issue that I focus on this post, though as I will explain later, the issue overlaps with the question of fragmentation of the Rome Statute regime. In this post, I discuss the implications of criminalising conduct under the ICC Statute which do not amount to customary international law crimes. I take no position on whether the crimes that have been added are, or are not, crimes under customary international law (though I think few would doubt that the use of biological weapons is such a customary international crime), but explain why this is an important question that states are right to pay attention to.
The new war crimes to be inserted into the Rome Statute are as follows (see Resolution ICC-ASP/16/Res.4):
- Employing weapons, which use microbial or other biological agents, or toxins, whatever their origin or method of production [to be inserted as Art. 8(2)(b)xxvii) and Art. 8(2)(e)(xvi)]
- Employing weapons the primary effect of which is to injure by fragments which in the human body escape detection by X-rays [to be inserted as Art. 8(2)(b)(xxviii) and Art. 8(2((e)(xvii)];
- Employing laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision, that is to the naked eye or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices [to be inserted as article 8(2)(b)(xxix) and Art. 8(2)(e)(xviii)].
Understanding the Use of Zones and the Concept of Proportionality: Enduring Lessons from the Falklands War
On 2 April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (alternatively, the Islas Malvinas). The resulting conflict lasted 74 days and claimed the lives of 255 UK military personnel and 652 Argentine servicemen. The conflict raises a myriad of legal issues but at its core is the issue of sovereignty (here). However complicated the issue, disputes over sovereignty did not legally authorise the Argentine invasion (see UNSCR). This post will not go over the vexed issue of sovereignty but will instead focus on two select issues relating to the conduct of hostilities. The Falklands War has largely receded from thought but lingering doubts over the legality of a Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) established by the UK and its torpedoing of the Belgrano endure. By focusing on the issue of zones and the concept of proportionality this post will seek to provide clarity to two often misunderstood areas of law that are of vital importance to contemporary military operations.
The UK Total Exclusion Zone
A few days after the Argentinian invasion the UK issued a notice indicating that, from 12 April 1982, a Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ) would be in force, extending 200 nautical miles from the centre of the Falklands. On 28 April, the UK declared a TEZ that encompassed the same geographical area as the MEZ but was broader in scope regarding ratione personae. In essence, the TEZ stated that any ship or aircraft entering the TEZ that was not authorised to be there by the UK Ministry of Defence was deemed to be operating in support of the occupation, regarded as hostile, and therefore liable to attack. Read the rest of this entry…
A Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on the topic of Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWS) concluded its first meeting in Geneva on 17 November 2017. The meeting was held under the auspices of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and built upon on three informal meetings of experts held between 2014 and 2016 (for reports of those meetings, see here). In December 2016, the Fifth Review Conference of the High Contracting Parties of the CCW had tasked the GGE “to explore and agree on possible recommendations on options related to emerging technologies in the area of LAWS” (see Decision 1 here and the agreed recommendations contained in this report).
At the heart of the debate is the question how States should respond to the emergence of such weapons. While some highlight legal, ethical or moral concerns of delegating life and death decisions to machines and advocate for a preventive prohibition of autonomous weapons systems, others pinpoint potential benefits for the way wars are fought in the future and deem any policy options, including regulation, to be premature.
As often in such multilateral discussions, it is hard to make progress and to get all States to agree on a common approach. The topic of autonomous weapon systems is no different. Indeed, perhaps it is particularly difficult because we do not yet fully understand what robotics and artificial intelligence truly harbor for the future of warfare, and for humanity in general. In an initial step, the GGE in its first session affirmed that international humanitarian law (IHL) applies to all weapons, including the potential development and use of autonomous weapon systems, and that responsibility for their deployment remains with States (see report here). This is a welcome step but obviously cannot be understood to exhaust the topic.
In an effort to generate momentum and identify common denominators, Switzerland presented a working paper at the beginning of the GGE, in which it is argued that ensuring compliance with international law, notably IHL, could and should be common ground among States and that this could form a constructive basis for further work. Accordingly, it should, at least as one element, be central to discussions of the GGE about autonomous weapon systems and should figure prominently in the report of the GGE as well as in the way forward. In the following, we recapitulate requirements for compliance with IHL and on that basis identify elements for a “compliance-based” approach aimed at advancing the debate within the CCW in an inclusive and constructive manner. Read the rest of this entry…
The ICC Prosecutor recently announced her decision to request an authorization to open a formal investigation into possible international crimes committed in connection with the conflict in Afghanistan. The outcome of her preliminary examination was long-awaited and expected to be significant because an investigation into the Afghanistan situation would cover all parties involved – that is, not only local actors but also the international coalition, including the US (US nationals would come under the jurisdiction of the Court if they committed crimes in Afghanistan or in any other State party to the Rome Statute).
The Prosecutor’s choice to subject some aspects of the Afghan conflict to judicial scrutiny despite the pressures deserves to be praised as an “act of bravery.” If the Pre-Trial Chamber authorizes this investigation, the road to justice will be long – many have already commented on possible issues of jurisdiction (e.g. here and here), admissibility (e.g. here and here), evidence-gathering and cooperation (e.g. here), etc. In this post, I want to focus on a potential effect of this announcement: the situation in Afghanistan may give the ICC an opportunity to weigh in on the debate over the global applicability of IHL. Fatou Bensouda intends to prosecute acts of torture committed in CIA detention facilities located in Europe, in connection with the armed conflict in Afghanistan, as war crimes. If she does, ICC judges will have to rule on whether IHL applied to those acts and hence more generally on whether IHL applies beyond the territory of a State where a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) is primarily taking place. The geographical scope of IHL remains one of the most vexing debates in international law (as was clear from a heated discussion on this blog and others, just a month ago) but the Afghanistan investigation may help highlight an overlooked aspect of it. Here is why. Read the rest of this entry…