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Justifying Self-defense against Assisting States: Conceptualizing Legal Consequences of Inter-State Assistance

Published on May 23, 2019        Author:  and
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Cause for thought: Israel’s airstrikes directed against Iran and Syria

Israel has acknowledged to have repeatedly struck Iranian military targets in Syria. While confrontations occur frequently, the incident of January 21, 2019 has received  particular attention. Israeli guided missiles, apparently fired over Lebanese territory (UN Doc. S/PV.8449, p. 31f), hit Iranian military targets in Syria, also leading to personal and material damage of Syria. Israel invoked its right to self-defense, apparently reacting to Iran firing a surface-to-surface missile towards the Golan Heights on Sunday, January 20 from Syrian territory. Syria’s precise role in the Iranian action beyond this territorial link remains murky.

The problem: self-defense affecting assisting states

The Israeli claim to self-defense faces various legal questions (e.g. whether the attack meets the necessary threshold or whether annexed territories can be defended). This contribution does not aim to assess the Israeli claim, but shall use this example to shed light on one problem only: May the victim of an armed attack defend itself not only against the attacker state, but also against an “assisting” state?

Even if the use of force by the defending state (here Israel) against the attacking state (here Iran) is assumed to be justified by self-defense, it also forcefully infringes upon the territorial integrity of the assisting State (here Syria), as protected under Article 2(4) UNC, and warrants justification, too. The claim that strikes directed against an actor within the territory of another state are not a prohibited use of force against the territorial state has been repeatedly rebutted.

In fact, in the Security Council debate on the January incident, Syria labelled the Israeli strikes as “acts of aggression targeting the Syrian Arab Republic”, a “gross violation of international law” (S/PV.8449, p. 31f). Iran like Russia condemned the Israeli action, emphasizing the infringement of Syria’s sovereignty. Interestingly, Israel (unlike the USA or Germany) showed awareness of the problem by holding “the Syrian regime responsible for the missile that was launched against Israel from Syrian territory” (S/PV.8449, p. 8). The IDF added that “Syria paid the price for allowing Iran to conduct attacks from its soil.”

While the permissibility of self-defense against states supporting non-state actor violence is being extensively discussed, self-defense against states assisting another state has received little attention Read the rest of this entry…

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Humanitarian Assistance and Security Council Sanctions: Different Approaches to International Humanitarian Law

Published on April 11, 2019        Author: 
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Under the sanctions regimes established by its resolutions adopted under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) can currently impose sanctions on those who obstruct the delivery of humanitarian assistance in eight non-international armed conflict situations. This imposition of sanctions stems from the UNSC’s responsibility to maintain peace, security, and stability. Yet, its approach to humanitarian law (IHL) in these eight regimes has been inconsistent. In most of its current sanction regimes, the UNSC arguably has moved beyond the IHL applicable to humanitarian assistance, with the consequence that it can now sanction obstructions, which are broader than those which would constitute a violation of IHL. This post examines what this means for sanctions investigators and for the enhanced protection of civilians. 

Different Approaches of the UNSC with Respect to Imposing Sanctions on Obstructions to Humanitarian Assistance

The UNSC imposes sanctions in order to respond to threats to peace, security and stability. In the eight sanctions regimes discussed in this post, impediments to peace, security and stability explicitly or implicitly include obstructions to the delivery and distribution of humanitarian assistance and access obstructions.

Yet, the UNSC takes two different approaches when it imposes sanctions on obstructions to humanitarian assistance. In the first approach,  which is taken with respect to Libya and Sudan, there is no stand-alone criterion (the basis for listing by the UNSC or for being sanctioned) on humanitarian assistance, and humanitarian assistance and access obstructions may be considered under other listing criteria relating to violations of human rights or IHL. In these cases, Read the rest of this entry…

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Germany and its Involvement in the US Drone Programme before German Administrative Courts

Published on April 8, 2019        Author: 
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On 19th March 2019, the German Higher Administrative Court for North Rhine-Westphalia rendered a highly interesting and important judgment. It addresses no less than the compatibility of US drone strikes in Yemen with international law, the role of domestic courts with regard to international law, and the scope – and limits – of judicial review in foreign affairs.

The case was brought by Yemeni claimants against Germany for its alleged involvement in the US drone programme. While Germany neither publicly supports nor actively participates in the US drone programme, it is nearly undisputed that the US Air Base in Ramstein, Germany, plays a vital role therein (see here). The Court held that, first, Germany is constitutionally obliged to ascertain that the US drone strikes conducted via Ramstein are compatible with international law. Secondly, in case the government finds the US practice to be legally contentious, German authorities have to take efforts in order to ensure that international law is complied with.

The full reasoning of the decision is not yet available in writing, but the press release (see here for an unofficial English translation) and the transcript of the oral pronouncement of the decision (see here) allow for some preliminary remarks. (Note that the Higher Administrative Court on the same day rendered a second judgment that concerned US drone strikes, albeit in Somalia (see here). This contribution, however, focuses on the “Yemen case”.)

The Facts

In 2012, Salem bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni imam known for openly criticising Al Qaeda was invited to deliver a sermon at the local mosque of Khashamir, Yemen, where he attended a family wedding. In that course he was approached by three members of Al Qaeda requesting a meeting. Salem asked his relative, and local police officer, Waleed to accompany him. Shortly after the meeting commenced, US drones fired a series of four Hellfire rockets on the group killing both Salem and Waleed bin Ali Jaber as well as the three Al Qaeda members.

This prompted Read the rest of this entry…

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Can Incidental Starvation of Civilians be Lawful under IHL?

Published on March 26, 2019        Author: 
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Two recent posts in the recent joint blog series on international law and armed conflict concluded that the siege of a defended locality was permitted under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)/International Humanitarian Law (IHL), but subject to a series of constraints regarding the protection of civilians. The prohibitions on starvation of civilians (in Geneva Conventions Additional Protocol I Art 54, Additional Protocol II Art 14 and in customary law, applicable both to international and non-international armed conflicts) were in particular analysed in Gloria Gaggioli’s excellent post. Given that ‘the prohibition of starvation as a method of warfare does not prohibit siege warfare as long as the purpose is to achieve a military objective and not to starve a civilian population’ (ICRC Customary IHL database, Rule 53), she notes that it is in practice very difficult to prove that the purpose of a siege is the starvation of civilians. However, she goes on to argue, persuasively, that if a siege can be construed as an ‘attack’ the proportionality rule would apply, thereby requiring any incidental starvation of civilians to be assessed against the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

As starvation is so central to much of the suffering inflicted on civilian populations in today’s city sieges in the Middle East, I want to return to the question of whether starvation of civilians needs to be the purpose (or even a purpose) of a belligerent to fall within the prohibition and whether incidental starvation may be lawful (if it is not disproportionate), by way of offering some thoughts as to what a legal analysis of the purpose of the relevant siege tactics might look like. If the prohibition on the starvation of civilians was in practice reduced to a prohibition on excessive starvation of civilians, this would obviously severely restrict the protection offered by Art 54 API and Art 14 APII.

We need to ask, firstly, what is the actual conduct denoted by the term ‘siege’ and, secondly, what is the military objective to which starvation of civilians is incidental? Read the rest of this entry…

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The IHL Exclusion Clause, and why Belgian Courts Refuse to Convict PKK Members for Terrorist Offences

Published on March 20, 2019        Author: 
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On 8 March, the Chamber of Indictments of the Court of Appeal of Brussels decided to discontinue the prosecution of thirty-nine individuals and two media companies affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). All were being prosecuted for participating in the activities of, or directing, a terrorist group. The Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office had opened the investigation in 2006, and initially also alleged that the Belgian branch of the PKK was responsible for (forcibly) recruiting young Kurds to partake in the conflict with Turkey. However, any specific charges in this respect were dismissed in 2017 due to a lack of evidence.

The judgment forms the (provisional) ending to a procedural saga. On 13 February last year, the Court of Cassation had largely annulled a similar decision by the Chamber of Indictments of 14 September 2017 on the ground of a lack of motivation. That 2017 decision had in turn confirmed a decision of the Correctional Pre-Trial Chamber of the Court of First Instance of Brussels of 3 November 2016. Strikingly, throughout the case, the Turkish state had been a civil party and thus fully joined the prosecution in its argumentation. Not surprisingly, the decisions have caused fierce reactions from Turkey, which has summoned the Belgian ambassador in Ankara to protest the 8 March ruling, calling it ‘unacceptable’ (see here).

This post first explains the IHL exclusion clause, which forms the basis on which Belgian courts have decided to discontinue the prosecution of PKK members. It then briefly addresses how Belgian courts have struggled to apply the clause in other cases, goes over the earlier PKK judgments, and concludes with a short analysis of the decision of 8 March and its implications. Read the rest of this entry…

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Tit-for-Tat-for-Tit: The Indian and Pakistani Airstrikes and the Jus ad Bellum

Published on February 28, 2019        Author: 
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Over the past few days there has been a flurry of confusing reports regarding military confrontations between India and Pakistan in the Kashmir region. It appears that in the early hours of 26 February Indian air force MiG-20s carried out air strikes in Pakistani territory in the small city of Balakot in response to a suicide bombing in Indian controlled Kashmir on 14 February which took the lives of over 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers and for which Pakistani based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility. India claimed that it hit a JeM militant training camp during the strikes with a significant number of militant casualties, while Pakistan claimed that the Indian aircraft retreated after being confronted by the Pakistan Air Force, dropping four or five bombs in open field as they left across the border and which resulted in no causalities. While there have been several border skirmishes between the two states since they gained independence from Britain in 1947, this is the first time Indian military aircraft have carried out strikes across the ‘line of control’ since the war between them in 1971 which led to the creation of Bangladesh.

The following day Pakistan claimed to have carried out air strikes on ‘open ground’ within Indian territory, while India claimed that a military installation had been targeted. During an ensuing confrontation, Pakistan shot down an Indian Air Force MiG-21 jet which fell within Pakistani territory and led to the capture of the pilot. India has also claimed to have shot down a Pakistani fighter jet which had fallen on to the Pakistani side of the LoC. The US, EU, Russia and China have all called for restraint.

While clearly a dangerous development between two nuclear-armed states, with various accounts of underlying political motives for the clashes, and with shelling continuing across the LoC between them at the time of writing, it is, however, the legal justifications – or, rather, lack of – by both states for their strikes that will be the focus here.

Read the rest of this entry…

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Joint Symposium: Chatham House Paper on Proportionality in the Conduct of Hostilities

Published on February 4, 2019        Author: 
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This is the final post in our joint symposium arising out of the publication of the Chatham House report, Proportionality in the Conduct of Hostilities: The Incidental Harm Side of the Assessment.

The new research paper published by Chatham House on Proportionality in the Conduct of Hostilities is a rigorous and thoughtful exposition of the civilian side of the notion of proportionality under international humanitarian law (IHL). This brief post focuses on three points that are raised by the paper: first, the way in which certain difficult questions concerning the reach of proportionality considerations are addressed; second, the question of the status of the natural environment; and third, the potential impact of the paper.

The proportionality calculus calls for a comparison of the expected incidental harm to civilians caused by an attack and the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Amongst the many difficult questions that arise from this formulation is the reach of the test, e.g. what type of harm is included, psychological or only physical harm? When might harm be considered as having been ‘caused’ by an attack? Does it include so-called ‘reverberating’ harm, manifesting sometime after an attack (as in the case with unexploded cluster sub-munitions)?

The research paper addresses this question of the reach of the proportionality analysis through the dual test of admissibility and weight. This has the significant advantage of offering a more nuanced way of dealing with some of these complicated questions concerning the scope of the proportionality analysis. For example, on the question of reverberating harm, the paper takes the position that ‘the geographic or temporal proximity of the harm to the attack is not determinative’ and should not affect the admissibility of reverberating harm (para 63). Instead, ‘[f]actors such as the passage of time between the attack and the injury, or the number of causal steps between one and the other, may affect the likelihood of the harm occurring and thus the weight to be assigned to it’ (para 64). That reverberating harm, manifesting sometime after an attack rather than at the time of the attack, must be taken into account in assessing proportionality must be right – there is nothing in the Additional Protocol I (API) formulation of the proportionality test that suggests excluding such types of harm. The reference in API is simply to an ‘attack which may be expected to cause incidental’ civilian harm – as the paper states, harm is caused by an attack if, ‘but for’ the attack, the harm would not occur (para 45), regardless of any proximity considerations. Instead, the proximity of expected harm to the attack might be relevant to the weight to be given to that potential harm. Read the rest of this entry…

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Joint Symposium on Chatham House’s Report on Proportionality: Calibrating the Compass of Proportionality

Published on February 1, 2019        Author: 
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This is the third post in our joint symposium arising out of the publication of the Chatham House report, Proportionality in the Conduct of Hostilities: The Incidental Harm Side of the Assessment, Calibrating the Compass of Proportionality, by Geoff Corn. The full post is available now over on Just Security.

Here’s a taster from Geoff’s post:

Every war results in civilian harm; though always tragic, it is a largely unavoidable result of armed conflict. For those who have not taken up arms or ordered others to do so, the fact that civilians seem to bear the brunt of war surely seems to reveal mankind at its worst. As James R. McDonough wrote in his influential “Platoon Leader: A Memoir of Command in Combat,” “[w]ar gives the appearance of condoning almost everything.” The reality is that rules governing armed conflict have never been more important. As McDonough also wrote,

[M]en must live with their actions for a long time afterward. A leader has to help them understand that there are lines they must not cross. He is their link to normalcy, to order, to humanity. If the leader loses his own sense of propriety or shrinks from his duty, anything will be allowed.

As McDonough so eloquently reminds us, military leaders need rules to manage the violence of war and in so doing protect those caught up in war from the moral abyss of lawless combat. IHL rules that regulate the conduct of hostilities provide these rules – the proverbial compass that enables the warriors to navigate the complex terrain of mortal combat. Like any compass, the more precise the calibration, the more accurate the navigation

Read the rest of Geoff’s post over on Just Security. Read the rest of this entry…

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Joint Blog Series on International Law and Armed Conflict: Are Sieges Prohibited under Contemporary IHL?

Published on January 30, 2019        Author: 
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Editor’s Note: This post the final post in the joint series hosted by the ICRC Humanitarian Law & Policy BlogEJIL Talk! and Lawfare, and arising out of the 6th Transatlantic Workshop on International Law and Armed Conflict held at the European University Institute in Florence in July.

Contemporary armed conflicts in Syria, Yemen or Iraq have seen a resurgence of sieges of cities and other densely populated areas. This ancient—some would say archaic or medieval—method of warfare is expected to be increasingly used in future urban conflicts. The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of recent prolonged sieges—such as in Ghouta (Syria), where civilians are starving because of lack of access to objects indispensable to their survival—have led to widespread condemnations by the international community (see e.g., UN Security Council Resolution 2139 (2014)). The question discussed here is what does international humanitarian law (IHL) say about siege warfare? Is it explicitly ruled out? How might IHL rules and principles constrain siege warfare?

No explicit IHL rules against siege warfare

Sieges are not per se an explicitly prohibited method of warfare under IHL. On the contrary, one could say that IHL implicitly allow sieges by merely mentioning steps to be taken to mitigate their negative effects on civilians and civilian objects (Art 27 1907 Hague Regulations; Art 15 GCI; Art 18 GCII; Art 17 GCIV).

Sieges have been used throughout history and military doctrine usually regards sieges as essential to the effective conduct of hostilities in order to control a defended locality and obtain surrender or otherwise defeat the enemy through isolation. Since sieges are a harsh method of warfare and are based on almost complete isolation of the besieged locality, their use will almost inevitably involve frictions with numerous rules and principles of IHL—at least when the besieged area involves civilian presence.

Numerous constraints on siege warfare

There are a number of IHL prohibitions that may constrain siege warfare. These include the prohibition against terrorizing the civilian population (Art 51(2) API; Art 13(2) APII; CIHL Study, Rule 2), the prohibition of collective punishment (Art 75 API; Art 4 APII; CIHL Study, Rule 103) or the prohibition of human shields (Art. 51(5) API; CIHL Study, Rule 97). The most obvious prohibition that impacts siege warfare, however, is the prohibition of starvation of civilians (Art 54(1) API; Art 14 APII).There is also a question as to whether conduct of hostilities rules, and the principle of proportionality in particular, may serve as an additional constrain on siege warfare Article 51(5)(b) of API CIHL Study, Rule 14). The present blog post will focus on the latter two—the prohibition against starving civilians, purposefully or incidentally, and the principle of proportionality.   Read the rest of this entry…

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Joint Symposium on Chatham House’s Report on Proportionality: “Proportionality and Doubt”

Published on January 29, 2019        Author: 
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This is the second post in our joint symposium arising out of the publication of the Chatham House report, Proportionality in the Conduct of Hostilities: The Incidental Harm Side of the Assessment, Proportionality and Doubt, by Adil Haque. The full post is available now over on Just Security.

Here’s a snippet from Adil’s post:

The Report underscores the duty of commanders to do everything feasible to verify that proposed attacks will not violate the proportionality rule (see here, here, and here). This duty seems to imply that a commander who tries but fails to verify conformity with the proportionality rule must refrain from attack. Among other things, it would seem to weaken a commander’s incentives to do ‘everything feasible’ if her failure to verify were instead to be rewarded with freedom to attack.

This view also leads to results that are logical rather than unreasonable or absurd. Assume the following scenario:

Attackers verify that a building is a military objective. Attacking the building will almost certainly kill a number of people nearby.

Now consider two variations:

I) Attackers suspect that the people nearby are combatants, but remain in serious doubt. If the people nearby are civilians, then their expected deaths would be excessive in relation the military advantage anticipated.

II) Attackers verify that the persons nearby are civilian. However, their expected deaths would be neither clearly excessive nor clearly non-excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated.

In variation I, attackers must presume that the people nearby are civilian (under API 50(1)) and therefore refrain from attack. To ignore their serious doubts and attack would seriously risk violating the proportionality rule. What about variation II? On the view we are exploring, attackers must again refrain from attack, for the same reason: to avoid serious risk of violating the proportionality rule

Read the rest of Adil’s post over on Just Security. Read the rest of this entry…

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