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Mistakes of Fact When Using Lethal Force in International Law: Part III

Published on January 15, 2020        Author: 

 

To briefly recapitulate our examination of mistake of fact when using lethal force in various sub-fields of international law: such a doctrine is, in its purely subjective form, black letter law in international criminal law. It is also established (even if not labelled as such) in international human rights law and (somewhat less clearly) in international humanitarian law. Both IHL and IHRL would however require the mistake to both honest and reasonable to be able to preclude liability. Both IHL and IHRL contain explicit precautionary and prophylactic rules whose role, in part, is to determine the bounds of reasonable and hence permissible error (e.g. with respect to target verification).

As we have seen, the mistake of fact question is most fraught in the jus ad bellum. That said, as a formal matter, even if one thought it to be desirable, it would be difficult to argue that a jus ad bellum-specific mistake of fact doctrine was customary law. I cannot think of any state but the US that has invoked such a doctrine, even implicitly. (Any such examples known to readers would be most welcome.) And when the doctrine was invoked, as with the Iran Air Flight 655, it certainly did not attract widespread acceptance by other states. There is enough ambiguity in state reactions to the downing of that aircraft, especially in the atmosphere of the Cold War, that one cannot categorically exclude that such a rule could exist. But it seems unlikely that it does. And if it does, it cannot be the purely subjective one from ICL, which would be even more inappropriate in the jus ad bellum context than in IHL and IHRL.

Bearing all this in mind, let us turn to the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 over Tehran, which is as we have seen eerily reminiscent of the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes. There are many parallels between the two incidents, not least that they both involve the same two states, if on different sides of the story, and that both cases raise questions of mistake of fact. What is very different is the wider context – the Cold War warped anything it touched. And I think it fair to say that the socializing effect of international law is somewhat greater today than it was then.

Thus, states like Ukraine and Canada have already used legal language vis-à-vis Iran. President Zelenskyy stated that:

Iran has pleaded guilty to crashing the Ukrainian plane. But we insist on a full admission of guilt. We expect from Iran assurances of their readiness for a full and open investigation, bringing those responsible to justice, the return of the bodies of the dead, the payment of compensation, official apologies through diplomatic channels.

Prime Minister Trudeau similarly stated that ‘Iran must take full responsibility’ for its actions.

And this is exactly what Iran should do. It shouldn’t just listen to these other states invoking its responsibility. It should listen to the voice of its own ambassador, when he was speaking in the Security Council chamber to reject the US self-defence justification for shooting down IR 655:

We believe that a responsible Government, under the present circumstances when it has caused the destruction of a civilian airliner and its 290 passengers, must urgently take three steps: It must apologize to the families of the victims and to the peoples and the Governments concerned ; it must accept full responsibility for the downing of the airliner and offer reparation on the basis of its legal and moral liability; and it must reassess and revise policies which led to the downing of the plane and the murder of its innocent passengers. (S/PV.2821, 6)

An equally intriguing parallel is that with McCann. Indeed, I would argue that it is precisely human rights law – largely absent from the discussions of the destruction of IR 655, aside from a single reference by (of all people) the ambassador of Syria – that is the body of law that best fits the downing of the Ukrainian airliner. The gravest violation of international law here is not that of the Chicago Convention, but that of the human right to life, the wrongfulness of which could, unlike with the Chicago Convention, never be precluded by jus ad bellum self-defence.

Just like the SAS soldiers in McCann, the Iranian air defence officers most likely honestly believed that they had to act to deflect a threat to human life. Just like in McCann, they were wrongly told that such a threat was certain – that US cruise missiles would be incoming. Just like in McCann, they had little time to deliberate. And just like in McCann, the violation of the right to life stems not directly from the soldiers’ decision to use lethal force, but from systemic background failures of higher Iranian authorities.

Had Iran closed its airspace for civilian traffic that evening, knowing full well that hostilities with the US might easily escalate, the plane would never have been shot down. Had Iran properly coordinated its air defences with civilian air traffic control, the plane would never have been shot down. Had Iran properly trained its forces at various levels, the plane would never have been shot down. Thus, even if Iran’s mistake of fact that resulted in the destruction of the aircraft was honest, it was not reasonable, and as such it would bear state responsibility for violating the victims’ human rights. And that violation is compounded by the initial attempts of Iranian authorities to obstruct the investigation and cover up the cause of the crash, from which they have thankfully desisted, but which nonetheless resulted in a violation of the positive obligation to effectively investigate unlawful deaths.

This is therefore how Iran should frame the reparations it provides – not as ex gratia charity payments, not (solely) as compensation due to states such as Ukraine or Canada, but as just satisfaction to those individuals whose rights it violated. In doing so, Iran should compensate its own nationals in the exact same way as it compensates foreigners, as equals in dignity. And it needs to provide sufficient assurances to the international community that a mistake such as this one, honest though it may have been, will never be repeated.

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Mistakes of Fact When Using Lethal Force in International Law: Part II

Published on January 15, 2020        Author: 

 

If a state believes that it is the target of an ongoing or imminent armed attack and uses force to repel that attack, but it later turns out that it was mistaken and that there either was no such attack or that there was no necessity to respond to it, is that use of force in putative self-defence ipso facto a violation of Article 2(4) of the Charter? Or would the state’s mistake excuse it?

There are three possible options in answering this question:

  • An honest mistake of fact would excuse the state, as in ICL;
  • An honest and reasonable mistake would excuse the state, as in IHL and IHRL;
  • No mistake, however honest and reasonable, would excuse the state – it violated the prohibition on the use of force, and would have to provide reparation for any injury caused.

Any one of these options is plausible in principle. In particular, I do not think that the text of Article 51 of the Charter is entirely dispositive of the issue.

It’s true that Article 51 permits self-defence ‘if an armed attack occurs/ dans le cas où un Membre des Nations Unies est l’objet d’une agression armée’ and that one could therefore say that the existence of an armed attack is an objective fact and a necessary predicate for any self-defence claim. But we routinely do far greater violence to far clearer texts than it would take to incorporate a mistake of fact doctrine into the law of self-defence. The big question is whether we should, not whether we could.

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Mistakes of Fact When Using Lethal Force in International Law: Part I

Published on January 14, 2020        Author: 

 

The tragic shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner over Tehran last week, which Iran has admitted to after several days of denial, has led me to think about a set of issues that was already on my mind when we were discussing the legality of the US strike on Soleimani. How exactly does international law deal with situations in which state agents use lethal force and do so under the influence of a mistake or error of fact? For example, when an Iranian air defence officer shoots down a civilian airplane thinking that he was shooting down an American cruise missile; or, when a state uses force against another state thinking, on the basis of imperfect intelligence information, that is the victim of an ongoing or imminent armed attack, and it later turns out that there was no such attack. Does international law provided reasonably consistent, coherent and fair rules to address such situations? To what extent can we generalize about such rules, and to what extent are they fragmented and context-specific?

Domestic legal systems have long dealt with such issues. Perhaps the most common such scenario – in some countries all too common – is the use of lethal force by the police against a person whom the officer concerned mistakenly believed was posing a threat to others, but who in fact posed no such threat.

Most domestic systems that I am familiar with have mistake of fact rules or doctrines in their criminal laws. Such rules, whether grounded in statute or in case law, often distinguish between honest mistakes, based purely on the subjective belief of the person using force, and reasonable mistakes, assessed on the basis of some kind of objective standard of behaviour. In most domestic systems mistake of fact can preclude criminal liability in some circumstances, and mitigate punishment in others. But municipal laws are rarely as clear with regard to civil, delictual responsibility in tort, which is the closer analogue to state responsibility in international law.

I can’t claim to have done genuinely comprehensive research on this topic, but it seems to me that there is a significant gap here in the international legal literature. How exactly do we handle mistakes of fact in the various different sub-fields of international law, especially when the mistake involves uses of lethal force? And are we content that whatever solutions we have come up with are the right ones?

This three-part series of posts is not even an attempt at filling this gap – think of it more as a conversation starter. I would be most grateful to readers for additional examples in the comments or for any other thoughts they might have. In this first post, I will briefly examine how mistakes of fact in using lethal force are addressed in international criminal law, international humanitarian law, and international human rights law. My second post will look at mistakes of fact in self-defence under the law on the use of force (jus ad bellum), examining as a case study the 1988 downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes. The third and final post will then offer some conclusions and some tentative thoughts on the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 over Tehran.

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The Killing of Soleimani and International Law

Published on January 6, 2020        Author: 

 

On 3 January, missiles launched from a United States Reaper drone struck two vehicles leaving Baghdad’s international airport. At least seven people died in the attack, including the commander of Iran’s Quds force, General Qassem Soleimani. On 5 January, Iranian Major General Hossein Dehghan, reported to be the military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, gave an exclusive interview to CNN and said Iran “would retaliate directly against US ‘military sites.’”

These killings and threats are the focus of this brief post. Developments are on-going, but enough has occurred so far to be able to analyze relevant principles of the jus ad bellum.

The killings and response have received extensive press coverage, unlike most drone attacks, such as the 63 against Somalia in 2019 alone. In connection with Soleimani, reporters have actually been asking about the legality of the killing. See Was It Legal to Kill a Top Iranian Military Leader? Much of the attention has focused on whether it was an “assassination”. In a call to reporters a U.S. State Department official rejected the term “assassination” to characterize the killings because ‘“Assassinations are not allowed under law.’” The answer leads to the next question, were the killings lawful?

The official went on to provide the analysis U.S. presidents have apparently relied on to justify killing with drones since 2002. (See, Mary Ellen O’Connell, Game of Drones Game of Drones, Review Essay, 109 Am. J. Int’l L. 889 (2015).) He applied two criteria to the case: “‘Do you have overwhelming evidence that somebody is going to launch a military or terrorist attack against you? Check that box. The second one is: Do you have some legal means to, like, have this guy arrested by the Belgian authorities or something? Check that box, because there’s no way anybody was going to stop Qassem Soleimani in the places he was running around—Damascus, Beirut. And so you take lethal action against him.’”

President Trump has also provided many tweets and other remarks relevant to a legal assessment. He said he ordered the attack to “prevent a war”, not as part of an on-going armed conflict with Iran. He also used terms relevant to a case for self-defense under the jus ad bellum. Suleimani, according to Trump, ‘“was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.”’

The U.S. Department of Defense in a brief press statement also inferred self-defense. The U.S. took “decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad… General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” 

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A New Classic in Climate Change Litigation: The Dutch Supreme Court Decision in the Urgenda Case

Published on January 6, 2020        Author:  and

 

 

The judgment of the Dutch Supreme Court in State of the Netherlands v Urgenda is a landmark for future climate change litigation. On the 20th of December 2019, the Supreme Court held that on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) the Netherlands has a positive obligation to take measures for the prevention of climate change and that it has to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with at least 25% by the end of 2020, compared to 1990 levels. An unofficial translation of the full judgement will be published on the website of the Dutch judiciary after the 13th of January 2020.

The judgment is significant as it demonstrates how a court can determine responsibilities of an individual state, notwithstanding the fact that climate change is caused by a multiplicity of other actors who share responsibility for its harmful effects. Around the world, a flood of lawsuits has been initiated to establish legal responsibility for actors contributing to climate change. The Urgenda judgment, that has been heralded as the ‘strongest’ of all, makes clear that the fact the a state is only a minor contributor compared to many other actors, does not preclude its individual responsibility. The judgment contains important pointers that plaintiffs and courts can rely on in similar cases.

In this blogpost we briefly recap the procedure leading to the Supreme Court judgment and discuss three conclusions reached by the Supreme Court that will be of wider interest:

1) the ECHR imposed a positive obligation to take appropriate measures to prevent to climate change;

2) these measures should at least ensure that the Netherlands realizes a reduction of GHG emissions by 25%, compared to 1990, by the end of 2020; and

3) even though the Netherlands was only a minor contributor to climate change, it had an independent obligation to reduce emissions.

Recap of the proceedings

Central to the proceedings was the reduction target for developed nations of 25%-40% by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, originally identified as one scenario in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Netherlands had embraced this target in 2007, stating that it aimed to reduce Dutch emissions with 30% by 2020. Yet in 2011, the government indicated that it would not meet the target, instead aiming for 14-17% reduction.

In 2013, a Dutch NGO with a mission to contribute to sustainability and innovation called Urgenda (‘urgent agenda)’, initiated a lawsuit against the Dutch State with the aim to order the State to reduce Dutch GHG emissions by 40% at the end of the year 2020, or at least by a minimum of 25% in comparison the year 1990.

In the 2015 judgment of the Hague District Court, Urgenda prevailed. The District Court ordered the State to ‘limit the joint volume of Dutch annual greenhouse gas emissions, or have them limited, such that this volume will have been reduced by at least 25% at the end of 2020 compared to the level of the year 1990′. The District Court based this order on the doctrine of hazardous negligence, which is read into the provision on tort in the Dutch Civil Code: behaviour is inter alia considered tortious if it unnecessarily creates danger and thus is contrary to what ‘according to unwritten law is deemed fit in societal interrelations’ (Article 6:162). Contrary to Urgenda’s claim, the District Court did not ground its conclusion directly on human rights law, as it held that Urgenda could not invoke human rights provisions stemming from the ECHR (nor could it invoke the United Nations Convention against Climate Change (UNFCCC)). Read the rest of this entry…

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Procedural Deference at Strasbourg: A Trend Calling for a New Admissibility Criterion?

Published on January 3, 2020        Author: 

This blogpost argues that including an additional admissibility criterion in the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention) for cases that were carefully dealt with at the domestic level is worthy of serious consideration, if it corresponds to a desirable understanding of the European Court of Human Rights’ (the Court) subsidiarity vis-à-vis the States. In view of the Court’s practice discussed hereinafter, a formal inadmissibility-rule appears preferable over judicial ‘ad-hocery’.

The relevant practice relates to the Court’s ‘procedural turn’: the Court increasingly defers to State authorities on grounds of their diligent decision-making. I argue that the Court does so not only by granting a wide ‘procedural margin of appreciation’, but also by outrightly declaring applications inadmissible. Let me illustrate this with a Danish case (which I further discuss below) concerning an applicant who had obtained a residence permit as an unaccompanied minor and later received an expulsion decision due to his criminal record. The Court, declaring the complaint inadmissible, observed: ‘the domestic courts … carefully balanced the competing interests, took into account the criteria set out in the Court’s case-law and explicitly assessed … Denmark’s international obligations’ (Mohammad, § 35). The Court thus endorsed the domestic courts’ proportionality assessment due to their procedural diligence, instead of and abstaining from engaging itself in any weighing of the applicant’s rights against Denmark’s public order interests.

Although this inadmissibility-practice comes close to full deference on procedural grounds, it has not gained much attention. Neither has a proposal from the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee for Human Rights (CDDH) that suggested a new admissibility criterion corresponding to this practice, but was ultimately discarded.

The case-law

Estimating the prevalence of relevant inadmissibility decisions is laborious due to the number of decisions and their varying language. A number of relevant cases were brought against Denmark under Article 8 by applicants threatened with expulsion. Mohammad, mentioned above, is a good example. Read the rest of this entry…

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State-Empowered Actors in the European Court of Human Rights – State Sovereignty and Council of Europe Authority

Published on December 24, 2019        Author: 

 

Human rights conventions constitute a particular category of international law in respect of which individuals, exceptionally, are empowered to act because of their status as rights holders. Nowhere is this more evident than in regional bodies, such as the Council of Europe, which are founded on human rights conventions the ratification of which is a necessary criterion for membership. For the Council of Europe this convention is the European Convention on Human Rights. It is also mandatory for members States of the Council of Europe to accept the right of individuals aggrieved that their rights as contained in the ECHR have been violated to petition the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for redress. Decisions of the ECtHR regarding applications are binding on the member State concerned and generally followed by other member States. The centrality of the individual as an applicant before the ECtHR is evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of the ECtHR’s case load consists of such applications. But individuals are not the only actors which participate in the interpretation of human rights. Non-state actors, in particular state-empowered actors, in the language of Sivakumaran, are increasingly relevant to making and shaping international law including its interpretation, application and development.

This blog examines the development of human rights interpretation by the ECtHR from a specific point of view: to what extent do instruments relevant to the rights contained in the ECHR, but adopted in Council of Europe institutions which consist of members appointed by the member States that are independent of those states and who do not represent them, establish evidence of agreement among the states? Read the rest of this entry…

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The ECHR and Gender Quotas in Elections

Published on December 19, 2019        Author: 

 

The ECtHR recently decided its first gender quota case, and another one is pending. The former dealt with a gender imbalance favoring male candidates, while the latter concerns a gender imbalance favoring female candidates.

There is no Europe-wide right to remedy the deficiencies in submitted candidatures.

In most European democracies, electoral authorities do not immediately and definitely reject faulty candidatures. Instead, they allow political parties a day or two to correct such deficiencies. In Zevnik and Others v. Slovenia, 54893/18, the ECtHR decided that the Convention does not guarantee a right to correct flaws and that a final rejection of a candidate list, without the possibility of correction, remained in line with the Convention. It is thus up to the member states to grant (or not) such a privilege to candidates and parties. In this case, the relevant candidate list was rejected for containing more males than allowed. On the other hand, Pečnik v. Slovenia, 53662/18, concerns a case in which, applying a rule that aimed at increasing female representation, the authorities disqualified a predominantly female list of candidates. This post endeavors to explain both cases.

Under the Slovenian Parliamentary Elections Act, on a district list of candidates, no gender may be represented by less than 35% of the total actual number of candidates. The first applicant in the Zevnik case was a female candidate who ran for the 2018 parliamentary elections. Her party had submitted lists with less than 35% of female candidates in two districts. One of the lists contained five male and two female candidates, while the other included six men and two women. Electoral authorities rejected the entire lists of candidates, without giving either the candidates or the parties any possibility to remedy these deficiencies.

The rejected parties subsequently complained that the electoral commissions should have allowed them to do so by amending or shorten the lists, allowing some male candidates to withdraw, removing some male candidates themselves, or rejecting the lists partially, rather than entirely. They maintained that the rejection of the complete candidate lists for an alleged failure to ensure gender‑balanced representation was a disproportionate sanction, especially as no other European democracy immediately and definitely disqualifies entire candidate lists for similar reasons. Read the rest of this entry…

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N.A. v. Finland – On the quality of the national authorities’ risk assessment and what the authorities should learn from the case

Published on December 17, 2019        Author:  and

 

On 14 November 2019, the European Court of Human Rights delivered a judgement in the case N.A. v. Finland (application no. 25244/18). The ECtHR found that Finland had violated Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights when assessing an Iraqi man’s asylum application. Having exhausted all domestic remedies, the applicant’s father, an Iraqi man, returned to Iraq and was shot dead shortly after his return.  In N.A., the Court was not convinced that the quality of the assessment conducted by national authorities satisfied the requirements under Articles 2 and 3 of the Convention (§ 83). The case at hand was given unanimously by the first section of the Court in a relatively quick pace of time, which also gives weight for the message the Court aims to signal with its judgement.

The Facts

The applicant’s complaint was that the expulsion of her father, Mr A, violated Articles 2 and 3 of the Convention. Furthermore, the daughter complained that her father’s violent death had caused her considerable suffering under Article 3 of the Convention. The daughter claimed that the Finnish authorities (Finnish Immigration Service and the national courts) had not undertaken the risk assessment with necessary diligence (§ 43).

The applicant submitted that Mr A had been at risk not only because of his religious background as a Sunni muslim, but also due to his employment history; disagreement with a person who allegedly belonged to the Badr Organisation; a shooting incident at Mr A’s car; and a car bomb explosion which the applicant claimed had been targeted towards Mr A. The Finnish national authorities accepted that a risk could exist as a result of his employment history as a major in the army under Saddam Hussein and later on in an American logistics company. However, they did not agree that a risk occured as a result of the factors put forward i.e. the disagreement, shooting incident nor the car bomb explosion. Ultimately, the Finnish authorities regarded that the risk towards Mr A was improbable and that he would not personally be targeted but that the events were rather explained by the general security situation in Baghdad (§ 5-18).

Mr A applied for a stay on removal, which was not granted by the Supreme Administrative Court. Therefore, the removal order was enforceable. As a consequence, Mr A applied for assisted voluntary return to Iraq (§ 19). Mr A was granted the assistance and he thus left Finland on 29 November. His leave to appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court was rejected on 30 November, a day after his departure from Finland.

In December, the applicant received information from the neighbours of her relatives that her father, Mr. A, had been killed as a result of shots to the head and body (§ 22). Read the rest of this entry…

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Individual and NGO Access to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights: The Latest Blow from Tanzania

Published on December 16, 2019        Author: 

 

Recently, reports emerged (here and here) that the Tanzanian government withdrew its declaration allowing individuals and NGOs to directly submit applications against it at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR). Tanzania’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and East African Cooperation Prof. Palamagamba Kabudi signed the notice of withdrawal on 14 November 2019, and the African Union Commission received it on 21 November 2019.

Beyond the official withdrawal notice, the Tanzanian government has not made any additional statements clarifying or justifying its decision. Based on the timing, some have implied the withdrawal could be connected to a recent case (Ally Rajabu and Others v. United Republic of Tanzania) concerning Tanzania’s mandatory death sentence for murder convictions. However, considering the Court’s many judgments against Tanzania over the years (discussed below), it is more likely that this decision was in the making for quite some time.

The human rights community has been swift in its response. 20 civil society organizations issued a joint statement and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights tweeted to condemn Tanzania’s decision and urge the government to reconsider.

While Tanzania is still a member of the African Court, withdrawing its declaration allowing individuals and NGOs to bring cases against it is significant not only for Tanzanians’ human rights protections, but also for the African Court as an institution. Cases against Tanzania account for a major portion of its caseload, and Tanzania—the Court’s host state—is the second state to withdraw this declaration.

Article 34(6) declarations for individual and NGO access to the African Court: the main pipeline for cases Read the rest of this entry…

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