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The Salisbury Attack: Don’t Forget Human Rights

Published on March 15, 2018        Author: 
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It is fascinating to observe how international law has provided the frame for the escalating political dispute between the UK and Russia regarding the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent in Salisbury. The dispute is of course primarily factual. In that regard, both states generate their own facts, and the dispute revolves primarily on whom one chooses to trust – what does the average citizen (or international lawyer) know, after all, about the Novichok-class of nerve agents, their deployment, properties and effects? The attribution of the attack will thus inevitably depend on the credibility of the relevant experts, investigators and intelligence officials.

But again – note the framing effect of international law on this dispute. We saw how Theresa May chose her language very carefully when she accused Russia of an unlawful use of force (but not necessarily an armed attack). Both the UK and Russia have accused each other of failing to abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Russia has challenged the credibility of the UK’s investigation, asking for the involvement of the OPCW as an independent, expert and competent third party. The UK itself has engaged with the OPCW, asking it to verify its forensic analysis. The debate in the Security Council yesterday was replete with references to the Convention and OPCW specifically and international law generally. So was the debate earlier in the day in the British Parliament (Hansard transcript).

There is, however, one part of international law that has been largely and unjustifiably missing from this debate, and that is human rights. The attempted killing of Mr Skripal and his daughter is not simply  a violation of the UK’s sovereignty, as set out in today’s joint statement of the UK, US, France and Germany. It is a violation of these individuals’ right to life. In that regard, while I think the discussion that Marc Weller and Tom Ruys have so ably led about the de minimis thresholds (if any) of the concepts of the use of force in Article 2(4) and armed attack in Article 51 of the UN Charter is both interesting and very important, it is in my view somewhat distracting, as is the focus on chemical weapons. It is these two people (and others incidentally affected) who are the main victims here, not the British state. It is their rights in international law that we should primarily be concerned with, not those of the British state (or for that matter Russia). It is their life that was endangered, not that of the British state. And their right to life would have been no less harmed if they were simply shot or stabbed or even poisoned a bit more subtly by an FSB agent.

I am thus struck by the absence of public references to the violation of Skripals’ right to life. That, too, is I think calculated. The Prime Minister has repeatedly referred to the event as a (presumably domestic) crime; the UK ambassador to the UN has also said that ‘[t]he reckless act in Salisbury had been carried out by those who disregarded the sanctity of human life.’ But neither the Prime Minister nor the ambassador directly accused Russia of failing to comply with its obligations under human rights law. Why? Because if they did so, they would effectively be arguing that Russia’s obligations under say the ICCPR and the ECHR extend extraterritorially to a killing in the UK. And that, recall, is not what the British government wants to do, because it does not want to have to comply with these obligations if it used kinetic force abroad to kill an individual in an area outside its control, say by a drone strike.

Here, in other words, we can also see how international law shapes the arguments that are used, or not used. I have long argued that the 2006 killing of Alexander Litvinenko was – as far as the extraterritorial application of human rights was concerned – not legally distinguishable from cases of aerial bombardment a la Bankovic. The same goes for last year’s macabre killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia, at the orders of his half-brother, the North Korean dictator. And the same is true here. Those arguing for a restrictive application of human rights – as the US and UK governments have both done – must be aware of the consequences of doing so. That argument necessarily implies that the interests of individuals like the Skripals, attacked so brutally by a hostile state, are not protected at all in international law. That vision of international law, in which individuals are the mere objects, and not subjects, of its regulation, is not terribly attractive, even – especially even – in 2018. And so I say: when talking about Salisbury, whether it is this Salisbury or some other Salisburys, don’t forget human rights.

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Do We Need Another Database of International Law Documents?

Published on March 12, 2018        Author: , and
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Online databases and repositories appear to be the new golden calf of law publishers which have invested a lot of money in these new academic products. Some publishers secured an early lead position in this market while others are now catching up. From the perspective of the academics that contribute to the developments of such tools, the market still appears to be in development and below saturation. Yet, it cannot be excluded that the continued development of databases ends up cannibalizing publishers’ other, more traditional, products, such as reference books and law reports. This is however a debate for another day. For now, it suffices to note that users — whether students, researchers, practitioners — seem to value international law databases; at least as long as their institution can afford to provide them with access thereto.

It is against this backdrop that the recent launch of Oxford International Organizations (OXIO) – which was celebrated on the occasion of a well attended event hosted by the Graduate Institute in Geneva – raises the question of what epistemic and practical gaps which this new database of documents and annotations specifically dedicated to international organizations can potentially fill. This is why, in the following paragraphs, we inquire into some of the disciplinary assumptions upon which the development of such a product rests, especially in relation to the law of international organizations (1), as well as the concrete benefits which users can draw from OXIO (2).

Consolidating the Law of International Organizations? Read the rest of this entry…

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Security Council Resolutions as Evidence of Customary International Law

Published on March 1, 2018        Author: 
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In 2012 the International Law Commission began to address one of the last major uncodified areas of public international law: how norms of customary law (CIL) are to be identified.  The exercise at the ILC has not been an easy one.  States commenting in 2016 on the Commission’s “draft conclusions” expressed concerns on a variety of issues.  One of the most contentious was the role of international organizations (IOs) in the creation of custom. 

The topic has been the subject of academic conferences at the University of Manchester, the University of Michigan and elsewhere, as well as a growing volume of law review commentary (see here, here, here, here and here).  And in early January, the United States submitted comments on the draft conclusions that were, to put it mildly, opposed to any role for IOs.  Closer to home, Kristen Boon, Isaac Jenkins and I have just published an article on the role of the Security Council in generating evidence of custom related to non-international armed conflicts (NIACs), an area of intense Council involvement. In this post I’ll describe the ILC’s view of IOs, the United States’ response, and then our affirmative arguments specific to the Security Council. Read the rest of this entry…

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Reinventing Multilateral Cybersecurity Negotiation after the Failure of the UN GGE and Wannacry: The OECD Solution

Published on February 28, 2018        Author:  and
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While the failure of cyber security negotiations under the auspices of the UN GGE has created a huge void in international regulation, recent cyber-attacks with global reach have shown that action is more urgent than ever. Reflection on standards, good practices and norms should include private sector actors who are often the first victims of cyber-attacks. We consider that the solution to the current vacuum in multilateral cybersecurity negotiations is the creation of a flexible and inclusive body within the OECD that would act as a hub for the various initiatives while promoting close cooperation between States, the private sector and civil society in order to promote standards of responsible conduct in cyberspace.

In recent years, States have tackled the problem of cyber security by multiplying initiatives in various intergovernmental organizations, be they universal organizations (such as the United Nations or the ITU) or regional or restricted organizations such as the European Union (with, for example, the recent cybersecurity package announced by the EU Commission in September), the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the OECD, the African Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, NATO, ASEAN, the G7 or the G20. These initiatives are also developed in ad hoc frameworks specifically dedicated to cyber-security, where an impressive number of conferences are initiated by States, such as the Global Conference on Cyberspace (GCCS) which has launched the Global Forum on Cyber ​​Expertise (GFCE) – and this without counting academic initiatives such as the process that led to the adoption of the Tallinn Manuals 1 and 2 or the creation of Think Tanks like the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace chaired by Marina Kaljurand (formerly Estonian Foreign Minister).

The failure of the UN GGE Read the rest of this entry…

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Copenhagen: Keeping on Keeping on. A Reply to Mikael Rask Madsen and Jonas Christoffersen on the Draft Copenhagen Declaration

Published on February 24, 2018        Author:  and
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The debate about the future of the European human rights system is absolutely vital, and with that in mind we venture here to reply to just some of the points made by Mikael Rask Madsen and Jonas Christoffersen in their post about the draft Copenhagen declaration.

Commenting on the position paper recently published by the European Court of Human Rights itself, Madsen and Christoffersen detect a ‘strikingly different tenor’ compared with our comments and those of other academics. However, the Court’s reticent tone is only what one would expect from an international judicial institution, in commenting on draft proposals by a member state of an inter-governmental institution such as the Council of Europe. We would observe that the Court’s apparent cautiousness should not be mistaken for consent to the proposals in the declaration. Indeed, we understand that the draft declaration has caused no little concern within the Council of Europe. We also understand that a number of states have already expressed their serious reservations about the way in which the draft declaration downplays the Court’s oversight, queries its independent judicial role, pronounces on how the Court should interpret and apply the Convention, and questions the principle of the universality of human rights. Closer to home, the Danish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights has called for its ‘complete revision’.

Subsidiarity

It is suggested by Madsen and Christoffersen that the declaration is simply codifying recent developments relating to subsidiarity, and they identify ‘an increased demand’ for subsidiarity since the Brighton Declaration. However, in its paper the Court underlines that the concept of subsidiarity is nothing new, and that it is context-dependent – a matter for the Court to assess in each case. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Philippines Human Rights Commission and the ‘Carbon Majors’ Petition

Published on December 22, 2017        Author: , and
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The adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 has been followed by a burgeoning strand of climate change litigation, with test cases being heard all over the world (see Columbia Law School database). Amongst others, litigants have argued that emissions are the proximate cause of adverse climate change impacts, thereby giving rise to specific liability. One of the boldest efforts to test the boundaries of the law in this area is a petition currently being heard by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHR or Commission). The petition originated in 2016, when after a surge of typhoons wreaking havoc in the Philippines, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Pilipino human rights groups and citizens requested the Commission to investigate the responsibility of 47 oil, gas, coal, and cement companies for human rights violations or threats thereof resulting from the impacts of climate change (so-called Carbon Majors petition). The petition has attracted much attention in the media and numerous academics and civil society organisations have submitted amicus briefs in support of the petitioners. Last week, the Commission groundbreakingly asserted its jurisdiction to investigate the petition (CHR press release). The Commission also announced multiple fact-finding missions and public hearings in 2018, to be held both within and without the Philippines. This post reflects on the international law implications of the petition for arguments concerning the liability of corporations for alleged human rights violations associated with the impacts of climate change in a transnational context.

The Scope of the Commission’s Jurisdiction

Similar to other national human rights institutions, the CHR has a mandate to investigate:

all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights and to investigate and monitor all economic, social and cultural rights violations and abuses, as well as threats of violations thereof, especially with respect to the conditions of those who are marginalized, disadvantaged, and vulnerable (Rule 2, Omnibus Rules of Procedure). 


Some respondents challenged the Commission’s jurisdiction to hear the petition. Citing the Lotus case, they argued that a State’s jurisdiction is limited ‘only to the confines of its physical boundaries’ (e.g. Cemex, at 11). As we explained in our amicus brief, States frequently exercise adjudicatory and legislative jurisdiction over persons or events outside their territory, as long as there is a clear connecting nexus between that State and the person or conduct that it seeks to regulate. Therefore, and contrary to what was suggested by the respondents, the exercise of the Commission’s jurisdiction over foreign corporations is neither an ‘act of interference’ or ‘usurpation’ of other States’ sovereignty (Cemex, at 16), nor ‘tantamount to an undue encroachment on the territorial jurisdiction and sovereignty of such other States where Respondents are domiciled and operate’ (Shell, at 1). As long as the Commission’s investigation falls within one of the established principles of jurisdiction, it is in accordance with international law. The most relevant principles for the purposes of the petition are the territorial and the protective principles. Read the rest of this entry…

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Resignation of Mugabe: A Military Coup or a Legitimate Expression of the People’s Will?

Published on December 5, 2017        Author: 
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On 15 November 2017, following a rule of 37 years since the independence of Zimbabwe, President Mugabe was placed under house arrest by the army. A military spokesman appeared on state television to declare that the president was safe and that they were only “targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering”. He further noted that this was not a military coup. Mugabe resisted stepping down for a week but then finally resigned on 21 November when the Parliament initiated impeachment proceedings. Mnangagwa, the former Vice-President, who was fired by Mugabe only a week before the military intervention, was sworn in as president on 24 November, and the military granted Mugabe immunity from prosecution.

As will be discussed below, the African Union (AU) has adopted an uncompromising approach towards military coups. However, in the very recent case of Zimbabwe it preferred a more cautious stance, which stands in contrast with its previous practice. The Zimbabwe episode demonstrates two important things. Firstly, the event proves that the practice of the AU is highly effective in that even if an army wants to overthrow a ruler, it now needs to find the most appropriate way to avoid the application of the AU’s sanction mechanism. Second, the AU did not adopt the same approach it had followed in many other cases, because the target of the military takeover was a long-established president notorious for his authoritarian rule. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Immunity of al-Bashir: The Latest Turn in the Jurisprudence of the ICC

Published on November 15, 2017        Author: 
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On 6 July 2017, the Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC issued a new decision in the case of Omar al-Bashir. The Chamber ruled that South Africa failed to comply with its obligation to arrest the President of Sudan by welcoming him for a summit of the African Union two years earlier. This decision did not come as a surprise because the Court had repeatedly ruled before that al-Bashir does not enjoy immunity from arrest and that all states parties have an obligation to arrest him. What makes the decision curious, however, is that the Chamber again adopted a new position on the immunity of al-Bashir:

  • In 2011, the Chamber found that al-Bashir does not enjoy immunity because of an exception under customary international law for the prosecution of international crimes by an international court like the ICC. According to the Chad and Malawi decisions, no sitting Head of State could ever claim immunity before the ICC (for reactions see: here and here).
  • In 2014, the Chamber revised its position and concluded that the Security Council implicitly waived his immunity in Resolution 1593. Al-Bashir would not enjoy immunity because the Council issued a binding decision under Chapter VII of the UN Charter obliging Sudan ‘to cooperate fully with … the Court’ (for reactions to the DRC decision see: here and here).
  • In it most recent decision of 6 July 2017, the Chamber found that al-Bashir does not enjoy immunity because the Security Council’s referral placed Sudan in a similar position as a state party. Al-Bashir would not possess immunity from arrest because of Article 27(2) of the Statute which provides that immunities ‘… shall not bar the Court from exercising its jurisdiction’.

In this post I examine the Chamber’s most recent decision on the case of al-Bashir and make a number of critical observations. Read the rest of this entry…

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A Danish Crusade for the Reform of the European Court of Human Rights

Published on November 14, 2017        Author: 
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Tomorrow (15 November) Denmark will take over the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe (CoE). The CoE was established in 1949 and has since adopted numerous treaties, including the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Denmark is a CoE founding member and has traditionally been a strong supporter of human rights. Yet the Danish Government has announced that the chief priority of its chairmanship will be the reform of the European human rights system. This announcement may come as a surprise to the readership of this blog. This post therefore summarises the vicissitudes that have led to the Danish Government’s initiative, and provides some early reflections on its expected impact.

Why does Denmark want a reform?

Immigration has long been a dominant theme in Danish politics. In the late 1990s, the Danish People’s Party (DPP) began to denounce immigration, multiculturalism and Islam as alien to Danish society and values. Since 2001, the DPP has supported various minority coalition governments and gained extensive influence on Denmark’s immigration policy, which is now one of the most restrictive in Europe.

Critique of the ECHR is not new in Denmark, where much debate has focused on the influence of the Convention on the deportation of the foreign criminals. Read the rest of this entry…

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ICJ Elections 2017: UN General Assembly and Security Council Elect Four Judges to the ICJ But fail to Agree on a Fifth, yet again! + Trivia Question

Published on November 11, 2017        Author: 
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On Thursday (Nov. 9), the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council elected four judges to the International Court of Justice (see UN Press Releases here and here). Judges Ronny Abraham (France), the incumbent President; Abdulqawi Yusuf (Somalia), the incumbent Vice-President; and Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade (Brazil) were all re-elected. Nawaf Salam who is currently the Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations was also elected to the Court for the first time. They were elected in accordance with Articles 4 and 8 of the Statute of the ICJ which stipulate that judges are to be elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council meeting separately but concurrently. For a candidate to be elected each judge has to obtain an absolute majority in each of those organs, meaning that they need 8 votes in favour in the Security Council and, in 2017, 97 votes in the General Assembly. There are regular elections to the ICJ every three years, with five vacancies each time around. In the election held on Thursday, the General Assembly (GA) and the Security Council (SC) have, thus far, been unable to agree on the fifth judge to be elected to the Court, and voting has been suspended until Monday November 13. This scenario of the GA and SC being unable to agree in a single “meeting” (a term which has a special meaning for this purpose) on the list of Judges that are elected to the Court is relatively rare in the history of elections to the ICJ. However, that scenario has now occurred for a third successive time (after the events in 2011 and 2014 which I describe in the previous posts here and here).

This 2017 election has been particularly remarkable for a number of reasons. There were only six candidates for the five positions. However, and this is rare, all five judges whose terms were expiring had been nominated for re-election. What is perhaps most remarkable about this election, at least thus far, is that Judge Christopher Greenwood, the judge of British nationality, was not re-elected in the first “meeting”. The two remaining candidates for re-election, who must now fight it out on Monday are Judge Greenwood and Judge Bhandari (India), both sitting judges on the Court. Were Judge Greenwood not to be re-elected on Monday this would be a very significant break from the past with regard to the composition of the ICJ. Read the rest of this entry…

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