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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, the Use of Force against Iraq and Overlooked Ius Ad Bellum Questions

Published on January 13, 2020        Author: 

 

As most people know by now, the US killed Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds force, in a drone strike on 3 January. Most commentators seem to agree that Soleimani’s killing was unlawful, but one issue has received less attention: the legality of using force against Iraq. The strike occurred in Baghdad, killing not only Suleimani but also five Iraqi nationals, including the leader and members of Kata’ib Hezbollah. This post examines the legality of the use of force against Iraq from a ius ad bellum perspective, arguing that a putative US claim to self-defense against Iraq stretches the doctrine of ‘unable or unwilling’ to breaking point.

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Iran Unlawfully Retaliates Against the United States, Violating Iraqi Sovereignty in the Process

Published on January 8, 2020        Author: 

 

Today Iran launched a number of ballistic missiles against two US military bases in Iraq, in response to the US strike on Soleimani last week. As of now it is unclear whether the missiles caused any American or Iraqi casualties. Donald Trump will address the public in this regard in the morning today US time.

Hopefully there will be no further escalation of hostilities after this Iranian missile strike. It is crystal clear, however, that the strike was unlawful. It breached the prohibition on the use of force in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter with respect to both the United States and Iraq. It did so because of its purely retaliatory nature.

The Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, gave Iran’s public justification for the strike on Twitter:

Note his explicit reliance on self-defence per Article 51 of the Charter, the reference to proportionality, and to Iran having concluded its defensive action. Clearly this is meant to say that Iran intends to take no further action (at least not openly) if the US for its part refrains from further hostilities. Again, let’s hope that such de-escalation actually happens. That said, however carefully framed, Zarif’s invocation of self-defence is still incapable of legally justifying Iran’s actions.

Let’s assume that the US strike on Soleimani was an unlawful use of force against Iran, as I argued that it most likely was. Let’s assume further that it was also an armed attack in the sense of Article 51 of the Charter (i.e. under the majority view, including that of the ICJ, a more serious and grave form of unlawful force), which would in principle entitle Iran to take measures in self-defence. Let’s also assume that the killing of Soleimani was in fact executed from the two US bases that Iran has now struck. Even if all of this is true, the basic problem for Iran is that the US strike on Soleimani was completed. Because that attack was over, there could be no necessity to act to repel it. It is only if Iran could argue on the facts that it anticipated future imminent attacks by the US that it could plausibly have a claim to self-defence, and Zarif mentioned no such attacks.

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The Soleimani Strike and Self-Defence Against an Imminent Armed Attack

Published on January 7, 2020        Author: 

 

The US drone strike on Qassem Soleimani, one of the most important members of the Iranian leadership, raises many complex questions of international law. This post will examine the lawfulness of the strike from the standpoint of the law on the use of force. It will first set out the parameters of the US justification for killing Soleimani, which is some variant of self-defence against an imminent armed attack. It will then look at the notion of an imminent attack, at the different ways such an attack can be repelled, and at whether, on the facts as we know them, the US strike should be regarded as lawful.

I will argue that even if one accepts a broad theory of self-defence against an attack that is yet to occur, such as that espoused by the US government itself, the strike is likely to be unlawful. It is improbable that the US would be able to meet the factual requirements that it needs to justify the strike – in particular, there are serious doubts that there even was an imminent attack, and there are serious doubts that the method the US chose to resist that supposed attack was necessary under the circumstances. If such was the case, the US breached the prohibition on the use of force in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter vis-à-vis both Iran and Iraq. Finally, the post will look at the illegality of the threats of further use of force made by President Trump against Iran, which are unlawful both as a matter of the jus ad bellum and the jus in bello.

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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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Did the US Stay “Well Below the Threshold of War” With its June Cyberattack on Iran?

Published on September 2, 2019        Author: 

On 20 June 2019, the United States conducted a major cyberattack against Iran in response to Iran’s (alleged) attacks on oil tankers in the Hormuz Strait and the downing of an American surveillance drone. The attack was widely reported at the time, but on 28 August the New York Times published important new details, which included information about the legal-strategic thinking of the Americans. Specifically, it was reported that the US cybercampaign against Iran was “calibrated to stay well below the threshold of war”. Translated into legalese, this seems to imply that the Americans aim to keep their activities at a level that undoubtedly fall short of legal thresholds like article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which defines use of force, and common article 2 of the Geneva Conventions, which de facto triggers the laws of war. In this post, I discuss whether the Americans succeeded in keeping their distance from such thresholds.

The attack

In the original reporting on the attack by Yahoo! News, it was noted that the operation targeted “an Iranian spy group” with “ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps”, which supported attacks on commercial ships in the Hormuz Strait. The precise object of attack was not specified, but it was mentioned that the group had “over the past several years digitally tracked and targeted military and civilian ships passing through the economically important Strait of Hormuz”.

The New York Times’ report explains that the cyberattack successfully “wiped out a critical database used by Iran’s paramilitary arm to plot attacks against oil tankers and degraded Tehran’s ability to covertly target shipping traffic in the Persian Gulf, at least temporarily”. The Iranians, it is noted, are “still trying to recover information destroyed in the June 20 attack and restart some of the computer systems — including military communications networks — taken offline”. Accordingly, the attack seems to have crippled the targeted system in a way that has taken it offline and, presumably, rendered it useless for months. The effects of the attack were “designed to be temporary”, officials said, but had “lasted longer than expected”. In terms of the specific target of the attack, it was reported that the target was the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence group. Read the rest of this entry…

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Tanker Games – The Law Behind the Action

Published on August 20, 2019        Author: 

The conflict between some western States and Iran has reached a new phase. Last month, both sides arrested tankers off their coasts. Whereas the political intentions of either side are evident, difficult questions come up with regard to the legal assessment of these actions. They concern the extraterritorial application of a sanction regime, the law of the sea and countermeasures. The post will describe the facts related to the detention of a tanker off Gibraltar (1). It will be investigated if the regime of the transit passage (2) or of innocent passage (3) is applicable under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Thereafter, the post will study which State may rely on the respective rights (4). The post then will turn to the facts of the second case which happened in the strait of Hormuz (5). It will shortly mention Iran’s right to take measures for the safety of navigation beyond its territorial waters (6), and the regime of countermeasures (7). In part (8) the compatibility of military patrols by western States in the strait of Hormuz with the law of the sea will be studied.

The Facts related to the case off the coast of Gibraltar

On July 4, 2019 the British navy detained the tanker Grace 1, allegedly in the territorial waters of Gibraltar. The vessel was passing through the strait of Gibraltar after having circumnavigated Africa. The chief minister of Gibraltar declared in a press release that the vessel was seized in order to enforce EU sanctions against Syria. The decision was based on the EU regulation 36/2012, a law of Gibraltar of 29 March 2019 and a regulation of Gibraltar of 3 July 2019. According to art. 14 para. 2 of the EU regulation it is prohibited to make available economic resources to corporations listed in Annex 2 to the regulation which includes the Banyas Oil Refinery Company. The chief minister of Gibraltar alleged that the oil carried by the tanker came from Iran and was destined to the refinery; this is denied by Iran.

The EU regulation and the above-mentioned legislation of Gibraltar is applicable on the territory of Gibraltar and the territorial waters. Gibraltar claims territorial waters up to 3 nm.

Grace 1 is owned by a shipping company located in Singapore and flew the flag of Panamá. However, according to the Autoridad Marítima de Panamá the vessel was removed from the open registry of Panamá on 29 May 2019.

Transit Passage

It is generally recognized that this strait falls under art. Read the rest of this entry…

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A Reply to Professor Kraska on the Iranian Shootdown of the US Global Hawk Drone

Published on July 17, 2019        Author: 

Prof. Kraska has argued in his latest EJIL: Talk! article that the incident regarding the downing of a US drone by Iran happened due to the scarce knowledge of international law by an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander. While I do appreciate Prof. Kraska’s discretion in referring to US intelligence sources, on the other hand the US President himself openly provided to the media the same assessment.

I will now concentrate on some points raised by Prof. Kraska:

  1. The US counterattack was cancelled.

This observation implies by default and without any specifics that the action conducted by Iran was in fact an attack confirming the US policy on the equivalence of  use of force with armed attack. One might disagree and follow the difference between the two as expressed by the ICJ in the Nicaragua case (para. 191). It is also difficult to understand this point of view, as the author did not state from the beginning that he was taking the US declarations on the position of the drone as a given fact. Even so, Iran’s declarations to the UN Security Council (UNSC) would have been worth mentioning to the reader for awareness purposes. In his letter, the Iranian Ambassador defines the US violation of his Country’s airspace as a “hostile act” to which Iran responded in self-defense. This is a shift on the interpretation of self-defense by Iran that actually aligns with the US view (use of force = self-defense). For more insights on the topic see here. Read the rest of this entry…

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Filed under: Iran, Use of Force