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Home Archive for category "Self Defence"

A Collective Failure to Prevent Turkey’s Operation ‘Peace Spring’ and NATO’s Silence on International Law

Published on October 14, 2019        Author: 

Since last week Turkey has been using massive military force in Syria. Turkey has decided to call her military operation ‘Peace Spring’. ‘Peace Spring’ seems to be even more extensive than ‘Olive Branch’, Turkey’s preceding invasion of Syria. ‘Peace Spring’ has already resulted in the flight of tens of thousands of civilians. Worldwide, observers fear that ‘Peace Spring’ could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, a country whose people have been suffering from unspeakable pain for many years now. There is also widespread fear that the so-called ‘Islamic State’ could benefit from ‘Peace Spring’ as the use of force is being directed against precisely those Kurdish forces that had helped keeping the ‘Islamic State’ at bay. It thus appears that a depressingly large number of indications suggest that the name ‘Peace Spring’ is a cynical euphemism for a brutal military course of action possibly ending in a bloody disaster.     

In her letter to the United Nations, Turkey invokes her right of self-defence, as recognized in Article 51 of the UN Charter, ‘to counter’ an ‘imminent terrorist threat’. The ‘facts’ that Turkey refers to in this letter are essentially those:

‘In particular, PKK/PYD/YPG units close to Turkish borders in the north-east of Syria, continue to be a source of direct and imminent threat as they opened harassment fire on Turkish border posts, by also using snipers and advanced weaponry such as anti-tank guided missiles.’

Under international law, the right of self-defence exists if an armed attack against another State occurs. In such a case, cross-border defensive forcible action is permissible to the extent that the action is necessary and proportional to counter the attack. The existence of a right of anticipatory self-defence has long been controversial. An arguable case can be made that such a right exists if an armed attack against a State is imminent. It is also a matter of fierce debate whether a right of self-defence exists in case of a non-State armed attack and whether it may justify forcible defensive action on the territory of another State. An arguable case can be made that such a right exists where a State is either unwilling or unable to prevent a non-State group from conducting a large-scale cross-border armed attack from the territory of that State – under strict conditions of proportionality.

Even on the basis of such a broad understanding of the right of self-defence, which is being fiercely rejected by a significant number of States and by a significant number of highly respected international lawyers as being unduly permissive, it is impossible to see how Operation ‘Peace Spring’ could be justified under international law. Read the rest of this entry…

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“Sustainable Self-Defense”? How the German Government justifies continuing its fight against ISIL in Syria

Published on October 2, 2019        Author: 

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria”, US President Trump, tweeted on 19 December 2018. “We just took over 100% caliphate. That means the area of the land.”, he added in March 2019. Nonetheless, until to date, the global coalition against the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) continues its military operations in Iraq and Syria. May States in Syria still use armed force against ISIL, now deprived of territorial control, under the right of (collective) self-defense?

The German Government answered this question in the affirmative. On 18 September 2019, the Government formally requested the German Parliament to extend the (national) mandate “for German armed forces to safeguard the stabilization of Iraq and Syria, to promote their reconciliation, and to prevent ISIL’s regaining of strength in those regions” (all translations by the author). The Parliament is currently debating the issue. With the governing parties endorsing the request, Parliament is expected to agree despite critique on the operation’s legality by opposition parties.

In its formal request, the Government details the legal basis for the continuation of operations against ISIL. As a matter of principle, it does not significantly depart from its previous justifications. It bases the use of armed forces in Iraq on the “Iraqi government’s continuously valid request and continued consent”. For its operations in Syria, the Government continues to invoke collective self-defense on behalf and on request of Iraq against attacks from ISIL, “in connection with” Security Council resolution 2249 (2015).

But importantly, the Government has also updated its justification in light of ISIL’s loss of territorial control. This, in short, would not affect the coalition’s right to continue military operations against ISIL in Syria. This updated justification is worth discussing in regard to three aspects of self-defense: whether it can be used against non-State actors, its endorsement by the Security Council, and the question of continuing armed attacks.

Read the rest of this entry…

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Drone Attacks on Saudi Aramco Oil Installations

Published on September 17, 2019        Author: 

Half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production has been stopped by air attacks involving drones and possibly cruise missiles on 14 September 2019. Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility. United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asserted by tweet that Iran is responsible because there is “no evidence the attacks came from Yemen” and Iran is behind “100” attacks on Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has since released satellite imagery showing immense smoke clouds. Unnamed American officials say 19 sites were struck. According to the BBC, on 16 September, ‘UK, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said it was not yet clear who was responsible for what he described as a “wanton violation of international law”’.

Regardless of who is responsible, the attacks are unlawful for a variety of reasons. For several of those same reasons and others, however, Saudi Arabia has no right to use military force outside its territory in a response. The limits on other states responding with military force or other forms of coercion are equally restricted. Lawful responses are available, ones that would avoid further ‘wanton’ law violations.

The important starting place of the analysis is with the fact that the Houthi rebels are not the government in effective control of Yemen, so they do not qualify as having authority to use military force on the basis of the one relevant justification in this case, United Nations Charter exception to Article 2(4), Article 51. The fact Saudi Arabia has been attacking them in Yemen does not give rise to their right to attack Saudi Arabia.

The most accurate characterization of the Houthis is as a belligerent party engaged in internal armed conflict or civil war from which all non-Yemeni armed groups—state or nonstate—are barred. Saudi Arabia has apparently based its participation in the Yemeni civil war on an invitation from Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi, however, fled and thereby lost effective control or status as the government in March 2015. The conflict remains undecided with the Houthis holding the capital Sanaa as well as territory that is home to more than half the population. While Hadi continues to claim ‘international recognition’ plus Yemen’s seat in the United Nations, under international law, the government for purposes of authorizing force in self-defence must for practical reasons and reasons of self-determination be based on the effective control rule as applied in the Tinoco Claims Arbitration (1 U.N. Rep. Int’l Arb. Awards 369 (1923). Read the rest of this entry…

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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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How International Law Restricts the Use of Military Force in Hormuz

Published on August 27, 2019        Author: 

We await whether an allied action will protect shipping in the Persian Gulf, and whether it will be led by the USA or by European states. The UK’s new government will support US action, while at least some other European states are reluctant to be seen as supporters of US aggressive policy towards Iran. Political arguments aside, there are important international law concerns with participation in such action, whether American or European-led (see also this recent post by Hartwig).

Absence of a Security Council mandate

The first concern is that such an action would not have a UN mandate. The Security Council can authorize military actions to ensure peace and security, even setting aside other rules of international law. Admittedly, protection of shipping might not fall under the Security Council’s competencies to maintain peace and security. Regardless, a mandate for a military action in the Persian Gulf is in any case politically unlikely.

The law of the sea

Without a mandate from the Security Council, there are strong arguments against the legality of such action. Read the rest of this entry…

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Filed under: Law of the Sea, Self Defence
 
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President Trump admits US strike against Iran would have been illegal

Published on June 21, 2019        Author: 

Yesterday President Trump apparently aborted a US strike against Iran, in response to Iran’s destruction of an unmanned US surveillance drone. US and Iranian accounts continue to differ on whether the drone was shot down in Iranian airspace or in international airspace. Ashley Deeks and Scott Anderson have helpfully analyzed the international legal framework applicable to any US strike in response to the destruction of the drone over on Lawfare, to which I have little to add in principle. In particular, they’ve explained the more expansive and the more restrictive theories of self-defence on which the legality of a US strike would hinge (see also Ashley’s previous post here).

But, President Trump has tweeted in the past hour, as he does, and his tweets effectively (if inadvertently) admit the illegality of the aborted US strike under any conceivable theory of self-defence, no matter how expansive:

 

Note, first, how President Trump describes the aborted US strike as being meant ‘to retaliate’ against Iran for the destruction of the drone. But it is black letter jus ad bellum that the purpose of self-defence can only be to stop an ongoing attack, or (possibly) to prevent imminent future attacks. It cannot, however, simply be to retaliate against an attack committed in the past. Thus, even if US historically expansive views on the right to self-defence were to be accepted in their totality, and even we were to accept that the US drone was in international airspace when it was shot down and that this was an armed attack by Iran against the US in the sense of Article 51 of the UN Charter, the US head of state has just admitted to the world that the strike he authorized, and then rescinded, was retaliatory and not defensive in nature.

Similarly, he expressly admitted that the attack would have been disproportionate, as 150 lives would likely have been lost for one destroyed unmanned drone. And as we all know, proportionality is a key requirement of the customary law of self-defence. Thankfully, President Trump ultimately decided to abort the strikes, and therefore no violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter took place. Hopefully any conflict between the US and Iran will be avoided. But that said, it is also clear from what the US President tweeted to all of us, so explicitly and so ungrammatically, that the proposed military action of his government, had it taken place, would have been illegal. And again, under the President’s own admission, it would have been illegal regardless of whether one embraces a more restrictive or a more expansive theory of self-defence.

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

Published on May 23, 2019        Author:  and

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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Lost Between Law Enforcement and Active Hostilities: A First Glance at the Israeli Supreme Court Judgment on the Use of Lethal Force During the Gaza Border Demonstrations

Published on June 4, 2018        Author: 

In response to the ongoing violent clashes between the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Palestinian protesters during the so-called ‘March of Return’ along the Gaza border fence several Israeli human rights organizations petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, challenging the IDF’s rules of engagement, as well as their implementation. The arguments put forward by the petitioners and the Israeli Government, as well as the legal issues involved were  discussed in advance of the Court’s judgment by Eliav Lieblich and Yuval Shany (here and here). Last week, the Israeli Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, handed down its decision, which unanimously rejected the petitions. Although the judgment seems to be flawed on several issues, it nevertheless includes a couple of interesting statements regarding the relationship between law enforcement operations and active hostilities in armed conflict. An initial analysis of the decision has been published by Amichai Cohen and I should say at the outset that I share some of his conclusions. Those aspects of the decision that relate to international law will probably spark mixed feelings. As mentioned by Cohen, the fact that the Court explicitly endorsed the ICRC’s Interpretive Guidance on Direct Participation in Hostilities is certainly a welcome development. However, the fact that the justices refused to discuss the applicability of international human rights law (IHRL) in situations of armed conflict; that they invented an obscure new law enforcement paradigm; and expanded the notion of ‘imminent threat’ to allow for the preventive use of lethal force, less so. Read the rest of this entry…

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Unlawful Reprisals to the Rescue against Chemical Attacks?

Published on April 12, 2018        Author: 

Donald Trump has threatened Syria with a ‘big price to pay’ for an alleged chemical attack on 7 April in a Damascus suburb. Last year, in similar circumstances, Trump authorized an attack of 59 Tomahawk missiles that reportedly killed 9, including 4 children. The French and German governments responded with a joint press release finding it a ‘just and proportionate’ response. They did not say ‘lawful’–nor could they.

Armed reprisals are uses of military force that follow an incident, usually to punish or in retaliation or revenge and which do not fit the exception to the prohibition on the use of force for self-defence. See the same conclusion here  and here. Reprisals need Security Council authorization to be lawful. The Security Council has never authorized a reprisal and will not in the case of Syria.

In 1970, the General Assembly stated clearly in its Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States that among the fundamental rights and duties of states, is the ‘duty to refrain from acts of reprisal involving the use of force’ against other States. The International Court of Justice found in its 1994 advisory opinion on the Legality of Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons that ‘armed reprisals in time of peace […] are considered to be unlawful.’ In the Oil Platforms case, it further held that US attacks on Iranian sites were not lawful acts of self-defense because of their retaliatory nature.

Thus, unauthorized reprisals are always unlawful Read the rest of this entry…

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The Turkish Operation in Afrin (Syria) and the Silence of the Lambs

Published on January 30, 2018        Author: 

Operation Olive Branch

On 20th January 2018, the Turkish military started to attack the Kurdish-populated region of Afrin in Syria (“Operation Olive Branch“). With its letter to the Security Council of 22nd January 2018, Turkey justified this action as self-defence in terms of Art. 51 UN Charter. The relevant passage of the letter is: “[T]he threat of terrorism from Syria targeting our borders has not ended. The recent increase in rocket attacks and harassment fire directed at Hatay and Kilis provinces of Turkey from the Afrin region of Syria, which is under the control of the PKK/KCK/PYD/YPG terrorist organization, has resulted in the deaths of many civilians and soldiers and has left many more wounded.” (UN Doc. S/2018/53; emphasis added). Two elements are troublesome in this official Turkish justification.

Non-state armed attacks?

First, it is controversial whether armed attacks of the YPG, a non-state actor, suffice to trigger self-defence in terms of Article 51 UN Charter and underlying customary law. The current law (both Charter-based and treaty-based) is in flux, and still seems to demand some attribution to the state from which the attacks originate. (See for a collection of diverse scholarly opinion, ranging from “restrictivists” to “expansionists”: Anne Peters, Christian Marxsen (eds), “Self-Defence Against Non-State Actors: Impulses from the Max Planck Trialogues on the Law of Peace and War”, Heidelberg Journal of International Law 77 (2017), 1-93; SSRN-version in Max Planck Research Papers 2017-17).

The ICJ case-law has not fully settled the question (see for state-centred statements: ICJ, Oil platforms 2003, paras. 51 and 61; ICJ Wall opinion 2004, para. 139). Read the rest of this entry…

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