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Home Archive for category "Syria"

Macron’s Threat of Reprisals and the Jus ad Bellum

Published on June 2, 2017        Author: 

A few days ago, French President Macron reportedly said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line” for France and result in reprisals. Macron’s statement comes less than two months after the United States conducted airstrikes against Syria for its use of chemical weapons. The vast majority of states that spoke about the U.S. operation supported or were non-committal about it. Very few states condemned it as unlawful. By contrast, most commentators contended that the operation was unlawful. (See the blog posts collected here.) The operation was inconsistent with the longstanding interpretation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and not covered by either of the Charter exceptions. Moreover, though there is an ongoing debate about whether the jus ad bellum contains a third exception for humanitarian interventions, the majority view is that it does not. The reason for this view is that, even when states (as a group) appear to condone particular operations that might be characterized as unilateral humanitarian interventions, states decline to articulate the opinio juris that is necessary to establish a new, generally applicable exception to Article 2(4). And in any event, the U.S. operation in April seemed more like a reprisal than like a humanitarian intervention.

So, what should we make of Macron’s statement? When news of it broke, I tweeted this comment:

Several people objected to my tweet. I am continuing the conversation here because I thought it might be of interest to a broader audience, and because its implications go far beyond Macron’s statement. It has to do with how we understand and assess the jus ad bellum. Read the rest of this entry…

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EJIL Talk! Book Discussion: L’acte déclencheur d’un conflit armé international – Introductory Post

Published on May 30, 2017        Author: 

This post is part of our book discussion on Djemila Carron’s “L’acte déclencheur d’un conflit armé international“.

Introduction

During the night of Thursday April 6 and Friday April 7 2017, the United States carried out airstrikes on a Syrian military base that had allegedly been used by the Syrian authorities to launch a chemical attack against its own population. As those airstrikes were, to the best of my knowledge, the first ones conducted by the United States that directly and deliberately targeted Syrian positions in Syria, the question that arose for many scholars, humanitarian actors and members of the military was the following: are the United States and Syria in an international armed conflict (IAC)? Or were they already engaged in such a conflict since the United States had been using force on the territory of Syria against the Islamic State since 2014? If there was no previous IAC between the United States and Syria on April 6, did those attacks add an IAC to the preexisting non-international armed conflict (NIAC) between the United States and the Islamic State? Did they transform (‘internationalize’) this preexisting NIAC into a IAC? Or should the attacks of April 6 and 7 fall outside the scope of international humanitarian law (IHL)?

Answering these questions, and more generally classifying hostilities, is crucial in international law. Indeed, rules applicable to an IAC – including the Geneva Conventions (GC), the first Additional Protocol (AP I), other treaties and provisions of international (and national) law and rules of customary law – create a legal framework significantly different from the one applicable in a NIAC or in the absence of a conflict. L’acte déclencheur d’un conflit armé international explores what act or acts might trigger an IAC. It uses Article 2 common to the GC as its starting point since this provision states that each of the four GC:

“shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them”.

The notion of IAC being the main entry point for the application of the core treaties of IHL, and the concept of NIAC being closely linked to the one of IAC, means that understanding the triggering act of such a conflict is a preliminary question to almost any application of IHL. Read the rest of this entry…

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Evacuation of Civilian Populations and Criminal Complicity: A Critical Appraisal of the February 2017 Report of the Syria Commission of Inquiry

Published on May 24, 2017        Author: 

In its February 2017 Report (A/HRC/34/64), the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria made the bold statement that the evacuation of the civilian population from Eastern Aleppo, pursuant to an agreement between the Syrian government and the armed groups “amounts to the war crime of forced displacement” since it was made “for strategic reasons” and “not for the security of civilians or imperative military necessity.” (para. 93). A – perhaps unintended – consequence of this proposition would be that staff of NGOs or other non-state actors who assisted in this evacuation may be criminally liable as accomplices in this war crime.

I will argue here that this proposition is incorrect for basically two reasons. First, the Report does not make a persuasive argument that a war crime has been committed and thus there is no criminal conduct to which other individuals could have been contributed. Secondly, even if, arguendo, one assumes that the evacuation amounted to a war crime, to provide assistance in the evacuation of civilians does not constitute criminally relevant complicity.

Read the rest of this entry…

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Forcible Humanitarian Action in International Law- part I

Published on May 17, 2017        Author: 

Part I of a Two-Part Post

There is a widespread myth amongst international lawyers. This is the apparently unshakeable proposition that forcible humanitarian action is clearly unlawful. Any changes to that proposition would be impossible, given:

  • The preponderance of the doctrine of sovereignty over countervailing considerations, such as human rights;
  • The requirements for the formation of a new rule of customary international law in favour of forcible humanitarian action;
  • The additional requirements involved in any change to the prohibition of the use of force, which unquestionably enjoys jus cogens status; and
  • The supposedly inevitable abuse of the doctrine.

The recent blog debate about the cruise missile strike in connection with the use of chemical weapons in Syria offers an example of this, starting with a presumption against forcible humanitarian action that can hardly be overcome ( see herehere, here, here and here).

That default proposition may have been persuasive to some during the Cold War years. However, it can no longer be maintained. For it is not in accordance with an unbroken understanding of the relationship between the state and its population since the emergence of states and the doctrine of sovereignty in the renaissance, it disregards very clear evidence of international practice, and it ignores very fundamental shifts in legal doctrine and scholarly opinion. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Precedent Set by the US Reprisal Against the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

Published on May 1, 2017        Author: 

In his recent post on the United States’ missile strike against a Syrian airbase, on 6 April 2017, Marko Milanovic focused primarily on the unlawfulness of that action (here). While I agree with that view, in this post, I wish to focus on the nature of the precedent which the US reprisal has set. Moreover, I argue that this instance of use of a forcible countermeasure by a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) should serve to refocus attention on a dysfunctional UNSC.

Three remarks at the outset: (a) This post concerns only “forcible countermeasures” or “reprisals”; (b) I characterise the US missile strikes as a reprisal against Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Although other characterisations have been proffered (for instance, humanitarian intervention or providing assistance in a counter-insurgency), the US administration has framed its actions primarily in terms of a forcible response to the use of chemical weapons (see below); and (c) I rely on the assumption, tendered by the US but disputed by Russia, that Syria was responsible for the chemical attack.

The Legal Framework

A useful starting point for this discussion are the Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, adopted by the International Law Commission (ILC) in 2001, which have been said to present “a combination of codification and progressive development” (Harris, Cases and Materials on International Law, p. 422). Article 49(1) of the Draft Articles states that “An injured State may only take countermeasures against a State which is responsible for an internationally wrongful act in order to induce that State to comply with its obligations…” Thus, while the Draft Articles envisage the lawfulness of countermeasures in certain circumstances, it is important to clarify briefly: (1) which countermeasures are envisaged; and (2) which party may undertake them. Read the rest of this entry…

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Excusing Humanitarian Intervention – A Reply to Jure Vidmar

Published on April 27, 2017        Author: 

The US strikes in Syria, for which the US offered no legal justification, have once again ignited the debate on the qualification of such acts as illegal but legitimate – a label that had been used, in its day, to describe NATO’s use of force in Kosovo. Legally speaking, what does this sentence mean? Jure Vidmar, in his post on this blog, attempted to explain it by means of the distinction between justification and excuse. As Vidmar explains, excuses usually (but by no means always) cover situations in which conduct, while illegal, is nevertheless the morally right thing to do in the circumstances. He sees this type of reasoning behind the reactions of other States to the US action – expressing support for the action as the right thing to do, but unwilling to go as far as to say that the conduct was permitted or lawful.

The argument is certainly plausible (although note that no State has used the language of excuse in these circumstances which is, in my view, somewhat problematic for the argument). However, it raises a number of important issues which may, ultimately, undermine the very purpose of excusing an actor engaged in humanitarian intervention. I want to consider three of these here: (i) the current recognition of excuses in international law; (ii) the availability of excuses in respect of the breach of peremptory rules; and, (iii) the potential effects of excusing states for humanitarian intervention. I will address each of these in turn.

Excuses in International Law

Excuses are defences that arise from properties or characteristics of actors which, while having no effect on the illegality of the act, shield that actor from responsibility for its (illegal) actions. By contrast, justifications are defences that arise from properties or characteristics of acts and have the effect of rendering those acts lawful, despite apparently breaching a rule of the legal order. Read the rest of this entry…

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United States’ Missile Strikes in Syria: Should International Law Permit Unilateral Force to Protect Human Rights?

Published on April 18, 2017        Author: 

A bounty of recent blog posts have poured over the legality of the Trump administration’s missile strikes against a Syrian airbase in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons (see, e.g, here, here, here, here and here). Possible justifications have recently come to light, but do not provide a sufficient basis for the administration’s actions under international law (which is the focus of this post). Most commentators conclude that, absent UN Security Council authorisation or a justifiable claim of self-defence, international law provides no clear right for states to use force in response to such grave violations of human rights. Therefore, the strikes most likely contravene Article 2(4) UN Charter. With that analysis, I agree. The question that then arises, and which has received much less attention (although, see here and here), is the normative question: should international law permit such unilateral action (either individually or collectively) outside of the UN Charter framework?

The understandable response is that ‘something’ must be done and at least President Trump has acted where the international community has previously failed to do so. This sentiment is reflected in the opinions of a number of world leaders who appear to be supportive of the strikes against the Assad regime. Yet, notably, where countries have expressed support for the United States’ actions, they have not presented a legal justification for it. Regardless of whether we agree that the missile strikes are the right thing to do in response to a criminal regime gassing its own people (and there are serious doubts as to whether these strikes are an adequate or effective response), how should international law respond to such horrors as a general matter? What is the legal framework on which states can rely to do what they think is right? Read the rest of this entry…

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Excusing Illegal Use of Force: From Illegal but Legitimate to Legal Because it is Legitimate?

Published on April 14, 2017        Author: 

The US missile strikes on Syria have, inter alia, revived the debates on humanitarian intervention, the argument of ‘illegal but legitimate’ and more generally on the exceptions to the prohibition of the use of force. For some examples see here, here and here. Some contributors have pointed out that the US did not even try to bring this action within the ambit of the Charter rules on the use of force, and that the absence of Charter-based arguments may even be a good thing as it preserves the strength of Article 2(4). Others have cautioned that the strength of the rules on the use of force might nevertheless be undermined, as singular ‘exceptional’ cases result in a pattern.

This post argues that, analogous to the concept of defences in municipal legal systems, international law on the use of force should adopt a systematic distinction between justifications and excuses. As responses to the US missile attack in Syria demonstrate, the two concepts are conflated. The result is that legality is often assessed on the basis of excuses. If the trend of conflation continues, the controversial doctrine of ‘illegal but legitimate’ will move toward an even more controversial doctrine of ‘legal because it is legitimate’.

Justifications are legally-warranted exceptions to the general prohibition. As such, they are a way out of illegality. Excuses, on the other hand, are not a way out of illegality, but act as mitigating circumstances that preclude responsibility for an otherwise illegal conduct. Under some circumstances, breaching the law may indeed be the choice of a lesser evil. As noted by Vaughan Lowe in his 1999 EJIL article, a legal system may wish to provide a defence for emergency drivers who breach the speed limit on the way to hospital. There are two ways of achieving this goal. One way is to give them an explicit authorization to breach the speed limit. The other one, however, does not authorize speeding, but rather ensures that emergency drivers are not prosecuted upon such a breach of traffic rules. The first (justification) relaxes the norm itself and may well result in wider disobeying of the speed limit than the second, which merely provides for a carefully weighed excuse of culpability where the norm was doubtlessly breached. In other words, it is better if the general norm is strong and ‘catches’ more violators whose excuses are then considered on a case-by-case basis. I elaborate on these issues in more details in this 2015 concept paper. In the present context, might the ‘emergency driver logic’ apply to the US strike in Syria? Even if it did, it would not make this action legal. Possibly, the US could only escape responsibility for this internationally wrongful act.  Read the rest of this entry…

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Illegal But Legitimate?

Published on April 10, 2017        Author: 

I have always thought that proponents of humanitarian intervention simply cannot make a persuasive case that it is already an existing rule of international law (even if they can make a case that it should be a rule of international law). I have similarly always thought, on the other hand, that the position that an intervention is legally prohibited but that it can nonetheless be politically legitimate or morally justified in exceptional circumstances is conceptually perfectly coherent. (Maybe – well, certainly – my views on this are coloured by my shamelessly comprehensive adoration of Bruno Simma, but there you go.) If we are operating in a positivist framework, even the mildest forms of positivism by definition mean that something that is lawful is not necessarily just. And since we are endowed with free will, we can choose to break the law for higher-order considerations, morality and justice, if we are willing to pay the price of non-compliance.

Whenever people talk about an act being illegal but legitimate I also always remember this scene from Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi – in the scene Gandhi is tried, in 1922, for fostering disaffection against the British government of India, thereby causing several major outbreaks of violence. And here is what happens:

Read the rest of this entry…

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Syrian Strikes: A Singular Exception or a Pattern and a Precedent?

Published on April 10, 2017        Author: 

In a recent post, Monica Hakimi argued that, rather than crafting a legal justification for the United States’ use of force in Syria, we should instead treat it as a “one-off incident for addressing conduct that, if not deterred, could be destabilizing,” much like occurred in the United States’ Baghdad strikes in 1993. In order not to further undermine the Article 2(4) prohibition on the use of force, the United States should at the same time “underscore its overall commitment to and investment in” the law governing the use of force so as to avoid the impression that “the United States does not view the jus ad bellum, and maybe international law more generally, as normatively relevant in the global order.”

I do not want to take issue with whether or not the United States should have taken action in this case, or whether or not this use of force supports an existing or emerging doctrine of unilateral humanitarian intervention. Others are addressing these points (see, for example, Koh). Rather, as I set out previously in a paper on Legality vs. Legitimacy: Can Uses of Force be Illegal but Justified?, I want to register concerns about the argument that states can violate international law and yet simultaneously seek to preserve the Charter prohibition by reaffirming Article 2(4) while characterizing their own conduct as a singular exception.

First of all, this kind of violation of Article 2(4) is not a one-off incident. There is something ironic about arguing that we should treat this violation as a singular use of force much like we treated another violation of Article 2(4) by the United States. In one sense, every violation is singular because every violation has its own unique facts. But, in another sense, when singular violations occur again and again, they no longer look like singular violations … they look like a pattern. Whether something appears to be singular or a pattern often depends on the level of generality one employs in making the assessment. Read the rest of this entry…

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Filed under: EJIL Analysis, Syria, Use of Force