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Home Archive for category "Use of Force"

The Distinction between Military and Law Enforcement Activities: Comments on Case Concerning the Detention of Three Ukrainian Naval Vessels (Ukraine V. Russian Federation), Provisional Measures Order

Published on May 31, 2019        Author: 
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International Tribunal for Law of the Sea (ITLOS) issued a provisional measures order to Russian Federation to release three Ukrainian naval vessels and their servicemen on 25 May 2019. In deciding that the Annex VII arbitral tribunal would have prima facie jurisdiction as required under Article 290(5) of United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Tribunal held that the case was not “disputes concerning military activities” as provided under Article 298(1)(b) (see Kraska).

This is an important decision considering that there is no settled definition of “military activities” which allows state parties to be exempted from the compulsory dispute settlement procedure under UNCLOS. This is the first time that ITLOS held its interpretation on the former half of Article 298(1)(b) (while the latter half was dealt in the provisional measures order in Arctic Sunrise, para.45), and South China Sea arbitration case of 2016 before Annex VII Arbitral Tribunal remains the only precedent where a third-party dispute settlement institution held its interpretation of the same text.

There seems to be a common understanding that in this order, the Tribunal interpreted the scope of the “military activities” under Article 298(1)(b) quite narrowly, if not diminished, and thereby lowered its jurisdictional bar. While assessments of this decision have already been posted (see Kraska, Schatz), this post adds some comments on the legal framework that the Tribunal relied upon.

Preliminary Remarks

One thing that should be kept in mind is that, since it is a provisional measures order, it suffices if the provisions invoked by the applicant prima facie appear to afford a basis on which the jurisdiction of the Annex VII arbitral tribunal could be founded, and need not definitively satisfy itself that the tribunal has jurisdiction over the dispute (Order, para. 36; see also ARA Libertad, para. 60). Judge Lijnzaad’s commented that the questions of the applicable law and of whether the issues raised are solely to be understood as being related to the interpretation and application of UNCLOS were left to Annex VII arbitral tribunal at a later stage, as they are “matters that go well beyond the prima facie analysis of a request for provisional measures (Declaration, Lijnzaad, para.8).” Read the rest of this entry…

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Did ITLOS Just Kill the Military Activities Exemption in Article 298?

Published on May 27, 2019        Author: 
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In a May 25, 2019 interlocutory decision, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) prescribed provisional measures in the case brought by Ukraine against Russia, ordering Russia to release three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 Ukrainian service members seized on November 25, 2018 in an incident in the Kerch Strait. During the incident last fall, Russian Coast Guard forces, operating in concert with a Russian naval corvette and a military aircraft, fired on two Ukrainian warships and a naval auxiliary as they attempted to transit the strait against the orders of Russian authorities. The ships and their crews were captured and remain in detention in Russia, charged with violating Russian criminal law.

On April 29, Ukraine filed a case with ITLOS requesting provisional measures to order their immediate release. Such measures are authorized under article 290 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in urgent situations to prevent a real and imminent risk of irreparable prejudice to the rights of a party, in this case Ukraine. Article 290(5) permits such measures before the merits of the case so long as the Tribunal has prima facie jurisdiction in the case. The key question was whether the Russia’s operation constituted a “military activity,” and was therefore exempt from jurisdiction in accordance with a previous Russian declaration under article 298 of UNCLOS. The Tribunal determined that Russia’s operations were not a military activity, but the decision is likely to generate unintended consequences.

The ITLOS order has effectively diminished the military activities exemption which will give pause to the 27 nations that have made such declarations, including China, France, Norway, Denmark, and the United Kingdom – and in the future, most likely the United States, which intends to make such a declaration once it accedes to the Convention. (The states are identified in paragraph 11 of Judge Gao’s separate opinion). In a decision that suggests outcome-based legal reasoning to constrain Russia, ITLOS questions the viability of the military activities exemption based on any rationale.

As part of its analysis for jurisdiction, the Tribunal avoided a determination on whether there was an armed conflict between the two states, as would appear from the application of the Geneva Conventions in article 2 common, and as I suggested in an earlier piece. Instead, the ITLOS order accepts without analysis that Ukraine and Russia are interacting during a time of peace, a dubious assumption. In doing so, the Tribunal vindicates two important rights that will be welcomed by maritime powers: sovereign immunity of warships and other government vessels and the peacetime right of freedom of navigation by Ukrainian military vessels. But in reaching this conclusion, the Tribunal diminished the military activities exemption. In a departure from the broader understanding of military activities evident in the 2016 Philippines v. China arbitration, the Tribunal found that the confrontation over innocent passage was a navigational issue, rather than one concerning a military activity, because innocent passage is a right enjoyed by all ships. The Tribunal also determined that Russia’s temporary suspension of innocent passage declared conveniently to halt the transit of Ukrainian warships was a law enforcement activity rather than a military activity. These factors led the Tribunal to conclude that Russia’s actions were “in the context of a law enforcement operation rather than a military operation.”

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

Published on May 23, 2019        Author:  and
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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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Settling the India-Pakistan Impasse … At Last

Published on March 8, 2019        Author: 
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I am grateful for Christian Henderson’s careful, detailed post on the violent confrontation between India and Pakistan that began 26 February. By 3 March direct attacks between the neighbors had tapered off, in part owing to Pakistan’s release of the Indian Air Force pilot it detained after his jet crashed in Pakistan. On the Indian side of the border a harsh crack down continued against separatists — both those seeking accession to Pakistan and those seeking independence.

My own legal assessment of the direct attacks aligns with Christian’s suggestion that they constituted unlawful armed reprisals, not acts of lawful self-defense. (I discussed the prohibition on reprisals here in reference to the U.S., France, and UK’s air strikes on Syria last April.) Christian’s quote from Pakistan’s Acting Foreign Secretary was particularly revealing: Pakistan’s air strikes “[s]ole purpose being to demonstrate our right, will and capability for self defence.”

More proof could be offered, but the space is better used to note some points of difference between Christian and me and to suggest a way forward toward peace after 70 years of violence. In my view, India was the first to use force in clear violation of UN Charter Article 2(4). This serious violation committed against Pakistan just a few months before Indian national elections, could be the opening of a negotiated settlement of the conflict at the heart of the crisis, the dispute over Kashmir. Read the rest of this entry…

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Tit-for-Tat-for-Tit: The Indian and Pakistani Airstrikes and the Jus ad Bellum

Published on February 28, 2019        Author: 
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Over the past few days there has been a flurry of confusing reports regarding military confrontations between India and Pakistan in the Kashmir region. It appears that in the early hours of 26 February Indian air force MiG-20s carried out air strikes in Pakistani territory in the small city of Balakot in response to a suicide bombing in Indian controlled Kashmir on 14 February which took the lives of over 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers and for which Pakistani based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility. India claimed that it hit a JeM militant training camp during the strikes with a significant number of militant casualties, while Pakistan claimed that the Indian aircraft retreated after being confronted by the Pakistan Air Force, dropping four or five bombs in open field as they left across the border and which resulted in no causalities. While there have been several border skirmishes between the two states since they gained independence from Britain in 1947, this is the first time Indian military aircraft have carried out strikes across the ‘line of control’ since the war between them in 1971 which led to the creation of Bangladesh.

The following day Pakistan claimed to have carried out air strikes on ‘open ground’ within Indian territory, while India claimed that a military installation had been targeted. During an ensuing confrontation, Pakistan shot down an Indian Air Force MiG-21 jet which fell within Pakistani territory and led to the capture of the pilot. India has also claimed to have shot down a Pakistani fighter jet which had fallen on to the Pakistani side of the LoC. The US, EU, Russia and China have all called for restraint.

While clearly a dangerous development between two nuclear-armed states, with various accounts of underlying political motives for the clashes, and with shelling continuing across the LoC between them at the time of writing, it is, however, the legal justifications – or, rather, lack of – by both states for their strikes that will be the focus here.

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The Kerch Strait Incident: Law of the Sea or Law of Naval Warfare?

Published on December 3, 2018        Author: 
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On Sunday 25 November 2018 Russian coast guard patrol boats, including the Don and the 630-ton Izumrud, first intercepted and later fired on three Ukrainian naval ships near the entrance to the Kerch Strait. Two Ukrainian sailors were injured, the Ukrainian ships seized and the crews arrested. The attack has been roundly condemned in the United States and around the world.

The Russian ships intercepted two Ukrainian Gyurza-M-class artillery boats, Berdyansk and Nikopol and a tugboat, Yany Kapu, as they sailed toward the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Russian forces seized the vessels and arrested 24 crew members. The Don twice rammed the tugboat and the Russian vessels opened fire on the two smaller Ukrainian warships. The incident occurred in the territorial sea along the approaches to the Kerch Strait, which is bordered in the east by Russia and in the west by Russian-occupied Ukrainian Crimea. The Russian government stated that its forces fired only after the Ukrainian ships violated articles 19 and 21 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) concerning innocent passage in the territorial sea.

Exploring the legal circumstances of the incident requires selection between peacetime rules of the law of the sea and the law of naval warfare, which applies to international armed conflicts. This post concludes that the actual incident on the water is part of a continuing aggression by Russia against Ukraine, in violation of the UN Charter. While unlawful as a matter of the jus ad bellum, the incident would be a lawful in bello use of force by Russia in accordance with the law of naval warfare, notwithstanding Russia’s unlawful invasion of Crimea in 2014 or subsequent unlawful treatment of the Ukrainian sailors as common criminals rather than prisoners of war. In this case the law of naval warfare is lex specialis and supplants mutatis mutandis the peacetime rules of the international law of the sea for Russia and the Ukraine.

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Un-caging the Bear? A Case Study in Cyber Opinio Juris and Unintended Consequences

Published on October 24, 2018        Author:  and
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On October 4, the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a division of the GCHQ, issued a news release attributing multiple cyber campaigns to Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. They were, according to the NCSC, designed to ‘undermine [the] international sporting institution WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency], disrupt transport systems in Ukraine, destabilise democracies and target businesses’.

The release was notable in two regards. As the campaigns were conducted by the GRU, an organ of the Russian government, Russia is legally responsible under the law of State responsibility for any violations of international law that may have occurred. Second, the release stated that the operations were ‘conducted in flagrant violation of international law’. Indeed, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, whom the release quoted, observed, ‘[t]his pattern of behaviour demonstrates their desire to operate without regard to international law or established norms and to do so with a feeling of impunity and without consequences’. 

Unfortunately, neither the NCSC nor the Foreign Secretary delineated those rules of international law that Russia allegedly violated or otherwise undermined. In this post, we attempt to tease loose the legal significance of the operations by measuring them against the recently enunciated UK positions on international law in the cyber context. Attorney General Jeremy Wright set forth these positions in a 23 May Chatham House speech. We first highlight the UK approach to the key international law prohibitions that are relevant vis-à-vis the Russian operations. Second, we assess the operations themselves against the UK position on these legal rules. Finally, we conclude by making the point that legal policy decisions with respect to cyberspace may prove a double-edged sword. Compelling reasons may exist for adopting particular positions regarding international law norms in cyberspace, but seldom are those positions cost-free. In particular, we suggest that the United Kingdom’s rejection of a rule requiring respect for the sovereignty of other States eliminates its most defensible basis for arguing that the Russian cyber campaigns undermined international law. Other States should bear this in mind before following suit.

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The Israeli Strikes on Iranian Forces in Syria: a case study on the use of force in defence of annexed territories

Published on June 8, 2018        Author: 
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Factual Background and Legal Issue

The extensive air strikes launched by Israel on Iranian forces and assets across Syria in the early morning of 10 May 2018 present a complex case study which deserves proper legal scrutiny. According to the reconstruction given by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), the strikes were decided in retaliation for a rocket barrage fired some hours earlier from Syrian territory on IDF forward outposts in the Israeli-controlled Golan. Despite denials by Iranian officials of any direct involvement of their military in Syria, the rockets were immediately attributed by the IDF to the Quds Force, the special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in charge of extraterritorial operations.

Reacting to the alleged Iranian attack and to Syria and Iran’s condemnation of Israel’s response as an act of aggression against Syria, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany explicitly referred to Israel’s right to act in self-defence against Iran. The same Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, before the operation could take place, had invoked ‘Israel’s obligation and right to defend itself against Iranian aggression from Syrian territory’. This claim, although phrased in legal terms, was not formalised in an Article 51 letter filed with the UN Security Council, which should include a justification for the use of force against both Syria (whose territorial integrity was violated) and Iran (whose forces and facilities were targeted). A self-defence argument however would raise in the present case a legal issue related to the status of the territory attacked: the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967 and annexed in 1981. Can an annexing state invoke Article 51 UN Charter to justify the use of force in self-defence against an armed attack directed exclusively at a territory that it annexed? This post submits that the answer to this question, which appears unsettled and largely unexplored, cannot overlook the situation of manifest illegality that a self-defence argument would purport to preserve and protract. 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: 
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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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Pigs, Positivism, and the Jus ad Bellum

Published on April 27, 2018        Author: 
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Now that the dust from the U.S.–U.K.–French operation against Syria has settled, I want to follow up on something I said when news of it first broke. Like most commentators, I argued that the operation did not satisfy the formal legal doctrine on the use of force. By this I meant that it was inconsistent with the longstanding interpretation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and not justifiable under any of the recognized exceptions. Yet I also contended that the doctrine was not the end of the legal inquiry. Given how the jus ad bellum actually operates, I argued, “the best answer to the question of whether the Syria strikes were lawful is not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

Many international lawyers took issue with that claim, so I want to defend it—and use it to expose what I consider to be a fairly fundamental flaw in how the jus ad bellum is usually analyzed. To do this, I’ll take a detour through one of my all-time favorite law review articles: Hendrik Hartog’s Pigs and Positivism.

Pigs and Positivism

Hartog’s article is not about international law. It uses the 19th century practice of keeping pigs in New York City as a case study for thinking about law and legal analysis. Here is the background: pigs were once an ordinary and integral part of life in New York City. People ate the pigs, and the pigs ate the waste that lined city streets. But pigs were “mean, dangerous, and uncontrollable beasts” (p. 902). In 1819, after various efforts to legislate against them had failed, a court determined, in a case called People v. Harriett, that loose pigs in public streets were a public nuisance and, for that reason, prohibited. The decision established that “[t]o keep pigs on municipal streets was to commit a crime” (p. 920). Read the rest of this entry…

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