Over the past few days, there has been discussion of whether the attempt to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter, in the UK, by the use of a nerve agent amounts to an unlawful use force by Russia in breach of Art. 2(4) of the United Nations Charter and customary international law (see posts by Marc Weller, Tom Ruys, and Ashley Deeks). There is agreement that if the action was attributable to Russia, it would amount to a breach of at least some obligation under international law. Marc Weller, points out that the act would amount to an unlawful intervention and a violation of the territorial sovereignty of the UK. Marko argues that these acts would also be a violation of the human rights of the individuals concerned. However, the British Prime Minister characterised the act as an unlawful use of force. What I wish to do in this post is to ask why this categorisation might matter in international law. What exactly are the implications, as a matter of law, of characterising the act as a use of force? This was an issue that was raised in the comments to Marc Weller’s post and some of the points I make below have already been made in that discussion though I expand on them. As discussed below, this characterisation might have far reaching implications in a number of areas of international law, extending beyond the possibility of self-defence, to the possibility of countermeasures, the law relating to state responsibility, the qualification of a situation in the law of armed conflict, and international criminal law. I accept that many of the points discussed below are not clear cut, and some are even contentious. However, I think that having a catalogue of the possible consequences of the arguments relating to the use of force helps us to see more clearly what is at stake when we make these arguments.
It is fascinating to observe how international law has provided the frame for the escalating political dispute between the UK and Russia regarding the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent in Salisbury. The dispute is of course primarily factual. In that regard, both states generate their own facts, and the dispute revolves primarily on whom one chooses to trust – what does the average citizen (or international lawyer) know, after all, about the Novichok-class of nerve agents, their deployment, properties and effects? The attribution of the attack will thus inevitably depend on the credibility of the relevant experts, investigators and intelligence officials.
But again – note the framing effect of international law on this dispute. We saw how Theresa May chose her language very carefully when she accused Russia of an unlawful use of force (but not necessarily an armed attack). Both the UK and Russia have accused each other of failing to abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Russia has challenged the credibility of the UK’s investigation, asking for the involvement of the OPCW as an independent, expert and competent third party. The UK itself has engaged with the OPCW, asking it to verify its forensic analysis. The debate in the Security Council yesterday was replete with references to the Convention and OPCW specifically and international law generally. So was the debate earlier in the day in the British Parliament (Hansard transcript).
There is, however, one part of international law that has been largely and unjustifiably missing from this debate, and that is human rights. The attempted killing of Mr Skripal and his daughter is not simply a violation of the UK’s sovereignty, as set out in today’s joint statement of the UK, US, France and Germany. It is a violation of these individuals’ right to life. In that regard, while I think the discussion that Marc Weller and Tom Ruys have so ably led about the de minimis thresholds (if any) of the concepts of the use of force in Article 2(4) and armed attack in Article 51 of the UN Charter is both interesting and very important, it is in my view somewhat distracting, as is the focus on chemical weapons. It is these two people (and others incidentally affected) who are the main victims here, not the British state. It is their rights in international law that we should primarily be concerned with, not those of the British state (or for that matter Russia). It is their life that was endangered, not that of the British state. And their right to life would have been no less harmed if they were simply shot or stabbed or even poisoned a bit more subtly by an FSB agent.
I am thus struck by the absence of public references to the violation of Skripals’ right to life. That, too, is I think calculated. The Prime Minister has repeatedly referred to the event as a (presumably domestic) crime; the UK ambassador to the UN has also said that ‘[t]he reckless act in Salisbury had been carried out by those who disregarded the sanctity of human life.’ But neither the Prime Minister nor the ambassador directly accused Russia of failing to comply with its obligations under human rights law. Why? Because if they did so, they would effectively be arguing that Russia’s obligations under say the ICCPR and the ECHR extend extraterritorially to a killing in the UK. And that, recall, is not what the British government wants to do, because it does not want to have to comply with these obligations if it used kinetic force abroad to kill an individual in an area outside its control, say by a drone strike.
Here, in other words, we can also see how international law shapes the arguments that are used, or not used. I have long argued that the 2006 killing of Alexander Litvinenko was – as far as the extraterritorial application of human rights was concerned – not legally distinguishable from cases of aerial bombardment a la Bankovic. The same goes for last year’s macabre killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia, at the orders of his half-brother, the North Korean dictator. And the same is true here. Those arguing for a restrictive application of human rights – as the US and UK governments have both done – must be aware of the consequences of doing so. That argument necessarily implies that the interests of individuals like the Skripals, attacked so brutally by a hostile state, are not protected at all in international law. That vision of international law, in which individuals are the mere objects, and not subjects, of its regulation, is not terribly attractive, even – especially even – in 2018. And so I say: when talking about Salisbury, whether it is this Salisbury or some other Salisburys, don’t forget human rights.
In the afternoon of Sunday, 4 March, Mr Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on a park bench in Salisbury. Mr Skripal is a former Russian agent convicted of espionage for the West, exchanged in a spy swap and brought to live in the UK. He, his daughter and a number of individuals who had attended to them were found to have been exposed to a nerve agent known as Novichok. At the time of writing, both remained in critical condition in hospital, with uncertain prospects of recovery. One of the first responders, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, was also kept in hospital in a serious condition.
On 12 March the British Prime Minister addressed the House of Commons. She claimed that it was ‘highly likely’ that the government of the Russian Federation was responsible for the action. She asserted that ‘either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.’ She demanded a ‘credible response’ by Russia within a day, indicating that, failing such a response, the UK would conclude that this action ‘amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.’ [The Prime Ministers statement can be viewed at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43377856.]
The responsibility for the action was placed on the Russian Federation by the UK government in view of its previous suspected involvement in the assassination in the UK of former Russian security operative Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 using the similarly exotic means of radioactive polonium, instances of politically motivated killings allegedly undertaken by Moscow elsewhere, and Moscow’s perceived generally aggressive attitude towards the West, and the UK in particular, especially after its purported annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The Russia government dismissed the allegations and requested samples of the nerve agent in order to mount its own investigation, ignoring Ms May’s deadline. Moscow instead offered cooperation through the relevant mechanism of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). While Russia’s responsibility for the action will evidently remain contested, this post considers the claim of the UK government that it amounts to a ‘use of force’.
Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) carried out ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ for 216 days from August 2016 to March 2017 in the triangle between Azaz, Jarablus and al-Bab in northern Syria. Thanks to this military operation, Turkey cleared Daesh from the region and halted the risk of the PYD/YPG exercising control of the Syrian side of the shared 911km border by wedging itself between two PYD/YPG controlled areas. In addition, some displaced Syrians voluntarily returned to this region from Turkey, which currently hosts around 3.5 million Syrian refugees — more than any other country.
In line with this previous operation, the TAF launched ‘Operation Olive Branch’ on 20 January 2018 in Afrin, which has been controlled by the YPG. In its letter to the UN Security Council (UN Doc. S/2018/53), Turkey justified this operation on the basis of self-defence and various Security Council resolutions calling on Member States to fight terrorism.
Since the indicated UN Security Council resolutions do not explicitly authorize the cross-border use of force, Turkey’s reliance on it as a justification of its extraterritorial military operation is unacceptable in international law. As far as I see in legal discussions, there is no dispute over this. However, the question of whether Operation Olive Branch can be justified on the basis of self-defence has brought with it some controversy.
According to both Article 51 of the UN Charter and related customary international law, occurrence of an ‘armed attack’ is required for the activation of the inherent right of self-defence. The ICJ identified ‘scale and effects’ as the criteria that ‘distinguish the most grave forms of the use force (those constituting an armed attack) from other less grave forms,’ but has not specified indicators of these criteria (Nicaragua judgment, 1986, para. 191). It should be noted that the scale and effects criteria have nothing to do with numbers. Rather, it is a legal assessment depending on facts and circumstances at hand. Read the rest of this entry…
If “all options are on the table” in the international arena, it is a reliable indicator that the stakes are high. We still recall when President Trump put all options on the table in August last year responding to North Korean missile tests. Just a few days before, Germany, usually not known for Trumpish rhetoric, also placed “all options on the table” in a dispute with Vietnam. This was not because Germany was concerned about a nuclear escalation. Germany was responding to a kidnapping of a Vietnamese citizen and asylum seeker, which Germany’s foreign minister accurately described as something “we believe one sees only in sinister thrillers about the cold war.”
Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former high-profile constructive executive, for whom Vietnam issued an international arrest warrant for corruption, sought refuge in Germany. Thanh however never showed up for the hearing scheduled in his asylum case. Instead, a few days later, he appeared haggard-looking on Vietnamese television. Vietnam stated Thanh had voluntarily turned himself in. Germany presents a different version of Thanh’s return, accusing Vietnam of abduction. Purportedly, witnesses saw armed men dragging Thanh into a rental car in the middle of Berlin. After a stopover at the Vietnamese embassy, it is believed that he was clandestinely transported by ambulance to Eastern Europe from where he was flown to Vietnam. Germany had no doubts that Vietnamese officials were responsible. On February 5, the second trial against Thanh concluded. While he escaped the impending death penalty, he received two life sentences for embezzlement. Read the rest of this entry…
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).
Hybrid Threats and the United States National Security Strategy: Prevailing in an “Arena of Continuous Competition”
The dividing line between war and peace is blurred. This is one of the messages emerging from the National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States of America adopted in December 2017. The United States is accustomed to viewing the world through the binary lens of war and peace, yet in reality, warns the new National Security Strategy, international relations is an “arena of continuous competition” (p. 28).
This is not exactly a new theme. The idea that war and peace are relative points on a continuous spectrum of confrontation, rather than mutually exclusive conditions, has become quite popular in recent years. Writing in 2013, General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, observed that the 21st century has seen a tendency “toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace”. Speaking in 2015, Sir Michael Fallon, the former British Secretary of State for Defence, declared that contemporary adversaries are deliberately seeking to “blur the lines between what is, and what is not, considered an act of war”. More recently, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, suggested that in the past “it was easy to distinguish whether it was peace or war … [b]ut now there’s a much more blurred line”.
The fluidity of war and peace is central to the vocabulary of “gray zone conflict” and “hybrid warfare”. Both concepts are preoccupied with the strategic challenges that adversaries operating across multiple domains present. The notion of gray zone conflict puts the emphasis on the sphere of confrontation, concentrating on the fact that adversaries operate in the area of ambiguity that lies between the traditional state of war and state of peace (see US SOCOM, The Gray Zone). By contrast, the notion of hybrid warfare emphasises the modus operandi adopted by certain adversaries and competitors, focusing on their use of the full range of military and non-military means in a highly integrated manner (see NATO, Wales Summit Declaration, para. 13). Read the rest of this entry…
Understanding the Use of Zones and the Concept of Proportionality: Enduring Lessons from the Falklands War
On 2 April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (alternatively, the Islas Malvinas). The resulting conflict lasted 74 days and claimed the lives of 255 UK military personnel and 652 Argentine servicemen. The conflict raises a myriad of legal issues but at its core is the issue of sovereignty (here). However complicated the issue, disputes over sovereignty did not legally authorise the Argentine invasion (see UNSCR). This post will not go over the vexed issue of sovereignty but will instead focus on two select issues relating to the conduct of hostilities. The Falklands War has largely receded from thought but lingering doubts over the legality of a Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ) established by the UK and its torpedoing of the Belgrano endure. By focusing on the issue of zones and the concept of proportionality this post will seek to provide clarity to two often misunderstood areas of law that are of vital importance to contemporary military operations.
The UK Total Exclusion Zone
A few days after the Argentinian invasion the UK issued a notice indicating that, from 12 April 1982, a Maritime Exclusion Zone (MEZ) would be in force, extending 200 nautical miles from the centre of the Falklands. On 28 April, the UK declared a TEZ that encompassed the same geographical area as the MEZ but was broader in scope regarding ratione personae. In essence, the TEZ stated that any ship or aircraft entering the TEZ that was not authorised to be there by the UK Ministry of Defence was deemed to be operating in support of the occupation, regarded as hostile, and therefore liable to attack. Read the rest of this entry…
Populist International Law? The Suspended Independence and the Normative Value of the Referendum on Catalonia
In his speech before the Catalan regional parliament on 10 October 2017, the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont suspended a declaration of independence but stated that the referendum of 1st October gave the Catalans a mandate for creating a sovereign state. This post examines whether this assertion is borne out by international law. I submit that neither the Catalans and their leaders nor the central government act in an international law-free zone.
A declaration of independence would not violate international law
The International Court of Justice, in its Kosovo opinion of 2010, found that a unilateral declaration of independence does “not violate general international law” (para. 122) ─ if such a declaration is not “connected with the unlawful use of force or other egregious violations of norms of general international law, in particular those of a peremptory character (jus cogens)” (para. 81; see also paras 84, 119-121 on non-violation). The ICJ in that Opinion inverted the legal question placed before it (which had been whether the declaration of independence was “in accordance with international law” (para. 1)). The Court had also shied away from saying anything meaningful on secession (as opposed to the speech act of declaring independence). In result, the Advisory Opinion came out as a parsimonious if not meagre restatement of the law.
Disproportionate use of force (police and military) is prohibited by international law
However meek, the Kosovo Advisory Opinion is relevant for Catalonia also with regard to the prohibition on the use of force. The Court here said that “unlawful use of force” would taint a declaration of independence and make it violative of international law (para. 81), but did not say when such resort to force would indeed be “unlawful”. Also, the ICJ did not say whose use of force although it probably had the separatists themselves in mind. Read the rest of this entry…
(Non-)Recognition of De Facto Regimes in Case Law of the European Court of Human Rights: Implications for Cases Involving Crimea and Eastern Ukraine
In an increasing number of cases, the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’, ‘the Court’) has been dealing with the question of the application of the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’, ‘Convention’) on territories which are outside the control of the state to which they belong. Such lack of control is either because of the occupation by a foreign state or because of the control by a separatist movement, as a rule, established and/or existing with the aid of a foreign state. One of the issues that arises in this context is the (non-)recognition of the regime that exercises control over such territory (the de facto regime).
This blog post looks at the Court’s existing approaches to the (non-)recognition of de facto regimes. It then discusses the implication of this approach for cases involving Eastern Ukraine and Crimea that may come before the Court and require it to deal with the question of (non-)recognition.
The issue of (non-)recognition becomes particularly relevant when the Court is called on to assess proceedings conducted by the courts of a de facto regime in the light of the Convention. The Court has dealt with the issue of (non-)recognition when deciding on the exhaustion of domestic remedies at the admissibility stage, and on claims relating to freedom from arbitrary detention and the right to a fair trial at the merits stage. Read the rest of this entry…