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Mistakes of Fact When Using Lethal Force in International Law: Part II

Published on January 15, 2020        Author: 
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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: 
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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: 
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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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Who controls WTO dispute settlement? Reflections on the Appellate Body’s crisis from a socio-professional perspective

Published on January 13, 2020        Author: 
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Last month marked a crucial moment in the history of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s dispute settlement system. On 10 December 2019, the terms of office of Appellate Body (AB) members Ujal Bhatia and Thomas Graham came to an end, thereby leaving the World Trade Court without the minimum complement of adjudicators necessary to carry out its functions.

As is well known, this paralysis was triggered by the United States (US)’ consistent veto on the appointment of new appellate judges, justified on grounds of the court’s ‘overreach’, its undue reliance on ‘precedent’, and its alleged disregard for the rules set forth under the Dispute Settlement Understanding (DSU). In November 2019, the US doubled down by threatening to freeze the WTO’s 2020 budget absent draconian cuts to the AB’s funding. Predictably, this prompted the vehement reaction of numerous other Members, which accused the US of holding the WTO appellate system hostage of its own concerns.

Much has been written about this institutional crisis. Yet, the notion of ‘crisis’ deserves some further… critical examination. The very utterance of the word is seldom value-neutral, but rather reflects the perceptions, the preoccupations, and sometimes the agenda of the utterer. If it is indeed true that the World Trade Court is at a critical juncture, then it bears asking: critical for whom? Who are the actors involved in the struggle? How do they articulate their claims and pursue their strategies? To what ends? And who stands to gain and who to lose from the present impasse?

The WTO as a conflictive socio-professional field

Scholars tend to appraise the ongoing conflict in either of two ways. Some consider it as a normative disagreement over the appropriate boundaries of WTO adjudication vis-à-vis the regulatory authority of Members. This narrative typically focuses on the extent of the AB’s implicit powers, the role of past jurisprudence in its legal interpretations, the viability of alternatives to the appellate process, and the like. Others conceive the conflict as part of a struggle for political supremacy against the evolving landscape of international economic relations. This narrative tackles issues like US-China trade wars, the breakdown of multilateralism, the resurgence of sovereigntist economic policies, etc.

To complement these accounts, I suggest that the ongoing struggle surrounding the AB reflects a confrontation between competing socio-professional groups within the WTO legal field. The multilateral trade regime is not only a legal or a political construct. It is also the site of a contest among social actors endowed with unequal professional and technical capital, who compete for supremacy in the system. To prevail in this struggle is to secure one’s authority, impose one’s vision of the law as the dominant paradigm—in one word, to control WTO dispute settlement. Exploring the interplay and power relations among the various socio-professional actors involved in WTO adjudication is, therefore, key to understanding understanding the tensions that currently agitate the field. Read the rest of this entry…

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Announcements: Ghent University Vacancy for Predoctoral Researcher; CfP Junior Faculty Forum for International Law; International Conference on Climate Risk and Divestment; Dialogues on International Law Conference

Published on January 12, 2020        Author: 
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1. Ghent University Vacancy for Predoctoral Researcher. Ghent University currently have a vacancy for a four-year doctoral research project dealing with the legality of extraterritorial/secondary sanctions and the possible judicial and non-judicial remedies for third States to counter such sanctions. Further information is available here

2. Call for Papers – Junior Faculty Forum for International Law. A call for papers has been issued for the Ninth Annual Junior Faculty Forum for International Law, convened by Dino Kritsiotis (Univ. of Nottingham – Law), Sarah M.H. Nouwen (Univ. of Cambridge/European Univ. Institute), and J.H.H. Weiler (New York Univ. – Law), together with guest conveners Han Liyu and Zhu Jingwen (both of Renmin Law School). The Ninth Forum will be held at the Renmin University of China in Beijing on 29 – 30 June 2020. The deadline for applications is 7 February 2020. The call is here. As with previous years, selected presentations from the Forum will be invited to appear in the European Journal of International Law. Read the rest of this entry…

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Playing Safe or Hide and Seek? The ICC Prosecutor’s Request for a Ruling on the Court’s Territorial Jurisdiction in Palestine

Published on January 10, 2020        Author: 
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On 20 December 2019, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the ICC issued a Prosecution request pursuant to article 19(3) for a ruling on the Court’s territorial jurisdiction in Palestine (“Prosecution request”). The request by Fatou Bensouda’s office was filed on the same day as the publication of a detailed memorandum drafted by the Office of the Attorney General for the State of Israel (“OAG’s memorandum”), outlining the reasons why the ICC has no jurisdiction over Palestine. In a nutshell, the 34-pages memorandum argues that in the situation in the State of Palestine the fundamental precondition to jurisdiction enshrined in the Rome Statute – namely, that a State having criminal jurisdiction over its territory and nationals has delegated such jurisdiction to the Court – is clearly not met. The ICC Prosecutor presents a contrary view. Whilst the Prosecutor believes that the Court does indeed have the necessary jurisdiction in this situation, she is “mindful of the unique history and circumstances of the Occupied Palestinian Territory” (i.e. the Prosecutor considers that the Court’s territorial jurisdiction extends to the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War in June 1967, namely the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza; this territory is delimited by the “Green Line” agreed on in the 1949 Armistices), and “seek[s] judicial resolution of this matter at the earliest opportunity” (§§ 3-5 of the Prosecution request). Without hoping to provide an exhaustive overview of the complex issues at stake, it is worth taking a closer look at the OTP’s request to Pre-Trial Chamber I (PTC I) and sharing some initial thoughts on its possible outcomes.

Background of the Prosecution request

As is well known, on 1 January 2015 the Government of Palestine lodged a declaration under Article 12(3) of the ICC Statute accepting the Court’s jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed “in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, since June 13, 2014”. On 2 January 2015, the Government of Palestine acceded to the Rome Statute by depositing its instrument of accession with the UN Secretary-General. Following the accession, the Rome Statute entered into force for the State of Palestine on 1 April 2015. On 16 January 2015, the OTP opened on its own initiative a preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine. On 22 May 2018, Palestine also referred this situation to the Prosecutor, pursuant to Articles 13(a) and 14 of the Rome Statute. The preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine resulted in the determination that all the statutory criteria under the Rome Statute for the opening of an investigation have been met(ish?). Read the rest of this entry…

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

Published on January 8, 2020        Author: 
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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: 
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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: 
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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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A New Classic in Climate Change Litigation: The Dutch Supreme Court Decision in the Urgenda Case

Published on January 6, 2020        Author:  and
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The judgment of the Dutch Supreme Court in State of the Netherlands v Urgenda is a landmark for future climate change litigation. On the 20th of December 2019, the Supreme Court held that on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) the Netherlands has a positive obligation to take measures for the prevention of climate change and that it has to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with at least 25% by the end of 2020, compared to 1990 levels. An unofficial translation of the full judgement will be published on the website of the Dutch judiciary after the 13th of January 2020.

The judgment is significant as it demonstrates how a court can determine responsibilities of an individual state, notwithstanding the fact that climate change is caused by a multiplicity of other actors who share responsibility for its harmful effects. Around the world, a flood of lawsuits has been initiated to establish legal responsibility for actors contributing to climate change. The Urgenda judgment, that has been heralded as the ‘strongest’ of all, makes clear that the fact the a state is only a minor contributor compared to many other actors, does not preclude its individual responsibility. The judgment contains important pointers that plaintiffs and courts can rely on in similar cases.

In this blogpost we briefly recap the procedure leading to the Supreme Court judgment and discuss three conclusions reached by the Supreme Court that will be of wider interest:

1) the ECHR imposed a positive obligation to take appropriate measures to prevent to climate change;

2) these measures should at least ensure that the Netherlands realizes a reduction of GHG emissions by 25%, compared to 1990, by the end of 2020; and

3) even though the Netherlands was only a minor contributor to climate change, it had an independent obligation to reduce emissions.

Recap of the proceedings

Central to the proceedings was the reduction target for developed nations of 25%-40% by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, originally identified as one scenario in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Netherlands had embraced this target in 2007, stating that it aimed to reduce Dutch emissions with 30% by 2020. Yet in 2011, the government indicated that it would not meet the target, instead aiming for 14-17% reduction.

In 2013, a Dutch NGO with a mission to contribute to sustainability and innovation called Urgenda (‘urgent agenda)’, initiated a lawsuit against the Dutch State with the aim to order the State to reduce Dutch GHG emissions by 40% at the end of the year 2020, or at least by a minimum of 25% in comparison the year 1990.

In the 2015 judgment of the Hague District Court, Urgenda prevailed. The District Court ordered the State to ‘limit the joint volume of Dutch annual greenhouse gas emissions, or have them limited, such that this volume will have been reduced by at least 25% at the end of 2020 compared to the level of the year 1990′. The District Court based this order on the doctrine of hazardous negligence, which is read into the provision on tort in the Dutch Civil Code: behaviour is inter alia considered tortious if it unnecessarily creates danger and thus is contrary to what ‘according to unwritten law is deemed fit in societal interrelations’ (Article 6:162). Contrary to Urgenda’s claim, the District Court did not ground its conclusion directly on human rights law, as it held that Urgenda could not invoke human rights provisions stemming from the ECHR (nor could it invoke the United Nations Convention against Climate Change (UNFCCC)). Read the rest of this entry…

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