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

Published on January 15, 2020        Author: 

 

To briefly recapitulate our examination of mistake of fact when using lethal force in various sub-fields of international law: such a doctrine is, in its purely subjective form, black letter law in international criminal law. It is also established (even if not labelled as such) in international human rights law and (somewhat less clearly) in international humanitarian law. Both IHL and IHRL would however require the mistake to both honest and reasonable to be able to preclude liability. Both IHL and IHRL contain explicit precautionary and prophylactic rules whose role, in part, is to determine the bounds of reasonable and hence permissible error (e.g. with respect to target verification).

As we have seen, the mistake of fact question is most fraught in the jus ad bellum. That said, as a formal matter, even if one thought it to be desirable, it would be difficult to argue that a jus ad bellum-specific mistake of fact doctrine was customary law. I cannot think of any state but the US that has invoked such a doctrine, even implicitly. (Any such examples known to readers would be most welcome.) And when the doctrine was invoked, as with the Iran Air Flight 655, it certainly did not attract widespread acceptance by other states. There is enough ambiguity in state reactions to the downing of that aircraft, especially in the atmosphere of the Cold War, that one cannot categorically exclude that such a rule could exist. But it seems unlikely that it does. And if it does, it cannot be the purely subjective one from ICL, which would be even more inappropriate in the jus ad bellum context than in IHL and IHRL.

Bearing all this in mind, let us turn to the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 over Tehran, which is as we have seen eerily reminiscent of the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes. There are many parallels between the two incidents, not least that they both involve the same two states, if on different sides of the story, and that both cases raise questions of mistake of fact. What is very different is the wider context – the Cold War warped anything it touched. And I think it fair to say that the socializing effect of international law is somewhat greater today than it was then.

Thus, states like Ukraine and Canada have already used legal language vis-à-vis Iran. President Zelenskyy stated that:

Iran has pleaded guilty to crashing the Ukrainian plane. But we insist on a full admission of guilt. We expect from Iran assurances of their readiness for a full and open investigation, bringing those responsible to justice, the return of the bodies of the dead, the payment of compensation, official apologies through diplomatic channels.

Prime Minister Trudeau similarly stated that ‘Iran must take full responsibility’ for its actions.

And this is exactly what Iran should do. It shouldn’t just listen to these other states invoking its responsibility. It should listen to the voice of its own ambassador, when he was speaking in the Security Council chamber to reject the US self-defence justification for shooting down IR 655:

We believe that a responsible Government, under the present circumstances when it has caused the destruction of a civilian airliner and its 290 passengers, must urgently take three steps: It must apologize to the families of the victims and to the peoples and the Governments concerned ; it must accept full responsibility for the downing of the airliner and offer reparation on the basis of its legal and moral liability; and it must reassess and revise policies which led to the downing of the plane and the murder of its innocent passengers. (S/PV.2821, 6)

An equally intriguing parallel is that with McCann. Indeed, I would argue that it is precisely human rights law – largely absent from the discussions of the destruction of IR 655, aside from a single reference by (of all people) the ambassador of Syria – that is the body of law that best fits the downing of the Ukrainian airliner. The gravest violation of international law here is not that of the Chicago Convention, but that of the human right to life, the wrongfulness of which could, unlike with the Chicago Convention, never be precluded by jus ad bellum self-defence.

Just like the SAS soldiers in McCann, the Iranian air defence officers most likely honestly believed that they had to act to deflect a threat to human life. Just like in McCann, they were wrongly told that such a threat was certain – that US cruise missiles would be incoming. Just like in McCann, they had little time to deliberate. And just like in McCann, the violation of the right to life stems not directly from the soldiers’ decision to use lethal force, but from systemic background failures of higher Iranian authorities.

Had Iran closed its airspace for civilian traffic that evening, knowing full well that hostilities with the US might easily escalate, the plane would never have been shot down. Had Iran properly coordinated its air defences with civilian air traffic control, the plane would never have been shot down. Had Iran properly trained its forces at various levels, the plane would never have been shot down. Thus, even if Iran’s mistake of fact that resulted in the destruction of the aircraft was honest, it was not reasonable, and as such it would bear state responsibility for violating the victims’ human rights. And that violation is compounded by the initial attempts of Iranian authorities to obstruct the investigation and cover up the cause of the crash, from which they have thankfully desisted, but which nonetheless resulted in a violation of the positive obligation to effectively investigate unlawful deaths.

This is therefore how Iran should frame the reparations it provides – not as ex gratia charity payments, not (solely) as compensation due to states such as Ukraine or Canada, but as just satisfaction to those individuals whose rights it violated. In doing so, Iran should compensate its own nationals in the exact same way as it compensates foreigners, as equals in dignity. And it needs to provide sufficient assurances to the international community that a mistake such as this one, honest though it may have been, will never be repeated.

 

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

Published on January 15, 2020        Author: 

 

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: 

 

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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