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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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The Attack on Syria and the Contemporary Jus ad Bellum

Published on April 15, 2018        Author: 
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The United States, Britain, and France have attacked various chemical weapons facilities in Syria. Even before they acted, a number of commentators claimed that any such attack would be internationally unlawful. Below, I explain why that claim is too simplistic and how we should situate the operation in the jus ad bellum going forward. Let me say at the outset that I don’t support this operation and have serious doubts about the capacity of the United States, in particular, to implement a coherent policy in Syria. (I also think the operation violates U.S. law.) So, I’m not arguing that the operation was a good idea or even that it should be lawful. I’m making an analytic argument about how the jus ad bellum works.

The April 2017 Incident

This was not the first attack against Syria for its use of chemical weapons. In April 2017, the United States struck Syria for the same asserted reason: as a reprisal for the regime’s use of chemical weapons in violation of international law. At the time, most commentators said that the U.S. operation was unlawful. It was inconsistent with the longstanding interpretation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and not covered by the Charter exceptions. Assad didn’t consent to the operation, the Security Council hadn’t authorized it, and it wasn’t taken in self-defense.

There is an ongoing debate about whether the jus ad bellum contains another exception for humanitarian interventions. The dominant view is that it does not. States (as a group) have periodically condoned unilateral operations that can be labeled “humanitarian,” but the vast majority of them have declined to support a generally applicable humanitarian exception to 2(4). They have instead insisted that no such exception exists. Further, even if there were one, its application to the 2017 operation would have been dubious. The operation looked more like a reprisal than like what we usually mean by a “humanitarian intervention.” President Trump said that it was designed “to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” not to avert the many other atrocities that were being committed in Syria. Forcible reprisals are by almost all accounts unlawful. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: Syria, Use of Force
 

Unlawful Reprisals to the Rescue against Chemical Attacks?

Published on April 12, 2018        Author: 
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Donald Trump has threatened Syria with a ‘big price to pay’ for an alleged chemical attack on 7 April in a Damascus suburb. Last year, in similar circumstances, Trump authorized an attack of 59 Tomahawk missiles that reportedly killed 9, including 4 children. The French and German governments responded with a joint press release finding it a ‘just and proportionate’ response. They did not say ‘lawful’–nor could they.

Armed reprisals are uses of military force that follow an incident, usually to punish or in retaliation or revenge and which do not fit the exception to the prohibition on the use of force for self-defence. See the same conclusion here  and here. Reprisals need Security Council authorization to be lawful. The Security Council has never authorized a reprisal and will not in the case of Syria.

In 1970, the General Assembly stated clearly in its Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States that among the fundamental rights and duties of states, is the ‘duty to refrain from acts of reprisal involving the use of force’ against other States. The International Court of Justice found in its 1994 advisory opinion on the Legality of Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons that ‘armed reprisals in time of peace […] are considered to be unlawful.’ In the Oil Platforms case, it further held that US attacks on Iranian sites were not lawful acts of self-defense because of their retaliatory nature.

Thus, unauthorized reprisals are always unlawful Read the rest of this entry…

 

Turkey’s Military Operations in Syria

Published on February 20, 2018        Author: 
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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.

Armed attack

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…

 
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The Turkish Operation in Afrin (Syria) and the Silence of the Lambs

Published on January 30, 2018        Author: 
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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).

The ICJ case-law has not fully settled the question (see for state-centred statements: ICJ, Oil platforms 2003, paras. 51 and 61; ICJ Wall opinion 2004, para. 139). Read the rest of this entry…

 

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

Published on April 14, 2017        Author: 
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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…

 

Justice for Syria? Opportunities and Limitations of Universal Jurisdiction Trials in Germany

Published on August 12, 2016        Author: 
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During the ongoing conflict in Syria, horrific international crimes are being committed on a daily basis. With impunity for these crimes prevailing on an international level, the attention of Syrian and international actors is turning towards trials under the principle of universal jurisdiction in national courts. This blog post provides a systematic overview of current trials and investigations in Germany relating to Syria and discusses the possibilities and limitations of such trials.

Impunity Prevailing on International Level

Many of the grave human rights violations in Syria are well documented by international bodies, international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (which rely on evidence from Syrian activists who are documenting these kind of crimes under great personal risk), and national organizations such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Violations Documentations Centre.

However, geopolitical concerns impede effective and timely prosecution of human rights violations and international crimes: The hands of the International Criminal Court (ICC) appear to be tied and a double Security Council Veto by the permanent members, Russia and China, blocked a resolution to refer the situation to the Court. Despite the draft of a Statute as early as 2013, the call for the establishment of a hybrid tribunal by the UN Commission of Inquiry and academic support for this approach as the next best alternative (Van Schaack, Just Security; Sayapin, EJIL Talk), no tangible mechanism has resulted thus far. It follows that the only remaining and realistic avenue to seek justice for international crimes perpetrated in Syria is for other countries to prosecute these crimes by way of universal jurisdiction. Read the rest of this entry…

 

The Use of Force Against People Smugglers: Conflicts with Refugee Law and Human Rights Law

Published on June 22, 2015        Author: 
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On 18 May, EU ministers agreed on a military operation (EU NAVFOR Med) that could comprise, in its final phase, the boarding, seizure and destruction of suspected migrant smuggling vessels, subject to approval by the UN Security Council. Negotiations before the Security Council appear to have halted until both the Libyan government in Tobruk and the ruling authorities in Tripoli give consent. Meanwhile, a diplomatic source involved in the EU internal talks on the matter stated that a military operation could be decided on 22 June at the Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg.

In earlier EJIL talk! posts, Melanie Fink and Sergo Mananashvili argued that a Security Council Resolution would be questionable under the law of the use of force. But a resolution would also raise issues of compliance with refugee and human rights law and thus would produce a norm conflict between a Security Council Resolution and other international law.

The Likely Need to Have Forces Close to the Libyan Shore

Let’s look at the most likely scenarios around the use of force, were the EU move forward and the UN Security Council to approve of the plans.

An earlier EU strategy paper had foreseen ‘intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; boarding teams; patrol units (air and maritime); amphibious assets; destruction air, land and sea, including special forces units.’ Since then, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has pointed out that the operation would not include ‘boots on the ground’ in Libya. At the same time, it is clear that EU diplomats seek more than approval to destroy vessels intercepted at sea, and from which all migrants have disembarked. The EU seeks a UN resolution for destroy smuggling vessels before they have departed.

Identifying smuggling vessels before they have departed will be challenging without deploying people on the ground in Libya. Smuggling vessels can clearly be identified as such only at or shortly before the time they are being used for smuggling. Read the rest of this entry…

 
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The Situation Concerning the Islamic State: Carte Blanche for the ICC if the Security Council Refers?

Published on May 27, 2015        Author: 
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At a meeting of the UN Security Council held on 27 March 2015, the possibility of a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) of the situation relating to the so-called Islamic State (IS aka ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) was vigorously discussed. At that meeting, which was convened by France and chaired by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (who had travelled to New York specifically to preside over the meeting), more than a dozen of States lined up to call for a Council referral. However, confusion seemed to rein over what should be referred to the ICC. While most States appealed for a referral of the situation in Syria, some urged a referral of the situation in Iraq, others called for a referral of the situation in both States, and, finally, a few remained purposefully vague by calling for a referral of ‘the situation’, ‘the matter’, and even ‘the cases’ to the ICC. One issue was, however, clear: the reason to refer a situation to the ICC would be to make members of IS accountable for the crimes they committed.

This discussion about the possibility of prosecuting IS members at the ICC raises the question whether “situations” referred to the ICC must be defined by reference to a given territory. Is it possible to refer a worldwide situation relating to a group to the Court? Or must the situation referred be one occurring in a particular geographical location or in a particular state?

On 8th April 2015, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda stated that she will not open a preliminary examination concerning alleged crimes committed by IS, unless Iraq or Syria or the Security Council (SC) provide jurisdiction to the ICC. As Barrie Sander has noted this statement was an attempt by the Prosecutor to pressure States and, especially, the Security Council, to assume their responsibility and confer jurisdiction on the ICC over this situation.

Despite the Prosecutor’s ‘clarification’, neither Iraq nor Syria or the Security Council has yet taken action. Subsequent to her statement, Lithuania, Chile and the UK’ representatives at the UN have continued to push for a Council referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC – but to no avail. The position of Russia and China concerning a referral of Syria is known. They vetoed a similar attempt last year. One may think that the recent attempts to refer IS are trying to push through the window what some members of the Council were unable to push through the door in 2014. However, there is a difference. A Security Council referral of the crimes committed by IS tout court would enable the Prosecutor to charge members of IS not only for crimes committed in Syria or in Iraq but also for crimes committed in Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, France, and why not in the United States. Read the rest of this entry…

 
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Who is Unwilling and Unable to Prosecute Crimes Against Humanity in Syria?

Published on May 29, 2014        Author: 
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2014.05.26.AbdulhayAbdulhay Sayed is an independent Syrian lawyer, and has been a lecturer in law in the Damascus Faculty of Law from 2005 to 2011.

For Syrians, who are caught between totalitarian arrogance and human folly, the debate in the Security Council on 22 May 2014, over the French-sponsored Chapter VII draft resolution to refer the situation of Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), was marked by a tragicomic mix of global point scoring and political impotence. The defeat of the resolution is a major disappointment to Syrians. By refusing to address impunity for crimes against humanity in Syria irrespective of perpetrators’ political affiliations, the Security Council has failed to uphold the basic principles for which the UN is supposed to stand—including saving “generations from the scourge of war” and affirming fundamental human rights and dignity.

The French initiative followed a year-long Swiss-led campaign, which called upon UN member States to refer the Syrian situation to the ICC, because Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute of 1998. The initiative’s failure follows the declaration of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in January 2014 that it is no longer able to count casualties in Syria. Together, these developments raise the frightening possibility that the problem of impunity in Syria will gradually fade from the UN agenda.

The international community has sought to traverse historic distances since the atrocities of Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. There is now a permanent and purportedly universal system of criminal justice, which, in the present tremendously polarized Syrian context, could, at least, provide a structure for the objective naming of atrocious acts of violence as crimes. Surely, this system cannot by itself resolve the conflict or bring solace to the victims. Nonetheless, it could offer some measure of justice, letting victims know that a process could be put in motion to underwrite their long and arduous procession from naming the crimes against them to healing the wounds they inflicted. To demonstrate its credibility, however, this system of justice needed to act in the face of grave crimes in Syria by enabling the ICC to exercise jurisdiction.

Instead, the Security Council showed, yet again, its structural inability to see the Syrian question through the prism of Justice. Accountability for the gravest crimes ranked as less important than the pursuit of a political solution. Through Geneva I and II, the motto was: give priority to the restoration of peace through political negotiation, and let the Syrians address the question of impunity themselves. This approach is blind to the reality of the Syrian tragedy. For many Syrians, the escalation of the conflict is inextricably connected to the persistence of impunity. The failure of the international community to seriously address the question of impunity in Syria for so long has normalized the proliferation of violence in the country and seriously undermined the prospect of a political solution. By failing to pass a resolution addressing impunity, the Security Council has sent a chillingly straightforward message to the perpetrators of violations of International Humanitarian Law in Syria and in other regions: escalating violence improves your chances of securing a seat at the negotiating table. A Syrian political process that is negotiated at the expense of accountability is impossible. It carries the seeds of further atrocities and injustice. Instead, addressing impunity must become a defining criterion for any political process.

It is now very difficult to predict the consequences for Syria, of the Security Council’s failure. For Syrians, the international community has shown itself to be unwilling and unable to genuinely prosecute the grave crimes occurring in the present degenerative state of barbarism in their country.

 
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