Syria and the Limits of International Law

Earlier this week, the Assad regime most likely used chemical weapons against its own population in Syria. Up to 500 people may have been affected by this chemical attack, and approximately 75 individuals may have died. Western media reported that most western nations attributed the attack to the Assad regime, and although Assad himself has denied responsibility, this allegation appears credible, in light of Assad’s track record of using chemical weapons. Although this incident may have constituted a violation of jus in bello, and although this incident may be morally abhorrent, international law does not actually provide other nations with tools for a direct (military) response. The Syrian situation thus illustrates the limits of international law, which one may either accept as inevitable and necessary in a sovereignty-based system of international legal rules, or, which one may attempt to eliminate by changing rules of international law. This post will briefly discuss these options, in light of the ongoing crisis in Syria.
First, even in a dire situation like Syria, international law does not actually authorize other nations to use force against the offending regime. Our current international legal order is based on state sovereignty, and on the notion that such sovereignty may be breached in exceptional situations only. Using force against a sovereign nation may constitute the most supreme breach of state sovereignty, and under international law, force may be used against sovereign nations in two limited instances: pursuant to Security Council authorization and/or in self-defense. International law does not authorize nations to use force against another sovereign nation in other situations – no matter how devastating and limiting such a rule may be. For example, international law does not authorize the use of force against a sovereign nation if such a sovereign nation is experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe, caused by its own leadership. Thus, in a situation like Syria, where the country’s own regime is killing and wounding its own population, international law does not provide other nations with authorization to use force – unless such other nations can obtain Security Council approval or can demonstrate that they are acting in self-defense. As another example, international law does not authorize the use of force against a sovereign nation, although the latter may have used internationally-prohibited weapons, and may have committed violations of jus in bello. Thus, the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against Syrians does not provide justification, under international law, for the use of force by other nations against Assad. Additionally, even in situations where the Security Council is deadlocked and unlikely to authorize the use of force against a sovereign nation which has engaged in brutal tactics internally, international law does not step in to provide alternative legal basis to other nations who may wish to use force against the offending nation. Assad is thus safe from external interference, from the perspective of international law, so long as Russia/China continue to veto Security Council resolutions against Assad, and so long as he does not attack other countries.
The situation in Syria is akin to that in Rwanda in 1994, where the international community did not interfere, and where hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered over a brief period of time. In Rwanda, like today in Syria, international law did not provide justification toward the use of force by any other nation, and Rwandan leadership was able to get away with its genocidal policy for several months. The situation in Syria is similar to that in Kosovo in the late 1990s, when Serbian president Milosevic committed atrocities against ethnic Albanians. In the case of Kosovo, however, the international community acted, through a series of air strikes against Serbia in the spring of 1999, instituted by NATO despite lack of Security Council approval. From the perspective of international law, international community’s response was correct in Rwanda and illegal in Kosovo. From the perspective of international law, international community may not do anything in Syria and may not use force against the offending Assad regime. This conclusion, although morally questionable, is based on state sovereignty, which forms the basis of our current international legal order. State sovereignty thus shields regimes from interference, even if they commit atrocities, violate jus in bello, and engage in the most reprehensible behavior (absent Security Council involvement). And, if not changed, our international legal order will continue to insulate abhorrent state policies and practices, so long as these remain internal and so long as the Security Council remains deadlocked. International law is of extremely limited utility in situations like Rwanda, Kosovo, and Syria, and its limits underlie its own weakness.
Second, if one is dissatisfied with the current international law rules, how could such rules be altered, to provide a better response in situations like Syria, of internal humanitarian crises and Security Council deadlock? Several changes are theoretically possible. First, one could retain the sovereignty-based system of international law but remove veto power for any nation from the Security Council. One could require that all Security Council resolutions be passed by a super-majority of ten or twelve nations, to ensure that authorizations for the use of force against a sovereign nation face strict scrutiny and require super-majority consensus within the United Nations. Second, one could adopt a regional sovereignty-based system, by allowing regional organizations, such as NATO, to use force against their own member states. This system would allow for regional military responses within regional institutional structures; such regional responses could get around Security Council deadlock and could alleviate humanitarian crises in places like Syria. Under this regional sovereignty system, military responses, such as the 1999 NATO-led air strikes against Serbia, would become lawful. Third, one could legalize humanitarian intervention, as a third exception to the general ban on the use of force. Harold Koh has written about this and has proposed a normative framework for humanitarian intervention; I have also written about this and have argued for a similar set of rules. A true humanitarian intervention, organized by a coalition of states, pursuant to a concrete set of humanitarian goals and limited in scope and duration could become part of our international legal order, while offending state sovereignty in the most justified manner. It may be argued that states which offend international legal norms waive their sovereignty and no longer deserve the protection of the same norms; legalizing humanitarian intervention against the most rogue regimes, such a Assad’s, would only minimally offend the general notion of state sovereignty as this concept would continue to apply for all other law-abiding states. A modified system of international legal rules could preserve state sovereignty while allowing for a more robust (military) response in situations of humanitarian catastrophe, like the one ongoing in Syria.
In sum, international law in its current iteration remains powerless to impose true military restrictions on leaders like Assad. Several western nations have already discussed the possibility of staging a military intervention against Assad; such an intervention, absent Security Council authorization, would be illegal under international law. Intervening nations could choose to ignore international law and act in a military manner, in the face of the dire situation in Syria. This could, in turn, weaken our international legal order, by exposing its limitations and by demonstrating that nations are willing to ignore international law, because this law imposes unreasonable restraints. However, international law, if modified, could contain legal tools that would enable nations to lawfully intervene against leaders like Assad. This solution may be preferable in the long-term, as it would allow lawful state action against offending regimes, and as it would allow international law to develop small limitations on state sovereignty, for the sake of protecting populations from harm directed at them by their own leaders. International law’s limits are underscored by the situation in Syria. In the future, however, international law does not have to remain powerless.

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Sexual violence in Syria: acting on what we know

Last month marked the seventh anniversary of the Syrian uprising. The Syrian people were late in joining the Arab Spring and within months after they did civil unrest descended into war. As the years go by, the range of atrocities committed in Syria appears to defy those covered by international law. There are arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths in detention, and use of civilians as hostages. The most reported incidents are use of chemical and explosive weapons in civilian areas, starvation of besieged populations and the targeting of hospitals, schools and markets to force surrender.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in comparison the use of sexual and gender-based violence has received little attention. This is in part because of the inherent difficulties in documenting sexual violence – chief among them is under- and delayed reporting due to reluctance of survivors to share experiences that could lead to rejection by their families and communities. It is also because other tactics of war, like aerial and ground bombardments, are more lastingly visible and more easily documented for that reason. By and large, documentation of sexual violence, in any context, relies on victim and witness testimony. Bombardments, on the other hand, are documented using supporting material such as photographs, videos, and satellite imagery that corroborates witnesses’ accounts. Crucially, witnesses of bombardments can speak without fear of stigma or feelings of shame.

Challenges in documenting sexual violence explain why it has taken so long for comprehensive overviews of the situation on the ground to become public. While as early as September 2011 reports emerged of Syrian Government forces committing sexual violence during home raids, it is only in the last year that in-depth accounts on the extent and use of sexual violence in Syria were published. In 2017, investigative journalist Marie Forestier published a report on rape as a tactic of war by the Assad regime. On the occasion of the seventh year of the uprising, the Syria Commission of Inquiry published a report covering sexual and gender-based violence by a number of perpetrators, including detailed violations by Government forces and associated militias.

Together, these reports document the use of sexual violence since the 2011 demonstrations up to last year. They show that the use of sexual violence has changed – but not stopped – throughout the conflict. Initially, Government forces conducted mass arrests of demonstrators and their supporters in their homes and at checkpoints. Most of those arrested were men and boys. When the wanted males were not found, women and girls were arrested to pressure their male relatives to surrender. Female protestors and activists were also arrested. Sexual violence occurred from the moment of arrest and throughout detention. In Government detention facilities, women and men were raped to force confessions and to provide information, with men most commonly raped with objects. Some women were gang raped, others were raped repeatedly by different officers. On occasion, senior officers raped detainees and in other instances gave permission for their subordinates to do so. There is no reported instance of officers being disciplined for their acts. Continue reading

16th Assembly of States Parties of the International Criminal Court: The Theme of Cooperation

 

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United Nations Building

As a delegate of the Public International Law and Policy Group, I had the honor of attending the 16th Assembly of States Parties (ASP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which took place from December 4-14 at the United Nations’ Headquarters in New York City. In addition to the election of new judges, the most important themes of this year’s ASP included cooperation and whether to add the crime of aggression to the Rome Statute. Some posts have already been published on the latter (see here and here), but as of now, it is unclear which version of the circulated texts on aggression may have been adopted last night. Thus, I plan to report more on the crime of aggression later. This post will focus instead on the topic of cooperation, in the context of this year’s ASP.

 

 

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16th Session of the Assembly of States Parties of the International Criminal Court

States which have ratified the Rome Statute and are thus members of the ICC have a treaty-based duty to cooperate with the court. While some states have routinely carried out this international law obligation, others have not. In particular, several states have failed to execute the ICC’s arrest warrants regarding Sudanese President Al-Bashir. The ICC issued two arrest warrants for Al-Bashir, in 2009 and in 2010, after the Security Council referred the Darfur situation to the court for an investigation in 2005, through Resolution 1593. States which are members of the ICC have a treaty-based duty to execute the court’s arrest warrant by arresting the subject of the warrant if he or she happens to be on their territory. In addition, the Sudan situation was referred to the ICC through Security Council Resolution 1593; in cases of Security Council referral, it may be argued that all states, not only ICC member states, have a duty to cooperate with the court. The text of Resolution 1593 supports this argument:

 

Decides that the Government of Sudan and all other parties to the conflict in Darfur, shall cooperate fully with and provide any necessary assistance to the Court and the Prosecutor pursuant to this resolution and, while recognizing that States not party to the Rome Statute have no obligation under the Statute, urges all States and concerned regional and other international organizations to cooperate fully.

 

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Security Council Briefing on the Darfur Situation (16th Session of the ASP)

Resolution 1593 recognizes that states which are not parties to the Rome Statute do not have a treaty-based duty to cooperate with the ICC, which is why the Resolution itself “urges” all states and other regional and international organizations to cooperate with the court. Thus, according to this argument, all states have a duty to arrest Al-Bashir, in light of Resolution 1593, if he chose to travel to their territory, and to deliver him to The Hague.

 

While several “western” states support this view and have called for all states to cooperate with the ICC by arresting those wanted by the court, many African states reject this view. Al-Bashir has traveled freely to several African countries in the decade following the ICC arrest warrant – most recently to Uganda and South Africa. Many African countries have insisted that heads of state, such as Al-Bashir, have immunity from international criminal prosecutions, and that the ICC arrest warrant against a sitting head of state breaches the international law principle of state sovereignty. The recently negotiated Malabo Protocol, adopted by the African Union in 2014, extends the jurisdiction of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights (ACJHR) to crimes under international law and transnational crimes. The Protocol reflects the view, espoused by many African leaders in the context of the ICC Al-Bashir arrest warrant, that heads-of-state should be immune from prosecution, by including a provision on head-of-state immunity. In addition, many African states have argued that Resolution 1593, which referred the Darfur situation to the ICC, imposes a cooperation obligation only on member states of the ICC, not on non-member states.

 

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United Nations Building

At the ASP, the ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, briefed the Security Council on the situation in Darfur. Following Prosecutor Bensouda’s briefing, several states offered comments on the Darfur situation, as well as on the Al-Bashir arrest warrant. Predictably, most western states, including European nations such as France, United Kingdom, Italy, and Sweden, condemned states for not cooperating with the ICC and urged all states to execute the ICC arrest warrant. Additional states which supported this view included Senegal, Ukraine, Japan, Bolivia, Uruguay, and the United States. Other states, predictably, held the opposite view and insisted on head-of-state immunity from ICC prosecution, as well as on state sovereignty. Such states included Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Russia, and China. Finally, Kazakhstan seemed to adopt a middle ground position, by encouraging Sudan to continue to make progress in humanitarian efforts in the Darfur region, and by urging everyone in the international community to respect Sudan’s sovereignty and independence. These Security Council members’ positions, although unsurprising, shed light on the existing geo-political dilemma caused by the ICC arrest warrant of Al-Bashir, as well as on the different states’ positions regarding this issue. In general, western states tend to support the ICC (with the exception of the United States), and in general, most western states have insisted that all states should cooperate with the ICC in the execution of this arrest warrant (including the United States). Sudan, many African states, as well as Russia and China, have criticized the court for its Africa focus, and have argued that the arrest warrant improperly breaches fundamental principles of international law, such as state sovereignty as well as head-of-state immunity. Because of the current Russian and Chinese position on this issue, that Resolution 1593 does not nullify the principle of head-of-state immunity for heads of states which are not members of the ICC and that the international community should respect Sudan’s sovereignty and independence, it seems unlikely that a new Security Council resolution, clarifying the issue of head-of-state immunity, will be voted on this issue.

 

The academic (see here, here,  and here, for example) and International Court of Justice view on the question of head-of-state immunity seems well-established: the principle of head-of-state immunity applies in national proceedings but not before international criminal tribunals (I note the important distinction between two different types of immunity: ratione personae and ratione materiae, which the academic literature cited here clearly addresses, but which this brief post will not go into.  It suffices to say that for the purposes of various states’ arguments on immunity, as described above, the distinction is immaterial). In the Al-Bashir arrest warrant situation, the additional “wrinkle” is the existence of a Security Council resolution, which trumps state sovereignty-based arguments and imposes a duty on cooperation on all states, whether ICC members or not. Thus, the argument espoused by some African states, Russia, and China, at this year’s ASP seems clearly rooted in politics and contrary to established norms of international law.

 

Private Military and Security Companies or Mercenaries? Bringing Law Back Into the Discussion

In late May 2017, Erik Prince, former Navy SEAL and founder of the private security firm Blackwater, sparked an intense debate when he laid down his proposed plan to restructure the war in Afghanistan by increasing the reliance on private contractors. Critics of his plan feared unaccountable mercenaries reaping benefits of the long-going conflict. Proponents argued that private contractors would be a cheaper alternative and could deliver better results. Trump recently decided to focus on a troop increase instead of the private sector solution. While Prince’s plan will disappear in the archives of the White House – for now – the question of how to deal with private military and security companies remains.

The privatization of security is a complex issue. Some believe that it threatens the monopoly over the use of force and state sovereignty. But to understand this complex industry in general and Prince’s plan in particular, it is essential to question whether private contractors actually qualify as “mercenaries” and whether they are unaccountable, as many claim. It is time to bring the law back into the debate and stop throwing around buzzwords without understanding their legal basis.

There were two parts of Prince’s plan involving private contractors. On the one hand, there was his proposal to have about 5,000 private contractors work as trainers and mentors, embedded with the Afghan army. On the other hand, there were reports about a private air force of about 90 planes.

In the media outcry following Prince’s proposal the private contractors were predominantly labelled as mercenaries. Mercenaries are defined in Art. 47 of the Additional Protocol I (AP I) to the Geneva Conventions. The same definition is also relied on in Art. 1 of the UN Mercenary Convention. To be considered mercenaries, contractors would, among other actions, need to take direct part in hostilities, be motivated essentially by the desire for private gain and be neither a national of a party to the conflict nor a member of the armed forces of this party.

According to Prince’s plan, the contractors working as trainers and mentors should have been embedded with the Afghan military. It is complicated to envision how this would work in practice. The contractors could either enlist with the Afghan armed forces for the duration of the assignment (this was done before in Papua New Guinea) or be declared de facto members of the armed forces. A similar solution might have been sought for the members of the private air force.

In either case the contractors would not fall under the definition of mercenaries, even leaving aside the difficult questions of how to embed them into the Afghan military. Generally, private military and security contractors rarely fall under the narrow mercenary definition because of the definition’s focus on the intent of the contractors. The contractors’ scope of work is simply too broad and their motivations too diverse. Continue reading

At the centenary of chemical warfare, a visit to Flanders’ World War I battlefields

YPRES, Belgium – Beautiful vistas and bright sunlight cannot blind the visitor to the pain of this place.

This place is Flanders Fields, the name given to the part of west Belgium, close to the French border, that saw intense battles and horrendous casualties during World War I. This town – Ypres in French and Ieper in Flemish, but called “Wipers” by British WWI soldiers – played a central role. So too nearby Passchendaele/Passendale. Both towns were leveled, and like many in the region, were rebuilt in the old manner after the war ended.

During the war, upwards of half a million persons died in this area alone.

Our visit to Flanders Fields occurred on the 4th of July. Memories linger, and were sparked again by today’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1st large-scale use, in Ypres, of chemical weapons; mustard gas, to be precise. It was the 3d compound to be attempted, after chlorine and phosgene proved less reliable as lethal weapons, according to our tour guide, Raoul Saracen, a retired history teacher. Initial efforts to fight back against chemicals also were crude: before the development and widespread distribution of gas masks, Canadian troops resorted to breathing through kerchiefs soaked in ammonia-rich urine.

The cruelty of chemical warfare did not stop its use. Recording other places where chemicals have been used was a signpost in Langemark, the cemetery where German soldiers (including several with whom I share a surname) are buried. Tokyo, Japan, Halabja, Iraq, and Ghouta, Syria, receive mention, though more recent gassing sites in that last country have yet to be added.

The thousands of headstones in the many Flanders Fields cemeteries of course give pause. So too the cramped trenches, still on display at Sanctuary Wood Museum.

Yet it was a different site that stole my breath – the “dressing station,” a kind of field hospital, at Essex Farm Cemetery. The station’s cement-bunker cells were small, dark, and saddening, a truly concrete reminder of the scourge of war.

(Cross-posted)

Challenges of Urban Warfare

Aleppo in Syria. Mosul in Iraq. Marawi in the Philippines. All cities now unfortunately synonymous with the destruction of war, and its attendant miseries visited on the populations inhabiting them. A new ICRC report, based on analysis of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, has found a casualty rate five times higher in cities compared to other conflicts. It is estimated that by 2050, more than 60% of the global population will reside in cities.

The urban landscape makes conflict more complex, and particular concerns relating to the application of international humanitarian law (IHL) in cities are examined here. Protecting civilians, and distinguishing them from combatants is fraught. The use of explosive weapons destroys infrastructure necessary for survival. Restrictions on food and basic provisions create conditions that make existence difficult, forcing populations to leave, if able. Unexploded ordinances and snipers hamper safe exit. The ensuing mass displacement adversely impacts areas receiving besieged populations, often with scarce means to accommodate them.

IHL in urban contexts 

The fundamental rules of IHL regulating the conduct of hostilities are embodied in the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols, as well as customary law. The central tenets – the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in attacks – regulate the conduct of hostilities for the protection of civilians in all contexts. A distinction is to be made between combatants and civilians, and between military objectives and civilian objects. Any military action must be proportionate to the intended aim.

The existence of an international armed conflict (IAC) or non-international armed conflict (NIAC) requires a complex case-by-case analysis. Increasingly there are concerns regarding the classification of situations, due to the invocation of terrorism and questions concerning the applicability of IHL. Here, the classification of conflict is not addressed, but only those facets of IHL pertaining to the protection of a city and its inhabitants are highlighted.

These basic principles apply in NIAC and IAC, with some differences in the elaboration of the legal provisions. These principles are also reflected in customary law, distinct from treaty law, and applicable to both types of conflict. However, it is the application of these principles to densely populated areas that is operationally complex.

Protection of civilians

Civilians are protected from attack under IHL. As long as an individual is not a member of the armed forces or armed group, she is considered a civilian. However, the distinction between civilian and combatant is eroded in case of “direct participation in hostilities” by the former (Art. 51(3), AP I, Art. 13(3) AP II and customary law Rule 6). The ICRC Interpretive Guidance on the notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law delineates three cumulative criteria for acts to amount to “direct participation”: first, there must be an adverse impact on military operations or activities; second, a direct causal link between the act and the harm caused; and third, the act must be designed to cause the threshold of harm. Preparatory acts and subsequent actions are considered “direct participation”. Protection ceases during such participation, and is reinstated upon cessation. However, it may still be difficult to distinguish between direct and indirect participation. In doubt, the individual must retain protection. Continue reading

Victims’ interminable wait for justice in Sri Lanka

On 23 March 2017, the Human Rights Council (HRC) passed Resolution 34/1 on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka – the latest in a series of resolutions addressing the aftermath of the ethnic conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It follows Resolution 30/1 of October 2015 that provides a roadmap for judicial and non-judicial measures to promote post-conflict accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The first to be co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, Resolution 30/1 was heralded as an opportunity for Sri Lanka to reset its human rights record and embark on a post-conflict journey towards justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence.

Resolution 30/1 sought to implement the recommendations set out in the 2015 report of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), which documented the “horrific level of violations and abuses” in the Sri Lankan civil war. (See my previous blogs “The Long Journey to Justice for Sri Lanka’s Victims” Part I and Part II for a discussion on the OISL report and Resolution 30/1 respectively). Resolution 34/1 rolls over Resolution 30/1 due to the lack of progress in fulfilling the latter.

Where do we stand, seventeen months after Resolution 30/1 and almost eight years after the official end to the conflict? In March 2017, reporting back to the HRC on the implementation of Resolution 30/1, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein noted that the GoSL has been “worryingly slow” in fulfilling its transitional justice commitments and that “the structures set up and measures taken during the period under review were inadequate to ensure real progress.” For instance, in August 2016, Parliament adopted legislation for the establishment of an Office of Missing Persons to investigate the tens of thousands of missing persons – a key transitional justice measure given that Sri Lanka records one of the highest rates of disappearances in the world. However, the legislation is yet to be operationalised.

Another key recommendation – establishing a “Sri Lankan judicial mechanism” with international actors – has been ignored despite being a cornerstone of Resolution 30/1 in securing accountability and justice for victims. International presence in an accountability process was intended to mitigate deep-seated mistrust in purely domestic mechanisms by providing impartiality and credibility. As noted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2015, there has been “a total failure of domestic mechanisms to conduct credible investigations, clarify the truth of past events, ensure accountability and provide redress to victims.” Despite the GoSL’s commitments, President Sirisena, in January 2016, excluded any foreign involvement in an accountability mechanism – a position that has been maintained by other senior government officials including the Prime Minister.

Continue reading