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

Remembering Female Prisoners of Conscience on International Women’s Day

Women's Day blog photo (00000002)

Female Prisoners of Conscience (starting top left, clockwise): Diane Rwigara (Rwanda), Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan, now released), Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee (Iran), and Atena Daemi (Iran) 

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us take a moment to consider the plight of female prisoners of conscience, a group of women distinguished both by their exceptional heroism and by their extreme vulnerability.

As the United Nations has increasingly emphasized in recent years, even among activists, journalists and politicians generally, Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) face heightened danger; they are “subject to the same types of risks as any human rights defender, but as women, they are also targeted for or exposed to gender-specific threats and gender-specific violence.” The factors behind these heightened risks are complicated, but can relate both to the type of work that WHRDs often engage in (advocacy related to women’s issues), as well as who the WHRDs are (women, challenging traditional gender roles). Far too often, WHRDs face stigmatization, exclusion, violence and imprisonment.

Take the case of Diane Rwigara, for instance, a 35-year-old Rwandan politician currently being held in pre-trial detention. Diane’s crime was attempting to run against Rwanda’s authoritarian president Paul Kagame in the most recent election. Within 72 hours of her announcement of her candidacy, nude pictures allegedly of Diane were leaked on social media. When this public shaming failed to intimidate her, she was arrested—along with her mother and sister—and charged with a slew of specious offenses related to forgery, incitement to insurrection, and promotion of sectarian practices. Although Diane and her female relatives were arrested about six months ago, the government has refused to release her and her mother on bail while they await trial. There have been credible reports that the women have been tortured while in prison. If convicted, Diane’s mother and sister could spend up to seven years in prison; Diane herself faces a 15-year-sentence.

Sadly, Diane’s story is not unique. In fact, it hews closely to the authoritarian playbook on how to target a WHRD. Those who follow prisoner of conscience cases might remember a similar fact-pattern playing out with respect to Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent Azerbaijani investigative journalist, who was arrested in 2014, after a leaked video of her having sex with her boyfriend—obtained through illegal surveillance in her home—failed to shame her into silence.  After spending nearly 18 months in prison, Khadija was finally released in May 2016, however she remains under a travel ban for at least three more years.

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Working women and evolving labor standards in U.S. and Canadian free trade agreements

My forthcoming article in the Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal discusses and compares the evolution of labor standards in U.S. and Canadian free trade agreements (FTAs) since 2000.  It then assesses their usefulness as tools to improve IMG_0646working women’s rights.

With few exceptions, all U.S. and Canadian free trade agreements have included labor provisions since 1994.  They also contain procedures for members of the public to file petitions that trading partners have not met their labor obligations under FTAs.

After 2000, the governments of Canada and the U.S. both incorporated the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work as the guiding standard for labor rights in free trade agreements.  The four core labor standards in the ILO Declaration are (1) abolition of child labor; (2) elimination of discrimination in the workplace and occupation; (3) elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor; and (4) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.

My article examines the outcomes of a number of recent cases filed under the labor provisions of U.S. FTAs, including the U.S.-Bahrain FTA, U.S.-Peru FTA and the U.S.-Central America-Dominican Republic FTA (CAFTA-DR).   The article also compares civil society advocacy efforts in Canada and the U.S. related to the negotiation of free trade with Colombia and discusses the implementation of a Labor Rights Action Plan (LAP) between the U.S. and Colombia as a pre-condition for Colombia’s entrance into the U.S.-Colombia FTA.

A definite evolution is observed in the investigative methods, problem-solving techniques and types of remedies adopted in reports issued by the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) in response to public petitions filed under FTA labor provisions during the Obama Administration (2009-2016).  In addition to making fulfillment of certain labor standards commitments a pre-condition to formal entry of trade relations between U.S. and Colombia, USDOL (a) called on one trading partner to pass legislation prohibiting discrimination in the workplace (Bahrain); (b) worked with another trading partner to develop a method for denying export permits to companies that did not comply with labor court orders (Guatemala); and (c) timed the issuance of labor administration and/or elimination of child labor grants with the issuance of reports (Honduras, Dominican Republic).  USDOL also increased its capacity for addressing threats of violence against trade unionists in the territory of U.S. trade partners (Colombia).

Despite evidence of improvement in USDOL’s administration of labor petitions under FTAs since it first started receiving petitions in 1994, definitional shortcomings in U.S. FTA labor provisions weaken their utility as advocacy tools for workers as a whole and women in particular.

One problem is that only 75% of the ILO Declaration is incorporated into the definitions sections of the U.S.-Jordan FTA and CAFTA-DR.  Both agreements fail to specifically include equal pay for equal work for women and men and the elimination of workplace discrimination in the Definitions section for purposes of international dispute resolution.  This leads to textual uncertainty as to whether discrimination on the basis of sex or other grounds is covered.  As a result, gender-related claims in an omnibus petition filed about labor law and administration in Honduras were ignored in a 2015 USDOL report under the CAFTA-DR.  Ironically, comparison of the 2012 Honduras CAFTA-DR case with the 1997 Pregnancy Testing in Mexico case shows that the NAFTA has been a better advocacy tool for working women that the more modern CAFTA-DR.

Definitional shortcomings in post-NAFTA U.S. FTAs are not limited to incomplete incorporation of the 1998 ILO Declaration.  After 2000, U.S. FTA labor provisions limit the definition of “labor law” as applied to the United States to laws passed by the U.S. Congress.  This definition excludes all U.S. state labor laws, which cover compensation for workplace injuries, govern the time and manner of payment of wages, and guarantee trade union rights to state and local government employees.  My article shows how two 2012 reports released by the Government of Mexico about U.S. failure to comply with NAFTA labor obligations may have played a role in the U.S. decision to narrow the scope of the definition of U.S. labor law in FTAs.

In contrast, there is no such textual or definitional uncertainty in the labor provisions in post-NAFTA Canadian FTAs, which explicitly cover workplace discrimination and equal pay for women and men – as well as compensation for workplace injuries.  Canada currently has FTAs with labor provisions with Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Colombia, Jordan, Panama, Honduras, South Korea and the European Union.  Canada also has Labor Cooperation MOUs with Brazil, Argentina and China.

The article shows how women’s rights advocates have creatively utilized FTA labor provisions as advocacy tools with mixed results  The most successful gender petitions focus solely on gender discrimination rather than burying gender claims in broader petitions.  Because of definitional shortcomings in U.S. FTAs, however, women’s rights advocates should consider filing labor petitions under Canadian FTAs in addition to or rather than U.S. FTAs.  Not only are the definitional provisions stronger, the petition procedures are very similar and Canada has stronger Equal Pay laws and culture.

Recently, Canada established itself as a leader on women’s issues by advocating for a gender chapter in the 2017 re-negotiation of NAFTA.  Mexico expressed support for the idea of a gender chapter, but observers opine that the U.S. would never agree to binding gender-related provisions in a renegotiated NAFTA – despite the fact that a non-binding 2012 U.S.-Mexico Memorandum of Understanding on Women’s Economic Empowerment is already in place.

As Mark Aspinwall rightfully pointed out in his August 2017 Forbes Op Ed, effective application of FTA labor and environmental provisions is heavily dependent on political will.  Even with strong political will backed by critical human and financial resources, the Obama administration’s free trade and labor agenda had some mis-steps and imperfect outcomes.  There is much work to be done to maintain the gains and momentum achieved.  Unfortunately, the current administration is already off to a bad start.  Congress has already called upon the Trump administration to ensure that U.S. trade partners Colombia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru fulfill their commitments under ongoing labor action plans related to petitions filed under FTA labor provisions.  In addition to a lack of political will to address labor violations among trading partners, the current administration has not allocated sufficient human and financial resources to USDOL’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs to properly perform its duties.  In their September 19, 2017 letter to Trump adminstration officials, ranking Democratic members of the House and Senate called on USTR, USDOL and USDoS to fill five positions key to enforcement of FTA labor provisions.  Lack of political will and inadequate resource allocation risks slowing or stopping the evolution made by the last administration in the enforcement and application of labor provisions in free trade agreements.

On the Job! [Helton Fellowship]

On the Job! compiles interesting vacancy notices, as follows:
ASIL

 Applications are welcome from recent or current law graduates for the position of Helton Fellow.  The holder of this position receives funded contributions from ASIL members, interest groups, and private foundations to pursue field work and research on significant issues involving international law, human rights, humanitarian affairs, and related areas. Deadline is Monday, January 15, 2018; details here https://www.asil.org/about/helton-fellowship-program.

Lebanon and the Origins of International (Refugee) Law

I’ve spent most of these past years researching the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, culminating in a series of recent articles which among others can be found here and here. Today, Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees in the world in proportion to its population size of about six million. Many of these live in deep social and legal precarity, with an estimated 60 per cent of Syrian refugees living irregularly in the country and thus subject to extremely harsh and marginalized conditions.

From an international law perspective, however, Lebanon is a fascinating country. It takes pride in its contribution to some of the earliest international human rights instruments, including the participation of Charles Malik in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and his chairing of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1951-1952.

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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