Syria and Domestic Prosecutions: Upholding hope, one case at a time (Part 2 of 2)

National Prosecutions based on Universal Jurisdiction: the cases of Germany, Sweden, and “France”

Last June, Germany’s chief prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant for Jamil Hassan, head of Syria’s powerful Air Force Intelligence Directorate, and one of Syria’s most senior military officials. This move comes as a 2017 Human Rights Watch report mentioned [p.36] that, so far, very few members of the Assad government had been the subject of judicial proceedings in Europe based on universal jurisdiction.

At the time these charges (based on command responsibility) were filed with Germany’s Federal Court of Justice, Patrick Kroker (European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, hereinafter “ECCHR”) commented that this moment was“historical”, adding: “That this arrest warrant has been signed off by the highest criminal court in Germany shows that they deem the evidence presented to the prosecutor is strong enough to merit urgent suspicion of his involvement.”

N.N., a Syrian activist present at the side-event held today mentioned in Part 1 of my post, underlined several times the importance of these arrest warrants. Until their issuance, he said, many Syrians never would have thought that high-level representatives of the Syrian regime would have charges laid against them. For many this is a great sign of hope, a demonstration that we are “not only listening to stories but also doing something about it.” He mentioned this point in part as an answer to a participant at the event who wondered what it could mean to the people still in Syria to see prosecutions happening in Europe, but not in Syria or before the ICC.

Mr. Patrick Kroker, Legal Advisor& Project Lead for Syria at the ECCHR (Berlin) explained the work done by his organization to initiate prosecutions in Germany linked to the Syrian conflict. With regard to Germany, the progress over the past few years has been spectacular: 11 cases have been brought to trial. As well, three were brought to trial in Sweden, one in Switzerland, and another in Austria (for an excellent overview of proceedings linked to Syria, see the Amnesty International page “Justice for Syria” here).

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Syria and Domestic Prosecutions: Upholding hope, one case at a time (Part 1 of 2)

Credit: Lynsey Addario

As of July 2018, more than 500 000 people had been killed as a result of the conflict in Syria, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. With the UN Special Envoy for Syria having recently resigned, signs of hope seem dire for many Syrians and their supporters, there and abroad.

A side-event held today, on Day 3 of the 17th Assembly of State Parties (ASP) to the International Criminal Court, brought distinguished panelists together to discuss the role of prosecutions held in Europe through universal jurisdiction for international crimes, using Syria as an example. More than only about accountability, the resounding message about these prosecutions was that their role was to give out and to inspire the people to be strong, fight for justice and, maybe, eventually, be able to move on.

Earlier this week, during a keynote address at a reception held before the launch of the ASP, Ms.Catherine Marchi-Uhel aptly said that the ICC is the center piece of the international justice system. However, she also reminded the audience that the role of the international jurisdiction as a springboard for national prosecutions is often overlooked.

Yet, despite the hopes, symbolism and assistance to the rebuilding of judicial institutions that national prosecutions can bring (as I mentioned in my previous blog post on Quid Justitiae in the context of the present ASP), the political context may simply not allow it and, in the case of Syria, there is obviously no need to elaborate on why prosecutions at the national level are not possible.

In the case of Syria, one of the worst situations since World War II, as Ms Marchi-Uhel underlined, the pathway to the ICC is blocked, as a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution to refer the case to the ICC was vetoed in 2014. With the ICC option gridlocked, Marchi-Uhel said that the international community needed to be creative to find new strategies to supplement the Rome Statue system: there was a need to think outside the international justice box. This is why, in 2016, the UNGA decided to create the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (IIIM) to collect and analyse evidence of international crimes committed in Syria (see the IIIM official website here). Not a court or tribunal, it is “a building block for comprehensive justice” and can “turn limitations into opportunities”. This was definitely a smart move, as the call for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court by the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres did not seem to have resonated any more than previous attempts made through the UNSC.

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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.

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

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.

Syria: The (Il)legality of the United States’ Use of Force Against Assad

On April 6, the United States unilaterally used force in Syria, against President Assad’s regime, in response to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against a Syrian town and region.  Despite a humanitarian crisis that has been ongoing in Syria for several years, the United Nations Security Council has remained deadlocked, in light of the Russian and Chinese veto regarding any resolution that would have authorized a multilateral use of force.  The United States thus acted alone – potentially breaching both international and domestic law.  This post will examine the legality of United States’ actions under international and domestic law. 

Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter prohibits states from using force against the territorial integrity or political independence of another state.  The only two exceptions to this general ban on the use of force involve Security Council authorization and self-defense.  The United States’ use of force in Syria had not been authorized by the Security Council, because, as mentioned above, Russia and China have persistently threatened or used their veto power to block resolutions regarding Syria.  Moreover, the United States’ use of force in Syria was not an instance of self-defense.  States can use force in self-defense if they are under an armed attack, or if they are about to be attacked; Syria has not threatened any other nations, and certainly not the United States, and the latter was not in danger of an imminent attack by Damascus.  Thus, under a traditional interpretation of international law, the United States has used force illegally in Syria, in breach of treaty and customary international law. 

It should be noted that the United Nations Charter is a treaty, to which the United States is a party.  The obligation in Article 2(4), mentioned above, is a treaty provision which binds the United States.  Thus, this treaty provision would be considered as “supreme Law” of the land under Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.  As such, this provision becomes part of United States’ domestic law and binds the United States on the domestic level as well.  Congress can, under the so-called later-in-time rule, pass a federal statute which trumps an otherwise binding treaty provision.  However, Congress has very rarely done so regarding existing treaties (doing so would put the United States in breach of its international law obligation), and Congress has certainly not done so in this instance, regarding the use of force in Syria. 

Moreover, under domestic law, a United States President is supposed to ask authorization from Congress before using military force in another country.  As Marty Lederman has explained recently, there are three major theories as to when the President can use force unilaterally against another sovereign nation and without Congressional authorization:

“(i) almost never (i.e., only to repel actual attacks, and then only as long as Congress is unavailable to deliberate)–what one might call the “classical” position;

(ii) virtually always, up to and including full-scale, extended war–that was John Yoo’s position, adopted by OLC in the Bush Administration, at least in theory; and

(iii) only under a set of complex conditions that do not amount to “war in the constitutional sense,” and only in conformity with legal restrictions Congress has imposed (including the War Powers Resolution)–a middle-ground position that I denominated the Clinton/Obama “third way,” and which in effect has, rightly or wrongly, governed U.S. practice for the past several decades.”

Marty Lederman had, in a 2013 post, elaborated as follows on the middle ground view:

“Between these two categorical views is what I like to call the Clinton/Obama “third way”—a theory that has in effect governed, or at least described, U.S. practice for the past several decades.  It is best articulated in Walter Dellinger’s OLC opinions on Haiti and Bosnia, and in Caroline Krass’s 2011 OLC opinion on Libya.  The gist of this middle-ground view (this is my characterization of it) is that the President can act unilaterally if two conditions are met:  (i) the use of force must serve significant national interests that have historically supported such unilateral actions—of which self-defense and protection of U.S. nationals have been the most commonly invoked; and (ii) the operation cannot be anticipated to be “sufficiently extensive in ‘nature, scope, and duration’ to constitute a ‘war’ requiring prior specific congressional approval under the Declaration of War Clause,” a standard that generally will be satisfied “only by prolonged and substantial military engagements, typically involving exposure of U.S. military personnel to significant risk over a substantial period” (quoting from the Libya opinion).”

Assuming that the middle ground view is correct- that the President can decide to use force without Congressional approval in limited circumstances – the current use force against Assad cannot be easily justified.  As others have pointed out, the closest precedent for the unilateral use of force in Syria may be the United States’ and NATO use of force in Kosovo in 1999, under the Clinton Administration.  The United States never advanced a legal rationale for its use of force in Kosovo, relying instead on a policy argument that Kosovo was sui generis.  Kosovo was arguably a better case than Syria, because the military intervention in Kosovo had been staged by NATO, not by the United States acting alone, and because the United Nations had already been involved in Kosovo, unlike in Syria.  Thus, Kosovo may not provide the best precedent for Syria.  In addition, adopting the above-mentioned middle ground view on the President’s ability to use force unilaterally, it is difficult to argue that the use of force in Syria will serve significant national security interests, such as self-defense or the protection of American nationals.  It remains to be seen whether the United States’ use of force in Syria will entail an extensive and prolonged military engagement, requiring Congressional approval, or if it will instead be comprised of a time-limited and precise series of strikes not involving exposure of United States’ military personnel.  As of today, however, it is difficult to argue that President Trump should not have sought Congressional approval for the use of force in Syria.

Can the United States’ military actions in Syria be justified on either the international or domestic planes?  First, regarding international law, Harold Koh has argued that the unilateral use of force against a sovereign state can at times be justified under the developing norm of humanitarian intervention.  According to Koh, the following conditions must be met in order for a state to be able to invoke the humanitarian intervention exception to international law’s general ban on the use of force:

“(1) If a humanitarian crisis creates consequences significantly disruptive of international order—including proliferation of chemical weapons, massive refugee outflows, and events destabilizing to regional peace and security—that would likely soon create an imminent threat to the acting nations (which would give rise to an urgent need to act in individual and collective self-defense under U.N. Charter Article 51);

(2) a Security Council resolution were not available because of persistent veto; and the group of nations that had persistently sought Security Council action had exhausted all other remedies reasonably available under the circumstances, they would not violate U.N. Charter Article 2(4) if they used

(3) limited force for genuinely humanitarian purposes that was necessary and proportionate to address the imminent threat, would demonstrably improve the humanitarian situation, and would terminate as soon as the threat is abated.

In particular, these nations’ claim that their actions were not wrongful would be strengthened if they could demonstrate:

(4) that the action was collective, e.g., involving the General Assembly’s Uniting for Peace Resolution or regional arrangements under U.N. Charter Chapter VIII;

(5) that collective action would prevent the use of a per se illegal means by the territorial state, e.g., deployment of banned chemical weapons; or

(6) would help to avoid a per se illegal end, e.g., genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or an avertable humanitarian disaster, such as the widespread slaughter of innocent civilians, for example, another Halabja or Srebrenica. To be credible, the legal analysis of any particular situation would need to substantiate each of these factors with persuasive factual evidence of: (1) Disruptive Consequences likely to lead to Imminent Threat; (2) Exhaustion; (3) Limited, Necessary, Proportionate, and Humanitarian Use of Force; (4) Collective Action; (5) Illegal Means; and (6) Avoidance of Illegal Ends.”

It is unclear whether these conditions have been met in Syria – for example, it is unclear that the Trump Administration is acting consistently with condition 3, and it is unquestionable that the American unilateral action does not satisfy condition 4.  Moreover, Koh’s proposed framework is doctrinal in nature and does not reflect the current status of international law – unless one assumes that Syria is a law-breaking moment and that the evolution of international law requires the breaking of existing international law norms (a point of view which many scholars would disagree with).  Finally, it is also unclear that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited in non-international armed conflict; chemical weapons are banned in international armed conflict and their use is certainly morally abhorrent, but it is not legally clear that chemical weapons are always prohibited in internal and non-international warfare (the use of chemical weapons in international armed conflict is not prohibited by treaty law although it may be argued that it is prohibited under customary law).  And, even if chemical weapons were prohibited in non-international armed conflict, a violation of jus in bello does not provide justification for the use of force against a sovereign state – a point which Koh’s framework ignores (arguably because Koh’s framework focuses on the protection of human rights, which justifies the conflation of jus in bello and jus ad bellum norms). 

On the domestic level, the United States’ use of force in Syria could be justified if one adopts the Yoo/Bybee view, that President can always act alone, without Congressional approval, or if one adopts the middle ground view and concludes that the action in Syria advances national security interests and is so limited in time and scope that it falls outside of a traditional “war.”  As mentioned above, it is unclear as of today what the Syrian military action will entail and it is uncertain whether the strikes will remain limited in duration and scope and whether United States’ military personnel will not be exposed. 

Thus, it is difficult to construct the legal argument that the United States’ use of force in Syria is legal under both international and domestic law.  While military action may be the morally correct response to Assad’s slaughtering of civilians, it appears that the United States’ actions lack a solid legal basis.