Questions on Legality of Israeli Strikes in Iraq and Lebanon

(Published in Just Security, Sept. 9, 2019)

A flurry of news reports during the final week of August detailed recent Israeli air strikes against Iranian affiliated groups in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. The Washington Post published an Editorial questioning the wisdom of this Israeli policy, though typically, and regrettably, utterly neglected to consider issues of legality. It did repeat the media mantra that “Israel has a right to defend itself from Iranian attacks,” but then failed to examine whether any of the Israeli strikes had been responding to actual or imminent armed attacks. A New York Times analysis of the escalation similarly avoided the legal questions.

The short answer, based on publicly available evidence (discussed below), would be that the strikes were unlawful. Only one of the strikes on Syria was reportedly responding to an imminent attack, which should thus make for a very short analysis on the legality of the rest of the strikes. But a brief and somewhat disjointed exchange among some international law scholars on Twitter last week raised some questions and advanced some arguments (to the extent Twitter can sustain such a thing) that suggested a perhaps more complex and interesting analysis. I explore that line of analysis here.

Some Facts

First, a brief review of some of the facts. Israel carried out several air strikes in July and August in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. For simplicity I will leave the strikes in Syria aside for now, and focus on the strikes in Iraq and Lebanon, though it should be understood that Israeli representatives have argued that most of the strikes (or those that have been acknowledged by Israel) served the same broad purpose of preventing Iran from establishing a weapons supply line through Iraq and Northern Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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Japan’s Dilemma in the Persian Gulf

(Published in Australian Institute of International Affairs: Australian Outlook, Jun. 26, 2019; re-published in Opinio Juris, Jul. 5, 2019)

In the wake of the recent attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, there has been considerable discussion about Europe’s difficult position amidst the escalating tension between the United States and Iran. There has been far less discussion of Japan’s situation. Yet one of the ships was Japanese-owned, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran at the time of the attack, specifically trying to dampen those tensions. Nonetheless, Japan distanced itself from the American accusations of Iran’s role in quite surprising and uncharacteristic fashion.

Why was that? Like the EU, Japan appeared to be on the horns of a dilemma, but the nature of its dilemma seemed far less clear. One explanation may lie with the Japanese government’s 2014 so-called “reinterpretation” of the war-renouncing provision of the Constitution. The current situation in the Gulf dovetailed with that “reinterpretation” in manner that created a dilemma with huge risks for the government.

Japan’s Surprising Response to the Crisis

Most readers would be familiar with the increasing tensions between Iran and the United States, from the American withdrawal last year from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the American tightening of sanctions since then, through to the recent U.S. deployment of forces to the region, followed by the two separate attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman. This timeline is a good refresher.

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Canada’s Support of U.S. Strikes on Syria Harms International Law

(Published in the HuffPost, May 1, 2017.)

Tomahawk-Missile

In the immediate aftermath of the American missile strike against Syria, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Canada “fully supports” the U.S. in its “limited and focused action to degrade” the Syrian government’s chemical weapons capability. Many Canadians appear to think that this was the right call, given the heinous nature of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. But the U.S. missile strikes violated international law, and weakened the international rule of law. Canada’s swift and strong support for those unlawful acts will in turn do further harm to the international law system. That is not at all consistent with Canada’s traditional support for international law. It was not necessary, and the Canadian government should re-consider such support for future American unilateral attacks.

Let us begin with the question of legality. Article 2(4) of The United Nations Charter and customary international law provide for a strict prohibition against the use of force against other states. There are only two exceptions to that prohibition, permitting states to use force either in individual or collective self-defense (Article 51), or when authorized to do so by the UN Security Council for purposes of maintaining or restoring international peace and security (Articles 39 and 42).

There is an amazingly strong consensus among international law scholars, even within the United States, that the U.S. missile strikes constituted a clear violation of the prohibition against the use of force. These views have been articulated in such renowned national security and international law blog sites as Lawfare, Just Security, EJILTalk!, and Opinio Juris. Such a consensus is remarkable given how divided opinion has been on the invasion of Iraq, drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, or even the American strikes within Syria against ISIS. There is so little disagreement on these recent strikes, however, because there is virtually no plausible argument that they satisfy either of the established exceptions.

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When Should We Violate International Law in Order to Enforce It?

(Published in The Huffington Post, September 10, 2013)

Lady Justice Bronze_full

The looming military strikes on Syria are being justified as necessary to enforce and maintain a fundamental international law norm, namely the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It is quite clear that in the current situation, and in the absence of U.N. Security Council authorization, such strikes will also themselves violate a fundamental norm of international law, namely the prohibition on the use of force against sovereign states (see here for my own discussion of the legality issues).

At first blush the argument that one should violate the law in order to enforce it seems absurd, encouraging a counterproductive form of vigilante justice at best. But it does raise the question — are there times when we should violate international law in order to enforce it? Or more explicitly in the Syrian context: under what conditions and according to what criteria would it be justifiable to violate the fundamental rule prohibiting the use of force against sovereign states, in order to enforce the fundamental rule prohibiting the use of chemical weapons? Are there some practical responses that might provide some guidance for policy makers?

It must be acknowledged that there are some situations in which we accept that it would be justifiable to violate the law, or at the very least in which the circumstances would mitigate against our full condemnation of a violation. Such justification, in the form of exceptions, defenses, and reduced punishment, is indeed built into most domestic legal systems, and is part of most conceptions of justice. … Read more…