What are the Limits on Lawfare?

(Published on Opinio Juris, May 5, 2019)

Questions regarding the meaning, importance, and operation of “lawfare” were recently discussed at a great conference on Legal Resilience in an Era of Hybrid Threatsat the University of Exeter. Several speakers explained how lawfare is being used by adversaries of Western states, and urgently argued that “we” must ourselves engage in lawfare as part of a comprehensive response to such hybrid threats. Yet I was left thinking that not nearly enough attention is being paid to the importance of developing principled limits on the conduct of lawfare, and that it is dangerous to urge the practice of lawfare in the absence of such limits.

The Meaning and Scope of Lawfare

It was interesting to note that there is not even a clear consensus on the meaning of the term “lawfare.” Generally speaking, it is understood to mean the use of law, or exploitation of aspects of a legal system, to achieve tactical or strategic advantages in the context of conflict. As the sub-title of Orde Kittrie’s book on the subjectsuggests, lawfare is the use of “law as a weapon of war.”

Kittrie, speaking at the conference, cited human shields as a prime example. On the one hand, adversaries such as ISIS use human shields to deter attacks by exploiting Western compliance with principles IHL, and to reap public relations benefits in the event civilians are killed. On the other hand, in response there have been recent efforts by Western states to pass domestic legislation and pass resolutions within UN institutions to facilitate the prosecution of those who use human shields. Both of these are characterized as lawfare—the use of law as a means to further strategic ends in armed conflict. While the enemy’s use of it is nefarious, ours is benign. This all sounds well and good, but as I will return to below, that distinction can be blurred.

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What Role and Rules for Canada’s Armed Drones?

Published a short essay, “What Role and Rules for Canada’s Armed Drones,” in the Canadian Global Affairs Institute: Policy Perspectives, Dec. 23, 2018. Here is the abstract:

The Canadian government announced in June 2017 that it was planning to purchase and deploy armed drones. Yet to date it has provided virtually no information on how and for what purpose such armed drones would be used, beyond anodyne comments that they would be used like any other conventional weapon. However, conventional weapons have varying capabilities and purposes, and implicate international law in different ways as a result. Armed drones have been primarily used for the purpose of targeted killing, in ways that have raised significant legal questions and triggered claims of excessive civilian deaths. Canadians should be concerned about how, for what purpose, and according to what limitations the government plans to deploy armed drones. Other countries have provided greater transparency than Canada regarding the law and policy framework governing the use of armed drones. This short essay reviews how armed drones have been used elsewhere, explains the significant legal issues that are implicated by the different ways in which drones have been used and what that implies for the role of Canadian armed drones. It suggests that strict, clear and publicly disclosed limits be placed on drone use to ensure compliance with Canada’s international law obligations.

Japan’s Definition of Armed Attack and ‘Bloody Nose’ Strikes Against North Korea

(published in Just Security, Feb. 1, 2018)

Shinzō_Abe_and_Donald_Trump_in_Palm_Beach_(2)There has been an important discussion in the last couple of weeks over the legality of possible limited strikes, part of a so-called “bloody nose” strategy, by the United States against North Korea. The main issue of that debate has been quite conclusively determined: such a strike would not be legal. And as Victor Cha, the White House’s pick, until recently, to be ambassador to South Korea, laid out in an op-ed this week, it would be deeply misguided as a policy choice. There remains more to be said, however, about a couple of interesting and potentially important questions regarding Japan’s position in relation to such strikes. One, which has been raised but not fully answered in the discussion, relates to whether Japan has already somehow consented in advance to U.S. action in collective self-defense of Japan. The second, which has not been explicitly addressed at all, is whether Japan defines “armed attack” for purposes of triggering the right of self-defense differently than does the U.S.

To recap briefly, the debate was set off by an essay in Lawfare by two West Point professors, Army Lt. Col. Shane Reeves and Army Capt. Robert Lawless, arguing that limited strikes on North Korea would be lawful. Virtually all elements of their argument were quite persuasively demolished by Kevin Jon Heller in Opinio Juris, and Michael Schmitt and Ryan Goodman here in Just Security.

A central premise of one strand of the Reeves/Lawless argument was that the test-firing of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into the territory of Japan could constitute an armed attack, triggering an American right to use force as an exercise of collective self-defense. They were dismissive of the position of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that collective self-defense requires a request from and consent of the country under attack, suggesting that the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the U.S. and Japan (the “U.S.-Japan Security Treaty”), “may provide a basis” for American action. They went on to note that, in their view, Japan was in any event very unlikely to oppose American strikes in defense of Japan.

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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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