U.S. Missile Strikes in Somalia and the Laws of War

As was reported in the New York Times and elsewhere on May 2, the U.S. fired at least four Tomahawk cruise missiles into Somalia, striking a compound in the town of Dusa Marreb, killing at least ten people. One of them, the primary target of the attack, was an alleged Al Qaeda operative named Aden Hashi Ayro, who was suspected of having killed a BBC journalist among other things. He was reported to be a notorious terrorist.

Several blog posts have noted the lack of mainstream discussion on the legality of this missile strike. Prof. Marty Lederman, writing in Slate, suggested that few seem to care whether it was legal. But even among the bloggers, the majority of posts I have seen, as in the case of Prof. Lederman’s, have focused primarily on the constitutional issues of whether the President had sufficient authority, explicit or otherwise, to launch such attacks. There has been some discussion of the jus in bello issues, such as whether the strikes met the criteria of military necessity and proportionality, given the apparent collateral damage. But few have addressed the jus ad bellum issues – was this missile strike, and those prior to it (there have been several such attacks on Somalia since 2006) lawful under the international laws on the use of armed force?

Developments in jus ad bellum?

Prof. Jullian Ku was one of few that has raised the issue, on Opinio Juris, but he merely floated the idea that since such strikes have met with little objection, they may be evidence that the U.S. is operating in a legal paradigm that approximates that of war. Implicit in this is the proposition that there have been developments in international law on the use of force since 9/11 that permit one to wage war on organizations, and which give the global “war on terror” a legal foundation that would permit such strikes against Al Qaeda operatives at large in a “failed state”.

As I commented on his post over at Opinio Juris, I question whether the fact that there has been little formal objection to the strike can be said to support the inference that the strikes were therefore lawful or justifiable under international law, or that it reflects developments in international law that permit such strikes. … Read more…

New U.S. Legal Rationales for Torture – A Comparison with Israel

There is new fodder for the tortured torture debate in the U.S. New evidence is emerging that the government views secret ex ante determinations, presumably by the government itself, of whether harsh treatment of detainees may be justified by reason of necessity. It is useful to compare this position with the 1995 judgment of the Supreme Court of Israel, in which the Court rejected government arguments that it could find ex ante authority for harsher interrogation techniques in the principle of necessity.

An article in The New York Times on Sunday described how recent letters to Congress from the Department of Justice (DoJ) explain that the government reserves the right to decide on a case-by-case basis what interrogation methods would violate international law standards against mistreatment of detainees. Specifically, the letters from the DoJ state that where harsher interrogation measures are “undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse” then such measures could be determined to be not “outrageous” or otherwise in violation of international standards. … Read more…

Bagram Prison, the U.S.-Afghani Detainee Agreements, and Int’l Law

The New York Times carried a detailed piece on the U.S. detention policy in Afghanistan on Monday, January 7, 2007. It is an excellent overview on the prison, but the information provided in the piece gives rise to a number of international law issues that are not explicitly discussed or acknowledged in the article itself. I first review the salient facts, and then turn to the issues.

The facts

It reviewed the history of Bagram Prison and the extent to which it was in many respects worse than the facility in Guantanamo Bay. There are over 600 detainees being held there, most of whom have not been charged with any offence or been subject to any legal proceeding. Some have been held without charge for more than five years. The average detention is over 14 months long. Moreover, while U.S. authorities claim that all detainees are to be processed and “registered” within fourteen days of admission, and thus accessible to the International Red Cross when it visits, they also conceded that there were exceptions. An IRC confidential report, according to administration sources, claims that it has been denied access to a “warren of isolation cells” in the Bagram facility.

But what is more striking from the article is the account of how the U.S. Defence Department officials applied pressure on the Karzai administration to establish a regime of indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” along the lines of the so-called legal framework of Guantanamo Bay. President Karzai refused to sign the decree drafted with U.S. assistance to authorize and establish the regime.

A 2005 agreement to transfer the bulk of detainees to Afghanistan was the basis for a more detailed plan of transfer, as outlined in an exchange of diplomatic notes. The notes reflect that the U.S. sought to have the Afghanistan government share any intelligence obtained from detainees, to “utilize all methods appropriate and permissible under Afghan law to surveil or monitor their activities following any release,” and “confiscate or deny passports and take measures to prevent each national from travelling outside Afghanistan.”Read more…

Water-boarding Not Torture Because the Government Did It?

The article “Nominee’s Stand May Avoid Tangle of Torture Cases” (New York Times, Nov. 1) seems to suggest that Mr. Mukasey’s reticence on the issue of water-boarding is prudent and reasonable. But the logic of the political explanations for the nominee’s position is actually deeply disturbing. MukaseyReduced to its essentials, it is this: “It would be bad for the President or his agents to be found to have engaged in criminal behavior, thus we will not define as criminal such actions that the President’s agents may have undertaken, or which he may have directed.” It would be no different, in terms of the form of argument, from saying “to the extent that the President’s agents may have decapitated American civilians, and that homicide is illegal, I am not prepared to say that decapitation is homicide”. It almost boils down to Richard Nixon’s infamous comment that if the President did it, it can’t be illegal. When the Attorney General will not even lay the case of possible executive wrongdoing before a court to decide, this country will be well on its way to sacrificing both the rule of law and the constitutional division of powers in the name of national security. (Submitted as a letter to the editor, New York Times)