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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The Danger in Abe’s Constitutional Amendment Proposal

(Published in The Japan Times, Aug. 5, 2019)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has demanded that the Diet move forward with debating his Liberal Democratic Party’s proposal for amending Article 9 of the Constitution, with a view to possibly having a vote on the issue in 2020. Having failed to retain a two-thirds supermajority in the Upper House election on July 21, he will need to sway some members outside of his coalition to win approval of any such amendment, and thus the debate will be more meaningful, its consequences more significant.

Many observers will be struck by how modest the new amendment proposal seems, and thus may be lulled into thinking that there is little to fear from it. This is a grave mistake. Once analyzed in its broader context, the ramifications of the proposal look much more dangerous.

To begin, it will be recalled that Article 9 has two paragraphs. The first provides that Japan renounces war and the threat or use of force as sovereign rights of the nation. The second, which has been more controversial and far less effective, has two clauses: first, a prohibition on the maintenance of land, sea or air forces or other war potential; and second, a denial of the rights of belligerency. While many legal scholars view the existence and size of the Self-Defense Forces as being patently inconsistent with this provision, that is not the official view.

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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.