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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The Omar Khadr Settlement Reaffirms Canada’s Values

(Published in the HuffPost, July 17, 2017).

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Much has been written both for and against the recent Khadr settlement, in which the Canadian government provided Omar Khadr with an apology and a $10.5 million payment. But the debate has largely focused on the wrong issue. Much of the discussion revolves around what Omar Khadr “deserves”—whether he deserved the treatment he received because he is a “confessed killer and terrorist”; or whether he now deserves the apology and payment because he is a “victim of torture and a denial of justice”.

As much as the settlement is about Omar Khadr and what he may deserve, it is more importantly about what Canada and Canadians deserve. An apology is not only for the benefit of the aggrieved, but for the integrity of the apologizer. Canada and Canadians deserves the atonement, the reaffirmation and restoration of our values, that is made possible by the settlement. Let me explain.

Canadian Values

The starting point has to be with our own values as a nation. What does Canada stand for, and what does it mean to be Canadian? We we are a liberal democratic country founded on constitutionalism, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. While the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has only been part of our constitutional system for some 25 years, surveys show that it has come to be the most significant determinant of Canadian national identity. This is likely because Canada has for much longer been a champion of international human rights, and international law more generally. In short, we are a nation that respects and embraces human rights.
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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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Time to Kill the Term ‘Officer-Involved Shooting’

(Published on the Huffington Post, May 26, 2015)

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If you subscribe to the Facebook page of the organization “Killed by Police“, you will receive a depressing parade of daily updates on police shootings. This litany of posts drives home the fact that the police in the U.S. kill several people a day on average. But one will also notice that the media typically reports these killings as “office-involved shootings.”

Why has the media taken to reporting the shooting and killing of people by law enforcement this way? It is dangerously misleading. Moreover, it is not just the headline that employs such ambiguous language. Typically, the report goes on to explain that the person “died” as a result of the “officer-involved shooting.” This use of such euphemistic language to describe an incident in which an organ of the state has killed a citizen is not only bizarre, it should alarm us. As Orwell so eloquently explained in such essays as “Politics and the English Language” and “Writers and Leviathan,” such deliberately misleading and opaque use of language can pose a danger to the fabric of democracy. If we do not write clearly about our political system and public institutions, we will cease to think very clearly about them too. … Read more…