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Opinio Juris: The Missing Link in Trump’s strike on Syria

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] O [/yt_dropcap]n 7th April, the United States announced the firing of 59 tomahawk missiles each armed with 1000 pounds of explosives at the Al Shayrat airfield in Syria. The firing which was the first direct attack by the Trump administration against the Assad regime was targeted at Syrian radar equipments, jets, bunkers, fuel sites and other military equipment at the airfield.

According to Syrian officials at least seven people were killed and nine were injured in the attack. The purpose of the use of force according to the United States was as follows:

  1. To deter Syria from using chemical weapons against civilians in the ongoing Civil War in the aftermath of the Khan Sheikoun chemical bombing in the rebel held Idlib province that killed around 80 people including 20 women and 30 children.
  2. To provide an appropriate response in the wake of the ‘international community’ failing to act against Syria.

Syria acknowledged the armed attack on its territory while vehemently denying the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikoun in North Western Syria. Syria was joined by Russia which claimed that the use of chemical weapons cannot be attributed to the Syrian government. A week since the attack, the official position of the two counties remains unchanged. Interestingly, the attacks took place while the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was in the midst of its fact finding mission regarding the alleged State sponsored chemical attack and was yet to reach an objective determination regarding the veracity of the allegations against Syria. A former CIA official Philip Giraldi questioned the official line of Syria employing chemical weapons as a ‘sham’. Congresswomen Tulsi Gabbard also made a pointed reference to the same. Irrespective of who is involved in the Khan Sheikoun chemical attacks, the US use of force against the Syrian government requires deeper analysis.

While it has been argued that Trump’s strike in Syria, irrespective of its legality has created a new norm in international law since it is evidence of a new State Practice it is argued that it is not the case as it is doubtful whether the United States as a country had the sufficient opinio juris necessary to trigger the emergence of new norm.

Customary International Law (CIL) and the Use of Force

The prohibition on the use of force is a well accepted principle in international law. Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter codifies this principle in no uncertain terms. Use of force is permitted only with the authorization of the United Nations Security Council unless it is for the purposes of self-defence within the purposes of Article 51 of the Charter. Article VI Clause 2 of the US Constitution, more famously known as the ‘Supremacy Clause’ stipulates that all treaties made under the authority of the Constitution are part of the Supreme law of the land. Self defence as a ground for the use of force can be pressed into operation only when a State has faced an armed attack or risks an imminent threat of an armed attack. There is near unanimity that the Trump’s administration’s use of force did not fall in this category despite some initial half- hearted attempts to classify the use of force under this head (on the ground that Syria’s use of chemical weapons threatens American interests in the Middle East). The final position of the administration was one of deterrence and response to a humanitarian crisis in the wake of the unprecedented use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

This compels one to examine whether a new norm pertaining to the unilateral use of force (without necessarily involving the UNSC) for the purposes of deterring a party from violating the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or reprisal against a State Party which has already violated the Convention (by the alleged use of Chemical weapons against its citizens) has emerged in CIL in the wake of Trump’s strike against Syria.

For a customary norm to emerge in CIL, it is essential that two principal criteria should be satisfied for the same: Firstly, there should be evidence of consistent state practice (which is an objective condition) and secondly, there should be evidence of a belief in the necessity and legality of the action (or omission) concerned. This condition is subjective in nature and is referred to as Opinio Juris sive necessitatis or simply opinio juris.

The latter is to be determined from the conduct of the State and its belief in the legality of its actions. In other words, a state must take recourse to a particular course of action accepting it as law guided by a conviction in the legal and necessary requirement of such action.

While State Practice is comparatively easy to establish, it’s not the case with opinio juris. Opinio juris may in cases be intrinsically bound with State Practice but is widely regarded as an independent second requirement for the emergence of a new customary norm. Past conduct amidst internal debates and controversies surrounding a course of action can be used as a determinant of the necessary opinio juris for a particular conduct.

United States and use of Force

The factual veracity of the chemical attacks alleged against the Syrian government assume significance in this context. Given the admissions by former Secretary of State Colin Powell of being mislead by rogue elements in the CIA with respect to his February 2003 UN Speech regarding Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction and more recently claims by the Trump campaign that CIA’s assessment of Russia breaking into the mails of the Democratic party being incorrect one can draw a safe conclusion that the intelligence gathering framework of the country is not above suspicion. Since the US invasion of Iraq was based on faulty intelligence, a decision to use force in Syria should have been based on independent impartial international evidence. Trump’s refusal to wait till the OPCW investigation into the veracity of the claims points fingers to the administrations indifference to objective fact finding. This assumes significance since the Assad government continues to deny (rightly or otherwise) the use of chemical weapons. Russia’s unconditional support in this regard bolsters Syria’s claim. Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations Sacha Llorenti Soliz brought this fact to the knowledge of the UN Security Council on the day the US attacks took place. The Powell fiasco aided by a murky intelligence apparatus colour the evidentiary framework for the use of force, especially so when use of force is unilateral. Unilateral use of force in the Jus ad bellum framework requires a greater burden of proof on one exercising such a claim which was not discharged in this case.

Significantly enough, this is not the first instance of chemical warfare by the Syrian government. In August 2013, a Sarin gas attack was launched by the Assad government in Ghouta resulting in the deaths of around 1400 people. While the latest chemical attack took less than 100 lives, the previous attack which had many more causalities did not provoke a military response from the US. In fact, attempts to secure the permission of the Congress failed to evoke a positive response compelling the Obama administration to abandon the idea. Instead, the administration found common cause with Putin in goading Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and a deal under which the latter would be required to dismantle its arsenals of chemical weapons. Interestingly, the Obama negotiated deal required UNSC sanction before Syria is held accountable for any violation. This was the outcome of a belief that treaty violations should necessarily require independent resolution at the hands of the UN without resorting to the unilateral use of force.

While it could be argued, that the Khan Sheikoun incident is the first major violation of the CWC by Syria, the refusal of the Congress and the Obama administration to use force in Syria in August 2013 is evidence of a belief that armed response is not necessarily the appropriate response to a humanitarian crisis involving the use of suspect means of warfare. This obviates the contention that there exists a common unanimous line of reasoning in the various branches of the US government as regards the country’s approach to Jus in bello violations.

While Trumps strike had no backing from the Congress the latter being formally informed of the bombing two days after the eventuality, subsequent voices from the Congress approved the strike. Senior members of the Congress including the likes of Nancy Pelosi were unequivocal in their assertion that any future escalation of the conflict would require authorization of the legislative body. This settles the contention that “one off” strikes by the President create no acceptable precedent regarding use of force and Congress remains the final arbiter in the use of force. This is consistent with Article1 Section 8 Clause 11 of the US Constitution which grants “War Powers” exclusively to the Congress. Even if the President is authorized to undertake limited “one off” strikes, they should be undertaken under appropriate Congressional authorization. Strangely enough, most instances of Presidential use of force by Presidents Bush and Obama (except Libya) were justified under a 2001 Congressional authorization which permitted military use against those who plotted 9/11. Since the 2001 resolution pertained to Al Qaeda, it cannot aid the Trump administration in Syria given the reality that the Al-Nusra Front (the Syrian affiliate of the Al Qaeda) is engaged in efforts to topple Assad. Conflicts between the Congress and the President over the War Powers Resolution are not unknown with President Nixon staunchly opposing attempts by the Congress to legislate on the issue in the wake of the Vietnam War.

Attempts by the Attorney General’s office to carve out a “national interest” exception to the use of force (and readily employed by Obama in Libya) and used earlier in Bosnia and Haiti were premised on the logic that the credibility of the UN and the UNSC would be jeopardized if US does not resort to the use of force. In addition, geographical proximity to the USA was a ground for US “national interest” deployment in Haiti.

The “national interest” logic was employed by the Trump administration in the Syria bombing without any explanation as to how they correspond to US State practice in Bosnia, Libya or Haiti to ascertain the development of the necessary opinio juris for the creation of a new norm. Neither is the United Nations protected or UNSC resolutions honoured by US force of force against Syria. On the contrary, it is reasonable to conclude that the unilateral US air strikes have further eroded the credibility of the UNSC and the possibility of a Chapter VII resolution pursuant to an objective determination by the OPCW. The argument advanced by the Trump administration that American interests in the Middle East would be jeopardized if Assad resorts to the use of chemical weapons is a convenient ruse given the fact that Assad seems to have no broader interest other than securing the control of his beleaguered country from the clutches of non state actors who control large swathes of the Syrian landmass.

Scholars have argued that US use of force without UNSC approval had a precedent in the Yugoslav bombings carried out during the Clinton Presidency. However, US took care to ensure that the bombings were a ‘sui generis’ case involving a broader coalition of 19 nations. This implied that the precedent would have a limited ambit. NATO unilateralism was criticized by the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. Additionally, there was no fixed pattern for humanitarian intervention conducted by the Clinton administration in general as evidenced from Rwanda’s case where 800000 Rwandans Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in a brutal genocide. US was unable to agree on a common framework to the use of force in the African country which cast aspersions on its subsequent eagerness to enter the Balkan conflict.

While attempting to justify humanitarianism in the attack against Syria, Trump referred to the plight of “beautiful babies” losing their lives in the protracted conflict especially so in the wake of the Chemical attack. However, the same administration was the brain behind an executive order that prevented the entry of citizens of seven Muslim majority nations including Syria from entering the United States. Here again there is no consistently displayed by the administration towards Syrian victims of the Civil war displaying the absence of opinio juris in creating a uniform norm of humanitarian conduct.

Tracing the history of US use of force one can observe that there exists no consistent pattern that could prove necessary opinio juris necessary for the creation of a new norm. While State practice pertaining to the use of force has existed, the same has been guided by policy considerations based on political expediency lacking uniformity of approach or consistency of objectives. A conviction in the legality and necessity of certain actions though claimed is negated by diverse situational geo-political considerations regarding the use of force. In line with the ICJ ruling in the North Sea Continental Shelf Case, wherein it was held that frequent and habitual performance of an act is in itself not sufficient to establish the creation of a norm unless there existed a belief in the legal necessity of such conduct; a legal conviction on the use of force for a treaty violation like the CRC is not established by Trump’s unilateral bombing of Syria in light of domestic and international norms of use of force.

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International Law

A sea and thousands of concerns

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The name of the “Caspian Sea” has been recently heard more than any other time! In the meantime, there are rumors, ambiguities and, of course, concerns that need to be described in the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea which was signed on August 12 in the port city of Aktau, Kazakhstan.

Accordingly, there are some important points that calls for attention and scrutiny. In general, over the past 21 years, several meetings have been held on the Caspian Sea and how the coastal countries should be benefited from its resources. In these meetings, legal, security, economic, and even cultural cooperation were discussed among the littoral countries.

After more than two decades of fraught diplomatic efforts, the five littoral Caspian nations – Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan – agreed upon a legal framework for sharing the world’s largest inland body of water. However, as long as all disputes, especially legal conflicts between the participating countries aren’t resolved, it is impossible to talk about the establishment and continuity of sustainable relations among these countries. It should be noted that over the past two decades, one of the main tasks of our country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been to direct this case and determine its legal convention.

1) Prolongation of the finalizing process of a case is not undesirable if it’s the result of scrutiny in the legal and technical parts. This is the case with determining the legal dimensions of the Caspian Sea Convention. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we witnessed a kind of transformation in the Caspian legal regime. The Soviet Union was divided into 15 countries.

Consequently, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan each became a separate and independent variable in this equation. Undoubtedly, the transformation of a two-variable legal equation into a “legal-security” multivariable equation is not considered a simple transformation. Therefore, we should understand the complexities of the Caspian case.

The countries of Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Russia and Kazakhstan each have specific demands regarding their share of the Caspian Sea resources. Making a balance between these demands and subsequently realizing them is very difficult and complicated. What is important in this context is to strengthen the “principle of cooperation” among the Caspian coastal nations, and to define joint maritime projects among all neighboring countries to protect the Caspian Sea.

Another point to be taken into consideration here is about the draft of the Caspian Sea Legal Convention and the role of the Foreign Ministry in this process. As mentioned above, the Caspian Sea Case has been open for more than two decades and has not yet come to a complete conclusion. Negotiations held among the Caspian Sea littoral states should distract our attention from the realities.

It should be noted that the establishment of the Caspian Sea Legal Convention is the basis for solving the existing disagreements over the Caspian Sea and defining concrete and conclusive cooperation among the littoral countries. A remarkable part of such security and economic cooperation will be the result of this convention.
In other words, the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea can’t and shouldn’t be taken as in the same level with “defining the security and economic cooperation” between the coastal countries. Undoubtedly, the definition of economic, security and even cultural cooperation between the coastal countries depends on the settlement of legal disputes between these countries and setting of a common legal convention.

2) Speaking of controversial issues such as Iran’s 50 percent share of the Caspian Sea, which couldn’t be fulfilled even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the creation of false subjectivities in the country, by those who claim to be the representatives of our people, has no result except for the weakening of national security.

his is while the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, had emphasized that “we should recognize there are more important issues that need to be addressed.”
This is a legal process, and one of the main tasks of our country’s diplomacy and foreign policy system is to manage and direct this complex process. Obviously, under the current circumstances, expressing biased and targeted words will only lead to the loss of focus of our country’s diplomatic apparatus on this critical case.

Finally, it should be noted that good commitments were made during the meeting among the countries involved in this case. Today, the ministers of foreign affairs of the Caspian littoral states, unanimously emphasize on the necessity of the absence of foreign forces in this region, which is a positive trend. Moreover, from the statements made by the foreign ministers of the Caspian littoral states, we understand that their cooperation on resolving existing disputes has become faster than before.

However, until all legal conflicts between the Caspian littoral countries are not totally resolved and the Convention of the Caspian Sea Law Convention is not perfectly codified, we can’t think of this legal and strategic case as closed and settled. Therefore, in this critical situation, all efforts should be made so that Iran can benefit most.
It is emphasized here that even one singled legal disagreement should not remain among the players involved in the case. Meanwhile, the mechanism for resolving disputes should be carefully decided. Therefore, while welcoming the settlement of the existing disagreements over the Caspian Sea, there shouldn’t be any haste in completing this process.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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International Law

Iran has to be very careful in future negotiations on Caspian Sea

Payman Yazdani

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Professor of political science says although the text of the Caspian Sea Treaty signed on August 12, 2018 in Kazakhstan does not define the share of each of the littoral states, Iran has to be very careful in future negotiations.

Five Caspian Sea littoral states signed Caspian Sea Treaty on August 12, 2018 in Kazakhstan. The agreement has created many debates about the share of Iran in Iran.

To know more about the issue we reached out to Nader Entessar Professor Emeritus of Political Science in University of South Alabama.

There are many debates on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea. Some argue that according to the treaties of 1921 and 1940 between Iran and the USSR, the share of Iran equals to 50% of this sea. Is Iran’s share stipulated in those treaties?

Nader Entessar

No.  Neither the 1921 nor the 1940 treaties specify that Iran and the USSR each share 50 per cent ownership of the Caspian Sea.  Both of these treaties talk in general terms about the resources of the Caspian Sea being the used by Iran and the USSR without stipulating the exact ownership of the seabed, boundary delimitation, and other related issues.  We have to remember that these two treaties were signed well before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was drafted and came into force.  Therefore, the 1921 and 1940 treaties could not have foreseen the complex issues of maritime boundaries that were discussed in UNCLOS.

Based on the international law, what is the legal status of the Caspian Sea after the collapse of the USSR and the sharing of the Caspian Sea by the five littoral states? Some bring about the idea of 20% sharing? Is there any base for this idea in the international law? 

The answer to this question depends on if the Caspian is defined as a “sea” or a “lake.”  If one classifies the Caspian as a lake, then according to international law its resources should be divided equally among the five riparian states.  However, if the Caspian is designated as a sea, then the five littoral states should draw lines extending from their shores to the midway point with littoral neighbors.  This explains why for many years Iran had insisted on defining the Caspian as a lake.  However, it appears that the five littoral states agreed in Aktau that the Caspian is a sea.  That is why some observers have argued that in the final delimitation agreement, Iran will end up getting not only about 13 per cent of the Caspian but also the saltiest and deepest part of it.

Is the share of each of the littoral states from the Caspian Sea defined in the convention signed on August 12 in Kazakhstan?

No, the text of the Caspian Sea Treaty signed on August 12, 2018 in Kazakhstan does not define the share of each of the littoral states.  In so far as Iran is concerned, this issue will have to be determined in a future agreement with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.  Iran has to be very careful in future negotiations with its two neighbors because the resulting boundary agreement will determine Iran’s final Caspian share.

What is the main achievement of the Aktau Convention, signed on August 12 in Kazakhstan, in regards to the legal regime and status of the Caspian Sea?

Although some reports have referred to the Caspian Sea Convention as a “landmark agreement,” I don’t view this agreement as such.  Its main achievement was that after more than 20 years of contentious diplomatic efforts, the five littoral states of the Caspian Sea finally agreed on a legal framework for sharing the resources of this significant body of water.  There are some clear and specific agreements in the Convention.  For example, all five littoral states agreed to 15 miles of sovereign waters, plus a further 10 nautical miles of fishing area.  But the wording of the Convention remains vague in many parts of the document, thus delaying divisive decisions that have to be made in future negotiations.

First published in our partner MNA

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International Law

Fifty Years of NPT: Weaknesses over the course

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NPT is a landmark treaty that lies at the heart of non-proliferation regime (NPR). In July 2018, Fiftieth anniversary of the NPT has been celebrated. Theoretically, NPT is committed to the goal of arms control and aims to accomplish the nuclear disarmament. For this purpose, the NPT member states are devoted to pursue three key objectives of the treaty: prevent horizontal proliferation, state’s right to use nuclear energy for peaceful objectives, and nuclear disarmament. However practically due to shifting US’ alliances, major power politics, and growing arms race, the fifty years of NPT has only delivered “Distress, Conflict and discrimination”.

Loopholes and weaknesses exist in NPT which are being misused by Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) and Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) of the treaty. Despite the NPT’s presence for 50 years and an expansion in its membership, atomic weapons have not been wiped out from the world. All the NWS aim to maintain their nuclear weapon state status due to their security or strategic concerns. Despite the dialogues of arms control, all major and smaller nuclear weapon states are committed to maintaining credible deterrence and strategic balance. Such aspirations of NWS demonstrate that major powers party to the arms control and disarmament treaty are merely the silent spectators to the existing weakened structure of the so called universal treaty of 191 member states due to their own vested interests.

The fifty years of NPT have reaffirmed that the universal mechanism to fight with nuclear proliferation and achieving the objective of disarmament is not adequate for two reasons: first, the international mechanism of non-proliferation has failed to deal with the few potential proliferators; secondly, strategic and security concerns of NWS and NNWS has undermined the Articles I, II, IV, VI and X of the treaty. In spite of the fact that until the 1980s worldwide measures to counteract atomic multiplication were generally more effective, yet in the subsequent years the NPT was not much successful to counter the aspirants of nuclear capability such as North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria. Due to inadequate mechanism and weaknesses of the treaty, now nine states possess nuclear weapon capability and approximately 30 states have the technical ability to acquire it that is viewed as serious threat to the NPT.

Despite the potentials of non-proliferation, since 1968 with participation of 191 states and various agreements and talks, an efficient and effective regime stresses on pin pointing the weaknesses and restructuring, re-evaluation and reformation of the treaty structure.  The key setback to the NPT is that the articles of the treaty are not fairly adopted by the member states due to which the regime has failed to address the significant objectives of horizontal proliferation, arms control and disarmament. For instance under Article I of the treaty, transfer of nuclear material and technology by NWS to NNWS is prohibited. But treaty has failed to address the transfer of fissile material and nuclear technology from one NWS to another NWS. Such dynamic have increased the insecurities of NNWS and resultantly forces them to take extreme measures to ensure their security .e.g. North Korea. Simultaneously, despite being the member of the treaty, the US has been providing nuclear related technology to India since 1990s under the umbrella of various bilateral treaties or agreements. India-US nuclear agreement and granting of NSG waiver to India is viewed as an intentional measure to help India increase its military buildup to carry forward strategic ambitions of the US in the Asian region.

Furthermore, the US agreement with India for joint production and development of  military related technology such as mini UAVs , distinctive kits for C130 and designing/ development of jet engine technology has played central role in speedy development of India’s nuclear program. Such development is not only the violation of NPT by the US but also compels the NNWS to acquire nuclear capability to address their security concerns.  Right of all states to use nuclear energy for peaceful objectives played key role as bargaining chip and is viewed as major loophole in the treaty due to technical similarities in peaceful use of nuclear technology and technology for military purposes. North Korea Withdrew from the NPT in 2003.Article X of the treaty provides the right to member states to withdraw from the treaty if their sovereignty is on stake. However not accepting the states’ right to withdraw from the treaty is denial of their right of self defence and violation of treaty. Therefore, discriminatory attitude, special treatment and country specific treatment pose serious question mark on the implementation and standards of NPR.It demonstrates that the regime is just an instrument of major powers to fulfill their strategic and foreign policy objectives.

The current doctrines of NWS comprise of elements warfare, which shows hegemonic mindsets of major powers and explains their reluctance to give up on their “nuclear assets”. These factors have posed negative impact on the process of non-proliferation and disarmament. Therefore it can be inferred that the above mentioned scenarios have played central role in keeping Pakistan away from joining the NPR. If NPT states want to attract non-NPT states for the membership of regime then the current member states will have to pursue non-discriminatory approach towards non-proliferation themselves.

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