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Targeting Terrorist Leaders After Al-Baghdadi: Legal And Tactical Expectations

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“For By Wise Counsel, Thou Shalt Make Thy War.”-Proverbs, 24 (6)

Under the protective tutelage of an American president, any American president, “We the People” should expect reasonable levels of safety in world politics.  At a minimum, we should be able to assume that  wide and predictably capable circles of public authority remain ready to thwart terrorist attacks. Most urgently, of course, such assurances should apply with special clarity to mega-terrorist attacks.

Always.

By definition, such mega or WMD aggressions would involve chemical, biological or nuclear elements.[1]

Here, there are both legal and operational issues to be considered. In terms of United States law, the authoritative roots of any such presumptive  assurances go back to Roman statesman Cicero (“The safety of the people shall be the highest law.”) and to seventeenth century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. [2] Though plainly unfamiliar to America’s current president, Hobbes’ Leviathan was central to the education of Thomas Jefferson and other Founders.

Notwithstanding far greater difficulties of literary access and convenience in the eighteenth century, the author of America’s Declaration was impressively well read. He cared, really cared, about serious and dignified learning. In stark contrast to Donald J. Trump’s current inversion of US policy-making priorities, which  center on one conspicuous sort or other of “branding,” Jefferson believed in the primacy of intellectual “preparation.”

Expressly.

For Jefferson, erudition maintained an intrinsically serious meaning. It was never something to be used or exploited solely for private embellishment or public adornment.

For the nation’s third president, diplomacy and strategic bargaining  were analytic responsibilities. Accordingly, they were always about variously disciplined calculations. They were never merely about shallow bluster or feigned “attitude.”

Looking ahead to continuously effective US counterterrorist preparations, America’s national security establishment must remain ready for absolutely all contingencies. This needed preparedness includes building the conceptual foundations for any future Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Osama Bin-Laden “elimination-type” operations.[3] During the Obama years, one major targeted killing of a Jihadist terrorist was the September 2011 US drone-assassination of Anwar al -Awlaki in Yemen.[4] That case was notably “special” in one frequently overlooked aspect: The Jihadist al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico, and was ipso facto a US citizen.

Despite the US Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protections concerning “due process,”[5] al-Awlaki’s targeted killing represented a tactical option that could sometime need to be repeated.

There are other pertinent concerns. Regardless of clearly valid issues concerning legal permissibility, it is by no means certain that targeting terrorist leaders will prove continuously useful to supporting US national security objectives. What this means, in brief, is that the virulence and capacity of any relevant anti-American or anti-Western ideology (especially a Jihadist-type ideology) might not be removed or even meaningfully blunted by designated terrorist assassinations.

It is even conceivable, in these more-or-less singular matters, that the net security effect of any such “removal” could be markedly negative rather than reassuringly “cost effective.”

As a timely example, the recent elimination of al-Baghdadi could quickly or eventually bring to power in ISIS an even more capable and violent terrorist adversary. What then? In such an unexpected eventuality, the killing of al-Baghdadi will have produced various short-term political benefits for US President Donald Trump, but only at a significantly unacceptable national security cost.[6]

 There is more. For the United States, corollary legal issues must never be ignored. In relevant jurisprudential terms, we must already inquire: What explicit legal guidelines should we Americans expect our leadership to follow? To respond properly (among several other related and also intersecting concerns), Mr. Trump and his counselors would then need to ask: “Is it sufficiently legal to target and kill recognizable terrorists if verifiable linkages between prospective targets and discernible attack intentions can be reliably documented?”  

To properly answer this fundamental or core question, it will first be necessary for Mr. Trump’s relevant national security officials to ask whether a proposed terrorist killing plan would be gainfully preemptive or just narrowly retributive. If the latter, a judgment wherein national self-defense was not in any way the genuinely underlying action-rationale, authoritative determinations of legality could become more and more problematic.[7]

On occasion, matters could get even more complicated. After all, assassination is explicitly prohibited by US law.[8]  It is also generally a crime under international law, which, though not widely understood,[9] remains a legitimate and integral part of American domestic law.[10] Still, at least in certain more-or-less residual circumstances, the targeted killing of Jihadist terrorist leaders could be correctly excluded from certain ordinarily prohibited behaviors. Here, such peremptorily protective actions could be defended as a fully permissible expression of  national law-enforcement.

A similar defense might sometimes be applied to the considered killing of terrorist “rank-and-file,” especially where such selective lethality had already become part of an ongoing pattern of US counter-terrorism. Earlier, the United States had widened the scope of permissible terrorist targeting in parts of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. In part, at least, such a widened operational arc of permissibility – one which now modifies the more stringent prior rules of engagement that had once required specific human target identifications – has been an inevitable byproduct of continuously developing technologies.

Most obvious among these emergent technologies is the growing US reliance upon drone-based assassinations, and also on other related forms of long-range or long-distance killing.

In the best of all possible worlds, there would be no need for any such decentralized or “vigilante” expressions of international justice.  But we don’t yet live in such an ideal world. Instead, enduring uneasily in our present and still-broadly anarchic legal order – a context that we international law professors usually prefer to call “Westphalian”[11] – the only real alternative to precise self-defense actions against terrorists is likely to be certain steadily worsening “in-theatre” instabilities.

Ultimately, such expanding hyper-instabilities could include more flagrant and consequential escalations of Jihadist terror-violence. Such escalations could be unaffected or encouraged by future US targeted killings. This is to be expected even where “retributive justice” appeared as both reasonable and legal.

At some indeterminable point, terror-violence escalations could lead to major or even unprecedented instances of chemical, biological or nuclear attack. Plausibly, these attacks might be undertaken by assorted sub-state adversaries or instead, by particular “hybrid” combinations of state and sub-state foes.

At the most basic level of any such issues and calculations, the very idea of assassination or targeted killing as remediation could seem paradoxical, almost an oxymoron.  Seemingly, at least, this understandably objectionable idea must preclude the input of all the more usual “due processes of  law” consideration. Yet, since the current or “Westphalian” state system’s original inception in the seventeenth century, international relations have never been governable by the same civil protections that are potentially available within democratic states.

In this persistently anarchic and prospectively chaotic world legal system, one which still lacks any duly-constituted and effective supra-national authority, assorted Jihadist leaders (ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, al-Qaeda, etc) are already responsible for the mass killing of noncombatant men, women, and children of different nationalities. It follows, in at least some still-imaginable circumstances,  that where such leaders are not suitably “terminated” by the United States or by any of America’s key allies (e.g., Israel, in the tumultuous Middle East), incrementally egregious terror crimes could continue to multiply and also to remain unpunished.

Jurisprudentially, at least, any such predictable de facto impunity would be inconsistent with the universal legal obligation to punish international crimes, a jus cogens or peremptory obligation reaffirmed at the original 1945-46 Nuremberg Tribunal and subsequently in the 1946 and 1950 Nuremberg Principles.

 More formally, this lex talionis obligation, which comes to us from both ancient Roman law and the Hebrew Bible, is known correctly as Nullum crimen sine poena, or “No crime without a punishment.”[12]

Inevitably, complex considerations of law and tactics must inter-penetrate. In this particular connection, the glaring indiscriminacy of most jihadist operations is rarely if ever the result of enemy inadvertence. Rather, it is typically the intentional outcome of violent terrorist inclinations, unambiguously murderous ideals that lay deeply embedded in the Jihadist terrorist leader’s operative view of insurgency.

 For Jihadists, there can never be any meaningful distinction between civilians and non-civilians, between innocents and non-innocents. For these active or latent terrorist murderers, all that really matters are certain unassailably immutable distinctions distinguishing between Muslims, “apostates” and “unbelievers.”

As for the apostates and unbelievers, it is all quite simple.  Their lives, believe the Jihadists,  have literally no value. Prima facie, that is, they have no immunizing sanctity.  

In law, recalling Cicero, every government has both the right and the obligation to protect its citizens against external harms. In certain circumstances, this coincident right and obligation may extend derivatively to targeted killing. Actually, this point has long been understood (though also sometimes abused) in Washington, where every president in recent memory has given nodding or direct approval to “high value” assassination/targeted killing operations.

Certifiably, assassination is generally a tangible crime under international law. But in our essentially decentralized system of world law, self-help by individual states still remains altogether necessary, and is more-then-occasionally the only tangible alternative to suffering terrorist crimes. In the absence of particular targeted killings, terrorists could continue to create havoc against defenseless civilians almost anywhere, and do so with more-or-less complete impunity.

 A very specific difficulty here is this:  Jihadist terror criminals are usually immune to the more orthodox legal expectations of extradition and prosecution (Aut dedere, aut judicare).[13] This is not to suggest that the targeted assassination of terrorists will always “work” in tactical terms – indeed, there is literally nothing to support the logic of any such suggestion – but only that disallowing such targeted killing ex ante could not be operationally gainful or legally just.

In principle, if carried out with aptly due regard for pertinent “rules,” assassinating terrorist leaders could remain suitably consistent with the ancient legal principle of Nullum crimen sine poena, “No crime without a punishment.” Earlier, this original principle of justice had been cited as a dominant jurisprudential rationale for both the Tokyo and Nuremberg war crime tribunals. It was subsequently incorporated into customary international law, an authoritative legal source identified inter alia at Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice.[14]

 By both the codified and customary standards of contemporary international law, all terrorists are Hostes humani generis, or “Common enemies of humankind.”[15]  In the fashion of pirates, who were to be hanged by the first persons into whose hands they fell, terrorists are considered international outlaws who fall within the scope of “universal jurisdiction.” But choosing precisely which terrorists ought to be targeted remains a largely ideological rather than jurisprudential matter.

 Logically, in some current circumstances, tyrannicide could be seen as the “flip side” of American counter-terrorism. Historically, limited support for expressing assassination as a form of tyrannicide is not hard to discover.  It can be found, for example, in the classical philosophical writings of Aristotle and Plutarch as well as Cicero.

Overall, in his consideration of assassination or targeted-killing as counter-terrorism, President Donald Trump (or more realistically his designated counselors) should consider the clarifying position of Swiss scholar Emmerich de Vattel in his most famous work, The Law of Nations, or the Principles of Natural Law (1758): “The safest plan is to prevent evil where that is possible. A Nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.” 

Earlier, a similar view had been presented by Samuel Pufendorf in his seminal text, On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law (1682): “Where it is quite clear that he is engaged in planning violence against me, even though he has not fully revealed his design, I shall be justified in immediately initiating self-defence by force, and in seizing the initiative against him, while he is still making preparations…..The aggressor will be taken to be the party which first conceived the intention to harm the other….To have the name of defender, it is not necessary to suffer the first blow, or merely to elude and repel the blows aimed at one.”

Even earlier, the right of self-defense by forestalling an attack had been established by the foundational Dutch scholar, Hugo Grotius, in Book II of The Law of War and Peace (1625). Recognizing the need for what later jurisprudence would reference as threatening international behavior that is “imminent in point of time” (See The Caroline Case, 1837), Grotius indicated that self-defense must be permitted not only after an attack has already been suffered, but also in advance, wherever “the deed may be anticipated.”

Further on, in the same chapter, Grotius summarized : “It be lawful to kill him who is preparing to kill.”

Interestingly, Vattel, Pufendorf and Grotius were all taken into primary account by Thomas Jefferson in his critical fashioning of the American Declaration of Independence.

There is more. In all these matters, one must assume rational calculation. If the expected costs of a considered assassination should appear lower than the expected costs of  alternative resorts to military force, assassination could emerge as the distinctly gainful and moral choice. However odious it might appear in isolation, assassination or targeted killing in certain circumstances could still represent a security-seeking state’s best overall option.

Assassination will always elicit indignation, even by those who could find large-scale warfare appropriate. But the civilizational promise of some more genuinely centralized worldwide security is far from being realized, and existentially imperiled states could sometime still need to confront critical choices between employing assassination in measurably limited circumstances or renouncing such tactics at the foreseeable expense of national survival. In facing such inherently difficult choices, these states will inevitably discover that all viable alternatives to the assassination option could also include large-scale violence, and these these alternatives are apt to exact a substantially larger toll in human life and suffering.

 Naturally, in a presumptively better world than this one, assassination could have no defensible place as counterterrorism, either as a preemptive measure or ex post facto, that is, as a permissible retribution. But, as if anyone should still need a reminder, we do not yet live in the best of all possible worlds, and the obviously negative aspects of  targeted killing should never be evaluated apart from the foreseeable costs of other still-available options. More precisely, such aspects should always be closely compared to what could reasonably be expected of plausible alternative choices.

International law is not a suicide pact. Ubi cessat remedium ordinarium, ibi decurritur ad extraordinarium;  “Where the ordinary remedy fails, recourse must be had to an extraordinary one.”

President Trump is correctly expected to comply with the rules and procedures of humanitarian international law; yet, he must also continue to bear in mind that Jihadist enemies will remain unaffected by these or any other jurisprudential expectations. Assassination and other still broader forms of preemption may sometimes be not only allowable under binding international law, but also indispensable. Conversely, there are occasions when strategies of assassination or targeted killing could be determinedly legal but remain operationally ineffectual.

Now, recalling the close connections between international law and US law – connections that extend to direct and literal forms of  legal “incorporation” – an American president can never choose to dismiss the law of war on grounds that it is “merely” international. Always, President Trump should consider aptly decipherable connections between assassination, counter-terrorism and United States Constitutional Law. Unexpectedly or not, the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki had been approved by US President Barack Obama  and also by a secret committee of advisors allegedly based within the US Department of Justice.

Under US law, we are now bound to inquire, should an American president ever be authorized to order the extra-judicial killing of a United States citizen – even one deemed an “enemy combatant” – without any at least perfunctory reference to “due process of law?” On its face, any affirmative response to this necessary query would be difficult to defend under the US Constitution.

Of necessity, such presidential approval would need to be based upon a reasonably presumed high urgency of terror threat posed by the prospective victim. Any such “authorized” targeted killing of  US citizens would express a potentially irremediable tension between theoretically indissoluble individual citizen rights and the increasingly peremptory requirements of national public safety.

 Always, US policy on assassination or targeted killing will have to reflect a very delicate balance. Most important, in any such equilibrating calculation, will be the protection of civilian populations from Jihadist terror-inflicted harms. In those fearful circumstances where such harms would involve unconventional weapons of any sort – chemical, biological or nuclear – the legal propriety of targeting Jihadist terrorists could become patently obvious and also “beyond reasonable doubt.”

Nonetheless, such proper legal assessments ought never be undertaken apart from various corresponding operational expectations. This means, inter alia, that before any “extraordinary remedies” should be applied, those presumptive remedies should appear to be not only legal, but also tactically and strategically sound. In this connection, it would make elementary good sense to extrapolate from classical Prussian strategist’s Carl von Clausewitz’s enduring mantra in On War.

Assassination, like war, should always be “…a continuation of political relations by other means.”

More specifically, the targeted killing of terrorist leaders should always be assessed against a determinable and pre-existing “political object.”

In the absence of tangible  “congruence” in any such assessment, there could be no valid reason to proceed with a considered force-based operation. This is the case even where the contemplated targeting would be presumptively lawful and/or where it could expect to produce positive military outcomes.

In his Utopia, published in 1516, Thomas More offered a curious but clarifying juxtaposition of foreign policy stratagems and objectives. Although the Utopians are expected to be generous toward other states, they also offer (in Book II) tangible rewards for the assassination of enemy leaders. This is not because Thomas More wished in any way to appear barbarous, but because he was a fully realistic “utopian.” Sharing with St. Augustine (whose City of God had been the subject of More’s 1501 lectures) a fundamentally dark assessment of human political arrangements, he constructed a “lesser evil” philosophy that favored a distinctly pragmatic and still plausible kind of morality.

Inter alia, Sir Thomas More understood that the truly tragic element of politics is constituted of certain conscious choices of evil for the sake of a greater good. With regard to our ongoing scholarly investigation of US national security and counter-terrorism,, this suggests that assassination must always remain disagreeable in the “best of all possible worlds” (for example, the Leibnizian world satirized by Voltaire in Candide), but that it may also represent a necessary expedient in a world that must remain irremediably imperfect. In any event, these are matters that need to be treated in broadly intellectual and historical terms, and not as seat-of-the-pants decisions based on momentary presidential whim or embarrassingly empty witticisms.


[1] On the plausible consequences of a full-scale nuclear war, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed., 2018).

[2] Hobbes argued convincingly that the international state of nature is “less intolerable” than that same condition among individuals in nature because, in the latter, the “weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.” Significantly, with the spread of nuclear weapons, this difference is disappearing. Interestingly, in the pre-nuclear age, jurist Samuel Pufendorf, like Hobbes, was persuaded that the state of nations “…lacks those inconveniences which are attendant upon a pure state of nature….” Similarly, Spinoza suggested that “…a commonwealth can guard itself against being subjugated by another, as a man in the state of nature cannot do.” (See: Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis, University of Denver, Monograph Series in World Affairs, Vol. 10, No.3., 1972-73, p. 65.)

[3] See Louis René Beres, “The Killing of Osama Bin Laden,” Crimes of War, Crimes of War Project, August 2011, http://www.crimesofwar.org/commentary/the-killing-of-osama-bin-laden/; Louis René Beres, “Assassinating Terrorist Leaders: A Matter of International Law,” OUP Blog, Oxford University Press, May 4, 2011; and Louis René Beres, “After Osama Bin Laden: Assassination, Terrorism, War, and International Law,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, 44 Case W. Res, J. Int’l 93 (2011).

[4] Although “assassination” and “targeted killing” are often used interchangeably, there are meaningfully core distinctions to be made. Using the precise scholarly criteria offered by Amos Guiora, an assassination is always an expressly political killing that involves treachery or perfidy, and is not directed toward any suspected terrorist. A targeted killing, on the other hand, is a violent and person-specific expression of preemptive self-defense, and is always oriented to preventing some future act of terrorism. Always, inter alia, the targeted individual must be presumptively involved in the planning and execution of new terrorist assaults. See Amos. Guiora, Legitimate Target: A Criteria-Based Approach to Targeted Killing (New York, Oxford University Press, 2013).

[5] In the U.S. Constitution, Amendments IV, V, VI and VIII comprise a “Bill of Rights” for accused persons, and the phrase “due process of law” derives from Chapter 29 of Magna Carta (1215),  wherein the King promises that  “no free man (nullus liber homo) shall be taken or imprisoned or deprived of his freehold or his liberties or free customs, or outlawed or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, nor shall we come upon him or send against him,  except by a legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land (per legem terrae).”  See Coke,  Institutes,  Part 2:  50-51,  1669;  cited by E.S. Corwin,  The Constitution and What It Means Today  (New York:  Atheneum,  1963): 217.

[6] In this connection, it was surely not in overall US security interests for the American president to comment publicly  about al-Baghdadi that he “died like a dog….whimpering….like a coward.” Such inflammatory language was gratuitous at best, and could plausibly even incentivize future anti-American terrorism from various ISIS-related groups. Moreover, the language must assuredly have been invented by Trump.

[7] Here we must recall that criminal responsibility of leaders under international law is not limited to direct personal action nor is it limited by official position.  On the principle of command responsibility, or respondeat superior, see:  In re Yamashita,  327 U.S. 1 (1945);  The High Command Case (The Trial of Wilhelm von Leeb),  12 Law Reports Of Trials Of War Criminals 1 (United Nations War Crimes Commission Comp., 1949);  see Parks, Command Responsibility For War Crimes,  62 MIL.L. REV. 1 (1973);  O’Brien, The Law Of War, Command Responsibility And Vietnam,  60 GEO. L.J.  605 (1972);   U.S. Dept Of The Army, Army Subject Schedule No. 27 – 1 (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Hague Convention No. IV of 1907),  10 (1970).  The direct individual responsibility of leaders is also unambiguous in view of the London Agreement, which denies defendants the protection of the act of state defense.  See AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS,  Aug. 8, 1945,  59 Stat.  1544,  E.A.S.  No. 472,  82 U.N.T.S.  279,  art. 7.

[8] See Exec. Order No. 12333, 3 C.F.R. 200 (1988), reprinted in 50 U.S.C.  Sec. 401 (1988).

[9] The authoritative sources of international law are listed comprehensively (and can be most conveniently found) at art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice.

[10] In the words used by the U.S. Supreme Court in The Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination.  For this purpose, where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations.”  See The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900).  See also:  The Lola,  175 U.S. 677 (1900);  Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774,  781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984)(per curiam)(Edwards, J. concurring)(dismissing the action, but making several references to domestic jurisdiction over extraterritorial offenses), cert. denied,  470 U.S. 1003 (1985)(“concept of extraordinary judicial jurisdiction over acts in violation of significant international standards…embodied in the principle of `universal violations of international law.'”).

[11] After the seventeenth century (1648) Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War and created the present conflictual system of independent states. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two agreements comprise the Peace of Westphalia. Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan was first published in 1651, just three years after the Peace of Westphalia. It is at Chapter XIII that Hobbes famously references the “state of nature” as an anarchic situation characterized by “continuall feare; and danger of violent death….”

[12] Nullum crimen sine poena is the principle that distinguishes between criminal and civil law.  Without punishment there can be no distinction between a penal statute and any other statute. (See Redding v. State,  85 N.W. 2d  647, 652; Neb. 1957)(concluding that a criminal statute without a penalty clause is of no force and effect).  The earliest statements of Nullum crimen sine poena can be found in the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728-1686 B.C.); the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 2000 B.C.);  the even-earlier Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 B.C.) and of course the Lex Talionis or law of exact retaliation presented in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah or biblical Pentateuch.  At Nuremberg, the words used by the Court,  “So far from it being unjust to punish him, it would be unjust if his wrong were allowed to go unpunished,”  represented an unambiguous reaffirmation of Nullum crimen sine poena.  For the Court statement, see:  A.P. d’Entreves,  NATURAL LAW (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1964), p. 110. 

[13] The extradite or prosecute formula of international criminal law is deducible from Nullum crimen sine poena.  Existing since antiquity, it is an expectation with roots in both natural law (especially Jean Bodin, Hugo Grotius, and Emmerich de Vattel) and in positive law. See also: Resolution on Principles of International Cooperation in the Detection, Arrest, Extradition and Punishment of Persons Guilty of War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity,  G.A. Res. 3074,  28 U.N.  GAOR,  Supp. No.30 at 78, U.N. Doc. A/9030, 1973;  G.A. Res. 2840,  26 U.N. GAOR Supp. No. 29 at 88,  U.N. Doc. A/8429,  1971;  G.A. Res. 96,  U.N. Doc. A/64 at 188, 1946;  Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity,  adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly Resolution 2391 (XXIII) of 26 November 1968,  entered into force,  11 November 1970.

[14] Article 38(1)(b) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice describes international custom as “evidence of a general practice accepted as law.”  59 Stat.  1031,  T.S. No. 993 (June 26, 1945).  Norms of customary international law bind all states irrespective of whether a State has ratified the pertinent codifying instrument or convention.  International law compartmentalizes apparently identical rights and obligations arising both out of customary law and treaty law.  “Even if two norms belonging to two sources of international law appear identical in content, and even if the states in question are bound by these rules both on the level of treaty-law and on that of customary international law, these norms retain a separate existence.”  See Military and Paramilitary Activities (Nicaragua v. U.S.),  1986 I.C.J. Rep.  14,  para. 178 (June 27).

[15] .On the concept of “common enemy of mankind,”  see:  Robert Alfert Jr.,  “Hostes Humani Generis:  An Expanded Notion of U.S. Counterterrorist Legislation,”  EMORY INTERNATIONAL LAW REVIEW,  Vol. 6,  No. 1,  Spring 1992,  pp. 171-214.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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International Law

The rise & rise of populist demagogues in democratic nations

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The term dictators & demagogues are used interchangeably in various contexts but there’s a difference, the former rules over a totalitarian state where government is able to exercise a complete influence over every aspect of citizen’s life whereas the latter is a “wannabe dictator” but due to the system of checks & balance in place they’re are not fully capable to create police states.

In 21st century these flamboyant  demagogues  have adjusted their personality & politics in such a way  that they successfully hide their intent & action in the shadows of democratic system so unlike Hitler’s Fascist regime or North Korea’s Communist dictatorship, it’s difficult to held them accountable because they’ll try to justify their hasty & unreasonable decision  in the name of Constitution & larger public good.

There are some common qualities shared by populist demagogues in  democratic countries that need to be checked in all seasons to protect the country & its people from potential benevolent dictators.

1.Compromised Constitutional Bodies

The rabble-rousers of the modern era have smartly learnt from their predecessors that to stay in power for eternity, it’s important to curb & limit the functions of Independent Institutions like Courts, Central Bank, Auditory Bodies, Investigation Agencies etc. For instance the President of Turkey Recep Erdogan has almost destroyed judicial independence in the country & with the recent news about the call of his political ally to shut down Turkey’s Constitutional Courts is not just alarming but also a cause of concern in a country where a record number of journalists are serving jail sentences under false charges & this decision if taken will not just compromise the press freedom which is already at its nadir in Turkey but it’ll also weaken the capacity of judicial system to guarantee the protection of people’s rights.

2.Unnecessary Focus on the revival of Glorious Past

Demagogues keep reminding us about the ancient prosperity & always pushing the narrative to portray their   country as the leading force , it can be done via 2 ways, either promote the soft power like culture, tradition, civilization & spirituality or use even nasty tricks to pull out the blinded nationalism that includes portraying one’s country as the leading colonizer, telling people about invaders & portray them as protector of native civilization or use race theory to create a class divide in society like Hitler did by invoking the Aryan identity that made some people into believing that they are superior to others.

By inciting this false hope of regaining the past glory & branding slogans like “Make America Great Again”, “For us, Hungary First”, “Abki bar, Modi Sarkar” they deceit & manipulate people into voting for their parties without doing any substantive work on the ground.

3.No respect for Dissent & Human Rights

Dissent or criticism of the leader & its establishment is part of a healthy Democratic society where people are fundamentally free to express their views regarding the government’s policies. While delivering a lecture on the topic,” The Hues That Make India: From Plurality to Pluralism,” the Supreme Court Justice DY Chandrachud noted that ” Descent is the safety valve of a democracy”  but sadly the Modern day Niro of India who ironically belongs to the same State where this lecture was being delivered has left no stone unturned to deliberately cut this valve into pieces.

Critics & Human Rights Activists are put behind bars for raising their voice against the atrocities & crime inflicted on tribals, minorities & other vulnerable sections of society. They are mercilessly beaten, tortured, thrashed & maimed in solitary confinements making no exceptions for maintaining basic human decency that is expected from the “World’s Largest Democracy”.

4. Polarisation for winning elections

The gruesome killing of George Floyd by White male police officer sparked a global outrage & protests against the racial inequality & hate crime that is at its highest level in more than a decade. People demanded accountability & change to stop the Institutionalised & Systemic racism against the people of color in the United States. Ex-president Trump instead of calling out & condemning white supremism  (terrorism) has defended & even embraced this far right radical ideology of hate.

As per the report by V-Dem, there’s an upsurge in political polarisation in India since 2014 when BJP seize the power at Centre & this is evident by frequent incidents of mob-lynching, riots & attacks on minorities especially muslims & Dalits in India. This report further states that Freedom of Religion has seen a considerable decline under the current regime. The reason behind these precipitous decline is the rise of Hindutva Politics which was long gone, forgotten & buried in the coffin but the BJP has called out the jinn of hatred to sway elections after elections at the cost of people who want to live a peaceful life in a non-hostile environment.

5.Violate established rules of Political Conduct

Politics was always a dirty business but populist leaders in most democracies have stooped to a new low & ruined it further. They never shy away from using homophobic & sexiest slurs or passing derogatory remarks against their counterparts in other parties.

Take for instance Brazilian President Bolsonaro, a nutcase who revokes popular prejudices in his ugly campaign rhetoric by passing many offensive & utterly distasteful comments against women, gays, environmentalists & minorities.

The rise of retro-macho politics has left no space for political sobriety & if unchecked, the tumor of hypermasculinity will not be just limited to hate speeches & jibes but translate into formidable action against humanity.

That’s how Romanian dictator Ceaușescu turned his political rhetoric into dystopian reality, under his dictatorship, birth control was banned, abortion was outlawed & fetus was declared the “property of society”, so women were tested for pregnancy & monitored to make sure that they give birth, and punished if they failed.

6. Refusal to accept migrants from Impoverished & war-torn countries

This is the hypocrisy of Western States who for decades have waged war, supported regime change, imposed Economic sanctions & trade barriers, sold weapons to militants in Middle-eastern & African countries finally when refugees & immigrants are arriving at the European borders from these destabilized countries where anarchy has bolstered civil war & complete chaos after covering an extremely dangerous route & taking enormous risks such as relying on people-smugglers or using flimsy boats to cross rough seas, they were detained & locked up under inhumane conditions in shipping containers in Hungary at whims & fancies of  Hungarian government headed by ultra-right wing Viktor Orbán but after the European Union Court ruling last year, Hungary has finally shut-down these illegal migrant transit zones situated on its border with Serbia, at the same time tightening rules which will effectively bar future migration prospects in EU member states.

7. Climate Change Deniers

Climate Change is the biggest threat to human existence in the 21st Century. Earth’s Climate is now changing faster than at any point in modern civilization, primarily as the result of human activities. It needs to be understood that Climate Change is not just a science issue but a policy issue as well. In most of the countries where demagogues are in-charge the policy seems to be more destructive, anti-science & discredit the scientific studies that show that effects of Climate Change are horrific & destructive for the Planet.

The environmental policies of Bolsonaro in Brazil have put the Amazon Rainforest on the verge of extinction. Regarded as the “lungs of the Earth”, the Amazon acts as a giant carbon sink & is also responsible for driving rain patterns across South America & Africa. Leaked documents revealed that Bolsonaro has cynical plans for Amazon Rainforest that includes hydroelectric plants, construction of bridges on Amazon river & a proposed highway through the dense forest to integrate Amazon basin with the rest of the National territory.

Under pressure from the Biden Government, Bolsonaro is now promising to make Brazil Carbon neutral by 2050 but his Environmental minister has asserted that his country is ready to cut 40 percent of deforestation in Amazon Forest only if the International Community will provide $1Billion as assistance. Though It is highly unlikely that the Brazilian government will take any steps against the influential farming lobby that played an important role in the victory of Bolsonaro in 2018 & to whom he has promised to dismantle existing environmental protections to make way for agricultural land expansion and intensified production.

The rise of populist leaders in  democratic countries is not sudden, before seizing power they boastfully promise to set their country free from corruption, crime & socio-economic inequality but after winning election they shift their goal post to achieve sinister objectives. Electoral political system in a democracy needs an urgent overhaul to include an educated perspective rather than simply representing the

will of majority which is no less than tyranny & this could only happen if people(voters) are aware about fascism among themselves & what  does it take for a normal country to become a Nazi State that had turned itself on the path of ravage & destruction. The importance of self realisation & tumultuous past is aptly described in a quote by Ernest Hemingway in his classic book, For whom the Bell tolls “But are there not many fascists in your country?’ There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes“.

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International Law

OTT broadcast and its censorship: Whether a violation of freedom of speech and expression

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The whole world, owing to coronavirus pandemic, is enveloped in the darkness. It has wreaked havoc on almost all the aspect of human lives. The educational institutions, theaters and cinemas all have been shuttered. Public gatherings, to maintain the social distancing, have been firmly discouraged. Further, the pandemic has significantly modified the media and entertainment consumption patterns. Social lives ventured into digital environment as a result of people being cramped to their homes. People have switched to several sources of entertainment from the comfort of their own homes and over-the-top (“OTT”) platforms have proven to be a major source of entertainment.

OTT platforms have grown exponentially and taken over the industry. OTT platforms expedites streaming of video content over the web. Several OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney Hotstar, Disney+, Apple TV+, Hulu, etc., have primarily ousted the traditional television service. The notification issued by the Central Government of India aimed at getting online media platforms and content on OTT platforms within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has been making the rounds in recent times. The cabinet Secretariat, on November 9, 2020, released a notification amending the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961. It has incorporated two new entries to the second schedule of the Rules namely Films and Audio-visual programmes provided by online service provider as well as News and Current Affairs. This action is attributed to the fact that there is large amount of an unrestricted content available on the web as well as lack of an adequate regulatory regime in place to protect its users.

Universal self-Regulation code

The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) had come up with a Universal self-Regulation code (code) to administer the content available on OTT platforms. The code was primarily adopted by the fifteen OTT platforms namely zee 5, Viacom 18, Disney Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, MX Player, Jio Cinema, Eros Now, Alt Balaji, Arre, HoiChoi, Hungama, Shemaroo, Discovery Plus and Flickstree. SonyLIV and Lionsgate too have recently signed the code. It was manifestly stated in the code that The Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act) is the main governing framework when it comes to online content. The values enshrined in Article 19 of India’s Constitution, namely the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, direct the internet and material on the internet. A policy for the digital content sector has to be drafted in line with Article 19 of the Indian Constitution i.e. the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, and any constraints on the aforesaid right should be fall within the purview of constitutional restrictions set forth in Article 19(2) of the India’s Constitution.

Further, the code had delineated a mechanism pertaining to (i) Age Classification (the code had particularized the certain categories for standardized age classification namely All ages, 7+, 13+, 16+ and 18+) (ii) Appropriate content specification ( a content descriptor appropriate to each piece of content that demonstrates and tells the viewer about the essence of the content while also advising on viewer discretion) and (iii) Access control Tools( to regulate access to content, signatories to the Code may implement technological tools and measures for access control i.e. PIN/Password.) The code had also established the perspicuous grievance redressal and escalation process to lodge complaint regarding non-adherence to specified guidelines. The MIB, however, has repudiated the proposed code since it did not explicitly categorize the prohibited content. Further, there is no independent third-party oversight and a transparent code of ethics. The MIB instructed IAMAI to seek guidance from the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) and the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) self-regulatory frameworks.

A public interest litigation was consolidated in October, 2018, before the hon’ble Delhi High court by Justice For Rights Foundation to draught certain guidelines for modulating the content available on OTT platforms. The MIB while filing the counter affidavit stated that digital platforms are not required to procure a license from them to exhibit their content and the same is not controlled by them. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) has also mentioned that they do not oversee internet content and there exists no mechanism for monitoring or licensing an agency or establishment that posts content on the internet. Nevertheless, it was claimed that the provisions concerning IT are applicable, and concerned legislative authority having jurisdiction under the aforesaid Act is authorized to take action using the power granted to them under section 69 of the Act which involves directives for interception, surveillance, or data encryption. Further, under Section 67 of the Act there are penalties pertaining to posting or disseminating obscene information in any digital form. Accordingly, the court while dismissing the petition opined that it cannot grant a mandamus for the creation of regulations when the IT Act already contains stringent restrictions and currently the foregoing petition is pending in the hon’ble supreme court.

Positions of the law in regards to film screenings

A film must be certified by the Central Board of Film Certification before it can be displayed or distributed in cinemas or on satellite, and the content is constrained by existing laws. The CBFC was established by the Cinematograph Act of 1952. When it was established, it was designated as the Board of Film Censors. It was amended in 1959 to give it the authority to certify a picture for mass consumption. The Cinematograph Act of 1952, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995, and the Cable Television Networks Rules of 1994 are among the laws that govern the industry. However, there is no such particular legislation for regulating material on OTT platforms. The government by virtue of Article 19(2) of Indian constitution can impose restrictions on freedom of speech and expressions in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of state, friendly relations with foreign countries, public order, decency or morality and so on. Consequently, broadcasted content has often been a restricted matter. In K.A. Abbas v. Union of India and Another[1], the constitutionality of censorship was initially challenged. The hon’ble supreme court has upheld the constitutionality of censorship under Article 19(2) of the India’s constitution and stated that films must be viewed differently from any kind of art and expressions because a motion picture can elicit more intense emotional response than any other product of Art. However, such censorship should not be exercised to imposed an undue restriction on freedom of speech and expression.

The constitutionality of censorship was also disputed in S. Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram [2]wherein the hon’ble supreme court has held that the board’s criterion for appraising the films must be that of an ordinary man with common sense and wisdom rather than that of a hypersensitive mind. The Moral values ought not to be compromised in the realm of any social change. The concept of “Dharam” should not be disrupted by the immoral norms or standards. However, it does not suggest that censors must embrace a conservative perspective. They should be resilient to social change and go with the topical environment. The film is the most legitimate and significant medium for addressing topics of public concern. The producer has the right to broadcast his own message, which others may or may not concur with. The state, regardless of how hostile to its policies, cannot suppress open debate and expression. The democracy is basically a government by the people based on open debate. The democratic form of administration necessitates citizens’ active and informed engagement in the societal issue.

Furthermore in, Phantom Films Pvt. Ltd. And Anr. V. The Central Board of Certification[3], it was said that we are governed in a democratic manner. We can’t expect everyone’s head and intellect to be the same in a democracy. Freedom to think and act in a different way is at the heart of democracy. The beauty of democracy is the diversity of viewpoints, ideas, and manifestations. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to exhibit themselves in the same way. In the film business, new blood is being infused. This new blood is revved up and eager to get their feet wet in the industry. The film business and the general public have embraced such new blood. Their effort has been recognized and praised by the government. These works are predicated on a certain way of thinking that is unique to them. They have their own opinions and ideas on how the film business should operate, as well as how the medium altogether must be managed. Profanity, obscenity, and depravity do not shock human emotions. Such situations and discussions must be seen in their entirety. The narrative must be perused in its totality and thought upon. It is not appropriate to choose a few phrases, lines, conversations, or situations and venture into the board’s resolution. Certainly, the state, and notably the Central Board of Film Certification, cannot attempt to sculpt and dominate public opinion under the guise of purported public interest or audience preference. That would be terrible, as it would hit at the heart of democracy and civil liberty, which are held in such high regard by everybody. The goals of film certification, consequently, cannot be achieved by disregarding the Constitutionally guaranteed right or by fully undermining and disappointing it. A movie has to be watched on its own and judged accordingly. The plot, subject, background, and location in which it is created, the message it aims to express, and the entertainment, among other things, would all have to be assessed using section 5B’s standards.

Should OTT platforms be governed by a code of self-regulation?

Self-regulation is presently the only option available to such platforms in order to maintain the ability to broadcast material without undue censorship. Because unreasonable restriction would impede the creative flexibility of OTT platforms. It will assist platforms in conducting themselves in an ethical and fair manner while also safeguarding the interests of their users. It would protect content producers’ artistic freedom by promoting creativity and upholding an individual’s right to free speech and expression. The general public desires to view the content in its original and untainted state. They strive to understand artwork in its most primitive sense. The fundamental role of government agency is to maintain the fair field, not to inhibit innovation and ingenuity by placing limitations in a tech industry.

Self-regulators’ competence allows them to adjust their regulations more quickly than government agencies in reaction to technological advancement. More significantly, independent of any technological change, the self-regulator is better equipped to decide when a rule should be modified to improve compliance. Self-regulation has the ability to make compliance more appealing. It develops regulations based on an expert’s level of understanding, customized to the specific sector. These rules are viewed by regulated entities as more “reasonable” from the inception owing to their involvement[4].

Conclusion

The MIB by virtue of the amendment has now can regulate and draught policies regarding digital media and online streaming on OTT platforms. However, such governmental intervention can considerably jeopardize the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression. The suppression of freedom of speech and expression is what censorships is all about. The freedom of speech and expression suggests that right to manifest one’s thought via words of mouth, writing, picture and any other means. The freedom of speech is one of the most well-known and fiercely protected civil rights against government encroachment. In modern democratic societies, it is generally considered as an essential notion. Every citizen of a democratic nation has the freedom to express his or her opinions on various issues. Thousands of viewpoints are disseminated around the country via various channels. A film director has the freedom to manifest himself and gives effect to his thoughts, even though others may not concur with him. An exhibition of films as well as documentaries cannot be prohibited for purely speculative reasons since prohibiting motion pictures is tantamount to suppressing the right to freedom of expression and speech. Restrictions upon Individual’s freedom of speech and expression must only be permitted if they are required to avert severe harm from being perpetrated. It is critical to have a healthy and extensive amount of free expression in order to assert a thriving and well- functioning democracy. Democracy, otherwise, is obsolete and akin to a totalitarian dictatorship[5]. It should be up to the public to determine what they want to see and what they don’t want to watch. Thus, the cornerstone to safeguarding artistic freedom is a sustainable self-governance paradigm.


[1] K.A. Abbas v. Union of India and Another (1970) 2 S.C.C. 780

[2] S. Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram (1989) 2 S.C.C. 574

[3] Phantom Films Pvt. Ltd. And Anr. V. The Central Board of Certification 2016 S.C.C. online Bom 3862: (2016) 4 AIR Bom R 593: AIR 2017 (NOC 62) 29

[4] Id. at 13

[5] Subhradipta Sarkar, RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH IN A CENSORED DEMOCRACY, UNIVERSITY OF DENVER SPORTS

 AND ENTERTAINMENT LAW JOURNAL 62, 84 ,89 (2009)

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International Law

What Determines Taliban Government’s Legitimacy?

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

With the fall of Kabul, and the evasion of President Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban has taken over the reins of Afghanistan. States like Pakistan and China have already expressed their willingness to “work with the Taliban”  thereby legitimizing the Taliban government, whereas India has refused to recognize this “reign of terror”. The jurisprudential question of legitimacy arises here because the transfer of power in Afghanistan was through a coup d’etat which constitutes an extra-constitutional means of formation of government. Governments desire legitimacy because it gives them the right to rule and an acceptance on the international and domestic levels.

The most accepted theory in this regard is Hans Kelsen’s Pure Theory of Law. Kelsen, a positivist, claimed that law was contaminated by sociological impurities and morality, and focussed his theory on law alone. He based the legitimacy of the new order of government on its efficacy, and a rule was said to be efficacious when individuals regulated by it “behave, by and large, in conformity” with it. When the new order was efficacious, the coup was said to be successful, and the new government was held to be a legitimate one. Kelsen’s theory was widely accepted to uphold governments after coups such as in The State v. Dosso (Pakistan; 1958), Madzimbamuto v. Lardner-Burke (Southern Rhodesia; 1968), and Uganda v. Commissioner of Prisons (Uganda; 1966), among others. Since Kelsen tries to purify laws from the socio-political aspects, he contends that that it is irrelevant why people comply with the law and it could even be out of pure fear. Thus, a rogue government such as the Taliban which is efficacious as it receives compliance out of coercion and not out of consent, would be a legitimate one from a Kelsenian perspective.

The primary criticism that arises to Kelsen’s separability thesis is that he fails to distinguish between validity of law and its legitimacy. Critics have argued that while validity of law concerns with its authoritativeness, legitimacy depends on the virtue of justness and is contingent upon socio-political and moral factors. The issue lies with attaching legitimacy to the performance of the government. Instead, legitimacy should involve the questions of whether the government has the ability to demand the obligations out of voluntary conviction, provide for public goods such as the rule of law, protection of fundamental rights, etc., and function in a manner such that the society is generally benefitted. A study on legitimacy in seventy-two countries concludes that more the citizens are treated as rightful holders of political power, more legitimacy the government derives. This means that the virtue of legitimacy must flow from the citizens and the society and not from a coercive power that the top-down approach provides.

In the light of this, when the Taliban government is examined, it is realised that with its extremist ideology and terror activities in the past, it can hardly fulfil this criteria.While the ‘good Taliban’ has claimed that it will protect the freedom of press and not discriminate against women while allowing for their participation in the society within framework of Islamic law, these assurances will pacify only those who are unfamiliar with its history. Under the rule of Taliban in the years between 1996 and 2001, human rights were suspended, and political killings, rape, torture, amputation, and public executions were common place. A Taliban 2.0 which has emerged victorious against one of the major superpowers of the world, and has external support is unlikely to reform. Ideologically, they still remain the same movement committed to a puritan interpretation of Islam and this is evidenced by the fact that the barbaric Sharia law is in place once again. These baseless claims should be perceived as a political strategy to appease states into granting them de jure legitimacy because despite the jurisprudence of legitimacy developed, there is nothing in the international law that bars states like China, Russia, Pakistan or others from recognizing the rogue state of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Therefore, the future of the Taliban and Afghanistan rests in the interplay of international actors.

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