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International Law

Murderous Immortalities: Taliban Victory, Palestinian “Resistance” and Jihadi Terrorism

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An immortal person is a contradiction in terms.”-Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death and Time (2000)

Taliban Victory and Jihadi Terror: Strategic and Legal Connections

At the surface, there are no clear connections between Taliban victory in Afghanistan and wider Jihadi terrorism. Upon closer inspection, however, the Taliban triumph reflects more than Islamist success in just one country. Potentially, at least, strengthened Islamist governance in that perpetual battleground country will expand to other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

               In all likelihood, this corrosive expansion will be soon and possibly sudden.

               Further details are necessary. The Taliban’s rapid re-conquest of Afghanistan reenergized global jihad’s determined war against the “unbeliever,” especially the United States and Israel. Among other things, dramatic submission of the world’s principal superpower (the evident head of a “Zionist-Crusader alliance”) to Koran-directed “true believers” is being regarded by Islamist loyalists as an auspicious omen for “holy war.” For tangible example, the future of Palestinian “resistance” groups such as Hamas now appears substantially brighter. In this connection, though Hamas is a Sunni organization, it is still supported by Shiite Iran. Both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad regard the US defeat in Afghanistan as a premonition of eventual operational success and as proof of divine guidance.[1]

               These are not exclusively military or religious issues. There are also various legal or judicial consequences to be considered.[2] To begin, the Palestinian insurgency is generally identified as “terrorism” by Israel and much of the West.[3] Even if assorted Palestinian fighting organizations could be granted “just cause” for their stated political objectives, the means they have chosen are often patently unjust.[4]

               Under authoritative law, the oft-repeated assertion that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is no more than an empty witticism. Under international law, insurgent resorts to force, even those with a presumptive just cause, become terrorism ipso facto when they are applied indiscriminately to targeted populations.[5] In essence, indictments of Palestinian armed force as terroristic are fully justified whenever insurgent fighters act against the codified[6] or customary rules of “proportionality,”[7] “discrimination” (“distinction”) and/or “military necessity.”[8]

               Under binding international law, which is always an integral part of United States domestic/municipal law,[9] even the “sacred” rights of insurgency must always exclude any deliberate targeting of civilians or resorts to force intended to inflict gratuitous suffering. Shallow political witticisms aside, no insurgent force can ever assert a right to employ “any means necessary.” Though such clichéd revolutionary slogans may prove useful in mobilizing popular Palestinian support against Israel, they have no valid jurisprudential content.[10]

Explicit Legal Standards

                Prima facie, the pertinent normative rules are unambiguous. In world law, any insurgency that intentionally blurs the lines between combatant and non-combatant populations is impermissible. Irrespective of any “just cause,” such insurgency is “terrorism.”[11] Moreover, in these easily recognizable matters, there can be  no proper legal exceptions and no legal defense arguments based on purportedly reciprocal wrongs.

               “Rights cannot derive from wrongs” remains a peremptory expectation of all international law.[12] Similarly, there can be no valid legal claims based on “the other side’s” alleged wrongdoing.

               In proper legal terminology, tu quoque, an argument that the “other side’s” transgressions justify “any means necessary,” has long been formally discredited. Under international law, any argument for tu quoque is inherently invalid after the landmark judgments handed down at Nuremberg (Germany) in 1945-46 and at the  later Far East (Japan)  ad hoc criminal tribunal.[13]

               For both Israeli (IDF) and Palestinian insurgent forces, the usual right to armed force[14] can never supplant the peremptory rules of humanitarian international law. Such primary or jus cogens rules (norms that permit “no derogation”[15]) are also correctly referenced as the law of armed conflict orthe law of war. Inter alia, attentiveness to this basic law must remain an integral part of any armed force’s military operations. This immutable law has evident doctrinal roots in the Hebrew Bible, the Law of Athens and in Roman Law (most notably Emperor Justinian’s Institutes).

               During Israel’s last Gaza war, diversionary legal manipulations by Hamas and its supporters were de rigeur. Again and again, without any legal basis, supporters of Palestinian terror-violence against Israeli noncombatants insisted that “the ends justify the means.” Leaving aside the ordinary ethical standards by which any such argument must always be characterized as indecent, the law is similarly plain: In any insurgency, even the most allegedly noble cause (ends) can neverjustify openly inhumane effects (means).

               In law, such matters are not complicated. For more than two thousand years, core legal principles have specified unequivocally that intentional violence against the innocent isprohibited. Always.

               In ongoing matters of terrorism and counter-terrorism, legal reasoning ought never be disregarded.[16] Clichés do not make sensible policies, nor do they make  authoritative law. In contemporary jurisprudence, one person’s terrorist can never be another’s “freedom-fighter.” Even presumptively allowable resorts to insurgent force must always conform to long-settled laws of war.

               The message is clear. International law cannot be invented and reinvented according to particular situations. It maintains very specific and determinable form and content. It cannot be defined and redefined by insurgent groups or by insurgent patrons. This is especially the case when insurgent violence intentionally targets a designated victim state’s most vulnerable civilian populations.

               In these cases, ipso facto, insurgent violenceis terror-violence.

               Sometimes we hear insurgent groups referenced as “national liberation movements.” Nonetheless, when such groups fail to meet the test of just means, they can never be protected as lawful or legitimate. Even if “compelling law” (“peremptory” or jus cogens rules) were to accept the factually questionable argument that certain terror groups had fulfilled broadly accepted criteria of “national liberation,” (e.g., Palestinian Hamas), they would still not satisfy the equally germane legal standards of discrimination, proportionality, and military necessity.

               Significantly, these core standards are not reserved to national armies. They are expressly applied to insurgent or sub-state armed forces by the common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and by the two 1977 Protocols to these Conventions.

               There is more. In law, all war[17] and insurgency is governed by ascertainably common standards of “humanity.”[18] These overarching criteria are binding upon all combatants by virtue of comprehensive customary and conventional international law, including Article 1 of the Preamble to the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907. This foundational rule is generally called the “Martens Clause;” it makes all persons responsible for upholding the “laws of humanity” and the associated “dictates of public conscience.”

The Obligations of Comity

                World law requires continuous international cooperation, an obligation made most conspicuously famous by Emmerich de Vattel’s Law of Nations (1758) and William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769). Though probably unknown to a majority of practicing lawyers in the United States, Commentaries represent the literal foundation of United States domestic law.  

               Under an always-compulsory international law, terrorist crimes mandate universal cooperation in apprehension and punishment. As punishers of “grave breaches” under international law,[19] all states are expected to search out and prosecute (or extradite) individual terrorists. In no conceivable circumstances, and whatever the presumed expectations of religious faith, are states permitted to identify terrorist “martyrs” as “freedom fighters.”

               In law, we have seen, rights can never stem from wrongs.[20] Even if certain populations continue to insist on treating the most recalcitrant jihadist insurgents as “martyrs,” such treatment can have no exculpatory or mitigating effect on punishing attendant terror-crimes. Despite any alleged justness of cause, and this includes frequently-cited Palestinian references to “sovereignty” and “self-determination,” nothing in international law can justify the deliberate targeting of non-combatant Israeli populations.[21]

                There are certain notable jurisprudential ironies. During the last Gaza War, such targeting killed and injured not only Palestinians working in Israel, but also Thai agricultural laborers whose only reason for working in Israel was to support indigent families back home. “Credo quia absurdum,” said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

                Several years back, Mohammed Deif, then leader of Hamas’ military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, summed up his organization’s raison d’etre: “Our soldiers yearn for death, the way the Zionist soldiers yearn for life.” Though this succinct summary was more than just a bit misleading – after all, Hamas terrorists “yearn for death” only because they associate “martyrdom” with personal immortality – a consuming ambiance of death is still their preferred geostrategic orientation.[22]

Palestinian Insurgency Beginnings

                In some ways, at least for Hamas and other Palestinian insurgents,[23] those earlier days represent a sort of Dickensian “best of times.” Then, under a more broadly welcoming insurgent canopy, Palestinian “diversity” was able to emerge and strengthen. At that moment, even atheistic and Marxist elements were allowed to make some collaborative cause with Islamists, a phenomenon that would be unheard of today.

               There is more. Then, in deference to variously fundamental emphases on operational collaboration, no particular ideology was encouraged to become a singularly hegemonic orientation. This apparent largesse was evident even inside Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the umbrella terror group first formed in 1964. That seminal formation took place three years prior to the Six Day War; this means three years before there were any “Israel Occupied Territories.”

               What exactly was the PLO seeking to “liberate” during those years? This is not a difficult question. The answer was and remains all of Israel, the entire micro-state that is still identified on both Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas maps as “Occupied Palestine.”.

               Now, after America’s defeat in Afghanistan, only identifiable Jihadists – those who are properly versed in Ribat (religious conflict fighting for “Islamic land”) – will be invited to participate in the Jihadist’s “divinely-mandated” armed struggle. Overall, the Palestinian fight will continue to change from being a preeminently secular and tactical conflict to one that may wittingly ignore all more ordinary and usual strategic/legal imperatives. Still, this all-consuming “struggle” remains founded upon unwavering commitments to “sacred violence.”  At its conceptual heart, such struggle reveals present-day expressions of “religious sacrifice.”[24]

Violence and the Sacred

                For the Palestinian terror movement against Israel, violence and the sacred remain deeply interpenetrating and inherently inseparable. Though it maintains various more-or-less legitimate claims of “self-determination,” religious sacrifice is what Jihadi Palestinian insurgency is ultimately all about. To finally understand this key point represents a sine qua non of successful counter-terrorism. Without a deeper understanding of such primal content, neither Israel nor the United States could ever mount systematically effective counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East or North Africa.

               Foundational links between religious sacrifice and violent insurgency have a long and potentially instructive history. To acknowledge and gain useful insight from this chronology, planners and policy-makers may look back to ancient Greece, specifically, to Plutarch. Ideas of Palestinian-Islamic religious sacrifice are ferociously adversarial and explicitly Islamist, but they are not unprecedented.

                The first century biographer’s Sayings of Spartan Mothers can speak to current issues. Plutarch recognizes the honorable female parent as one who deliberately rears her sons for civic sacrifice. Always, such a venerated Greek mother was relieved to learn that her son had died “in a manner worthy of his self, his country and his ancestors.” On the other hand, “unworthy” Spartan sons who failed to live up to this enviably bold standard of sacrifice were singled out for severe reprimand, and extensive public humiliation.

               One woman, we may learn from Plutarch, whose son had been the sole survivor of a disastrous military engagement, killed him brutally with a tile. Culturally, it seems, this killing was the only fitting punishment for the son’s unpardonable cowardice. Later, the eighteenth-century Swiss (Genevan) philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, citing to Plutarch, described another citizen-mother’s tale as follows: “A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle.  A Helot (slave) arrives trembling; she asks him for the news. `Your five sons were killed.’  `Base slave, did I ask you that?’ The slave responds: `We won the victory.’  The mother runs to the temple, and gives enthusiastic thanks to the gods.”  

                There are serious lessons here for both Israel and the United States. Even now, and plausibly more so after Afghanistan, it is impossible to deny that the deepest roots of Jihadist terror originate from cultures that display similar views of religious sacrifice. Always, the key purpose of such ritualistic violence extends beyond any presumed expectations of civic necessity. Always, this rationale goes directly to the heart of individual human fear; that is, to the palpable font of existential dread.[25]

               Though bitterly ironic, any such primal fear of death is linked with martyr-centered terrorism, even today. For Palestinian terrorists, there are multiple accepted paths to immortality. Back in 2009, Palestinian-American terrorist, U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan, actively sought the death sentence for his murder spree at Fort Hood back on November 5 of that year. Per his explanation in open court, “If I die by lethal injection, I would still be a martyr.”

               What could be clearer? What earthly promise could possibly be more gratifying to this mass killer than a religiously pledged conferral of eternal life? Significant connections between existential dread and Jihadi terrorism are conspicuous and potentially insidious.

               At his or her existential core, the Hamas fighter is not primarily interested in land or equality or justice. This terrorist wittingly kills himself or herself, together with various innocent others, to ensure a personal life that will literally never end. Accordingly, the so-called “death” that he or she actually expects to suffer in consequence of this “sacrificial “suicide” is really nothing more than a momentary inconvenience. In the final tally, it represents just a vaguely minor distraction.

               In such matters, truth may emerge through paradox. Hamas and otherPalestinian “martyrs” kill themselves as “suicides” in order not to die. There is no more central truth to Jihadi terror that is so consistently ignored or widely misunderstood.

               There is more. While seemingly irrational, the Jihadi martyr, the Shahid, can still calculate rationally that his/her intended suicide will be “cost-effective. This hero-fighter, after all, is embarked on what is presumed to be a divinely-guided trajectory. He/she has chosen a gloriously fiery path to life immortality. For him or her, there can be no more perfect path.

Martyrdom and Jihad

               In Islam, “martyrdom” has always been closely associated with Jihad. Unequivocal and celebratory invocations for such sacrificial killing can be found in the Koran (9:111) and, more explicitly, in the canonical hadith. “Do not consider those who are slain in the cause of Allah as dead,” instructs the Koran, “for they are living by their Lord.” For Hamas, such obligatory aspects of sacrificial terror ought never be overlooked by Israel or the United States. The two-sided nature of terror/sacrifice – the sacrifice of the victim and reciprocal death of “the Martyr” – is codified in the Charter of Hamas:  “The Palestinian problem is a religious one, to be dealt with on this premise…`I swear by that (sic.) who holds in His Hands, the Soul of Muhammad! I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill, assault and kill, assault and kill.’”

               Today, post-Afghanistan implications of this Islamist decisional calculus warrant intensive study in both Jerusalem and Washington. Convinced that Shahada (“Death for Allah”) violence against the Israel will lead to a glorious martyrdom, the true Jihadist can never be effectively deterred solely by ordinary threats of armed reprisal. Among other pertinent ironies, such one-dimensiomnal threats could sometimes become an incentive to additional and/or enlarged terrorism.

               Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

                For Israel, especially after Afghanistan, there exists no expectedly tolerable “Two-State Solution.” For the most part, the Islamic world recognizes only one state in this tiny part of the Middle East, and this state is not Israel. On 29 November 2012, the UN General Assembly upgraded the Palestinian Authority’s formal status to Nonmember Observer State,  This upgrade allows “Palestine” to bring complaints against Israelis before the International Criminal Court (ICC), but not as a state.[26]

               In specifically juridical terms, Palestine has limited “legal personality,” but not as a fully sovereign state.

                Israel and its Islamist terrorist enemies maintain very different orientations to “peace.” This stark asymmetry puts Israel at a disadvantage in virtually any “peace process.” While Israel’s Islamist enemies dutifully manifest their “positive” expectations for immortality, individual and collective, via the doctrinal slaughter of “heathen,” Israel’s leaders flatly reject their foes’ faith-based and annihilatory decisional calculus.

                Among other relevant perils, Israel now confronts a real and still-expanding threat of both unconventional war and unconventional terrorism.  Faced with opponents who are not only willing to die, but who actively seek their own ecstatic “deaths,” Jerusalem should better understand the critical operational limits of ordinary warfare, national homeland defense and “mainstream” strategic deterrence. In the end, power over death could trump every tangible form of power, including forms that are based upon aircraft carriers, missiles or technologically advanced weapon systems. The core cause of this expectation lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

                In all world politics, any deeply felt promise of immortality must be of distinctly “transcendent importance.”[27]This signifies, among other things, that the primary Israeli/American  orientation to wage prudent battle in counter-terrorism operations should focus on “mind over mind,” and not just “mind over matter.” Whenever insurgent enemies assign absolute primacy to the words “I believe,” it should be a signal to Jerusalem that the best Israeli response must be undertaken at a recognizably intellectual level.[28] Though intangible and not easily understood by ordinary politicians or planners, an enemy search for power over death could sometimes prove decisive,  overriding even the perils of ordinary military harms.

Quo Vadis

               What next? To dismiss such a distressingly complex reality will be tempting for Israel and also the United States, but such blithe dismissal could prove catastrophic.[29] When a determined enemy is driven by presumptively existential notions of “I believe,”[30] the aggregated arsenal of plausible counter-measures must become correspondingly flexible. This compelling analytic imperative would become even more obvious should that enemy become endowed (directly or indirectly) with nuclear[31] or other weapons of mass-destruction.[32]

               In the longer term, after Afghanistan, Israeli and US strategic policy planners should bear in mind that acts of nuclear terrorism need not require authentic nuclear weapons;  they could involve “only” conventional rocket attacks on Israel’s Dimona reactor.[33] In the final analysis, Israeli and American  deterrence postures will have to function as a seamless web,[34] allowing decision-makers to choose rationally from an already-available range of cost-effective policy options.

               Such fateful choice could sometime concern insurgent foes who seek not “merely’ sovereignty and self-determination,[35] but also “power over death.”

Summing Up: Perils and Remedies

               For Israel and the United States, the current Jihadi terrorist danger lies at two discrete but still interrelated levels. First, it exists at the level of the individual Islamist individual, the “chosen one” who seeks “martyrdom” through a deliberate path of insurgent violence. Second, it exists at the level of Islamist states, sovereign-actors which may sometime decide to represent, in institutionalized macrocosm, certain human “self-sacrificers.”

               Someday, and more-or-less plausibly, these states may choose collective “self-sacrifice” through the initiation of chemical, biological or nuclear war.  Such a conflict might be fought not for any traditional military reasons, but instead for the “liquidation” of “infidels.” On its face, any such grim determination would represent the unholiest of possible “marriages” between aggressive war and genocide, two mega-crimes identified under codified and customary international law.[36] In any such conflict, the defining Jihadist playbook would not be the classical military theories of Sun-Tzu or von Clausewitz, but rather the presumptively gratuitous destructiveness of de Sade.

               The root problem to understand here is Jihadistdeath fear, and the consequent dread-based compulsion to sacrifice variously despised “others.” This compulsion, in turn, stems from a widespread and doctrinal Islamist belief that killing unbelievers and being killed by unbelievers represents the most direct path to personal immortality. In very briefest summation, Jihadist terrorist unwillingness to accept personal death may lead to the killing of “others” in order to escape this presumptively unbearable fate.

                For many Islamist terrorist enemies, both individuals and states, killing Jews and “crusaders” offers optimal “immunization” against personal death and disintegration. Conceptualized in expressly psychological categories of analysis, the death fear of the Islamist enemy “ego” is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the “other.” Among psychologists and sociologists,, this complex idea was famously captured by Ernest Becker’s vivid paraphrase of Elias Canetti: “Each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”[37]

               There is more. The Jihadist enemies of Israel and the United States do not intend to do evil.[38]  Rather, they commit to the killing of Jews, Americans and other “infidels” with undisguised religious conviction, with limitless “purity of heart.” Perversely “sanctified” killers, these relentless enemies will continue to generate an incessant search for more and more victims. Though mired in blood, this terrorizing search will usually remain tranquil and self-assured for the perpetrators, a twisted disposition born of conspicuous self-delusion. This is that the terrorist violence against “unbelievers” is properly “sacrificial.”

               It is never infamous or shameful.

Confronting a Hydra

               Not merely by accident, the military wing of Fatah, allegedly the more moderate and secular exponent of Palestinian terror, is named the Al-Aqsa MartyrsBrigade. In roughly the same fashion as Palestinian Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fatah’s “Brigade” remains oriented toward more than “armed struggle.” It remains dedicated to certain coinciding principles of religious sacrifice. This all-consuming commitment promises its followers not just military victory over the “Zionist occupiers” and their American patrons, but immunity from death.

               By definition, these are incomparably potent promises.

               Palestinian terrorism is prospectively more dangerous today, after Afghanistan, than it was previously. In Israel’s early days, there werealready Fedayeen (“self-sacrificers”) adversaries, but their dominant motives were explicitly nationalistic and only derivatively “Islamic.” Today, Jerusalem must learn to think in terms of “desacralizing” this relentless adversary, of convincing Jihadists that the ritualized murders of “Jews” or “Zionists” will lead not to any promised paradise, but to insufferable “terrors of the grave.” Above all else, this counter-terrorist effort must become an intellectual task, not just a narrowly political or propagandistic one.

               Now there are associated operational questions. To wit, should Israel and the United States continue to target Jihadist terrorist leaders, a controversial strategy of political killing that could arguably preclude any need for wider wars? While the benefits of getting rid of specific terrorist masterminds without mounting any full-scale war are temptingly meaningful and perhaps even self-evident, it is also true that the Jihadi terror threat now confronting Israel and the United States resembles the mythic Hydra. This creature was a monster of many heads, one which was impossible to kill. Each time a single head was “successfully” excised by Hercules, as analysts may recall, two new ones grew in its place.

               For Israel and America, this is not an encouraging metaphor.

               There are also some wider lessons to acknowledge. In world politics and international law, the ultimate acquisition of power is never really about land or treasure or conquest or some other traditionally reassuring evidence of national primacy. Rather, it is presumed victory over death, a personal triumph associated by German philosopher Heinrich von Treitschke with the always-special prerogatives of national sovereignty.[39]

               Though contrived, the relevant reasoning here is nonetheless straightforward. When my state is powerful, goes the basic argument, so too am I. At some point, moreover, when my state seems ready to prevail and to prevail indefinitely, I too am granted a personal life that will be gloriously unending. Stated more succinctly: An “immortal” state creates (either as citizen or subject) the “immortal” person.[40]

In a world that always craves simple explanations, such abstract ideas can prove bewildering for scholars and decision-makers.  Still, to decipher such causal notions at a meaningful level, analysts could do well to recall certain familiar images of mid-1930s Nazi party rallies at Nuremberg. Leni Riefenstahl’s monumental film celebration of Der Fuhrer, The Triumph of the Will, may say it best. Reminding the German people of philosopher Hegel’s famous aphorism, the legendary film underscores something of prospectively incomparable insight:

An individual nation-state can become much more than a mere juristic person.

 It can become the “march of God in the world.”

Looking ahead, in a warning apt to both Jerusalem and Washington,  Islamist terrorist strategies will fare best whenever it can be made persuasive to Jihadists that “God is on our side.”[41]

Final Strategies

               Some final questions surface. In the dissembling aftermath of Afghanistan, what is the best overall counter-terrorist strategy for Israel and the United States? To begin, Israeli and American strategic/ intelligence communities will need to identify new and more promising ways of deterring non-rational adversaries.[42]

               Simultaneously, especially as Palestinian statehood may now more likely be validated by variously steady increments of recognition in the U.N. General Assembly, these communities will need to avoid a potentially lethal fallacy. This is the probable error of accepting Palestinian statehood on the strength of ostensibly binding assurances to “demilitarize.” [43] To be sure, no international legal agreements can be self-enforcing.

               Though former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had cited Palestinian demilitarization as a condition of negotiating Palestinian statehood (a citation presented as evidence of his particular foresight and prudence), it could never actually have had such an intended effect. Jurisprudentially, at least, the reason for such doubt is clear and essentially incontestable: Every state maintains an “inherent” right of self-defense.[44] This “peremptory”prerogative can never be casually challenged or taken away. This truth obtains even if the new state itself should explicitly agree to certain firm limitations on its “jus cogens” right.[45]

                By ignoring core roots of Jihadi terrorism, Middle East peace programs could continuously detour Israel and the United States with starkly contrived “Two-State Solutions.” Should Israeli Prime Minister Bennet yield to any assorted pressures exerted by Jihadist terrorist patron states, he will have overlooked or underestimated the doctrinal origins of Israel’s most recalcitrant enemies. Should he choose, instead, to reject such dangerous pressures, the Prime Minister will have understood that Israel’s ongoing struggles with Palestinian terrorism have always been about much more than “land,” “settlements,” or “self-determination.”[46]

               For Israel – now facing a more determined struggle for Palestinian statehood after the conclusive US defeat in Afghanistan – this key fact can be disregarded only at considerable collective peril. Looking ahead, should Jerusalem commit various critical errors in securing itself against Iran and “Palestine” simultaneously (these complex perils are both mutually reinforcing and force-multiplying[47]), the consequences would also reverberate in the United States.[48] Although an immortal person is a “contradiction in terms,”[49] the Jihadi terrorist still presumes that a protracted “holy war” against Israel, America and other enemy states can confer power over death.

               In essence, therefore, what these Jihadists so enthusiastically embrace is “murderous immortalities.”


[1] In commending the Taliban on August 17, 2021, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh observed: “The demise of the US occupation of Afghanistan is a prelude to the demise of the Israeli occupation of the land of Palestine.” See “The Taliban’s Palestinian Partners: Implications for the Middle East Peace Process,” a report of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, No. 652, September 5, 2021.

[2] International law remains a “Westphalian” or “vigilante” system. Reference here is to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty Years War and created the now still-existing decentralized or self-help state system of world politics. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119, Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[3] For a discussion of authoritative criteria to distinguish permissible insurgencies from impermissible ones, see: Louis René Beres, “The Legal Meaning of Terrorism for the Military Commander,” CONNECTICUT JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 11., No. 1., Fall 1995, pp. 1-27

[4] See earlier, by this writer: Louis René Beres, https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2021/05/19/justice-insurgency-and-the-gaza-war-an-international-law-perspective/

[5] According to the rules of international law, every use of force must be judged twice:  once with regard to the right to wage war (jus ad bellum), and once with regard to the means used in conducting war (jus in bello).  Today, in the aftermath of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, and the United Nations Charter, all right to aggressive war has been abolished.  However, the long-standing customary right of self-defense remains, codified at Article 51 of the Charter.  Similarly, subject to conformance, inter alia, with jus in bello criteria, certain instances of humanitarian intervention and collective security operations may also be consistent with jus ad bellum.  The laws of war, the rules of jus in bello, comprise (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules.  Codified primarily at The Hague and Geneva Conventions (and known thereby as the law of The Hague and the law of Geneva), these rules attempt to bring considerations of discrimination, proportionality and military necessity into belligerent calculations.

[6] According to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a treaty is always an international agreement “concluded between States….” See Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Done at Vienna, May 23, 1969. Entered into force, Jan. 27, 1980. U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 39/27 at 289 (1969, 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, reprinted in 8 I.L.M., 679 (1969).

[7] The law of armed conflict is largely concerned with the principle of proportionality, which has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, the law of exact retaliation. The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah, or Biblical Pentateuch. These Torah rules are likely related to the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728- expression 1686 BCE) – the first written evidence of penalizing wrongdoing with exact retaliation. In matters concerning personal injury, the code prescribes an eye for an eye (# 196), breaking bone for bone (#197), and extracting tooth for tooth (#199). Among the ancient Hebrews, we must speak not of the Lex Talionis, but of several. The Lex Talionis appears in only three passages of the Torah. In their sequence of probable antiquity, they are as follows: Exodus 21: 22-25; Deuteronomy 19: 19-21; and Leviticus 24: 17-21. All have similarities to various other Near Eastern legal codes. These three passages address specific concerns: hurting a pregnant woman, perjury, and guarding Yahweh’s altar against defilement. See Marvin Henberg, Retribution: Evil for Evil in Ethics, Law and Literature, 59-186 (1990). In contemporary international law, the principle of proportionality can be found in the traditional view that a state offended by another state’s use of force, if the offending state refuses to make amends, “is then entitled to take `proportionate’ reprisals.” See Ingrid Detter De Lupis, The Law of War, 75 (1987). Evidence for the rule of proportionality can also be found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) at Art. 4. Similarly, the American Convention on Human Rights allows at Art. 27(1) such derogations “in time of war, public danger or other emergency which threaten the independence or security of a party” on “condition of proportionality.” The military principle of proportionality requires that the amount of destruction permitted must be proportionate to the importance of the objective. In contrast, the political principle of proportionality states “a war cannot be just unless the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensure from the war is less than the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensue if the war is not fought.” See Douglas P. Lackey, THE ETHICS OF WAR A ND PEACE, 40 (1989).

[8] The principle of military necessity is defined authoritatively as follows: “Only that degree and kind of force, not otherwise prohibited by the law of armed conflict, required for the partial or complete submission of the enemy with a minimum expenditure of time, life and physical resources may be applied.” ADAM ROBERTS & RICHARD GUELFF, DOCUMENTS ON THE LAWS OF WAR 10 (3rd ed. 2000) (quoting U.S. DEP’T OF THE NAVY ET AL., THE COMMANDER’S HANDBOOK ON THE LAW OF NAVAL OPERATIONS, NWP 1-14M, 6.2.6.4.2, (July 2007)). The term “military necessity” is found, inter alia, in the 1946 Judgment of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg: Extracts on Crimes Against International Law, in ADAM ROBERTS & RICHARD GUELFF, DOCUMENTS ON THE LAWS OF WAR 155 (1989). 

[9] The US Neutrality Act, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 960 (originally Sec. 25) (1794) was enacted in order for the new American republic to implement the Law of Nations. Pertinent Congressional authority derived specifically from article 1, Section 8, clause 10 of the U.S. Constitution. See also Talbot v. Jansen, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 133, 156 (1795) (Paterson, J).

[10] Specific applications of the law of war to insurgents (non-state combatants) dates to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. As more than codified treaties and conventions must comprise the law of war, it is plain that the obligations of jus in bello (justice in war) are part of “the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations” (from Art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice) and thereby bind all categories of belligerents. (See Statute of the International Court of Justice, art. 38, June 29, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. 993).  Further, Hague Convention IV of 1907 declares that even in the absence of a precisely published set of guidelines regarding “unforeseen cases,” the operative pre-conventional sources of humanitarian international law obtain and still govern all belligerency. The related Martens Clause is included in the Preamble of the 1899 Hague Conventions, International Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War by Land, July 29, 1899, 187 Consol. T.S. 429, 430.

[11] Under international law, terrorist movements are always Hostes humani generis, or “Common enemies of mankind.” See: Research in International Law: Draft Convention on Jurisdiction with Respect to Crime, 29 AM J. INT’L L. (Supp 1935) 435, 566 (quoting King v. Marsh (1615), 3 Bulstr. 27, 81 Eng. Rep 23 (1615) (“a pirate est Hostes humani generis”)).

[12] Ex injuria jus non oritur.

[13] The criminal responsibility of leaders under international law is not limited to direct personal action or to official position.  On the pertinent 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.

[14] This right must always be understood in terms of the continuously decentralized system of international law bequeathed at Westphalia in 1648. See: op cit., Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[15] According to Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties: “…a peremptory norm of general international law is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of states as a whole as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” See: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Done at Vienna, May 23, 1969. Entered into force, Jan. 27, 1980. U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 39/27 at 289 (1969), 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, reprinted in 8 I.L.M.  679 (1969).

[16] The primal importance of reason to legal judgment was prefigured in ancient Israel.  Jewish theories of law, insofar as they display influences of Natural Law, offer a transcending order revealed by the divine word as interpreted by human reason.  In the words of Ecclesiastics 32.23, 37.16, 13-14:  “Let reason go before every enterprise and counsel before any action…And let the counsel of thine own heart stand…For a man’s mind is sometimes wont to tell him more than seven watchmen that sit above in a high tower….”

[17] Under international law, the question of whether or not a “state of war” exists between states is generally ambiguous. Traditionally, it was held that a formal declaration of war was necessary before a true state of war could be said to exist. Hugo Grotius even divided wars into declared wars, which were legal, and undeclared wars, which were not. (See Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace, Bk. III, Chas. III, IV, and XI.) By the start of the twentieth century, the position that war obtains only after a conclusive declaration of war by one of the parties was codified by Hague Convention III. This treaty stipulated that hostilities must never commence without a “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum. (See Hague Convention III Relative to the Opening of Hostilities, 1907, 3 NRGT, 3 series, 437, article 1.) Currently, declarations of war may be tantamount to admissions of international criminality, because of the express criminalization of aggression by authoritative international law, and it could therefore represent a clear jurisprudential absurdity to tie any true state of war to formal and prior declarations of belligerency. It follows that a state of war may now exist without any formal declarations, but only if there exists an actual armed conflict between two or more states, and/or at least one of these affected states considers itself “at war.”

[18]Underlying these common standards is a unifying concept of human “oneness.”  The history of western philosophy and jurisprudence contains many illustrious examples of such welcome cosmopolitanism. Most notable are Voltaire and Goethe. We need only recall Voltaire’s biting satire in the early chapters of Candide and Goethe’s oft-repeated comment linking the contrived hatreds of belligerent nationalism to declining stages of human civilization. We may also note Samuel Johnson’s famously expressed conviction that patriotism “is the last refuge of a scoundrel;” William Lloyd Garrison’s observation that “We cannot acknowledge allegiance to any human government…. Our country is the world, our countryman is all mankind;” and Thorsten Veblen (“The patriotic spirit is at cross-purposes with modern life.”) Of course, there are similar sentiments discoverable in Nietzsche’s Human, all too Human and in Fichte’s Die Grundzűge des gegenwartigen Zeitalters.” Finally, let the reader recall Santayana’s coalescing remark in Reason and Society: “A man’s feet must be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.” The ultimate point of all these cosmopolitan remarks is that narrow-minded patriotism is inevitably “unpatriotic,” at least in the sense that it is not in the genuine long-term interests of citizens or subjects.

[19].The term “Grave Breaches” applies to certain serious infractions of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Protocol I of 1977. The actions defined, as “Grave Breaches” in the four Conventions must be performed willfully or intentionally, and against the different groups of “protected person” identified by each Convention. The High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions are under obligation “to enact any legislation necessary to provide effective penal sanctions for persons committing, or ordering to be committed,” a grave breach of the Convention. As defined at Art. 147 of Geneva Convention (IV) Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (6 U.S.T. 3516, signed on Aug. 12 1949, at Geneva), Grave Breaches  “shall be those involving any of the following acts, if committed against persons or property protected by the present Convention:  willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power, or willfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in the present Convention, taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly. Reference to Grave Breaches can also be found in the INTERIM REPORT OF THE COMMISSION OF EXPERTS, UNITED NATIONS DOCUMENT, S/25274, and January 2, 1993, at Sec. 3., Art. 47.

[20] Op Cit, Ex injuria jus non oritur.

[21]Some supporters of a Palestinian state argue that its prospective harms to Israel could be reduced or eliminated by ensuring the new Arab state’s immediate “demilitarization.” For informed reasoning against this argument, see: Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “Why a Demilitarized Palestinian State Would Not Remain Demilitarized: A View Under International Law,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, Winter 1998, pp. 347-363; and Louis René Beres and Ambassador Shoval, “On Demilitarizing a Palestinian `Entity’ and the Golan Heights: An International Law Perspective,” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vo. 28., No.5., November 1995, pp. 959-972.

[22] In science-based studies of world politics, rationality and irrationality have now taken on very precise meanings. In this regard, a state or terror group is presumed to be rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival/group survival more highly than any other conceivable preference or combination of preferences. Conversely, an irrational state or terror group is one that would not always display such a markedly specific preference ordering. On pragmatic or operational grounds, ascertaining whether a particular state adversary such as Iran would be rational or irrational could become a problematic and daunting task. Regarding Jihadi terror groups, on the other hand, it is plain by definition that they are inherently prone to irrational decision-making.

[23] Israel must now be increasingly wary that Hamas could move forcefully against PA in the West Bank (Judea/Samaria) and render that territory similar to Gaza. See, on this cautionary note, Ehud Eilam: https://www.jpost.com/opinion/dont-allow-israels-west-bank-to-become-afghanistan-opinion-679073

[24] For a classic scholarly book with this revealing title: See: René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (1977).

[25] In the Middle East, where theological doctrine divides into the dar al-Islam (world of Islam) and the dar al-harb (world of war), acts of terror against unbelievers have generally been accepted as expressions of sacredness. In turn, individual sacrifice derives, in large part, from a very conspicuously hoped-for power over death. By adopting atavistic practice, the Jihadist terrorist expects to realize an otherwise unattainable immortality. For Hamas, which seeks secular power as a new sovereign state of Palestine, certain obligatory aspects of sacrificial terror must never be overlooked. These aspects, underscoring the two-sided nature of terror/sacrifice – that is, the sacrifice of “The Unbeliever” (or “Apostate”) and reciprocal sacrifice of “The Martyr” – is codified within the Charter of Hamas as a “religious” problem.” For authoritative details of the Hamas Charter, see:  Louis René Beres: https://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/jil/vol39/iss3/2/

[26] See: Louis René Beres (Israel): https://besacenter.org/israel-palestine-threat/

[27] See Alfred North Whitehead’s Religion in the Making (1926).

[28] In prophetic words of poet Guillaume Apollinaire (The New Spirit and the Poets, 1917): “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.”

[29] This brings to mind the closing query of Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Aeschylus: “Where will it end? When will it all be lulled back into sleep, and cease, the bloody hatreds, the destruction”?

[30] “`I believe,'” says Oswald Spengler, “is the great word against metaphysical fear, and at the same time it is an avowal of love.'” See: The Decline of the West, Spengler’s Chapter on “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell.”

[31]No state, including Israel, is under any per se legal obligation to renounce access to nuclear weapons; in certain distinctly residual circumstances, moreover, even the actual resort to such weapons could be construed as lawful. See generally The Legality of the Threat or Use of Force of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, 1997 I.C.J. (July 8). The final paragraph of this Opinion, concludes, inter alia: “The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law. However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.”

[32] For earlier looks at the expected consequences of specifically nuclear attacks, 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); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986). 

[33]Hamas fired rockets at Dimona back in 2014. Earlier, Saddam Hussein launched Scud-B rockets toward Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.  For an early and informed consideration of reactor attack effects, see:  Bennett Ramberg, Destruction of Nuclear Energy Facilities in War (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1980); and Bennett Ramberg, “Attacks on Nuclear Reactors: The Implications of Israel’s Strike on Osiraq,” Political Science Quarterly, Winter 1982-83; pp. 653 – 669. More recently, see: Bennett Ramberg, “Should Israel Close Dimona? The Radiological Consequences of a Military Strike on Israel’s Plutonium-Production Reactor,”Arms Control Today,May 2008, pp. 6-13.

[34]See, by this author and former Israeli Ambassador Zalman Shoval, at West Point, Pentagon: https://mwi.usma.edu/creating-seamless-strategic-deterrent-israel-case-study/

[35]On this choice, ancient philosophy can be helpful. More precisely, Plato’s theory, offered in the fourth century B.C.E, seeks to explain all political choice in terms of epiphenomena, an unstable realm of half-truths and distorted perceptions.  In contrast to the uniformly stable realm of immaterial Forms, a realm from which all genuine knowledge must be derived, the political arena is dominated by myriad contradictions of the reflected world, contradictions that inevitably fail to account for “metaphysical fear.”

[36] 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.” The essential significance of any norm’s customary character is that the norms bind even those states that are not parties to the pertinent codification. Even where a customary norm and a norm restated in treaty form are apparently identical, these norms are treated as jurisprudentially discrete. During the merits phase of MILITARY AND PARAMILITARY ACTIVITIES IN AND AGAINST NICARAGUA, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated: “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 IN AND AGAINST NICARAGUA, Nicar. V. US., Merits, 1986 ICJ, Rep. 14 (Judgment of 27 June).

[37] See Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (1975).

[38] In this connection, for relevant generic understandings, see Michael Polanyi’s discussion of the “moral appeal of immorality” in the philosopher’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958).

[39] See Louis René Beres, “Self-Determination, International Law and Survival on Planet Earth,” Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law, Vol. 11, No.1., pp. 1-26. On these special prerogatives, see also French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenal, Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good (The University of Chicago Press, 1957).

[40] In scientific terms, of course, such “logic” is literal nonsense. Apropos of this point, see: Emmanuel Levinas, “An immortal person is a contradiction in terms.”  (God, Death and Time; 2000).

[41]Through the ages, with “God on our Side,” conflicting states and religions have asserted that personal immortality can sometimes be achieved at the sacrificial expense of certain despised “others,” of “heathen,” “blasphemers,” “apostates.” When he painted The Triumph of Death in 1562, Peter Bruegel drew upon his direct personal experience with both religious war and disease plague.  In the sixteenth century, he already understood that any intersection of these horrors (one man-made, the other natural) could be ill-fated, force-multiplying and even synergistic. This last term describes results wherein the “whole” calculable outcome exceeds the sum of all constituent “parts.”

[42] This post-Afghanistan strategic imperative extends to assorted state enemies of Israel, especially a potentially nuclear Iran. See, in this connection, Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely deter a Nuclear Iran? The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel; and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[43] See, op cit., Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “Why a Demilitarized Palestinian State Would Not Remain Demilitarized: A View Under International Law,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, Winter 1998, pp. 347-363; and Louis René Beres and Ambassador Shoval, “On Demilitarizing a Palestinian `Entity’ and the Golan Heights: An International Law Perspective,” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vo. 28., No.5., November 1995, pp. 959-972.

[44] In principle, this right may extend to defensive first-strikes or preemption. The origins of the right to anticipatory self-defense in international law lie in customary law, in the Caroline. This was a case that concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally justified certain militarily defensive actions. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require an antecedent attack. Here, the jurisprudential framework permitted a military response to a threat so long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” See: Beth M. Polebaum, “National Self-defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age,” 59 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 187, 190-91 (1984) (noting that the Caroline case had transformed the right of self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a legal doctrine). Still earlier, see: Hugo Grotius, Of the Causes of War, and First of Self-Defense, and Defense of Our Property, reprinted in 2 Classics of International Law, 168-75 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1925) (1625); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations, reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1916) (1758). Also, Samuel Pufendorf, The Two Books on the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, 32 (Frank Gardner Moore., tr., 1927 (1682).

[45]This also a “Higher Law” or “Natural Law” principle. In his DE OFFICIIS, Cicero wrote:  “There is in fact a true law namely right reason, which is in accordance with nature, applies to all men and is unchangeable and eternal…. It will not lay down one rule at Rome and another at Athens, nor will it be one rule today and another tomorrow.  But there will be one law eternal and unchangeable binding at all times and upon all peoples.”  See also DE LEGIBUS, Bk. i, c, vii.  Blackstone’s COMMENTARIES expressly recognize that all law “results from those principles of natural justice, in which all the learned of every nation agree….”  See William Blackstone, COMMENTARIES ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND, adapted by Robert Malcolm Kerr (Boston; Beacon Press, 1962), Book IV, “Of Public Wrongs,” p. 62 (Chapter V., “Of Offenses Against the Law of Nations.”). Thomas Aquinas recalls Augustine as follows:  “St. Augustine says: `There is no law unless it be just.’ So the validity of law depends upon its justice.  But in human affairs a thing is said to be just when it accords aright with the rule of reason: and as we have already seen, the first rule of reason is the Natural Law.  Thus all humanly enacted laws are in accord with reason to the extent that they derive from the Natural law.  And if a human law is at variance in any particular with the Natural law, it is no longer legal, but rather a corruption of law.” See SUMMA THEOLOGICA, 1a 2ae, 95, 2; cited by D’ Entreves, supra, pp. 42 – 43

[46] Philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset had understood these superficially political issues at much deeper and generic levels. Ultimately, the seminal Spanish thinker understood, these issues have been about the continuous human struggle against death. Always, therefore, they have been about God and personal immortality.

[47] This notion of “force-multiplying” resembles the concept of “synergy,” an interaction or intersection whereby the resultant “whole” is always greater than the additive sum of its “parts.”

[48] More specifically, Israel’s nuclear strategy could have certain meaningful implications for U.S. national security. On these generally ignored connections, see Louis René Beres and (General/USA/ret.) Barry McCaffrey, ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY AND AMERICA’S NATIONAL SECURITY, Tel-Aviv University and Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, Tel-Aviv, December 2016: https://sectech.tau.ac.il/sites/sectech.tau.ac.il/files/PalmBeachBook.pdf

[49] See epigraph, above, by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.

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

Submarine Cables: The Global Data Infrastructure and International Law of the Sea

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Image source: indiatoday.in

As a lay person, it is a common perception that data and communication signals travel through multiple satellite systems orbiting around the earth. However, this is a grave misconception. As one writer puts it, “but that the communication signals themselves are then broken into bits of data, which then ply the ocean depths at the speed of light via unseen cables, is hard to imagine.”[1] The reality is that 99% of the world’s communication data is currently moving through hidden undersea cables. These are now befittingly called as the “Out-of-Sight Arteries of Globalization”.[2] These submarine cables are functioning as a global infrastructure for the movement of inter alia big data, communication signals, phone traffic and even financial capital around the world. During the past decade, the weaknesses and gaps in the protection of these underwater fiber-optic cables under International law has come to the fore. This article is aimed at critically analyzing the vulnerability in International law to protect these global underwater data highways.

History & Background

In the year 1858, the first transatlantic subsea cable was laid down between Ireland and Newfoundland which snapped 26 days later.[3] In the year 1864, another transatlantic cable was placed between the same territories and this time it proved to be successful. Following this success, there was no looking back and submarine cables were placed between various territories along the seabed of the Pacific Ocean.[4] Interestingly, the transmission speeds for these first telegraph cables were 12 words per minute which increased exponentially to 200 words per minute by the 1920’s. The invention of the telephone expanded the reliance on these transcontinental cables. From the beginning of the 1950’s until  the late 1960’s underwater coaxial cables dominated intercontinental voice communications.[5]

It was the invention of satellite systems during the 1970’s which greatly reduced the reliance on subsea cables for use in communication technologies. Although the satellite systems dominated the telecommunications world for more than a decade, they were soon replaced by the invention of fiber-optic cables. Fiber-optic cables were more capacious in carrying vast amounts of data and signals as compared to coaxial cables of the bygone days.[6] The first fiber-optic cable was laid down in the year 1986. As of 2019, there are 241 active and distinct fiber-optic subsea cables which are mapping a length of 1.1 million kilometers (km) of the seabed.[7] One writer points out the dominance of undersea cables over satellites by the fact that if they were to stop transmitting then “only 7% of the total United States data traffic volume could be carried by satellite”.[8]

Global Significance & Issue of “Materiality”

Subsea cables are a crucial part of the digital economy, making flows and exchanges of data possible. Astonishingly, they are considered to be intangible, immaterial and un-territorial under the international legal framework.[9] It is understandable that an average person using the internet is unaware about the physical aspect of data transmission. However, International law and its supremacy is founded upon physical objects and materiality. International law experts are now increasingly engaging in such a method of analysis as compared to archetypical theoretical frameworks. Hohmann and Joyce explain that “in revealing the deep entanglements of international law and the material things around us, we can begin to understand how international law structures and disciplines its subjects—and sets the contours for the possibilities and limits of our lives—through objects.”[10]

It is absolutely imperative that International law recognizes the physicality of undersea cables which are now deeply intertwined with the social, economic, legal and technological orders of a digital age. International law and its dominance is moulded by the physical infrastructures which are an important factor in the growth of modern digital economies. Undersea cables are now the subject of competition and struggle between both state and non-state actors (e.g developers and corporations). These struggles include title, control, access and territorial sovereignty.[11] All these fall within the ambit of International law, and efforts must be made to enable a fair regulation.

International Legal Framework and Challenges

The protection and security of subsea cables has been the subject matter of at least seven different international conventions between late 19th century and the beginning of 20th century. It all started with “The Convention for the Protection of Submarine Telegraph Cables (1884)” which was inked in Paris. The 1884 convention was applicable in the territorial waters of the signatory states, making the damage of such cables a punishable offense.[12] The primary purpose of this treaty was to encourage the stakeholder States to promulgate domestic legislation protecting these cables.

The World moved on from the Telegraph to the Telephone, but these undersea cables remained of cardinal importance in communication technology. These cables were an agenda topic in the United Nations International Law Commission (ILC) on the law of the sea. In the International Law Conference of the Sea (1958), three articles relevant to the protection of subsea cables were incorporated into the Geneva Convention of the Law of the Sea (1958).[13] It was also agreed that the provisions of the 1958 conventions will not affect any previous treaties (which included the 1884 convention).[14]

In the year 1973, the UN held a third conference to debate upon the law of the seas and this subsequently resulted in the “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 (UNCLOS)”. This time again, three provisions (Articles 113 to 115) specifically addressed the protection of undersea cables. Unfortunately, neither the 1982 UNCLOS nor its predecessor treaties could correctly envisage the importance of submarine cables to a digital age.

Pursuant to Art. 21 and 113 of the UNCLOS, littoral states have the authority to enact domestic legislation to protect the subsea cables or any other conduit that lay beneath their territorial waters. States are under no obligation to enact such legislation, and for this reason, most of the littoral states have abstained from doing so. Many studies and reviews have found that there exists little or no domestic legislation which criminalizes any damage caused to such cables.[15]

In addition to this, there does not exist a legal regime which could potentially prosecute offenders who damage undersea cables which are located in the high seas. The UNCLOS limits the jurisdictional protection to flag-bearer vessels.[16] This implies that littoral states could prosecute foreign vessels for damaging fiber-optic cables within its territorial waters, but not otherwise. As a result, there exist significant lacunae in the prosecutions of intentional or negligent damage of such important infrastructure. It is clear that the undersea cables are more prone to nefarious designs to disrupt communications by the foreign vessels of adversary states in the high seas. In terms of technological advancements, the data transmission network has moved forward by leaps and bounds. Legally, the International framework has failed to keep up.

Conclusion

In a modern digital world, these hidden subsea cables are a site of politics, power, communication and most importantly contestation. These cables may prima facie be an invisibility. But the real importance of an invisibility lies in the phenomenon it enshrouds. It is about time that International law recognizes that global digital economies are functioning and prospering through a hidden network of key infrastructure which needs better and impenetrable protection.


[1] Douglas R. Burnett & Lionel Carter, International Submarine Cables and Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction: The Cloud Beneath the Sea, BRILL RESEARCH PERSPECTIVES IN THE LAW OF THE SEA, 3 (2017).

[2] Surabhi Ranganathan, The Out-of-Sight Arteries of Globalization, Visualizing Climate and Loss, http://histecon.fas.harvard.edu/climate-loss/lawofthesea/arteries.html

[3] Lionel Carter & Douglas R. Burnett, Subsea Telecommunications, in ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF OCEAN RESOURCES AND MANAGEMENT, 349, 350 (Hance D. Smith, et al. eds., 2015)

[4] Stewart Ash, The Development of Submarine Cables, in SUBMARINE CABLES: THE HANDBOOK OF LAW AND POLICY

[5] Lionel Carter & Douglas R. Burnett, Subsea Telecommunications, in ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF OCEAN RESOURCES AND MANAGEMENT, 349, 350 (Hance D. Smith, et al. eds., 2015)

[6] Ibid

[7] Working Group 8 Submarine Cable Routing & Landing, Final Report – Protection of Submarine Cables Through Spatial Separation, THE COMMUNICATIONS SECURITY, RELIABILITY & INTEROPERABILITY COUNCIL IV, 1

[8] Stephen C. Drew & Alan G. Hopper, Fishing and Submarine Cables: Working Together, International Cable Protection Committee (February 23, 2009) at 8, available at https://www.iscpc.org/publications/

[9] Territoriality and Intangibility: Transborder Data Flows and National Sovereignty, in Beyond National Sovereignty: International Communication in the 1990s 259 (Kaarle Noerdenstreng & Herbert I. Schiller eds., 1993)

[10] International Law’s Objects, 2 (Jessie Hohmann & Daniel Joyce eds., 2019).

[11] Jeremy Page, Kate O’Keeffe & Rob Taylor, America’s Undersea Battle With China for Control of the Global Internet Grid, Wall Street J. (Mar. 12, 2019)

[12] George Grafton Wilson, The Law of Territorial Waters, 23 AM. J. INT’L. L. 2, 241-380 (Apr 1929)

[13] Eric Wagner, Submarine cables and protections provided by the law of the sea, 19 MARINE POLICY 2, 127, 135 (Mar. 1995)

[14] Convention of the High Sea, Apr. 29 1958, 450 U.N.T.S. 11 (codifying this provision at Article 30, excerpted here: “The provisions of this Convention shall not affect conventions or other international agreements already in force, as between States Parties to them.”)

[15] Robert Beckman, Protecting Submarine Cables from Intentional Damage, in SUBMARINE CABLES: THE

HANDBOOK OF LAW AND POLICY

[16] UNCLOS (1982), Art. 27

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International Law

Locating Sustainable Migration Framework in a Globalized World beyond the UNCSR

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Photo Credit: © UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

The traditional understanding of refugee protection and safeguards enshrined in the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (UNCSR) with its 1967 Additional Protocol has come to a tipping point. The current scenarios of mixed human migration have given a new term that defines the “new refugee” as “migrant” due to the imprecise distinction between refugee and migrant in the wake of enlarging protections and expanded challenges to the refugee interpretation under UNCSR. Today, mixed human migration has become the determinant factor to critically appreciate the experiences, familiar routes, and intentions of refugees and migrants and threats to the protection system in the wake of emerging populist radicalism in the Global North and Global South with equal intensity. Such radical trends are generally backed by the majoritarian political discourse in constitutional democracies. But such revanchist patterns could only be contained by the re-mainstreaming of liberalism in our geopolitical identities.

New Categories in a Globalized World

Thus, the mixed human migration has necessitated the creation of new categories beyond the traditional understanding provided in UNCSR. Historically, the remarkable distinction between “refugee” and “migrant” is based on the institutional recognition of the notion that the refugee enjoys an elevated status in the framework of international law. However, the nation-states and inter-governmental mechanisms attend refugees based on the thresholds of gravity of refugee situations on a particular occasion. Consequently, such arrangements recognize the “refugees” and derecognize the “economic migrant.” However, in reality, it has now become a well-established understanding that such divisions between these categories are difficult to make in a globalized world. Alexander Betts has written about people who flee hostile circumstances and called such flight “survival migration,” especially from unstable nation-states, situations of socioeconomic violations, and climate change-driven displacement that have not yet been recognized as refugees under UNCSR. Unfortunately, there is no political understanding among the UN member states to broaden the limits of the UNCSR definition of a refugee by creating the new protection categories. Therefore, it is imperative in the present scenario to defend the existing “refugee” category, and nation-states strive to extend protection under international human rights treaties to other groups of vulnerable migrants fleeing persecution beyond UNCSR.

Global Compacts on Refugees & Migration

The origin of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and Global Compact on Migration (GCM) is knotty as a global political project. Primarily, in late 2015, the strategy was to conclude and adopt a comprehensive plan of action for Syrian refugees and Mediterranean routes of refugees who have created a refugee crisis in Europe. Therefore, global institutional politics and other multiple reasons paved the way to adopt such a plan of action in January 2016 for organizing an international conference in New York in September 2016 with the mandate to have GCR. Simultaneously, other world institutions also hard-pressed for a similar arrangement called GCM to create equilibrium for proportionate protection. Such segregation was required due to the organizational distribution of business within the UN system. Therefore, the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) was mandated to act upon and implement GCR.

In contrast, Switzerland and Mexico have co-supervised the parallel GCM programme and its modalities for implementation. Though these Global Compacts have common characteristics, gaps, and intersections mainly, there is small space for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and transnational displacement that has not been recognized in the refugee definition. But UNHCR has proposed specific plans for implementing GCM that incorporate significant steps for migrants in vulnerable conditions. As a result, these Global Compacts have been playing relatively different roles as GCR attempts to address the gaps in the UNCSR by ensuring fundamental principles of humanity and international solidarity and strives to implement the principles of burden-and-responsibility-sharing (BARS) for refugee protection, assisting the refugees and supporting the refugee-hosting countries and communities. On the other hand, GCM provides a nascent global migration governance system as a first step. GCM is an intergovernmental agreement brokered by the UN that addresses all dimensions of global migration holistically and comprehensively and confronts the challenges relating to the worldwide movement by strengthening the contribution and engagement of migrants to sustainable development.

The Role of UNHCR & Shifting Global Debate

The position of UNHCR has become challenging as it confronts a multitude of constraints such as cuts in the humanitarian budget by the US, widespread non-compliance with the UNCSR and its Additional Protocol, and the emergence of institutional rivalry with the entry of IOM in the UN system. However, UNHCR has taken a restrained approach and deliberately excluded many parts from the current global debate on GCR, particularly Lego-institutional reforms. The GCR’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), Global Refugee Forum (GRF), and a string of Solitary Platforms provide the foundation for the philosophy of change and emplace global arrangement for international cooperation and addressing particular refugee crises. These institutional arrangements in the GCR framework, like CRRF and GRF, stipulate a new development-based and market-driven model of operation with a lot of pragmatism. GCR is an itinerary of actions and actors entrusted to implement the BARS and the entire ambit of modes of contribution on the part of stakeholders. The GCR is a remarkable achievement in its normative and substantive significance and commitments, provided it is executed on the ground. The CRRF has been showing positive results in Ethiopia and Kenya. However, it is the political leadership that has to determine new commitments and promises.

In the present scenario, international institutions require the exceptional and unprecedented capacity to lead collective action based on moral yet pragmatic parleys and diplomacies. World history is a testimony that non-binding intangible and universal commitments of the nation-states incommensurate with the international refugee regime do not serve a significant purpose. At least five to eight years must be demarcated to assess the impact of the Global Compacts on the ground. To do an impact assessment of GCR and GCM along with durable solutions, there are numerous refugee situations like Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and India, Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran, Syrian refugees in Europe, Lebanon and Jordan, Mexican refugees in the US, Somali refugees, Venezuelan refugees in Colombia and Brazil, Afro-Asian refugees in Canada and Tibetan refugees in India. Though the GCM stipulates principles only, it has to evolve its intellectual contours in its initial stages to establish a global migration governance system, and its institutionalization will consume years ahead. However, the GCM is a remarkable achievement that has made migration a head-on agenda item for the UN system.

Global Refugee System: A Critique

Off late, UNHCR has not been innovative and inventive for an expansion of alternatives for refugee protection. It has adopted a guarded approach under which several issues have been put on hold. For long, UNHCR has been avoiding institutional reforms and keeping the refugee definition out of its re-consideration and re-formulation in tune with the current objections by the Global South countries. UNCSR refugee definition is the most significant contention of the Global South countries. It is a Eurocentric formulation and does not cater to the needs of the refugee people from the Global South nation-states. As a whole, the UNCSR regime is regarded as a Global North project imposed on Global South countries. Presently, many UNHCR personnel acquiesce in institutional politics, and the threat has been looming upon them that might jeopardize refugee protection. In such a pessimistic atmosphere, the GCR and CRRF provide a ray of hope for refugee protection. But there would be numerous geostrategic and geopolitical challenges such as the metamorphosis in the thresholds of global world order in terms of the recalibration and transformation of goal-posts of international power politics, the impact of socioeconomic praxis, the emergence of the artificial intelligence in RSD, and immigration procedures, and resurgence of far-right and nihilistic nationalism for minorities, and LGBTQI groups worldwide. Therefore, UNHCR has to continue to adapt to the changing circumstances, particularly by developing and re-crafting its capability for political leadership along with the existing humanitarian leadership in the context of global restrictionism.

Mixed Migration: A Divide between Principles and Pragmatics

The normative understanding of refugee protection and their human rights must not be sandwiched between principles and pragmatics of the regulatory approach. It is the cause of refugee protection that must alone prevail in global institutional priorities, intergovernmental primacies, and political urgencies in any given situation. But the divide between principles and pragmatics of refugee protection has been increasingly widening at an unprecedented scale that has made the UNCSR partially irrelevant, and several governments do not feel embarrassed with their public apathy towards refugees. Even though, immigration has squarely benefited and enriched the host countries of the Global North by building societies based on multiculturalism, pluralism, and cosmopolitanism. However, the political advocacy of right-wing nationalism in Australia, Canada, Europe, the US, South Asia, South-East Asia, and elsewhere conveys that the Global North has been incriminating immigration in the name of pragmatism by undermining the principles of migration.

The far-right nationalism breeds backlash and xenophobia. There is a need to repulse the anti-immigration surge. Global migration is, prima facie, not an immigration narrative alone; instead, it is, predominantly, impregnated with refugee dimensions that have to be dealt with under UNCSR and GCR instead of restrictive immigration laws. Because when immigration law stops, refugee law begins. Immigration law is based on nationalism, and refugee law is based on globalism. The global principles of the rule of law must comport with secular democracy, inclusive human rights, and liberal pluralism. These principles must get the support of the electorates in all geopolitical entities across the world. Such steps will guard these principles from far-right-wing politicians who are hell-bent on eroding universal liberal values. Therefore, the international community must reconcile the idea of liberal internationalism with the notion of secular democracy; otherwise, humanity would not be able to defeat the resurgent Frankenstein of international politics.

Global Public Perception & Sustainable Migration Framework

The global public perception suffers from the fear and impact of the increasing population of refugees and migrants, and Global North countries are reluctant to host them. There are 84 million displaced people worldwide, and out of them, 26.6 million are refugees (as of mid-2021). However, the challenge is greater geographical concentration as 85% of refugees live in low and middle-income countries, and 60% are present in just ten countries. Meanwhile, global migration trends have been mostly steady in terms of proportion to the global population since the 1970s, although the statistics of the people have increased from 70 million to 240 million. However, the refugee crisis has never been a crisis of statistical data; rather, it is the crisis of international politics and trust deficit among the comity of nations. The people of Global North countries are skeptical and fearful of socio-cultural transformation due to the triggering of structural changes with the arrival of refugees. Such changes cause the loss of low-skilled manufacturing jobs, starting of the politics of austerity, and politics-driven campaigns by the far-right-wing politicians in the host countries. In such a situation, the global community must develop a sustainable migration framework based on migrants-oriented policies that address both host and transit countries in equal measures.

One of the biggest challenges in the current world order is reconciling democracy with globalization in the wake of anti-migrant populism in Global North and Global South countries with equal far-right ferocity? It is, indeed, a significant challenge to preserve the optimism in the present world where electoral choices are expressed with technology, and sovereign citizens demand the re- endorsement and re-statement of national sovereignty in all its manifestations. Therefore, such integration of democracy and globalization needs a substantial amount of creativity that includes a new perception about normal human mobility and forced migration. Such optimism needs farsighted global governance supported by institutions and subsidiary organizations of the UNO, regional and other inter-governmental organizations. However, such a possibility right now is absent due to the international orders increasingly becoming more and more obstructive and deterring human mobility. There is a need to have collective measures to address the problem of the exodus of hybrid migration resulting in a backlash in the destination countries. It further jeopardizes the lives of people taking strenuous and frantic travels in search of safer refuge. Such reckless journeys become the cause of mushrooming of criminal syndicates indulging in human trafficking and criminalizing migration networks that mount a massive burden upon the capabilities of refugee-hosting countries while chipping away the thresholds of refugee safety.

Way Forward

On the basis of our cumulative experiences, there is a need to re-imagine the innovative and inventive refugee protection proscenium to respond to grisly human migration in all continents and countries. But it must not be devoid of the principles of Global Human Rights Constitutionalism, and it must discard the discourse of popular nationalism that is anarchist, narcissist, nihilist, and exclusionary in its treatment of RAMS (refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants, stateless). The current Globalized World needs the re-validation and re-assertion of diversity, dignity, multiculturalism and liberal values of the yore. It is an age requiring arrangements for integrating the contesting and opposing interests across the political spectrum in all geopolitical enties. Such measures demand audacious actions, quixotic visions and re-embracing of human rights liberalism beyond the rubrics of UNCSR.

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International Law

UNCTAD Report: Revisiting Old Issues in Managing Cross-Border Data Flows

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Today, information space has become a field of confrontation involving major digital platforms, governments, societies and individual users. Stories featuring latest cyberattacks or state-sponsored attempts to limit the influence of social networks and regulate the digital sphere, where there is no governance at the international level, are those that grab the headlines of many online media outlets.

Given the current climate, it is then no surprise that the United Nations is paying close attention to the issues related to the digital domain. On September 29, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development released its Digital Economy Report 2021, which focuses on the issue of managing cross-border data flows. The piece is rather comprehensive in terms of the issues covered, seeking to analyze the inhibiting factors that prevent us from working out an exhaustive definition of what “data” is, while exploring the specific approaches of states to regulating cross-border data flows. The report’s authors pay particular attention to the digital divide that has emerged between developed and developing nations. That said, we would argue that the report is more of a descriptive paper rather than a real step towards erecting a system of global governance.

The first section of the report addresses the lack of clarity on the definition of “data”, whether in research or among practitioners. With no unified terminology, communication between stakeholders appears to be complicated, much as the process of designing public policy as regards the digital sphere. A generally accepted and unified terminology would no doubt make it easier to foster closer cooperation, although this is certainly not a defining prerequisite. International efforts to fight against terrorism can be a case in point here, as there is no conventional definition of “terrorism,” while this does not hinder inter-state cooperation, both regionally and globally. While this cooperation may not always proceed smoothly, any problems encountered tend to be the upshot of political squabbles rather than the implications of the fact that no single definition of “terrorism” is to be found.

The UNCTAD report brings up another underlying premise, which is that data should be treated as a global public good. This will allow citizens, acting as “producers” of raw data, to claim the benefits of it being used by digital platforms. This issue has already been discussed at the EU, with the approach tested in a number of cities. Transferring some control over the flow of data from corporations to users is an important step towards ensuring that human rights are upheld in the digital environment.

The UNCTAD report also explores the technological and digital divide, whose dimensions span developed and developing countries as well as urban and rural areas within a particular country. This problem is nothing new: it was only last year when UN Secretary-General António Guterres referred to the need to bridge the gap, arguing that it was instead widening amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, he proposed a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.

Besides, the report notes the massive impact of digital platforms. These, the authors believe, “are no longer just digital platforms” but “global digital corporations” that have the necessary capabilities for processing information, which puts them in a privileged position. Further, digital platforms are able to influence policymaking through lobbying their interests. In terms of spending, Facebook and Amazon are the most active lobbyists in the United States, while Google, Facebook and Microsoft are the biggest spenders in Europe. The report suggests that the privileged position of digital corporations—such as their ability to process massive bulks of data and derive profit from raw information—leads to something of an imbalance between the private and the public sectors when it comes to recruiting talent. Accordingly, the gap is widening, which means that the tech giants are moving even further out in front.

Finally, fragmentation of the digital space into competing models of managing cross-border data flows is another challenge to the digital domain and its prospects. Should such fragmentation occur, this may create new obstacles to communication and economic development, as the existing models (those of the U.S., the EU, Russia, China and India) offer different regulatory practices that have their own flaws and inefficiencies. The report identifies the broad shortcomings of these practices, making note of poor coordination between government agencies; ambiguous formulations deliberately used to denote key concepts (such as “critical infrastructure” or “digital sovereignty”); and setting unrealistically high technical requirements, including the requirement to store personal data locally—something that entails greater costs for smaller businesses and is detrimental to end consumers of digital products and services.

The Digital Economy Report implies the solution lies in establishing a new institutional framework to meet the challenge of global governance in the digital domain. This new institution should contain the “appropriate mix of multilateral, multi-stakeholder and multidisciplinary engagement.” At the same time, the report argues for ad hoc interaction between stakeholders given the inherent complexity of the framework. The new organization should become a coordinating body for digital governance with a sound mandate.

Indeed, the main stumbling block for global governance to emerge in the digital sphere has to do with the model of interaction to be chosen. The epitome of the intergovernmental approach is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), while the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is illustrative of the multi-stakeholder approach.

Since neither is perfect, this naturally leads us to the conclusion that a combined approach is what is needed. This approach can possibly provide states with a much-needed platform for broader involvement in issues of digital governance, while ensuring that non-state actors and expert community retain their positions. The UNCTAD report refers to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as a perfect example of such a “hybrid” international organization. At ECOSOC, interaction with NGOs takes place through the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations. Expert bodies made up of representatives of individual countries as well as of independent experts also operate within the framework of ECOSOC.

Indeed, ECOSOC is a good example of how international institutions can interact with NGOs. However, it will not do to simply copy its mechanism, and it is so for several reasons. First, final recommendations within ECOSOC are adopted by representatives of member states. This harms its usefulness as a model to be replicated, since there will always be the risk that issues are politicized—this will be the case even if the new institution is designed with the combined approach in mind. Besides, should this body take on the role of the principal coordinator in the digital space, issues will become more politicized and disagreements will be more heated, thus slowing down decision-making. Second, the question remains as to how the new institution will interact with the existing organizations, namely the Internet Architecture Board and the Internet Engineering Task Force. The ad hoc mechanism to engage NGOs in other areas, which works perfectly fine for ECOSOC, may not be enough when it comes to technical standards that need to be constantly updated. Third, the General Assembly elects ECOSOC members every three years. However, this would not be feasible for the new coordinating body as the digital domain has its own leaders, and leaving them overboard would be incredibly detrimental to its effectiveness. In such a case, there remains the above-mentioned risk of discussions between the U.S./EU and Russia/China becoming politicized.

Moreover, the choice of decision-making mechanism presents certain difficulties given the dominant position of the four, both on the international stage and in terms of data processing. Operating on the basis of consensus may hinder negotiations or become an instrument to block unwanted decisions, while a simple majority will likely result in these nations establishing ad hoc coalitions to try and swing votes in their favour. Therefore, it seems prudent to design a complex voting mechanism based on qualified majority, possibly drawing on the system used in the Council of the European Union. Still, this mechanism will not rule out struggles unfolding behind the scenes.

Finally, the fact that the two sides have fundamental disagreements as to the concept of sovereignty in the digital space should be accounted for, as this could put an end to the new coordinating institution before it has even been established. The only way to move forward with a truly effective platform for cooperation in the digital space is to temporarily improve, if not to normalize, the relations between the leading states in this area.

No global governance in the digital domain is better than a poorly regulated system spinning its wheels. Our modern world is too dependent on technological advances that ensure that all regions and facets of life are complementary. Any failure of the mechanism can be extremely costly. However, increasing fragmentation of the digital space may be even more costly—for developing and developed countries alike. One possible way forward amid the international environment mired in uncertainty is to search for common ground on the most basic of issues. While the differences in national regulations persist, there are a number of issues that are common to all: these include cyberterrorism, cybercrime, illegal access to data or threats to critical infrastructure.

Multilateral agreements that do not address the fundamental differences in the stances taken by states may lay the foundation for global governance to emerge in the future. It is in this context that the joint U.S.–Russia draft resolution on the responsible behaviour of states in cyberspace, if legally unbinding, bears utter significance for cooperation between nations who espouse two different models as well as for overcoming the negative background of broader political disagreements.

From our partner RIAC

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