Tag Archives: international law

Human Rights in War

A new report by Amnesty International contends that Russia may have committed war crimes when it launched an airstrike on a market in Syria last week. According to the report, Russia may have killed as many as 200 civilians since it began using its air power to strike rebel forces in Syria last November. Amnesty International accuses Russia of using cluster munitions—bombs that carry dozens of bomblets—during its airstrikes. Amnesty avoids calling Russian attacks purposeful, suggesting that targets may have been based on faulty intelligence.

Russia responded, stating that the report was “groundless” and “full of lies,” and denies they have used cluster munitions in Syria. The Russian government also pointed out that US airstrikes have also resulted in civilian casualties, most notably in Afghanistan, where a US airstrike accidentally targeted a medical facility run by the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders, killing at least 19 people.

Yet the legality of Russia’s actions in Syria are less than clear. The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, transfer, and stockpile of cluster bombs by countries that have ratified the convention. While 107 countries have ratified the agreement, countries that have the largest stockpile of such weapons—including Russia, China, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, India, and Brazil—have refused to do so and are thus not subject to the agreement’s provisions. Similarly, the Rome Statute and Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions prohibit the deliberate or indiscriminate targeting of civilians in war. But making the case that Russia deliberately targeted civilians—rather than aiming for a military target but accidentally striking civilians—is a difficult claim to substantiate, and one that Amnesty did not make in the report.

What do you think? Has Russia violated international humanitarian law during its airstrikes in Syria? Has the United States violated international humanitarian law in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan? And if so, what can be or should be done to prevent such violations by Russia or the United States in the future?

Did the United States Commit War Crimes in Afghanistan?

The medical relief group Doctors Without Borders called for an international investigation into the US bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan today. A US airstrike in eastern Afghanistan last Saturday killed 12 medical workers and at least 10 patients at a hospital operated by the group. President Obama offered an apology for the airstrike, which commanders asserted was “a tragic, terrible mistake.”

But Doctors Without Borders has said that that strike “cannot be brushed aside,” it is requesting an investigation under the Geneva Convention. It hopes that such an investigation will clarify the rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Any investigation would require the consent of both the United States and Afghanistan, neither of which appears ready to move forward with such an independent investigation.

What do you think? Did the United States violate the Geneva Convention in the Afghan airstrike? Should an impartial international investigation take place? Why? And if a violation is found to have occurred, how should US engagement in Afghanistan change?

Commemorating 70 Years Since Hiroshima

The Japanese government is marking the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. On August 5, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing an estimated 150,000 people. Three days later, it dropped a second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, killing an estimated 50,000 people. A week later, Japan would unconditionally surrender, marking the end of World War II.

The decision to drop the atomic bomb has been hotly debated since 1945. Critics of the decision contend that the use of such devastating weapons against a largely civilian population, constituting a war crime under international law. Defenders of the decision argue that the decision brought the war to a speedier close, saving countless lives and shortening the conflict by years.

What do you think? Was the US decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified? If you were advising President Roosevelt at the time, what would you have counseled? Why?

Migration and International Law

As the Rohingya refugee crisis in Southeast Asia intensifies, regional actors are moving slowly to address the issue. Thousands of migrants remain stranded at sea as other governments (primarily Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia) refuse to permit them entry into their countries. An additional 100,000 Rohingya live in camps in Myanmar as internally displaced persons. And despite pleas from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, regional governments are refusing to accept the refugees, leading some to declare that a humanitarian disaster is at hand.

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority who practice Islam and historically lived in northern Myanmar. The population historically presented a threat to the professed identity of the government of Myanmar, which justifies its military rule through a mixture of Burmese nationalism and Theravada Buddhism. The government stripped the Rohingya of citizenship in the early 1980s and are barred by law from having more than two children. Despite these restrictive measures, the government of Myanmar officially does not recognize the Rohingya as a population, and this week stated it would not attend a regional conference to address the ongoing crisis if the word “Rohingya” is mentioned at the conference.

What do you think? What should be done to address the refugee crisis? What obligation, if any, do regional actors have to accept Rohingya migrants? What obligations, if any, do non-regional actors like the United States or the European Union, have? Is Ban Ki-moon correct that international law establishes “the obligation of rescue at sea” and therefore implies governments in the region should accept Rohingya refugees? Why?

The Limits of Diplomatic Immunity

Bolivian President Evo Morales re-boards his plane in Austria.

Bolivian President Evo Morales re-boards his plane in Austria.

A plane carrying Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, was forced to land in Austria after being denied access to French, Italian, and Portuguese airspace. Once on the ground, the plane was searched by Austrian officials to verify it was not carrying Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor accused of leaking the existence of a secret US surveillance program known as Prism. After it was determined that Snowden was not aboard, the plane was allowed to continue along its original route, ferrying the Bolivian President home from a conference in Moscow.

The move, which Spain hinted was the result of US pressure, was been widely condemned by other Latin American governments. Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, called the move “an affront to all America,” and Argentina’s President, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, condiment the move as “a relic of colonialism that we thought was completely overcome.” A special conference attended by the Presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and with representatives from several other countries in attendance, was convened in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to address the diplomatic row. And Bolivia announced that they may seek to close the US embassy in his country to protest the violation of international law.

While the conference attendees avoided any specific mention of the United States, their statement included a harsh condemnation and a demand for answers from France, Portugal, and Italy (who denied access to their airspace) as well as from Spain (who issued the original warning that Snowden could be aboard the plane). France subsequently sent an apology to Bolivia, but that apology was rejected by President Morales, who concluded that “apologies are not enough because the stance is that international treaties must be respected.”

There is a longstanding tradition of diplomatic immunity—that diplomats are given legal immunity and safe passage, and that they are not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under a host country’s law. These rights traditionally extend not just to credentialed diplomats, but also to heads of state. Such rights are recognized to ensure they can carry out the official duties of their office without intimidation or interference.

So was last week’s forced landing and search of President Evo Morales’ plane a violation of international law? The answer is not entirely clear, and arguments could be made on both sides. But at least one commentator, John Pilger of The Guardian newspaper, called the situation as an “act of air piracy and state terrorism” and described the situation as follows:

Imagine the aircraft of the president of France being forced down in Latin America on “suspicion” that it was carrying a political refugee to safety – and not just any refugee but someone who has provided the people of the world with proof of criminal activity on an epic scale.

Imagine the response from Paris, let alone the “international community”, as the governments of the west call themselves. To a chorus of baying indignation from Whitehall to Washington, Brussels to Madrid, heroic special forces would be dispatched to rescue their leader and, as sport, smash up the source of such flagrant international gangsterism. Editorials would cheer them on, perhaps reminding readers that this kind of piracy was exhibited by the German Reich in the 1930s.

The forcing down of Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane – denied airspace by France, Spain and Portugal, followed by his 14-hour confinement while Austrian officials demanded to “inspect” his aircraft for the “fugitive” Edward Snowden – was an act of air piracy and state terrorism. It was a metaphor for the gangsterism that now rules the world and the cowardice and hypocrisy of bystanders who dare not speak its name.

But even if that were not the case, the move would certainly spark a sharp rise in anti-Americanism in Latin America, which has traditionally viewed the motivations of the United States with deep suspicion. Also writing at The Guardian, Stephen Kinzer concluded  that “In its eagerness to capture the fugitive leaker Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has taken a step that will resound through Latin American history” and observing that,

If it becomes clear that the United States was behind this action – it has not yet admitted responsibility – this incident will go down in history as the defining episode of US-Latin America relations during the Obama administration. It suggests that the United States still considers Latin American countries less than fully sovereign. Nothing angers people in those countries more.

What do you think? Was the decision to search Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane a violation of international law? Will the decision have longer-term negative impact on US influence in the region? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

The Protection of American Sovereignty

Bob Dole Addresses the US Senate Ahead of a Vote on the Disability Treaty.

Bob Dole Addresses the US Senate Ahead of a Vote on the Disability Treaty.

The United States Senate last week rejected a United Nations-backed treaty that sought to protect the rights of disabled persons around the world. The treaty, known as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, essentially requires other countries to institute policies similar to those already in place in the United States under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Convention, which has been signed by more than 150 countries and has been ratified by 126, including Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia, failed to receive the two-thirds majority necessary to ratify a treaty in the United States Senate.

Opposition to the treaty came primary from Senate Republicans, who claimed that the treaty infringed on American sovereignty. While the outcome of the vote was not entirely surprising, there had been some hope that the high profile support of key Senate Republicans, including Senator John McCain and former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, would convince enough Republicans to support the treaty to ensure its passage. The treaty also divided conservative groups, with the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute both opposing the treaty while the US Chamber of Commerce supported it.

Several bloggers have already examined the international implications of the Senate’s rejection of the treaty. At Foreign Affairs, David Bosco asserted that the US position makes little difference globally, and that US rejection may ironically increase the number of countries ratifying the agreement, as some holdouts seek to illustrate that they are more progressive than the United States on this issue. Erik Voeten at the Monkey Cage reaches a similar conclusion.

Those opposed to the treaty cast their opposition primarily in terms of the need to protect American sovereignty. This opposition was captured by Daniel Drezner, who concluded that “critics don’t like the treaty because….it’s a treaty.”

But what does this mean? What is sovereignty and why is it important?

The concept of sovereignty is central to international relations. It is simplest sense, sovereignty refers to the exercise of supreme decision making authority over a given piece of territory. More broadly, sovereignty encompasses both a domestic and an international element. At the domestic level, sovereignty refers to the control or authority over space exercised by the state. Importantly, not all states are equally capable of exercising this authority. Some states, like Somalia throughout much of the 1990s, was controlled not by the national government but by various competing militia groups. In this case, we characterize Somalia’s sovereignty as “juridical” (or legal), rather than actual.

Sovereignty also has an external or international component, which is usually embodied in the mutual recognition of states and the ability of one state to prevent another from interfering in its domestic politics.

In the case of the Disability Rights Treaty, Senate Republicans were arguing that the treaty would have undermined American sovereignty by requiring US law to comply with international dictates. In practice, however, this was unlikely to be the case, as US law was already in compliance with the treaty—indeed, as noted above, the ADA was the model for the treaty itself.

So what do you think? Did the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities represent a threat to American sovereignty? Or were Senate Republicans just playing politics? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Cyberwarfare and International Relations

Iranian President Ahmadinejad visits a uranium enrichment plant near Natanz where the Stuxnet virus infected computers and damaged centrifuges.

Are advances in “cyberwarfare” moving faster than states’ ability to manage them?  Two New York Times articles this week raise some interesting–and at times disturbing–questions about the implications of cyberwarfare for national security and international relations.  The United States and Israel have used cyberattacks over the past few years in an effort to cripple Iran’s nuclear program, but the long term consequences of relying on such tools are unclear.  In an article entitled “Mutually Assured Cyberdestruction?” New York Times columnist David Sanger raises the following questions:

“Does the United States want to legitimize the use of cyberweapons as a covert tool? Or is it something we want to hold in reserve for extreme cases? Will we reach the point — as we did with chemical weapons, and the rest of the world did with land mines — that we want treaties to ban their use? Or is that exactly the wrong analogy, in a world in which young hackers, maybe working on their own or maybe hired by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army or the Russian mob, can launch attacks themselves?”  As Sanger notes, treaties–a key source of international law–have been used to codify opposition to chemical weapons and land mines.  More broadly, international norms (generally unwritten expectations about appropriate behavior) have arisen that prohibit the use of weapons of mass destruction–chemical, biological, and nuclear.  Could treaties and norms also be used to manage the spread and utilization of cyberweapons?

Sanger compares the cyberwarfare “learning period” in which we find ourselves to the early years of the Cold War, when the world was grappling with the dangers and utility of nuclear weapons: “It took years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima for the nation to develop a common national understanding of when and how to use a weapon of such magnitude. Not until after the Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 years ago this October, did a consensus emerge that the weapon was too terrible ever to employ again, save as a deterrent and a weapon of last resort.”  This may seem like hyperbole, but Sanger quotes Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as warning that the “next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyberattack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems.”  A second recent NY Times article, entitled “Expert Issues a Cyberwar Warning,” notes that military contractors, including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, are already developing devastating computer viruses for different U.S. intelligence agencies.  Are we approaching the point where we need to begin thinking of deterrence in the cyber domain, as we have in the nuclear arena?

What do you think?  Given their destructive potential, should cyberweapons be categorized alongside nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as weapons of mass destruction?   Should their use be banned by international treaty?  Or are cyberweapons a way to accomplish important missions without the bloodshed and “collateral damage” of conventional weaponry?