At 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, April 15, 2018, a panel of international law professionals discussed states’ use of defensive force against non-state actors, specifically in the context of the counter-ISIL military campaign in Iraq and Syria. Monica Hakimi, Professor of Law at the University of Michigan School of Law, moderated the panel, which consisted of Katrina Cooper, the Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy in Washington; Paul McKell, Legal Director at the United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Asif Amin, the Head of International Law Development at the Ministry of Defence for the Kingdom of Denmark; and Patrick Luna, the Legal Advisor for the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the United Nations.
Prof. Hakimi asked each panelist to articulate his or her state’s position on the use of force against non-state actors. Each country’s representative expressed their position on the question generally and with respect to ISIL in Syria and Iraq.
Katrina Cooper outlined Australia’s position: The “inherent” right to self-defense that is part of Article 51 of the UN Charter applies to attacks by non-state actors, but the defending state can take action against the non-state actor only, not the surrounding state. She explained that the case of using force against ISIL in Iraq was more straightforward legally since Iraq had consented to the use of force by asking other countries to help it defend itself. The case for the use of force against ISIL in Syria was “less clear-cut,” although Australia did conclude that it was legally justified. Cooper also mentioned that the “unwilling or unable” standard applied in the case of Syria.
Next, Paul McKell stated the United Kingdom’s position: you can invoke the doctrine of self-defense to use force against non-state actors. McKell alluded to the history of the Caroline affair, which involved non-state actors, to argue that this is nothing new. Article 51 mentions an inherent right of individual or collective self-defense, and, according to McKell, it does not require a state to passively await an attack. An attack must be imminent, however, for a state to be able to take action in self-defense. McKell did concede that ideally you deal with non-state actors via law enforcement and the criminal justice system, but that that is not always possible. Like Cooper, McKell talked about the differences between the decision to use force in Iraq versus in Syria. In Iraq, the use of force was based on consent, whereas in Syria, the United Kingdom believed there was “a direct link between the presence and activities of ISIL in Syria and the ongoing attacks on Iraq.” They also determined that the Assad regime was “unwilling or unable to prevent these attacks.” One example that McKell mentioned of the UK’s use of force against non-state actors was the precision strike against UK citizen and ISIL member Reyaad Khan.
Denmark’s representative, Asif Amin, explained that Denmark has four exceptions to a prohibition on the use of force: consent, self-defense, the authorization of a UN Security Council Resolution, and humanitarian interventions. In 2014, Denmark was part of the Iraq coalition and, like Australia and the UK, the legal basis for Denmark’s involvement was consent due to the invitation of the Iraqi government. Amin then read from Denmark’s Article 51 letter to the UN Security Council. According to Amin, Denmark is constantly evaluating the situation in Syria.
Patrick Luna provided the counterpoint to the other three panelists’ reasoning, offering Brazil’s alternative view. According to Luna, Article 51 is an exception to Article 2(4) of the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force: they must be read hierarchically. Luna’s reading of the two articles has lead him to the conclusion that Article 51’s right of self-defense only applies to the use of force against state actors. Luna cited three International Court of Justice opinions, the Nicaragua case, the Wall advisory opinion, and the Congo v. Uganda opinion, all of which he said address self-defense in the context of state actors. Luna further argued that nothing in the travaux préparatoires of the UN Charter leads him to believe that self-defense applies to non-state actors. Luna argued that in order to use force in self-defense, a state needs to identify if the attack can be attributed to a state, otherwise must get consent of the state to act or seek a UN Security Council Chapter VII resolution.
Luna expressed some of Brazil’s concerns with an interpretation of Article 51 that permits the use of force in self-defense against non-state actors. He sees a potentially negative effect to using the term “non-state actors” as a substitute for “terrorists,” since “non-state actors” is a much broader concept. He also sees a risk to multilateralism: why search for multilateral solutions if force against non-state actors is permissible?
Cooper, McKell, and Amin then responded to Luna’s points. As to Luna’s point about Article 2(4) and Article 51 having to be read hierarchically, Cooper argued that because self-defense is described as an “inherent right” in Article 51, it therefore predates the UN Charter. She commented on the change in the nature and participants in this conflict, saying that “ISIL is a very different actor and the way it acts and mimics a state is new.” Amin, in his follow-up remarks, agreed that the law needs to “develop to face new threats and new realities.”
As to Luna’s comments on ICJ jurisprudence, McKell replied that the UK position is that there is nothing in the ICJ jurisprudence that prohibits states taking the action they have.
This was an fascinating discussion from legal advisors who were intimately involved in the practical application of this pressing question of international law. At one point toward the end of the panel, Luna expressed the wish that they were “having this discussion at the UN!”