ASIL 2017 Recap: Debate: Bombing Terrorist Revenue: Legitimate Military Strategy or War Crime?

Bombing Terrorist Revenue

By: Amy Flick

One of the Friday sessions at ASIL’s 2017 annual meeting was staged in the form of a debate on the question of whether the practice of targeting revenue sources of ISIL (like oil trucks and infrastructure and cash storage sites) violates international humanitarian law. The moderator, Christie Edwards of the American Red Cross International Humanitarian Law Division, began the program by explaining the debate format, with the speakers taking assigned positions which might, or might not, reflect their own views.

The affirmative side, supporting targeting of revenue sources as legitimate military objects, led off with Professor Ryan Goodman of New York University School of Law. He argued that it is lawful to target objects under current law, even if the law should be changed, and that under debating rules, the proof is on the negative team.  Article 52(2) of the Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, on general protection of civilian objects, limits attacks strictly to military objectives, with a definition of targetable objects as those making an effective contribution to military action. He cited Burrus Carnahan’s writings on Additional Protocol I, which include examples of economic targeting such as the destruction of raw cotton during the U.S. Civil War, and the more recent example of Afghanistan, where all 28 members of NATO have authorized targeting drug labs. Professor Goodman acknowledged that the prevailing academic opinion is that economic targets are not legitimate targets, but he called most of the analysis of the question in the academic literature superficial. He also referred to ICRC Commentaries requiring military control over an object as a limit. Since ISIL controls the oil fields and funds its operations and purchases weapons through the sale of oil, those qualify as legitimate targets. Where states have drawn the line is targeting people, even if they are working in revenue-generating operations, if they are not directly involved in hostilities.

Professor Laurie Blank, Director of the International Humanitarian Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law, argued for the negative side, and disagreed on the debate’s burden of proof, saying that the party describing a target as outside IHL protections has the burden of proof here. Because the object and purpose of the law of armed conflict is to minimize civilian suffering, the law of armed conflict limits targeting to military objectives and combatants. The first step in the process is to determine if the target is a military objective. Article 52(2)’s definition of targets is combatants and equipment. Donating money to a terrorist group does not make one a target, even if the money might be used for objects that might be used in conflict. Just because something is done frequently, or feels good, an argument for “morally legitimate” does not make economic targeting legal in the law of armed conflict. She argued that the risk of turning money into a military objective by nature is that the slippery slope leads to targeting agriculture, banks, and the environment.

Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, Professor and Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School, returned to the affirmative side of the argument. Professor Dunlap disagreed with the slippery slope argument and said that the point of the debate is the narrow question of whether the target has a direct connection with objects on the battlefield. ISIL fighters regard monetary payments as income for jihad. Two-thirds of ISIL’s budget goes to paying fighters and buying equipment. He cited an article from The Atlantic from March 6, 2017 (which itself cites a February 2017 report from The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence) that found that, when the oil fields were bombed, ISIL cut fighter pay by 50%, and many left the battlefield. An attack that removes fighters from the battlefield without civilian casualties serves the idea of international humanitarian law. U.S. forces even dropped leaflets to notify drivers before oilfields were bombed. Professor Dunlap stressed that these tactics are only used when it is shown that eliminating these economic targets will affect the battlefield. The alternative is for military operations on the ground to have to root fighters out from urban areas house by house.

The final speaker of the debate was Professor Jens David Ohlin of Cornell Law School, arguing for the negative side. He started with a declaration that “slippery slope is an understatement.” Article 52(2)’s not having used the word “direct” does not mean that it allows revenue-producing site bombings. There must be a causal nexus to the military outcome, and it must be relatively certain that destruction of the target confers a military advantage. Bombing to demoralize the civilian population is not enough of a military nexus; bombing coal and steel plants is. Three steps are needed with economic targets to show a military purpose: a revenue-generating product is produced; the product is sold; and the revenue is used to buy weapons. This is not enough to establish a causal connection a stay within the requirement of conferring a definite military advantage.

On rebuttal, Professor Goodman reiterated that current law allows the slippery slope, even if the law should be changed. The travaux for Protocol I dropped “direct objects” and allowed indirect objects. Just as steel is turned into tanks, money creates fighters, and could even be traded directly for arms, eliminating one of the three steps. Rule 8 practice includes oil storage sites as military targets, as well as dual purpose structures like bridges; it does not allow bombing agriculture, with a disproportionate effect on civilians, or the World Trade Center, as an example of a structure too indeterminate to military objectives.

Professor Blank stated that she found assurances that there are limits and that states will be careful as insufficient. Making law for “bad terrorists” is not why a practice is allowed, because it becomes justifiable for other groups.

Professor Dunlap’s response was that the law requires care to be taken. Military forces must collect a lot of data or they cannot target, and IHL does not matter to groups who do not follow the law. The current situation in Syria and Iraq has seen a collapse of reciprocity. If we can eliminate fighters and weapons without civilian casualties, and there are no good other options, we should do it.

Professor’s Ohlin’s final response was that the affirmative side has argued that international law permits anything that is not prohibited, but IHL requires a presumption of civilian character, with proof that a target is a legitimate military target. The parties agree that analysis requires a definite military advantage; the disagreement is over what is definite.  He contended that the affirmative side distinguished unfairly between small and large powers based on how much of the economy must be crippled by the destruction of a target to diminish the combatant’s military capacity. Professor Blank agreed that the rules must be the same for state and non-state actors; targeting rules cannot be different based on whether the parties are good or bad.

[To watch the video of this program and others from ASIL’s 2017 annual meeting, visit ASIL’s YouTube channel.  For another recap of this program, visit ASIL Cables].

ASIL 2017 Recap: International Law and the Trump Administration: National and International Security

By: Loren Turner

During these first 100 days of a Donald Trump presidency, the American Society of International Law (ASIL) has led efforts to bring together experts from both sides of the political spectrum to talk about international law under the Trump administration. ASIL has produced a series of freely-available webinars that analyze the Trump administration and (1) the future of international agreements; (2) U.S. engagement with the United Nations; (3) U.S. participation in global trade agreements; and (4) the future of environmental agreements.

On Thursday, April 13, 2017, during ASIL’s annual meeting, experts assembled once again to discuss international law under the Trump administration, but this time through the lens of national and international security.  The program was certainly timely, as it occurred the same day we learned the United States had dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on Afghanistan and accidentally bombed allies in Syria.

Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution served as moderator to a panel of three experts on international law and politics: Shireen Hunter of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; John Bellinger, legal adviser for the U.S. Department of State and the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration; and Elisa Massimino, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Human Rights First.

In her opening remarks, Shireen Hunter identified herself as the voice of “political realism.”  She said laws are the outcomes of social and political processes.  Law is important but it is politics that change things and the laws change when society and politics change.  International law succeeds when there are common interests.  For example, even during conflict, the mail still gets delivered.  Maritime trade continues because those common interests remain.  But international relations and the rule of law are based on power.  Those nations with power, use that power to get what they want and there is no enforcement mechanism that stops them.  Saddam Hussein bombed Saudi Arabia with impunity.  Russia annexed Crimea and the international community did nothing to stop it.  No one abides U.N. Security Council resolutions, which are supposed to be binding.  The ideal is to implement the rule of law but the reality is that international relations is based on power and is skewed. We need a balance of power before international law is respected. We need creative ways of encouraging international cooperation and hence strengthening international law.

On the topic of human rights and Syria, Ms. Hunter said that she witnessed the abuse of human rights rhetoric when she served on the United Nations Human Rights Committee.  The United States would claim to honor human rights, but then sell bombs to nations that routinely violate human rights.  We had waterboarding under the Bush administration.  Trump doesn’t really care about the Syrian people.  Syria is a test case of which nation is going to be the next hegemon in that part of the world. Humanitarian intervention is a new phenomenon and it causes a lot of deaths.  Look at Libya, at Iraq.  Bombing Syria for humanitarian reasons is a smokescreen.  If the Trump administration wanted to follow international law, it would conduct an investigation to make sure Assad really did employ those chemical weapons.

John Bellinger first identified Trump as a danger to national security in a blog post he wrote for Lawfare in 2015.  In August 2016, he joined a group of 50 other former G.O.P. national security advisers to publicly state that “Trump lacks the character, values, and experience to be President.”  Mr. Bellinger said there is significant cause for alarm, but there may also be rays of hope.  According to Mr. Bellinger, there are some serious lawyers that could be joining the Trump administration and, if they do so, the administration may begin to settle down.  Mr. Bellinger noted, however, that Trump is dividing the country and that it is extremely destabilizing when Trump says he doesn’t support the international obligations of the United States.

As to the topic of Syria, Mr. Bellinger said that Trump might have recklessly gotten to the right place.  We all know the Syria strike is not legal under international law.  Is it justified though? One of the most troubling images associated with the Syria strike is the photo of Trump getting briefed about the strikeThere were no lawyers in the room.  Did international law inform the decision at all?  Mr. Bellinger would not have wanted to wait for the results of a full investigation to confirm Assad released the chemical weapons, but international lawyers need to be consulted before a reaction like this.

Elisa Massimino began her remarks with the question: we haven’t reached 100 days yet, right?  Feels like 100 years.  According to Ms. Massimino, the Trump administration’s budget proposal for the United Nations speaks volumes as to what the administration thinks of human rights and norms. The administration’s focus is on hard security.  Yet, the foundation of human rights is the best way to achieve peace and security in the world.

Ms. Massimino argued that the refugee policy is a huge threat to the national security of the United States and also our allies in Europe.  Additionally, the administration’s rhetoric on refugees, torture, and increased prosecutions for illegal entry, all pose real concerns to those who want adherence to international law and national security.  Trump’s tweets are a big deal and “we are really concerned.”  It is not a coincidence that Assad attacked civilians with chemical weapons right after the administration said that removing Assad was no longer a priority.

According to Ms. Massimino, the Trump administration’s slogan of “America First” is code for isolationism.  The America First campaign might mean America, alone.  Launching missiles is not a strategy.  When the United States withdraws, others scramble to fill the void, and these others (Russia, China, etc.) are putting forth alternative views of how the world should work and these views are not based on rules and norms that promote international law and human rights.

So, what can we do, as international law practitioners and academics?   Both Mr. Bellinger and Ms. Massimino urged audience members to get out and educate the American public – at local, regional, and national levels.  Explain the value of international law, especially how it helps people in their daily lives (airline travel, receiving mail, buying goods at reasonable prices, etc.).  According to Ms. Massimino, “this is our moment as international lawyers and it is up to us whether we can rise to the occasion.”

[Visit ASIL’s YouTube channel to access the full video of this program and others from ASIL’s 2017 annual meeting. For another recap of this program, visit ASIL Cables].