Symposium on my cyber operations book

The online academic journal Questions of International Law has just published a symposium on my book Cyber Operations and the Use of Force in International Law (which is now available also in paperback). Two excellent scholars, Prof. Christian Henderson (Sussex University) and Dr. Emanuele Sommario (Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna – Pisa) discuss my analysis of the jus ad bellum and jus in bello issues arising from the use of cyber technologies. Their reviews are themselves very interesting contributions to the debate on cyber security and well worth reading.

Another excellent (and very positive!) review of my book has been written by Vincent Roobaert and has been published in the latest issue of the NATO Legal Gazette.


Synthetic biology & biosecurity: How scared should we be?

The link between synthetic biology and heightened biosecurity threats is often exaggerated. In a report published today (22nd May), King’s College London researchers say that in order to produce more refined assessments of the biosecurity threat, we need to understand more clearly what would be achieved by synthetic biology’s goal to ‘make biology easier to engineer’.

Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity: How scared should we be? summarises and analyses the discussions from a workshop organised by Dr Catherine Jefferson, Dr Filippa Lentzos and Dr Claire Marris, at King’s in February 2014.

Synthetic biology’s aim to make biology easier to engineer has raised concerns that it could increase the risk of misuse for biowarfare or bioterrorism. The workshop brought together synthetic biologists, social scientists, policy experts and science journalists to explore whether concerns about these risks are realistic or exaggerated in the light of current scientific realities.

It is often assumed that synthetic biology will ‘de-skill’ biology and that this means that any layperson, working outside professional scientific institutions, is or soon will be able to design and engineer living organisms at will. However, workshop participants argued that this representation is too simplistic. De-skilling does not necessarily mean that skills become irrelevant. As we see in other industries such as aeronautics, de-skilling does not necessarily mean that specialised expertise becomes irrelevant.

The report will be presented at the meeting of experts to the Biological Weapons Convention at the United Nations in Geneva this summer.

Join the discussion and tell us what you think on twitter: #synbiosec

The “Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity” workshop and report formed part of SSHM’s on-going work on the social dimensions of synthetic biology, conducted within the EPSRC funded Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation and the Flowers Consortium, and an ESRC funded project on the politics of bioterrorism.

[Original post by Filippa Lentzos; cross-posted from The Trench]


Global mass surveillance: We cannot say we were not warned

Yesterday I came across this report to the European Parliament (‘An appraisal of technologies of political control’). According to the report, ‘[w]ithin Europe, all email, telephone and fax communications are routinely intercepted by the United States National Security Agency, transferring all target information from the European mainland via the strategic hub of London then by Satellite to Fort Meade in Maryland via the crucial hub at Menwith Hill in the North York Moors of the UK’ (p. 19). The date? 6 January 1998. In light of the recent disclosures, it seems that the warning contained in the report fell on deaf ears.


Conference in Naples

I would like to bring to our readers’ attention this conference on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation that is taking place at the end of this week in Naples. I will be one of the discussants in the first session. Come if you can!


Getting Beyond the Benedict Arnold of the Cyber Age: Crafting Post-Snowden American Policy and Law

This past week brought more discomfort in the United States produced by Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance activities:

  • The House of Representatives narrowly defeated a proposal to restrict NSA authority to collect telephone metadata in the United States, a vote that caused intra-party clashes within both the Democratic and Republican parties;
  • Legislators in Congress grilled NSA officials on the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata within the US, producing testimony that only heightened congressional concerns about the executive branch’s metadata surveillance activities and their legal justification;
  • The NSA released previously classified documents related to the now infamous Verizon Order leaked by Snowden, an effort at transparency that, apparently, did not make anything more transparent;
  • Courtesy of Snowden, The Guardian revealed another NSA program, called XKeyscore, which caused another round of national and international controversy about US surveillance policies and practices; and
  • The Russian government granted Snowden asylum for one year, allowing him to leave his limbo-laden life at the Moscow airport, a development that perhaps guarantees Snowden’s place in history (and not Bradley Manning) as the Benedict Arnold of the cyber age and made already fraying US-Russian relations worse.

To have Congress close to over-turning a key law passed after 9/11, to deepen tensions between the legislative and executive branches, to provoke the masters of secrecy to try to be more transparent, to wrong-foot the NSA again with a new disclosure, to cause rifts within both major US political parties, and to exacerbate problems between great powers is, ladies and gentlemen, one hell of a week, in more ways than one.

Each development of this past week deserves its own scrutiny, but my objective here is to try to assess what the sum of these episodes means for the US. The initial disclosures from Snowden brought forth calls for a “national conversation” about the implications of the revelations of NSA surveillance activities and the policy and legal justifications for them. This conversation has been extremely awkward because a proudly open and free society found itself debating critical issues kept secret by its government and only revealed by a law-breaker who sought succor in the sovereignty of anti-American governments. To quote one of history’s great admirers of the US, not our finest hour.

But, this past week should signal that the “national conversation” requires decisions needed to shape post-Snowden American policy and law on issues ranging from the privacy of American citizens dependent on digital communications technologies to the impact of cyber espionage on the power and reputation of the US in geopolitics. No one should underestimate the gravity of these decisions because the questions to be answered go deep into what America means at home and abroad. In its main leader of its August 3rd issue, The Economist–hardly an American nemesis–embeds the Snowden affair along with other post-9/11 policies in what it calls “liberty’s lost decade.”

Provocative, to be sure, but The Economist is trying to piece together what it all means for the US, from Mohamed Atta to Edward Snowden, and is encouraging Americans to re-evaluate where their government has been–from detention cells in Guantanamo Bay to “collecting it all” in cyberspace–and whether and how they want the future to be different. We might not like the headlines, the harsh questions, and the flippant or cynical condemnations of American behavior as hysterical hypocrisy. But, when someone like Edward Snowden can affect this country’s domestic politics and foreign affairs as wrenchingly as he repeatedly has (see, this past week), we have serious work to do in crafting policies and laws less dependent on the fear secrecy breeds and more confident in the resilience openness brings when betrayal from within and enmity from without test our interests and values.


Surveillance Like a Cancer Grows? The Implications of NSA Intelligence Activities on the Non-Proliferation & Arms Control Communities

ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE AND THE COMMUNITIES INVOLVED IN NON-PROLIFERATION AND ARMS CONTROL

In a comment to Dan Joyner’s post on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Yousaf Butt raised the need to link the disclosures being made about NSA surveillance to the work of people engaged on non-proliferation and arms control issues. In particular, he cited a July 6, 2013, New York Times article by Eric Lichtblau entitled “In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of N.S.A.” This article was widely read, as evidenced by The Economist basing a story on it. In the Times article, Lichtblau reported US intelligence officials obtaining “access to an e-mail attachment sent within the United States because they said they were worried that the e-mail contained a schematic drawing or a diagram possibly connected to Iran’s nuclear program.” Yousaf asked whether this example means anyone discussing nuclear proliferation could be subject to NSA surveillance. Or, more broadly, could electronic communications about WMD proliferation challenges to US national security be subject to NSA collection activities? Yousaf thought such surveillance could create a “chilling effect” that might adversely affect “free discourse” in the non-proliferation area. Dan asked me to share my thoughts on this issue, so here goes . . .

THE NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION CASE CITED IN THE TIMES ARTICLE

Section 702 of FISA

Let me start with the case reported in the Times and cited by Yousaf. Apparently, the e-mail communication that contained the attachment accessed by US intelligence officials was sent and received in the US, so, if accurately reported by the Times, this case does not involve the authority created in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act of 2008 that permits the FISA Court to authorize “the targeting of persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information,” including communications involving US persons (Section 702, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, 50 USC sec. 1881a(a)). Even though this case does not involve this authority, the free speech concerns raised by lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists in Clapper v. Amnesty International (decided on standing grounds, 133 S.Ct. 1138 (2013)) apply to persons engaged in electronic communications with foreign nationals located overseas on issues relating to US national security.

FISA defines “foreign intelligence” to include “information that relates to . . . the international proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power” (50 USC sec. 1801(e)(1)). As the challenge mounted in Clapper indicates, many communities of interest are concerned about the “chilling effect” of the surveillance authority created by the FISA Amendments Act. The inclusion of WMD proliferation in the definition of foreign intelligence means the non-proliferation and arms control communities have been on notice about this US government power since 2008.

However, Snowden’s disclosures of PRISM (the NSA program operated under Section 702 of FISA) revealed how the US government uses this power. People in communities of interest not previously nervous about Section 702 of FISA might now be concerned about their communications with foreign nationals, and perhaps, as Yousaf’s comment suggests, this includes persons working on non-proliferation and arms control questions. So, as with other interested persons and organizations, the non-proliferation and arms control communities should monitor what happens next with this controversy, including law suits already filed in federal court challenging PRISM.

US Communications, Metadata, and Access to the Content of Communications

However, the case reported in the Times involved an e-mail and its attachment sent and received in the US, meaning that different aspects of FISA applied to this surveillance activity. The Times article is not exactly clear what happened, when it happened, what the FISA court did, and why it did what it did (at least these things are not clear to me from the article). My point is not that the Times article is wrong; my point is that it raises more questions than it answers, and trying to answer some questions proves difficult because of a lack of information. As explained below, these questions require more scrutiny of the Times article’s claim that the FISA court “vastly broadens powers of the N.S.A.” In short, we should not jump to conclusions about the Times article and its implications. In what follows, I try to sort through what the article does contain.

Collecting Internet and E-Mail Metadata

US intelligence officials probably picked up information from collecting and analyzing “metadata” on e-mail traffic that triggered a desire to see the e-mail attachment in question. Part of Snowden’s disclosures included information about the US government’s collection of e-mail and other Internet metadata within the US after 9/11 through 2011, when this aspect of NSA surveillance was apparently terminated. Initially undertaken by the Bush administration outside FISA, the collection and analysis of e-mail and other Internet metadata came within FISA court review and approval in 2004, after which the FISA court reviewed and approved orders for such surveillance periodically until 2011, when the Obama administration stopped this particular metadata surveillance effort.

Application of the “Special Needs” Exception to Collection of Internet and E-Mail Metadata under FISA

According to the Times article, the FISA court determined that such metadata surveillance did not violate the Fourth Amendment and relied, apparently, on the “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Generally, the “special needs” exception allows the government to undertake a search without a Fourth Amendment warrant to gather information unrelated to law enforcement purposes (e.g., drug tests of railway workers; passenger screening at airports). Referring to outside legal experts, the Times article commented that this application of this exception “is significant . . . because it uses a relatively narrow area of the law . . . and applies it much more broadly, in secret, to the wholesale collection of communications” for foreign intelligence purposes, including countering terrorism, WMD proliferation, espionage, and cyber attacks. This alleged expansive use of the “special needs” doctrine by the FISA court forms part of the Times article’s observation that this court is perhaps becoming “almost a parallel Supreme Court” because it regularly assesses “broad constitutional questions” and establishes judicial precedents for foreign intelligence surveillance.

Here is where the questions about the article begin to multiply. For starters, telephony and Internet metadata is not protected by the Fourth Amendment under existing jurisprudence, so, presumably, the FISA court does not need the “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment to review and approve collection of metadata. As Orin Kerr commented, if the FISA court “has ruled that all metadata is outside the Fourth Amendment, that’s not a surprise.”

Next, the “special needs” exception  has long been associated with the gathering of foreign intelligence by the US government and with FISA itself. As Kris and Wilson put it, “Congress enacted FISA explicitly to serve as a special need not related to ordinary law enforcement: foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence. The courts have upheld FISA under a special-needs theory against multiple constitutional challenges” (David S. Kris and J. Douglas Wilson, National Security Investigations & Prosecutions (2007), sec. 11:12, p. 11-30). So, foreign intelligence activities subject to FISA fall under the “special need” exception for foreign intelligence gathering under existing law and jurisprudence. Again, Kerr commented that, if the FISA court has held that foreign intelligence efforts to locate terrorists fall under the “special needs” exception, then “that’s not noteworthy.” The same applies to foreign intelligence gathering for other serious national security threats, such as WMD proliferation.

These observations suggest that the FISA court is not vastly increasing the powers of the NSA or acting as a “parallel Supreme Court”  but is operating within existing jurisprudence and statutory law. So, what’s going on here? I’m not sure based on what the Times article contains. Now, people might be worried about the powers existing jurisprudence and statutory law give the NSA and the FISA court–but the Times article claims something new, different, and secret is happening that does not track case precedents and legislation.

Accessing the E-Mail Attachment Related to Nuclear Proliferation

As noted above, the Times article reported that US intelligence officials went beyond metadata collection and accessed the content of an e-mail communication in the form of an attachment the officials feared “contained a schematic drawing or diagram possibly connected to Iran’s nuclear program.” The Times article is not clear how, and under what authority, the US intelligence officials accessed the content of this e-mail communication. The article states that gaining such access “[i]n the past . . . probably would have required a court warrant because the suspicious e-mail involved American communications.”

Well, if the US government wanted access to the e-mail attachment for foreign intelligence purposes, then FISA requirements for obtaining a FISA court order to undertake such content-based surveillance within the US apply. However, the Times article is not clear whether US intelligence officials obtained a FISA court order to access the content of the e-mail communication in question. Confusingly, the article follows up its statement about the probable need for a “court warrant” with a description of the broadening of the FISA definition of “foreign intelligence” in 2008 to include information related to WMD proliferation–information that is not helpful to understanding whether the US government obtained FISA court approval to access the e-mail attachment in question.

If the government obtained the FISA court’s specific approval for its access to the e-mail attachment, then the government complied with the relevant law–nothing new, then, legally speaking. However, if the FISA court has constructed some “special needs” exception to the FISA requirement to obtain a specific order for electronic surveillance in the US for foreign intelligence purposes, then we might have something new to ponder. But the Times article does not provide enough information to pursue this inquiry in any productive manner. We would have to be able to examine the FISA court decisions mentioned in the article, but those remain secret.

CONCLUSION

OK, so what does all of this mean for communities interested in non-proliferation and arms control that communicate through e-mail and other electronic means with people inside and outside the US? Based on what’s in the Times article, here’s my answer:

  • Since the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 added Section 702 to FISA, it has been clear that electronic communications by US persons with foreign nationals could be subject to broad, FISA court-approved surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence through targeting persons reasonably believed to be located outside the US. The Times article does not change what we have known for quite some time on this aspect of FISA.
  • The Times article’s reference to the “special needs” exception creates more questions than answers, meaning that, in such a state of affairs, it is best not to rage first and ask legal questions later. We know enough to wonder whether the article is accurately describing what’s actually happened in the FISA court. But, given recent disclosures, we also know enough to worry that we don’t know everything we need to know to assess what’s going on.
  • What exactly the FISA court has done in the rulings mentioned in the Times article remains unclear, and the rulings remain secret. For the time being, we don’t know what we don’t know concerning the legal reasoning used by the FISA court.

My intent is not to promote a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude about the implications of NSA surveillance programs disclosed in recent weeks either generally or specifically to work that you might do. Like many people, I worry about the scale of the surveillance the disclosures have revealed and about some legal justifications given for these secret programs. But I am also concerned that the incomplete information we are getting through leaks in dribs and drabs is creating and agitating fears that, like a toxic miasma, government surveillance is permeating everything, everywhere and affecting everybody without meaningful limits or oversight. To prevent actual and imagined surveillance from doing more damage to the body politic, more transparency is required politically and legally.


More of the Same: The Ministerial Declaration of the International Conference on Nuclear Security

The International Atomic Energy Agency convened the International Conference on Nuclear Security in Vienna from July 1-5, 2013. Noting that “the risk that nuclear or other radioactive material could be used in malicious acts remains high and is regarded as a serious threat to international peace and security,” the IAEA held the Conference “to review the international community’s experience and achievements to date in strengthening nuclear security, to enhance understanding of current approaches to nuclear security worldwide and identify trends, and to provide a global forum for ministers, policymakers and senior officials to formulate views on the future directions and priorities for nuclear security.”

The Ministerial Declaration from the Conference was negotiated before it began and was disseminated on the first day of the Conference. The Ministerial Declaration indicates that IAEA member states are not willing, at present, to move beyond the existing approach of primarily focusing on national-level responsibilities and efforts to improve the security of nuclear material to prevent nuclear or radiological terrorism and other malicious acts. The Ministerial Declaration invited states to become parties to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (1980) and its 2005 Amendment and to the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (201). But, arguments for developing more and better international rules to enhance nuclear security globally did not find fertile ground in this IAEA effort. As Global Newswire reported on this point:

As expected, the joint document . . . did not embrace the creation of any formal new rules that would bind participating countries. At the top of a list of 24 principles that signatories support is “that the responsibility for nuclear security within a state rests entirely with that state.” Nuclear watchdogs expressed disappointment over the scope of the document . . . . “I would say that this declaration does not give a lot of hope that IAEA ministerial meetings are the way to move forward the nuclear security agenda–it’s pretty boilerplate,” said Miles Pomper, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.


“Peace with Justice”: Nuclear Weapons and Cyber Surveillance

In his June 19 remarks at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, President Obama stressed the theme of achieving “peace with justice” in addressing challenges the United States and its allies face–and two of the challenges he highlighted are of interest to the readers of Arms Control Law–nuclear weapons and cyber surveillance against terrorism.

Nuclear Weapons

Press reports have often focused on the President’s proposal to reduce the numbers of US and Russian nuclear warheads by one-third from the levels set in the New Start Treaty. But the President’s remarks went beyond this proposal to lay out an even more ambitious agenda of nuclear diplomacy for his second term.

After declaring that “so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe[,]” the President said:

Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons — no matter how distant that dream may be. And so, as President, I’ve strengthened our efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and reduced the number and role of America’s nuclear weapons. Because of the New START Treaty, we’re on track to cut American and Russian deployed nuclear warheads to their lowest levels since the 1950s.

But we have more work to do. So today, I’m announcing additional steps forward. After a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.

At the same time, we’ll work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe. And we can forge a new international framework for peaceful nuclear power, and reject the nuclear weaponization that North Korea and Iran may be seeking.

America will host a summit in 2016 to continue our efforts to secure nuclear materials around the world, and we will work to build support in the United States to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and call on all nations to begin negotiations on a treaty that ends the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. These are steps we can take to create a world of peace with justice.

Predictably, this agenda has sparked questions, skepticism, and opposition. But, with the speech, the President made clear that he wants his presidential legacy linked with global progress toward a world without nuclear weapons.

Cyber Surveillance and Terrorism

In a less noted section of the speech, the President included the challenge of “balancing the pursuit of security with the protection of privacy” within the “peace with justice” agenda. Here the President was referring to the international controversies caused by the disclosure of secret US surveillance programs, including PRISM, which targets Internet communications of foreign nationals. The President’s host, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been one of the leading European politicians to raise concerns about PRISM. The President said:

Our current programs are bound by the rule of law, and they’re focused on threats to our security — not the communications of ordinary persons. They help confront real dangers, and they keep people safe here in the United States and here in Europe. But we must accept the challenge that all of us in democratic governments face: to listen to the voices who disagree with us; to have an open debate about how we use our powers and how we must constrain them; and to always remember that government exists to serve the power of the individual, and not the other way around. That’s what makes us who we are, and that’s what makes us different from those on the other side of the wall.

Unlike pushing nuclear diplomacy forward, President Obama, no doubt, did not plan to talk about this issue in this speech but was forced to do so by the fallout from the disclosures. Here, the President defends what he believes is “peace with justice” in terms of the balance his administration struck between preventing terrorism and protecting civil liberties. This balance, and the process through which it is achieved, he distinguished “from those on the other side of the wall”–a phrase that resonates with memories of physical walls of the past and worries about virtual walls of the present. Whether Americans agree with the President about what should happen on our side of the wall remains to be seen, an outcome that will also affect how history remembers this President.


Has Code Become Law? The Liberty Implications of NSA Technological Capability

The furor sparked by disclosure of secret U.S. government surveillance programs reminded me of the famous argument about the relationship of liberty and cyberspace—Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig’s assertion that, in cyberspace, “code is law.” By this, Lessig meant that the software code that makes the Internet and related technologies run empowers and restricts behavior and, thus, regulates activities in cyberspace. Lessig warned that the regulatory effects of code could displace constitutional traditions and threaten political liberty unless deliberative democracy controls the power that software code creates.

The United States is now debating the legality of power the U.S. government claims it possesses in cyberspace—a power that includes collecting daily the records of phone calls made by millions of Americans. Defenders of the surveillance programs argue that this power, and its secret exercise, is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks. However, arguments that covert government activities are vital for national security are not new; they are as old as politics and, in the United States, a traditional source of skepticism in a Republic self-governed by a free people. The argument from necessity has been fountainhead of abuses in the past, but it has never before been the justification for the mass collection of information on the daily communications of millions of Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing, let alone involvement with terrorism. So what explains why we hear this justification now?

What is new is the technological capability of the U.S. government to collect, mine, and use that information in the name of national security. Technological innovation permits the private sector (think Facebook and Google) and the government—and the NSA in particular—to develop data storage and data-mining capabilities that permit the acquisition and analysis of almost unimaginable amounts and kinds of digital information. The fundamental enabler of this unprecedented capability is software code. Here, code is power.

Prior to development of this code-based capability, it was not feasible to collect and analyze records on the daily communications of millions of Americans in a timely or useful manner—making arguments for the national security necessity of doing so pointless. But, now, the U.S. government can undertake mass surveillance and, apparently, produce actionable intelligence from Americans’ local phone calls that thwarts terrorist attacks. Here, code creates a vital national security interest where none existed before.

In the American tradition, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights provide the sword and the shield against government attempts to exercise power against Americans for national security reasons, and opponents of the secret surveillance of Americans’ telephone calls have turned again to this arsenal. However, we have to ask whether the technological capability to undertake surveillance on a scale never before possible has changed interpretations of the law the government used, namely Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Many have re-read Section 215 in light of recent disclosures and have been unsettled to learn it justifies the daily collection of data about the communications of law-abiding Americans because the U.S. government is investigating international terrorism.

Are we now interpreting laws, including constitutional principles, differently because we can, with software-enabled technologies, do things that were impossible before and that our history suggests we should resist, especially when coupled with the argument of national security need? If so, is software code defining the law and the scope of liberty?

Just as Americans have often been wary of arguments that the exercise of expansive, secret government power is justified by national security necessity, the unfolding debate in the United States should also interrogate arguments that the government must exercise such power because, now, it can.


The supply of arms to opposition groups in Syria and international law

The Guardian newspaper has made available the text of a discussion paper by the Foreign Ministry of Austria circulated on 13 May 2013 to EU member states, forcefully rebutting British and French arguments for amending the European embargo on Syria to allow weapons shipments to the rebels.

The document, entitled ‘SYRIA: Austrian Position on Arms Embargo’, first puts forward several political and security arguments, among them the following (summary only):

 –          Lifting the EU arms embargo undermines the EU-Russia understanding that opens a window of opportunity towards a renewed political process.

 –          The ‘Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC)’ does not have full authority and control over all armed opposition groups and cooperates with groups which include various extremist and terrorist fighters.

 –          There are more than enough weapons in Syria.

–          The supply of arms to the opposition by EU member states constitutes an additional threat to the security of UNDOF [United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, which supervises the implementation of the 1974 disengagement agreement and the ceasefire between the Israeli and Syrian forces] peacekeepers, including from Austria.

But the most interesting part of the paper argues that the supply of arms to the Syrian opposition would be in breach of international law and EU law.

The main arguments developed in that respect deserve being quoted in full (I have only made minor typographical changes to the text and omitted certain developments):

1. The supply of arms to the Syrian opposition would amount to a breach of the customary principle of non-intervention and the principle of non-use of force under Art. 2 para. 4 of the UN Charter.

The principle of non-intervention is firmly established in international law. In 2007, former UK Legal Adviser Sir Michael Wood put it in a nutshell: “Intervention on the side of those opposing the Government […] is clearly prohibited” (The Principle of Non-Intervention in Contemporary International Law, Speech by Sir Michael Wood at a Chatham House International Law discussion group meeting held on 28 February 2007). In the 1984 Nicaragua Case the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected any alleged right for States to intervene in support of an internal opposition in another State, whose cause appeared particularly worthy for political or moral reasons: “The Court therefore finds that no such general right of intervention, in support of an opposition within another State, exists in contemporary international law” (para. 209). The ICJ also stated that acts constituting a breach of the customary principle of non-intervention would also, if they directly or indirectly involve the use of force, constitute a breach of the prohibition not to use of force in international relations, as embodied in Art. 2 para. 4 of the UN Charter. The continuing relevance of the Nicaragua Case was confirmed by the ICJ in its 2005 judgement in the Case concerning Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo: “In the case concerning Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America), the Court made it clear that the principle of non-intervention prohibits a State “to intervene, directly or indirectly, with or without armed force, in support of an internal opposition in another State” (para. 164).

2. The supply of arms to the Syrian opposition would violate EU Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP on the control of arms exports by EU Member States.

All EU Member States have agreed to abide by Common Position 2008/944/CFSP defining common rules governing the control of exports of military technology and equipment when assessing applications to export items listed in the agreed EU Common Military List. An objective assessment of the Criteria in Art. 2 of Common Position 2008/944/CFSP according to the agreed guidance of their interpretation and implementation in the EU’s User’s Guide (User’s Guide to Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP defining common rules governing the control of exports of military technology and equipment, Doc. 9241/09, 29 April 2009) must lead to a denial of any export licence applications for the envisaged supply of arms to the Syrian opposition:

  • Criterion 2(c) (human rights and humanitarian law): Member States shall deny an export licence if there is a clear risk that the equipment might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law. The UN Commission of Inquiry reported that “war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, were perpetrated by anti-Government armed groups” (Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, A/HRC/21/50, 16 August 2012).
  • Criterion 3 (internal situation): Member States shall deny an export licence for military technology or equipment which would provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination. The User’s Guide does not foresee that arms would be supplied to opposition groups involved in an armed conflict and places particular attention on the role of the end-user in a conflict.
  • Criterion 4 (regional peace, security and stability): Member States shall deny an export licence if there is a clear risk that the intended recipient would use the military technology or equipment to be exported aggressively against another country or to assert by force a territorial claim. Despite the 1974 cease-fire agreement, Syria and Israel remain in a state of war, which was recently reignited by Israeli air and missile strikes. The Syrian opposition has not declared to respect the cease-fire, the disengagement agreement or the area of separation.
  • Criterion 5(b) (national security of Member States): Member States shall take into account the risk of use of the military technology or equipment concerned against their forces or those of Member States and those of friendly and allied countries. […]
  • Criterion 6 (behaviour of the buyer as regards its attitude to terrorism, the nature of its alliances and respect for international law): […]
  • Criterion 7 (risk of diversion): […]

3. The supply of arms to the Syrian opposition would amount to a violation of Security Council resolution 2083 (2012) establishing an arms embargo against individuals and entities associated with Al-Qaida. […]

4. Member States supplying arms to the Syrian opposition would incur State responsibility for aiding and assisting in the commission of internationally wrongful acts.

According to Art. 16 of the ILC Articles on State Responsibility a State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act is internationally responsible if (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act ; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State. The Commentary inter alia states “a State may incur responsibility if it […] provides material aid to a State that uses the aid to commit human rights violations. In this respect, the UN GA has called on member States in a number of cases to refrain from supplying arms an other military assistance to countries found to be committing serious human rights violations” (para. 9). When applying these principles to the envisaged supply of  arms to the Syrian opposition, it is to be considered that war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, are perpetrated by anti-Government armed groups in Syria, as reported by the UN Commission of Inquiry, as well as suicide bombings and attacks against and hostage-taking of UNDOF peacekeepers, as is known from the daily news. Should supplied arms be used by armed opposition groups in Syria in the commission of internationally wrongful acts, the States who had supplied these arms and had knowledge of these acts would incur State responsibility for their aid an assistance in the commission of such acts.

[end of document]

A comment on the Austrian position

The arguments set out in the Austrian paper are in my view well-founded and persuasive, particularly those based on the principle on non-intervention and the relevance of the Nicaragua Case (see on the topic the articles on the Nicaragua Case 25 years after published in 2012 in the Leiden Journal of International Law), and deserve being taken into account very seriously by the decision-makers of countries which advocate allowing weapons shipments to the Syrian rebels.

There is another point that was not mentioned by the paper. Regarding the responsibility issue raised in para. 4 of the document, I would add that if the proposed amendment to the arms embargo is adopted in the framework of the EU CFSP, the 2011 Draft articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations (DARIO) would also be relevant. Indeed, in that situation, international responsibility might also be incurred by the EU itself, in addition to the responsibility of EU member States. Article 17(1) DARIO provides that

[a]n international organization incurs international responsibility if it circumvents one of its  international obligations by adopting a decision binding memberStates or international organizations to commit an act that would be internationally wrongful if committed by the former organization.

 The ILC’s commentary on that provision refers to a statement of the legal counsel of WIPO according to whom

 [. . .] in the event a certain conduct, which a member State takes in compliance with a request on the part of an international organization, appears to be in breach of an international obligation both of that State and of that organization, then the organization should also be regarded as responsible under international law.

 It appears thus that in the event that arms supplied to armed opposition groups in Syria be used by the latter in the commission of internationally wrongful acts, the international responsibility of both the EU as an international organization and of the EU Member States might be simultaneously incurred.

 In any case, it will be interesting to follow the matter, and in particular to see whether proponents of arms supply to opposition armed groups in Syria will put forward international legal arguments supporting their position.