Tag: armed conflict

The Syrian Conflict: to Internationalize or not to Internationalize

Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that the Obama administration blocked a Pentagon supported plan to provide arms to Syrian opposition forces.  For civilians in Syria hoping  for meaningful intervention to stop the conflict, this must have been difficult news to absorb.  I was reminded of this story yesterday while attending an informative workshop in Amman, Jordan on Islamic law and the protection of civilians. At the time, we were discussing how a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) becomes an international armed conflict (IAC) under international humanitarian law (IHL).   In legalese, this happens when a state becomes “a party to the conflict”, aligning with the rebels in opposition to the government.  This discussion made me wonder whether the United States would become a party to the Syrian conflict if the Obama administration did decide to arm the rebels.  It’s pretty clear that taking part in hostilities on the ground, say dropping bombs on government targets, would make a state a party to the conflict.  But what about more indirect involvement like supplying weapons to rebel forces?  IHL says a state can become a party to an armed conflict if its support of an opposition force is such that the opposition force’s actions can be attributed to that state.  What acts would create this relationship under IHL is subject to debate.  Providing military aid might qualify if it is done so that it enables a state to exert some control over rebel forces.  While the United States has rejected plans to arm the Syrian rebels, some regional countries allegedly have supplied them with arms.  If the weapons transfers enable these states to exert legally sufficient control over the rebels, it may well transform the Syrian conflict from a NIAC to an IAC. Continue reading

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International Law and Armed Conflict (Syria version)

The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) recently determined that the situation in the entire country of Syria can be classified as a non-international armed conflict.  While this may not have been news to many watching events unfold there, what makes this statement interesting is that this position differed from the position advanced in May 2012 by then ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger.  At that time, Kellenberger claimed that parts of Syria could be classified as an “internal” armed conflict, particularly in the area around Homs and in the Idlib district.  The difference may appear inconsequential, but may in fact have some significant impact on the ground.  The difference between whether an entire country is embroiled in a non-international armed conflict versus specific locations within that country has bearing on what constitutes a violation of international law.  The two main bodies of international law relevant to armed conflict are international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL).  IHL is the body of law which governs armed conflict and is only triggered when there is an armed conflict.  IHRL generally applies in peacetime, although it can apply during war time as well.  What is interesting about Kellenberger’s statement is that it is a departure from how IHL has traditionally understood territoriality within the context of non-international armed conflict. Continue reading

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The Trouble with Combining, or Why I’m Not Touting the Global Peace Index

 The Institute for Economics and Peace is making a big splash today with the release of the 2012 edition of its annual Global Peace Index (GPI)—“the world’s leading measure of global peacefulness,” according to its web site. The launch event for the 2012 edition included several people whose work I respect and admire, and the Institute identifies some of the heaviest hitters in the global fight for peace and human rights—Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama, for crying out loud—as “endorsers” of the GPI.

I really want to like this index. I’m a numbers guy, and I’ve spent most of my career analyzing data on political violence and change. But, the closer I look, the less I see.

The basic problem is one that confounds our best efforts to develop summary measures of complex concepts in many fields. Complexity implies multi-dimensionality; the complex whole is composed of many different parts. As a result, no single indicator will capture all of the elements we believe to be relevant.

To try to overcome this problem, we can mathematically combine measures of those separate elements in a single scale—an index. Unfortunately, with truly complex phenomena, those parts do not always move in lock step with each other. As a result, we often wind up with a summary measure that obscures as much as it clarifies because it blinds us to those tensions. In some cases, we can see changes in the index, but we can’t tell what’s driving them. In other cases, the index doesn’t budge, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there haven’t been significant changes that just happened to cancel each other out. In both of these scenarios, we’ve got a number, but we’re not really sure what it means.

We can see this dilemma clearly when we look closely at the GPI. According to the Institute’s documentation (PDF), the Global Peace Index represents a weighted combination of 23 indicators in three concept areas: 1) ongoing domestic and international conflict; 2) societal safety and security; and 3) militarization. The index includes so many things, we are told, because it aims to get simultaneously at two distinct ideas: not just “negative peace,” meaning the absence of violence, but also “positive peace,” meaning the presence of structures and institutions that create and sustain the absence of violence.

Some of the indicators are inherently quantitative, like counts of deaths from civil conflict and number of jailed population per 100,000 people. Others, such as “perceptions of criminality” and “military capability/sophistication,” are qualitative concepts that are scored by Economist Intelligence Unit staffers. All 23 are converted into comparable five-point scales and then aggregated according to an algorithm that involves weights assigned by an expert panel at the level of the individual indicator and at the level of two sub-component indices having to do with internal (60%) and external (40%) peace. Here’s a complete list of the 23 components:

  • Number of external and internal conflicts fought in the past five years
  • Estimated number of deaths from organized conflict (internal)
  • Estimated number of deaths from organized conflict (external)
  • Level of organized conflict (internal)
  • Relations with neighboring countries
  • Perceptions of criminality in society
  • Number of refugees and displaced people as a percentage of the population
  • Political instability
  • Level of respect for human rights (Political Terror Scale)
  • Potential for terrorist acts
  • Number of homicides per 100,000 people
  • Level of violent crime
  • Likelihood of violent demonstrations
  • Number of jailed population per 100,000 people
  • Number of internal security officers and police per 100,000 people
  • Military expenditures as a percent of GDP
  • Number of armed services personnel per 100,000 people
  • Volume of transfers (imports) of major conventional weapons per 100,000 people
  • Volume of transfers (exports) of major conventional weapons per 100,000 people
  • Budget support for UN peacekeeping missions: percentage of outstanding payments versus annual assessment to the budget of the current peacekeeping missions
  • Aggregate number of heavy weapons per 100,000 people
  • Ease of access to small arms and light weapons
  • Military capability/sophistication

That’s a long list with a lot of very different elements that don’t always move in unison. More problematic in light of the GPI’s additive approach to combining them, those elements don’t always point in the same direction.

Take military expenditures and deaths from external conflicts. International relations scholars would tell you that countries can sometimes avoid wars by preparing for them; rival states are less likely to pick fights with armies they can’t easily beat. Most people would probably think of the avoidance of war as a peaceful outcome, but the GPI casts the preparations that sometimes help to produce that outcome as a diminution of peace. In an ideal world, disarmament and peace would always go together; in the real world, they don’t, but the index’s attempt to combine measures of negative and positive peace muddles that complexity.

The same goes for internal affairs. Imagine that a country is suffering a high homicide rate because of rampant criminal violence (Mexico? Venezuela?). As the GPI implies, that’s not a particularly peaceful situation. Now imagine that that country’s government invests heavily in policing to fight that crime, and that the expanded police presence leads to a decline in the homicide rate and to higher incarceration rates as criminals are arrested and imprisoned. According to the GPI, the gains in peacefulness realized by stopping the wave of murders would be (at least partially) offset by the increases in the size of the police force and the prison population. A change most citizens would regard as an unmitigated good gets washed out by the supposition that the means used to reach that end are detrimental to positive peace.

Now, put both of those problems and several others like them into a single box and shake vigorously. Instead of an elegant simplification, we end up with a complex tangle, simply represented. We see echoes of this problem in summary measures of democracy, like the 21-point Polity scale, which aggregates across several dimensions in ways that sometimes obscure differences of great importance and interest.

For an index to improve on its parts, it should capture something important that we miss when look at the components individually. In my opinion, one of the best examples of this is the Heat Index, which combines air temperature and relative humidity into a single number that we really care about: how hot it actually feels to us humans. The Heat Index is really useful because it gets at something we miss if we look at air temperature alone. The whole illuminates something that the single components can’t show.

Unfortunately, this is hard to do. In many situations, the individual components will offer sharper and more transparent measures of specific dimensions, and we’ll see more when we juxtapose instead of combining them. When we want to explore how these components relate to each other, we can start with two- or three-dimensional scatter plots, which quickly reveal interesting cases of reinforcing or competing tendencies. For more complex problems, multivariate models that relate the components to some observable ground truth (e.g., the absence of deaths from violent conflict) will often work better than indices that use expert judgment to assign weights and directionality.

In the case of the Global Peace Index, I think the starting point for a more useful set of measures would be to construct separate indices for positive vs. negative peace. From my reading of their project, this distinction is more relevant to their objectives than the internal vs. external peace distinction for which they currently report sub-indices, and these are the dimensions along which changes are most likely to be offsetting. This could be done separately for internal and external peace, producing four indices along which levels and movement could be compared and contrasted. Two-dimensional scatter plots could be used to compare countries overall (with positive and negative peace as the axes) or separately for domestic or international peace. To compare a few countries on all dimensions or to illustrate changes within countries over time, radar charts would be useful.

As I hope that last bit of constructive criticism makes clear, I don’t mean to knock the creators of the Global Peace Index for their thoughtful attempt to grapple with a very hard problem. I’d like to see them succeed; I just don’t think they have…yet. More generally, I think the ways in which their current effort falls short illustrate some common dilemmas of measurement that most social scientists face at one time or another.

This is a cross-post from my solo blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp.

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The Constructivist Peace: Shared Norms and Pacific Relations Among Human Rights Abusers

Timothy Peterson and Leah Graham recently published a study in the Journal of Conflict Resolution showing that, after you control for the democratic peace, similarities in human rights performance have an important effect on any two countries’ likelihood to go to war. The interesting caveat is that this finding holds true for states that abuse their citizens as well as those that don’t:

Although mutual norms of domestic non-violence are more pacifying than mutual disregard thereof, the authors argue that a wide disparity in norms is more aggravating than shared norms… that norm asymmetry is aggravating provides evidence for an “‘abusers’ peace…” Our results suggest the possibility for conflicts arising between newly democratic, human rights-supporting states and their more oppressive, authoritarian neighbors… It may be that installing an “outpost of democracy” within an authoritarian region and enforcing improved respsect for human rights on the domestic population will lead to increased regional violence.

Peterson and Graham are building on two earlier studies augmenting the democratic peace thesis by exploring the specific impact of human rights performance on war. IR scholars have long noted that democratic states almost never fight one another, but there is much debate over why. Although IR liberals have long treated “ideological commitment to human rights” as one of several “pillars” or indicators of the liberal peace, Mary Caprioli and Peter Trumdore showed that human rights performance alone is actually a good predictor of interstate violence even controlling for regime type. A separate study by David Sobek, M. Rodwan Abouharb and Christopher Ingram demonstrated that states with good human rights records, were more peaceful with one another regardless of democracy. Peterson and Graham’s study extends this finding in one more direction, arguing it is indeed dyadic norms that matter, but that there exists an “abusers’ peace” as well as a “human rights peace.”

The findings themselves should be critically analyzed and replicated further: among other problems they all rely on different and imperfect indicators of human rights performance (for a critique of quantitative data-sets on human rights see this article). However as a whole this line of research suggests two modest challenges to democratic peace theory.

First, it suggests that democratic institutions per se may be far less important in mitigating interstate war than a cluster of human rights norms that can include but are not limited to the “empowerment rights” associated with democracy. Second, it suggests that the causal mechanism translating adherence to these norms into pacific relations is not liberal but rather constructivist: a set of shared identities that can constitute shared interests among human rights abusers as well as champions, lessening the likelihood of violent conflicts. And at the level of policy, these studies do indeed encourage an emphasis on diffusing norms within neighborhoods rather than changing the regimes of specific states, if the goal is to achieve both rights and security.

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Targeting…targeting: What are reasonable expectations?

Blue moon, you targeted me standing alone…

Yesterday Charli wrote a post on whether or not those opposed to the use of drones should use the concept of “atrocity law” instead of “war crimes” or human rights violations.

I wonder if others who generally oppose “targeted killings” think the concept of “atrocity law” might be a more useful way of framing this problem publicly than talking about “war crimes” or “human rights” specifically – concepts that by their nature draw the listener’s attention to a legal regime that only partially bears on the activity in question and invites contrasting legal views drawn from contrasting legal regimes.

Charli asks this question given that:

I think there is significant and mounting evidence of normative opposition to the targeted killings campaign (regardless of arguments some may make about its technical legality under different legal traditions), and according to even the most conservative estimates it meets the other criteria of a significant number victims and large-scale damage. No one can doubt it’s highly orchestrated character.

I’m going to go with “no” on these questions. First, unlike Charli, I’m not certain there is “mounting evidence of normative opposition to the targeted killings campaign” in anything other than the protests of a relatively insular group of legal-academics-activists (Phil Alston et al) who tend to be critical of these kinds of things anyway. In previous posts I have raised doubts about whether or not we can determine if targeted killing is effective, and how some activities have challenged and changed legal framework for the War on Terror. However, if anything, I think there is growing consensus within the Obama administration that the program works, it is effective and I think it is popular.

Additionally, I do not see how invoking the term “atrocity” will get us beyond many of the political problems involved in invoking other terms like “human rights law” or “war crimes”. If anything, “atrocity” seems to be an even less precise, more political term.

However, I think this conversation points to a third, larger issue that Charli is mostly concerned with – civilian death in armed conflict. Or, to put it another way – What expectations may we reasonably seek to place on our states when they carry out military actions? Those who write, research and teach on international law typically anchor their discussions in the legal principles of proportionality, necessity and distinction. However, these are notoriously vague terms. And, as such, when it comes to drones, many argue that these legal principles are being undermined.

In thinking about this question, I’ve been reminded of the recent controversy over the decision of the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia in the Gotovina Case. In it, the Court ruled that a 4% error rate in targeting in a complex military operation was tantamount to a war crime. Four percent.

Was this a reasonably conclusion for the ICTY to make? Are militaries (and the military in question here was not a Western military dealing with high-tech military equipment) really expected to do better than a 96% accuracy rate when it comes to targeting? And if so, on what grounds can we (or the Court) say this is the case? And, bringing this back to Charli’s post, would we benefit from thinking about a 4% error rate in terms of “atrocity”?

There are two very good summaries of the case at Lawfare and IntLawGrrls for more background information on the case. Some concerned former military professionals (many of whom are now professors) – admittedly, another insular group of legal-academics-activists of a very different source – have put together an Amicus Brief for the Gotovina Appeal which is well worth reading.

However, immediate questions of legality aside, I think this raises a larger question as to what we can reasonably expect from military campaigns, especially what levels of accuracy. Are all civilian deaths “atrocity”? Historically, the laws of war have said no – that proportionality may sometimes render it permissible (if no less regrettable). And I believe that all but the most ardent activists would agree with this historically rooted position. But it is clear that our perceptions of reasonable death rates have changed since the Second World War. So the question is what governs our ideas about proportionality and civilian deaths in an age of instant satellite imagery, night vision and precision guided weaponry? Unfortunately, I’m not sure the drone debate has given us any useful answers nor the basis to produce them.

I appreciate that there are important differences here – the military is, in theory, a hierarchical chain of command that is obliged to follow the laws of war. The CIA (who carries out the drone program) are civilians who do not meet these expectations and their status in law is questionable. But status here is not the issue (at least for this blog post and how it relates to Charli’s concerns). Instead, it is whether and at what point civilian deaths may be considered “atrocity”, on what basis we can and should make that decision and whether that language would make any useful or practical difference.

There is no doubt that recent move to a “zero-civilian death” or high expectations of few casualties has been rapid. Certainly it is at least part of the increased legal activity by governments, IGOs and NGOs in the realms of international law and the laws of war. However, I think it is also the result of a false promise that better technology can allow us to have “clean” wars. It is a promise that is made by governments to their populations, but one that has also clearly influenced activists in terms of their expectations – whether they are set in terms of laws, rights or atrocity.

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Safeguarding medical workers in hostilities

Yesterday the ICRC released a report on the very scary and depressing trend of attacks on medical workers in situations of armed conflict and civil disturbances:

According to Dr Robin Coupland, who led the research carried out in 16 countries across the globe, millions could be spared if the delivery of health care were more widely respected. “The most shocking finding is that people die in large numbers not because they are direct victims of a roadside bomb or a shooting,” he said. “They die because the ambulance does not get there in time, because health-care personnel are prevented from doing their work, because hospitals are themselves targets of attacks or simply because the environment is too dangerous for effective health care to be delivered.”

This makes for some pretty grim and reading.

Yet the evidence is clear – whether it is the targeting of medical workers in Libya, the targeting of a hospital in Afghanistan by the Taliban, or the unwarranted persecution of doctors in Bahrain. (A problem that Dan Nexon highlighted earlier this year here at the Duck.)  Even the allegation that the CIA found Osama bin Laden using a vaccination program puts medical workers and vaccination teams at risk – a potential disaster for global health.

(Aisde: Most, if not all of these issues, are being followed by Christopher Albon at his excellent blog, Conflict Health. Go read it. Read it now!)

The neutrality of medical staff in all circumstances is a core tenant of the laws of war, and some of its oldest codified principles. There is, quite simply, no excuse for harming someone who is engages in these tasks. This was the genius of the 1864 Geneva Convention:

Article 1. Ambulances and military hospitals shall be recognized as neutral, and as such, protected and respected by the belligerents as long as they accommodate wounded and sick.
Neutrality shall end if the said ambulances or hospitals should be held by a military force.
Art. 2. Hospital and ambulance personnel, including the quarter-master’s staff, the medical, administrative and transport services, and the chaplains, shall have the benefit of the same neutrality when on duty, and while there remain any wounded to be brought in or assisted.

These principles continues today as is clear in the First Geneva Convention of 1949. At the risk of being long-winded:

Art 15. At all times, and particularly after an engagement, Parties to the conflict shall, without delay, take all possible measures to search for and collect the wounded and sick, to protect them against pillage and ill-treatment, to ensure their adequate care, and to search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled.
Art. 19. Fixed establishments and mobile medical units of the Medical Service may in no circumstances be attacked, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict. Should they fall into the hands of the adverse Party, their personnel shall be free to pursue their duties, as long as the capturing Power has not itself ensured the necessary care of the wounded and sick found in such establishments and units.
The responsible authorities shall ensure that the said medical establishments and units are, as far as possible, situated in such a manner that attacks against military objectives cannot imperil their safety.
Art. 20. Hospital ships entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea of 12 August 1949, shall not be attacked from the land.
Art. 21. The protection to which fixed establishments and mobile medical units of the Medical Service are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after a due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit, and after such warning has remained unheeded.

The idea behind this is that someone who is seriously injured is hors de combat – in other words, out of the fight, and can no pose a military threat. Allowing someone’s wounds to fester or get worse serves no military purpose once they are hors de combat; it only causes what is normally termed unnecessary suffering. (This is the same principle that bans poisoned weapons – there is no need to uselessly aggravate an injury on someone who is seriously wounded.) The individuals who treat these injured combatants (and civilians) of all sides must therefore be protected from attack. This is why they are allowed to wear the Red Cross/Red Crescent/Red Crystal symbols – it identifies them as neutral medical workers and helps to expedite the process of recovery and treatment. (Abusing these symbols, such as using them as a ruse to conduct an armed attack, is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions.)

Certainly, there is more law I could cite here. But the main point is that the ICRC is absolutely correct to highlight this as a growing problem.

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Goldstein: The World Has Never Been More Peaceful

Joshua Goldstein has a must-read book in press entitled Winning the War on War. I’ve seen the advance version and like many things about it, not least of which is the easy-reading style pitched at an informed lay audience, the way he begins with a thought experiment rather than with a bunch of statistics, then draws the reader through available scholarly research in an entertaining way to develop his argument.

The thought experiment: imagine you’re in a time machine moving backward from 2011 to prehistoric times, comparing a) the past ten years with the past twenty; b) the past twenty years with the previous twenty; c) the past fifty years with the previous fifty, d) the past century with the previous centuries and so on.

The argument: though the media and twittersphere often make it seem that the world is an unstable, dangerous place, we are in fact living through the longest and deepest period of peace in human history. According to the promo website:

Read the newspapers, and you’ll be convinced war is worse than it’s ever been: more civilian deaths, more rapes, more armed conflicts all around the world. But as leading scholar and writer Joshua Goldstein shows in this vivid, dramatic book, the reality is just the opposite…

Part of the book shows this to be true, part of the book explains why it is true (with a heavy emphasis on the role of peacekeeping and peace-building missions worldwide). But my favorite part is where Goldstein explains many people are so convinced it’s untrue.

In particular he breaks down a variety of socially constructed narratives about war and peace that have been promulgated by scholars, practitioners and the media over the years, including the statistic that 90% of war’s victims today are civilians, that the Congo war has killed 5.4 million people and that Congo is ground zero for the world’s worst sexual violence epidemic. (To quote Goldstein, “Not.”)

Joshua is also blogging nowadays and I urge readers to check out his posts. I expect the book will get lots of press and some critical reactions this Fall, and will be interested in readers’ thoughts as well.

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Olympic (Pipe) Dreams

Last week, Ban Ki-Moon made his standard plea for an Olympic Truce during the XXI Olympic Winter Games from Feb. 12 to Feb. 28 February and the X Winter Paralympic Games from March 12th to 21st.

Thing is, the concept of the Olympic Truce is based on two fallacies: 1) that nation-states (which are the units of contestation in the Olympics) are also the containers of political community and 2) that they are the wagers of war against one another whose actions must be tamed.

But actually, the fault-lines of global violence fall not between states but rather within them, evident in the fact that wars between countries have been hovering around zero for awhile. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2009 16 conflicts were ongoing around the world, but none of them occurred between the sovereign nations whose teams are pitted against one another in the Olympic games. Instead, all were civil wars.

Too bad then that the logic of the Olympic truce doesn’t really apply to civil wars, since rebel groups or secessionist movements only in very rare cases qualify for involvement in the Olympics. What care the Tamils or Comali ICU or Taliban about whether Sri Lankan or Afghani athletes have safe passage to the games? What care, for that matter, first nations in countries like Canada in promoting an event that underscores their nominal exclusion from the club of sovereign nations?

Is the concept of the Olympic Truce therefore outdated? Or does this mis-match between the institutionalization of the Olympic games as a contest between nation-states and the actual nature of political violence globally imply the need for a different conceptualization of “teams” if we are to translate the goodwill of inter”nation”al sporting events into a movement that can pacify conflicts in a world where the nation-state is no longer the key container of political community?

[cross-posted at LGM}

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Use it or lose it

A recent paper from Brookings, Georgetown and Hoover discusses the international legal aspects of targeted killing. As you would expect, American policy isn’t in sync with the emerging global norm. An idealist might argue that the US is in the wrong (and they have a very strong case under the International Convention on Human Rights); a Realist might argue that the US needs the latitude to kill because it (or somebody–and nobody else is available) has the responsibility to combat enemies of the legal regime that everyone else assumes. The point that I hadn’t thought of before is the conclusion that the US might want to be open about what it is doing and assert–as a legal principle–that this is as it should be.

The ultimate lesson for Congress and the Obama Administration about targeted killings is “Use it or lose it.” This is as true of its legal rationale as it is of the tool itself. Targeted killings conducted from standoff platforms, with improving technologies in surveillance and targeting, are a vital strategic, but also humanitarian, tool in long-term counterterrorism. War will always be important as an option; so will the tools of law enforcement, as well as all the other non-force aspects of intelligence work: diplomacy and coordination with friends and allies. But the long-standing legal authority to use force covertly, as part of the writ of the intelligence community, remains a crucial tool—one the new administration will need and evidently knows it will need. So will administrations beyond it.

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The death of Osama bin Laden and his top aides by Predator strike tomorrow would alter national security counterterrorism calculations rather less than we might all hope. As new terrorist enemies emerge, so long as they are “jihadist” in character, we might continue referring to them as “affiliated” with al Qaeda and therefore co-belligerent. But the label will eventually become a mere legalism in order to bring them under the umbrella of an AUMF passed after September 11. Looking even further into the future, terrorism will not always be about something plausibly tied to September 11 or al Qaeda at all. Circumstances alone, in other words, will put enormous pressure on—and ultimately render obsolete—the legal framework we currently employ to justify these operations.

What we can do is to insist on defining armed conflict self-defense broadly enough, and human rights law narrowly enough—as the United States has traditionally done—to avoid exacerbating the problem and making it acute sooner, or even immediately.

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We stand at a curious moment in which the strategic trend is toward reliance upon targeted killing; and within broad U.S. political circles even across party lines, a political trend toward legitimization; and yet the international legal trend is also severely and sharply to contain it within a narrow conception of either the law of armed conflict under IHL or human rights and law enforcement, rather than its traditional conception as self-defense in international law and regulation as covert action under domestic intelligence law. Many in the world of ideas and policy have already concluded that targeted killing as a category, even if proffered as self-defense, is unacceptable and indeed all but per se illegal. If the United States wishes to preserve its traditional powers and practices in this area, it had better assert them. Else it will find that as a practical matter they have dissipated through desuetude.

Does the US (or someone) have the right to target individuals? In States where the US is not formally at war? Inside the US?

I suspect that someone has to have the job of playing cop in the international system. I don’t see anyone but the US who is able and willing to do it. A UN force is a possibility, but it still comes down to great power politics and capabilities. On the other hand, I don’t want to give the cops–any cops–the right to target whoever they choose. Even if they start with the best of intentions, that’s a structure that corrupts the cop, alientates the community, and kills the innocent.

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Russia vs. Georgia

The now independent states that once made up the Republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are often referred to in Russia as the “near-abroad”. The meaning of near-abroad, depending on how broadly you want to interpret it, can range from “those areas that used to be part of Russia in our imperial past” to “those areas that really ought to be within our sphere of influence” to “those areas where we have the right to meddle at will”. Relations between Russia and the near-abroad range from “let us celebrate our Slavic brotherhood” (Belarus, the gas price kerfuffle of late 2006 notwithstanding) to downright nasty.

Bad blood between Estonia and Russia received a lot of western press attention this spring, after Estonian plans to relocate a Soviet-era World War II memorial that contained soldiers’ remains from a prominent location in central Talinn to a cemetery outside the city resulted in a wave of violent protests by ethnic Russians in Estonia and in anti-Estonian protests and attacks within Russia, followed by an apparent cyber-attack on Estonian government websites.

The Russia-Estonia conflict, though, will likely remain no more than sturm und drang. Estonia is, after all, a NATO member, and there is little reason to think that despite all the hype, the conflict will ever go hot.

No, if you want to put money on a hot war somewhere in the near-abroad, I’d advise you to give considerably more attention to relations between Russia and Georgia.

Relations between Georgia and Russia have been less than cordial ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with disputes over the status of the so-called break-away regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia fueling the flames. The situation deteriorated significantly after the Rose Revolution of 2003, in which the corrupt government of Eduard Shevardnadze (better known in the US for his role as Gorbachev’s foreign minister) was forced out in favor of Mikhail Saakashvili. Saakashvili, who lived for a time in the United States in the early 1990s, took an unabashedly pro-western stance, going so far as to suggest that Georgia be considered a candidate for eventual NATO membership. Russia, naturally, did not take kindly to Georgia’s new orientation, and in the four years hence, there have been numerous incidents that have escalated tensions between Russia and Georgia. Here’s a few highlights for your consideration:

  • a Russian boycott of Georgian wine and mineral water (a major export for Georgia)
  • gas pipeline explosions (blamed on Chechen rebels) that disrupted gas supplies to Georgia
  • the expulsion of four Russian military officers (attached to the Russian embassy) from Georgia on accusations of espionage, followed by retaliatory expulsions of Georgians from Russia

Perhaps most disturbing, though, are claims that Russian military helicopters participated in an attack on a Georgian government building in Abkhazia, in an attempt to disrupt efforts by the Georgian government to build a stronger presence in the breakaway region. According to the Wall Street Journal, a UN report, due out as early as next week, will provide a detailed account of this incident, which occurred on March 11 of this year (the article is behind the WSJ pay wall, but can be read here). The dispensation of Kosovo also has important implications for Russian-Georgian relations, as many expect that if Kosovo is granted independence, then Russia may recognize both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent.

The upshot is that while cyber-war may make for sexy headlines, it’s the potential for an old-fashioned hot war that should most concern us. On the other hand, observers have been sounding the warning about the potential for a hot war between Russia and Georgia for years now. Who knows whether anything will ever come of it? Still, it’s plenty worth keeping an eye on.

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