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Amid Calls for UN Investigation Into Kunduz Strike, US Senator Suggests that the UN Does Not Investigate Taliban Abuses. He’s Wrong.

Today, following calls for an independent inquiry into the US airstrike on the MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) – during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing – asked Gen. John Campbell whether the UN investigates abuses by the Taliban. Sullivan stated that the UN does not investigate the Taliban “typically,” as a way of making a point about the unfairness or imbalance of the UN investigating the Kunduz airstrike. A transcript is below (emphasis added).

Sen. Dan Sullivan I’m going to follow up on a number of the previous questions you’ve been asked. First, Sen. Shaheen had asked about a UN investigation possibly into the hospital accident. Does the UN usually investigate major deliberate attacks on civilians in Afghanistan when they’re conducted by the Taliban?

Gen. John Campbell: Sir, I haven’t seen that in the past. Frankly, I don’t know.

Sullivan: I don’t think they do typically. So, do you think it would seem fair or balanced if the UN conducted an investigation which was on something that was clearly an accident — the hospital bombing — when they don’t investigate deliberate Taliban killing of civilians? Do you think that would viewed as fair or balanced? Or something that Command needs or would welcome?

Campbell: Sir, I can’t comment on how the UN would do that. What I can comment on is, as I said up front earlier, I have complete trust and confidence in the team that we have to be thorough and transparent. If there were mistakes made, we’ll make sure that those come out. If there are people we have to hold accountable, we’ll make sure we do that. I have every trust and confidence in the US and the NATO investigation ongoing.

Sullivan: I think most of us here do as well. And I certainly don’t think an additional investigation by the UN would be warranted or welcomed by this committee.

In fact, the UN regularly investigates Taliban or “anti-government elements” violence, as a quick look at the UN’s website for its Afghanistan mission readily shows. The UN investigates Taliban violence that is deliberate, as well as reckless, and it investigates cases where the facts of an attack may seem quite clear, as well as those where the circumstances are initially far murkier.  Continue Reading »

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New California Human Rights Legislation

Amidst all the coverage of California’s new assisted suicide law, it may have been missed that Governor of California Jerry Brown signed important human rights legislation into law over the weekend. Specifically, AB 15 makes several significant changes to California law when it comes to the ability of victims of human rights abuses to obtain civil redress in the state’s courts.

First: The legislation extends the statute of limitations associated with civil actions for human trafficking (defined by California Penal Code§ 236.1) from five years to seven years. (For minors, the statute of limitations is now 10 years from the date the victim attains the age of majority.) These statutory limitations are subject to equitable tolling and estoppel in certain circumstances, such as when the victim is operating under a disability or the defendant has prevented the victim from filing suit in a timely manner. This change follows on the heels of an aggressive state-wide offensive against human trafficking, exemplified by, inter alia, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in the state to disclose what efforts they are taking (if any) to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their direct supply chains. (See this new resource guide issued by Attorney General Kamala Harris to help companies comply with the law.)

Second: The legislation extends the statute of limitation for assault, battery, or wrongful death from two to 10 years if the conduct in question would also constitute certain human rights abuses or a taking of property in violation of international law. (This provision aligns California law with the federal statute of limitations for human rights claims, which is also 10 years.) The operative text sets this higher statute of limitations for cases involving:  Continue Reading »

News Roundup and Notes: October 6, 2015

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.


NATO has condemned Russia for violating Turkish airspace. Ankara has threatened to respond after it reported two incursions in two days, and has for a second time summoned Moscow’s ambassador to Turkey. [Reuters’ Ayla Jean Yackley and Humeyra Pamuk]

Russia has begun moving artillery and ground forces toward Hama, Syria. [NBC News]  Russia announced yesterday that “volunteer” ground forces would join the fight in Syria. [New York Times’ Andrew E. Kramer and Anne Bernard]

CIA-backed Syrian rebels have been the target of a string of Russian airstrikes for days, leading the US to the conclusion that it is a deliberate effort by Moscow, reports Adam Entous. [Wall Street Journal]

Syrian opposition rebel groups are pushing for a unified response to Russian airstrikes and promised to attack Russian military forces in Syria. [Al Jazeera]

Russian airstrikes keep targeting medical facilities and vehicles inside Syria, writes Michael Weiss, citing reports that a strike in Idlib province on Saturday destroyed an emergency ambulance center. [The Daily Beast]

Car bombings across Iraq killed at least 56 people yesterday. [AP]

The EU needs to take greater action in Syria in order to control the refugee crisis, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday. [New York Times’ James Kanter and Tim Arango]

Patterns of Russian and American airstrikes in Syria demonstrate the two countries’ divergent strategies. Graphics available at the New York Times.

Congress could send a “strong signal” to Moscow of the cost of its involvement in Ukraine and Syria by enacting new sanctions on Russia, argue Paula J. Dobriansky and David B. Rivkin Jr. [Wall Street Journal]

US-led airstrikes continue. The US and coalition military forces carried out eight airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Oct 5. Separately, military forces conducted a further 13 strikes on targets in Iraq. [UN News Centre] Continue Reading »

Precision Weapons, Mistakes, and the Need for Transparency

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

It was almost a case study in worst case scenarios involving the American military and civilian casualties. A US AC-130 gunship reportedly poured fire into the only working trauma hospital in a city under siege. Rather than killing militants who were targeting Americans or Afghans, the strike reportedly killed and wounded dozens of patients and staff belonging to one of the world’s most famous and respected NGOs, Doctors Without Borders (also known by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières).

Over the last few days, the discussion has been dominated by the tragedy and concern about potential war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law. But there is another important lesson here: Even the most precise weapons make mistakes. Whether those weapons are used in airstrikes like the one in Kunduz, or in targeted killings around the world.

The weekend’s airstrikes make it clear that errors happen, and the government has stated that it will launch an investigation into what occurred. But other “precision” programs — particularly targeted killings — are conducted almost entirely in secret and lack enough public oversight. It’s past time for a full review of these programs. Continue Reading »

Was the Kunduz Strike a War Crime?

As reports poured in over the weekend that the United States bombed a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing at least 12 MSF staff members and 10 patients and injuring 37 more, numerous commentators said that the strike was or could be a war crime or grave violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) (the laws of war).

The bombings took place as part of a military operation to take back the captured city of Kunduz from the Taliban. Eyewitnesses described in detail the horror of the strike, and the courage of MSF staff. An MSF nurse said:

[T]here are no words for how terrible it was. In the Intensive Care Unit six patients were burning in their beds. We looked for some staff that were supposed to be in the operating theatre. It was awful. A patient there on the operating table, dead, in the middle of the destruction. … We did an urgent surgery for one of our doctors. Unfortunately he died there on the office table. We did our best, but it wasn’t enough.

His entire account is an important read, especially for those in the US who typically only see reports that an “airstrike was conducted,” but not the harrowing details of their impacts. The hospital was also the only trauma center in Kunduz, and the civilian population heavily relied upon it in a region under going heavy fighting.

In response to the attack, MSF officials called it “abhorrent and a grave violation of international humanitarian law,” and said that they presume a “war crime has been committed.” The United Nations’ human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said the event “is utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal,” and that “the seriousness of the incident is underlined by the fact that, if established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime.” The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) condemned the bombing and Human Rights Watch said that the airstrikes raise “grave concerns about whether US forces took sufficient precautions to identify and avoid striking the facility.”

Did the United States violate IHL in this attack, and did the individuals responsible commit a war crime? Continue Reading »

National Security-Related Congressional Hearings, October 5–9

Below is a calendar of congressional hearings on national security matters for this week.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

9:30am – Senate Armed Services – The Situation in Afghanistan (here)

2:15pm – Senate Intelligence – Briefing: Intelligence Matters – closed hearing (here)

2:30pm – Senate Foreign Relations – The US Role and Strategy in the Middle East: Yemen and the Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (here)

5:00pm – House Intelligence – Meeting: Access Request – closed hearing (here)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015 Continue Reading »

Congressional Due Process Failure: A Benghazi Example

The consequences of congressional scrutiny can be profound for the subjects of lawmakers’ investigations, yet the second Congress calls, almost none of the safeguards of the American legal system are present. Features deemed fundamental in judicial proceedings — right to counsel, regulation of discovery, neutrality of arbiters, safeguarding of confidential information, rights of confrontation, common law privileges, rights of privacy — are either disavowed or inadequately protected by Congress. A recent Benghazi investigation episode helps bring to the fore one of the issues I address in a draft article, Congressional Due Process, that urges reform of oversight investigative processes to comport with constitutional and legal norms of fairness.

Congressional due process deficiencies have bothered me throughout my career. As an executive branch lawyer, I marveled at the invective hurled at dedicated public servants, including at times unfounded insinuations of criminality. In Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (other parts of which I have criticized), former Defense Secretary Bob Gates lambasted his treatment by Congress under the leadership of both political parties. I think he channeled the views of many when he wrote:

I was exceptionally offended by the constant adversarial, inquisition-like treatment of executive branch officials by too many members of Congress across the political spectrum—a kangaroo-court environment in hearings, especially when the press and television cameras were present. Sharp questioning of witnesses should be expected and is entirely appropriate. But rude, insulting, belittling, bullying, and all too often highly personal attacks by members of Congress violated nearly every norm of civil behavior as they postured and acted as judge, jury, and executioner.

As a private defense lawyer, I struggled to explain to incredulous clients the lack of procedural safeguards they would face once their criminal, civil, or regulatory matter aroused congressional scrutiny. Even as a congressional investigator, I too often found myself embarrassed at the institutional hostility to fair treatment of those haled before our committees. Continue Reading »

News Roundup and Notes: October 5, 2015

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.


Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad has said that no political reforms are possible in the country until “terrorism” has been defeated there, in an interview with Iran’s Khabar television network. [Washington Post’s Liz Sly]  The regime leader also publically backed Russian airstrikes and said that the Russian campaign “must succeed or we are facing the destruction of a whole region.” [AP]

ISIS has destroyed Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph, an ancient monument built about 2,000 years ago. [BBC]

US-backed opposition rebels in Syria have called on the US to supply them with antiaircraft missiles to defend their positions against Russian airstrikes. [Washington Post’s Liz Sly and Andrew Roth]

The US-led coalition against ISIS plans to open a major front in the northeast of Syria, targeting militant positions in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, military and administration officials have said. [New York Times’ Eric Schmitt and Michael R. Gordon]

Russian military aircraft violated Turkey’s airspace, the country’s foreign ministry said today, summoning Moscow’s ambassador to protest the incident. [Reuters]

UK Prime Minister David Cameron criticized the Russian intervention in Syria on Saturday, accusing it of conducting indiscriminate airstrikes, “actually backing the butcher Assad and helping him.” [Wall Street Journal’s Jason Douglas and James Marson]  And the country’s foreign secretary, Philip Hammond commented that Russian support of the Assad regime would ultimately hurt the fight against ISIS. [Wall Street Journal’s Jenny Gross]

Russia’s involvement in Syria is unlikely to turn the tide in the conflict, suggest Andrew Roth and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, citing analysts who point to Moscow’s aging military equipment and the poorly trained Syrian army. [Washington Post] Continue Reading »

Recap of Recent Posts at Just Security (September 26–October 2)

I. United Nations & International Criminal Court

  1. Alex Whiting, The First Case for the ICC Prosecutor: Attacks on Cultural Heritage (Tuesday, September 29)
  2. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, The Canary in the Coal Mine: Women and Reservations to Post-2015 Development Agenda (Wednesday, September 30)
  3. Sarah Knuckey, The UN Human Rights Council Supports Yemen’s “National Inquiry,” but Is It a Whitewash in the Making? (Friday, October 2)
  4. Brittany Benowitz, Letter to the Editor: To Combat Extremism, We Will Need More Than Words (Friday, October 2)

II. Guantánamo

III. Electronic Communications Privacy Act

IV. Transparency

V. US-China Relations

VI. UK Anti-Terror Laws

VII. Law of Armed Conflict

VIII. Congressional Hearings

IX. Miscellaneous

Letter to the Editor: To Combat Extremism, We Will Need More Than Words

Earlier this week, the UN hosted a high level meeting in response to President Obama’s call for a new strategy to “combat violent extremism.” As Syrian refugees flee to Europe in unprecedented numbers, the need for better strategies is more urgent than ever. In response, Obama has rightfully focused on the role of moderate voices and respect for the rule of law in combatting terrorism and violent extremism. As he recently explained, “[w]hen peaceful, democratic change is impossible, it feeds into the terrorist propaganda that violence is the only answer.”

Given this warning, it is alarming to note the ever-shrinking space for civil society worldwide. According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit-Law, more than 90 laws restricting freedom of association or assembly have been passed in the past three years. These have been accompanied by campaigns of harassment and criminal prosecutions against civil society leaders that have shut down pro-rights and democracy activities in every region of the world. The United States Institute of Peace has referred to it as a “crisis” of shrinking civil society space.

Even more striking in this context is the current trend among nations, including key US allies, to cite national security in their dramatic crackdown on opposition voices and reformers from within their own societies. Ethiopian journalists reporting on government corruption are accused of attempting to overthrow the state. A Saudi lawyer calling for reform of the criminal justice system is the first to be convicted under a new counter-terrorism law. Kenyan groups who document security force brutality are arbitrarily designated terrorist organizations. Marginalized communities in Peru protesting controversial natural resource extraction are treated as combatants. A Malaysian lawyer who questions the utility of a government de-radicalization program is charged with sedition. And Chinese attorneys are detained for representing government critics.

Never before have we seen such wide-scale retaliation against civil society, and in a growing number of countries, there is a possibility that calls for good governance could be completely silenced. If it is true that lack of avenues for peaceful redress of grievances feed extremism, then the stifling of such avenues should prompt serious concern about our safety. Continue Reading »