Cold War Flashback in Turkey & the International Law Concept of “Attribution”

BY MARK DeSANTO — A terrorist suicide bomber attacked the United States embassy in the Turkish capital city, Ankara, on Friday, February 1, 2013. The bomber was identified, using DNA testing, as 40-year-old, Ecevit Sanli, who reportedly detonated an explosive device on the outside perimeter of the embassy. The attack tragically claimed the life of an embassy guard and severely injured a television journalist

Sanli was formerly arrested in 1997 for acts of terrorism and participation in the outlawed terrorist organization known as the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, commonly referred to as DHKP-C. The DHKP-C has publicly claimed responsibility for numerous bombings and assassinations dating back to the early 1970s.

Sanli reportedly “received bomb-making training somewhere in Europe in the mid-1990s, according to Hasa Selim Ozertem, a security expert at the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara.” Later, Sanli returned to Turkey in 1997 and participated in terrorist attacks on the Istanbul police headquarters and senior military officials using anti-tank weapons. Sanli continued his participation in terrorist attacks conducted by the DHKP-C until he was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison on terrorism charges.

The DHKP-C “espouses a Marxist-Leninist philosophy reminiscent of the Cold War. It grew out of another far-left group, Devrimci Sol (Revolutionary Left), formed when Turkey was in political turmoil, with clashes between militant left- and right-wing groups undermining a weak political system.

Although the DHKP-C is strongly suspected, the White House and U.S. State Department said it was still too early to determine who is behind the bombing. “We strongly condemn what was a suicide attack against our embassy in Ankara,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who called the attack an act of terror but further explained that U.S. officials “do not know at this point who is responsible or the motivations behind the attack.” The attack was initially believed to be the work of either Al Qaeda or a proxy for Iran.

Although it is still to early to know for sure who was behind this tragic event, if the investigation uncovers that Iran or an Iranian proxy was involved, the attack would seriously implicate international law. The main component of international law implicated when a terrorist organization or prospective state proxy is alleged to have participated in the attack is the concept of “attribution.” Attribution provides that the acts of a group affiliated with a state would ascribe the attacks of that group or organization to that particular foreign country as opposed to solely the constituent group.[1]

The primary “attribution” international law precedent is set forth in Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro (formally referred to as, Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro) in which the International Court of Justice held that the conduct of any State organ is to be considered an act of the state under international law, and therefore gives rise to the responsibility of the state if it constitutes a breach of an international obligation of the state.

Any state found affiliated with this attack through such attribution will have violated international law, mainly, the general prohibition on the use of force[2] (codified in U.N. Charter art. 2, para. 4.) This general prohibition against the use of force supersedes mere statutory authority and rises to the level of “customary international law,” meaning that it is a fundamental principle of international law.

It is important to note, however, that at this point in the investigation authorities believe the attack was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, and no definitive prove linking the attack to any state has yet to be discovered. Such groups are obviously not “States” within the international law definition. Accordingly, no specific country is responsible for the attack and thus in violation of international law by means of attribution.

1 See Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro), 2007 I.C.J. 91 (February 26).

2 U.N. Charter, Article 2, Paragraph 4 provides: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

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