Recent Posts

Hostages and Prisoners

by Deborah Pearlstein

I’ve been impressed by the number of questions I’ve fielded in the past few weeks from students, colleagues and media alike about whether the United States can and/or should pay ransoms or exchange prisoners for Americans held by various groups overseas. (I discuss the issue in short clips here and here.) Why did we exchange prisoners to rescue Bowe Bergdahl, but refused to pay ransom for James Foley? Is it illegal to pay ransom to these groups, or just a bad idea? Is it really a bad idea?

In the interest of consolidating some answers on a topic that raises a complex cluster of issues, I thought it worth summarizing some of them here – first on the topic of ransom for hostages taken by terrorist groups, then on the topic of prisoner exchanges more broadly. The upshot: It may well be the right policy decision in an individual case for a government not to pay ransom to a terrorist group, but the broader, categorical statement that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” is neither historically accurate nor strategically wise. Continue reading…

Dear News Agencies of the World: China Did NOT Breach Taiwan’s Airspace, Just Its ADIZ

by Julian Ku

Several news agencies (here and here) have suggested that recent reports of Chinese military aircraft entering into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone  is akin to a territorial incursion.  For instance, J. Michael Cole warns at the Diplomat, “If they were indeed intentional, the latest intrusions could signal a further denigration of Taiwan’s sovereignty….”  In my view, calling ADIZ intrusions a breach of “airspace” and a denigration of “sovereignty” overstates the significance of an ADIZ under international law.

Taiwan’s own government has used the phrase “airspace”, so reporters can’t be faulted for repeating this phrase. But legally speaking, entering an Air Defense Identification Zone is NOT the same as entering a nation’s territorial airspace.  For an island like Taiwan, such territorial airspace would presumably start  end 12 nautical miles from its relevant island coast.  An ADIZ is usually a much larger zone declared by countries in order to allow them to track and identify aircraft that come near their territorial airspace.  If you look at Taiwan’s ADIZ  (in red), you’ll notice it goes well beyond 12 20131209DEN0006Mnautical miles from Taiwan’s coast (in fact, it technically stretches into China itself!).  An ADIZ is adjacent to a nation’s territorial airspace.  Declaring an ADIZ is not by itself illegal because it is not a claim of sovereign control over the airspace.  Of course, nations with an ADIZ usually demand foreign aircraft identify themselves before entering their ADIZ, but nations do not usually claim the right to exclude other nations’ aircraft from their ADIZ, as if it was sovereign territory. (For a recent discussion of the legal issues in ADIZ declarations, see here).

Now, since China has usually been careful to avoid crossing into Taiwan’s ADIZ (or at least parts of Taiwan’s ADIZ), its decision to do so now is interesting and significant.  But it is not a territorial incursion and it is not (technically) breaching “Taiwan’s airspace”.  So news agencies should be careful not to report it as such.

Will the U.S. Move to Citizenship-Strip ISIS Fighters?

by Peter Spiro

It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing proposals to take away the citizenship of Americans fighting for ISIS/ISIL forces in Syria and Iraq. They have drawn renewed attention in the wake of James Foley’s beheading (apparently by a British citizen) and the death, reported at length today in the NYT, of American Douglas McCain in Syria. Several hundred individuals with Western citizenships are thought to be fighting with the extreme Sunni group.

A proposal to expatriate terrorists associated with entities hostile to the United States went nowhere in 2010 when Joe Lieberman’s Terrorist Expatriation Act failed to garner so much as a committee hearing. A similar initiative might have more legs today.

The Lieberman effort had the Times Square bombing as a hook, but that just looked like ordinary crime. (There was also the problem of Joe Lieberman.) The face of the ISIL fighters is way more scary and foreign. They make bin Laden look like Jesse James — criminal, but not unrecognizable. (Bin Laden had a brother who went to Harvard Law School.) Al-Qaeda has a lot of blood on its hands, but it doesn’t go around cutting peoples heads off and tweeting the results.

The U.S. would be following the UK and Canada’s lead, both of which have adopted expatriation measures aimed at citizens fighting in Syria. That gives U.S. legislators some cover on the international human rights front. Even human-rights-pure Norway is looking to follow suit.

That doesn’t mean terrorist expatriation would make any more sense now than it did in 2010. Any punitive intent would be clearly unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s 1958 decision in Trop v. Dulles. The law would pass the Court’s test only if the conduct was taken to reflect an individual’s intent to relinquish citizenship. In other words, the law would have to work from the calculation that fighting for ISIS evidences an individual’s desire to expatriate.

Beyond the constitutional niceties, it’s not clear what expatriation would accomplish. True, ISIS may look to weaponize adherents with premium Western passports and visa-free mobility. But you couldn’t take away someone’s citizenship for being associated with ISIS before you knew that he was associated with ISIS. Once a citizen is identified as an ISIS fighter, you can bet he gets put on a watch list. That minimizes the threat. There’s no case in which citizenship-stripping adds much to the counter-terror toolbox.

That may not stop legislators from adding expatriation to their rallying calls. Chalk it up to counter-terror showboating. But it won’t be any more than that.

Can the U.S. President Enter into a Legally Binding Climate Change Agreement Without Congress?

by Julian Ku

The New York Times is running a big report today on the U.S. plan to sign a “sweeping” climate change agreement without having to go to Congress for approval or ratification.  Instead of a typical treaty requiring ratification by the Senate, the U.S. has a different more creative strategy.

American negotiators are instead homing in on a hybrid agreement — a proposal to blend legally binding conditions from an existing 1992 treaty with new voluntary pledges. The mix would create a deal that would update the treaty, and thus, negotiators say, not require a new vote of ratification.

Countries would be legally required to enact domestic climate change policies — but would voluntarily pledge to specific levels of emissions cuts and to channel money to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change. Countries might then be legally obligated to report their progress toward meeting those pledges at meetings held to identify those nations that did not meet their cuts.

Jack Goldsmith is already out with a typically smart analysis of this approach, and he concludes the new agreement is intended to sound like a big deal, but will be unlikely to commit the U.S. to do anything meaningful.  I think that is probably right, although I can’t really tell based on the incomplete details in this NYT article.  I think there might be a little bit of domestic legal effect, and may also create an important precedent on what the President can do to bind the US on the international level.

Surely, the President can sign a political agreement that pledges voluntary cuts and to channel money to poorer countries. Such an agreement would have no domestic legal effect until Congress acted to implement the legislation.   But can the President bind the U.S. under international law, even if it has no domestic legal effect?

The President can, in limited circumstances, bind the US under international law via a sole executive agreement.  It has done so especially in the areas of post-conflict settlements such as the famous Algiers Accords that released US hostages and also sent seized Iranian and US assets to an international arbitration tribunal.  US courts have given those agreements limited domestic effect.  But the line between what the President can do via a sole executive agreement and what he must do via a treaty is not completely clear (although there is a line!).  Maybe the President is claiming some delegated authority from the original 1992 Framework Convention, which might bolster his ability to bind the U.S. internationally. I don’t see any obvious basis in that treaty for this delegation, but I suppose experts on the Framework Convention might come up with something.

So I think the President might be able to sign the US up to a binding international agreement on climate change, but it would be pretty unprecedented and its legal effect uncertain.  Such an agreement would be unlikely to have domestic legal effect on its own, but the President could cite the agreement as the basis for executive orders he is already implementing on climate change.  I don’t think it would carry the policy much farther than he is already doing under creative interpretations of the Clean Air Act, but it might provide just a little bit more support for his domestic orders.

I think it will be important to look at the details of the proposed agreement, and to ask the US administration to explain its legal authority for the new agreement.  Will it be the 1992 Framework Convention?  Or is it going to be just the President’s general Article II executive power?  If the latter, this may be an important precedent for future sole executive agreements under the US Constitution.  In any event, President Obama is certainly exploring the outer limits of his Article II powers.

Israel’s Indiscriminate Attack on Shujaiya

by Kevin Jon Heller

On the record, US officials invariably defend even the most indefensible IDF uses of force in Gaza, most often parroting the Israeli line that the IDF does everything it can to spare civilian lives and that Hamas’s use of human shields is responsible for any innocent civilians the IDF does kill.

When speaking anonymously, however, those same officials tell a very different story.

Exhibit A: an absolutely devastating new article in Al Jazeera America about Israel’s destruction of Shujaiya in Gaza, which involved 258 IDF artillery pieces firing 7,000 high-explosive shells into the neighborhood, including 4,800 shells in seven hours. I’m not sure I’ve ever read quite such damning statements about the IDF’s tactics, going far beyond John Kerry’s widely reported sarcastic comment that the attack was “a hell of a pinpoint operation.” Here is a snippet from the article:

Artillery pieces used during the operation included a mix of Soltam M71 guns and U.S.-manufactured Paladin M109s (a 155 mm howitzer), each of which fires three shells per minute. “The only possible reason for doing that is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible,” said the senior U.S. military officer who spoke with me about the report. “It’s not mowing the lawn,” he added, referring to a popular IDF term for periodic military operations against Hamas in Gaza. “It’s removing the topsoil.”

“Holy Bejesus,” exclaimed retired Lt. General Robert Gard when told the numbers of artillery pieces and rounds fired during the July 21 action. “That rate of fire over that period of time is astonishing. If the figures are even half right, Israel’s response was absolutely disproportionate.” A West Point graduate, who is veteran of two wars and now the Chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Gard added that even if Israeli artillery units fired guided munitions, it would have made little difference.

[snip]

Senior U.S. officers who are familiar with the battle and Israeli artillery operations, which are modeled on U.S. doctrine, assessed that, based on the rate of artillery fire into Shujaiya overnight Sunday, IDF commanders weren’t precisely targeting Palestinian military formations, as much as laying down an indiscriminate barrage aimed at “cratering” the neighborhood. The cratering operation was designed to collapse the Hamas tunnels discovered when IDF ground units came under fire in the neighborhood. Initially, said the senior U.S. military officer who spoke with me about the military summaries of IDF operations, Israel’s artillery had used “suppressing fire to protect their forward units, but then poured in everything they had — in a kind of walking barrage. Suppressing fire is perfectly defensible — a walking barrage isn’t.”

The Israelis’ own defense of their action reinforced the belief among some senior U.S. officers that artillery fire into Shujaiya had been indiscriminate. That’s because the Israelis explained the civilian casualty toll on the basis that the neighborhood’s non-combatant population had been used as “human shields” because they had been “ordered to stay” in their homes by Hamas after the IDF had warned them to leave.

“Listen, we know what it’s like to kill civilians in war,” said the senior U.S. officer. “Hell, we even put it on the front pages. We call it collateral damage. We absolutely try to minimize it, because we know it turns people against you. Killing civilians is a sure prescription for defeat. But that’s not what the IDF did in Shujaiya on July 21. Human shields? C’mon, just own up to it.”

As I said, stunning stuff. And utterly damning of the IDF — the “most moral army in the world.” It’s just a shame the US government won’t be more open with what it really thinks about the IDF’s actions. Perhaps then Israel wouldn’t feel free to use force against Palestine with impunity.

NOTE: After reading the article in Al Jazeera America, make sure to read Shane Darcy’s important post at EJIL: Talk! discussing a recent decision by Israel’s Supreme Court that upholds the legality of collective punishment.

Weekly News Wrap: Monday, August 25, 2014

by Jessica Dorsey

Your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:

Africa

Asia

Europe

Middle East and Northern Africa

Americas

Oceania

UN

Events and Announcements: August 24, 2014

by An Hertogen

  • International Law in Practice is a four-day programme run by the British Institute of International and Comparative Law (BIICL), which provides a broad introduction to key issues in international and comparative law – from public to private and from commercial to human rights. The course is unique in that it introduces participants to international law, as broadly understood and as it arises in practice. Led by many of the Institute’s leading researchers and practitioners, the course is ideal for those in the early years of legal practice, those working in governmental and non-governmental organisations with legal elements to their work, and students who are about to commence a postgraduate degree in aspects of international law. The course is accredited for 28.5 CPD points. For more details and to book online, please visit www.biicl.org/event/1054
  • On September 18-19, 2014, the Center for International and Comparative Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and PluriCourts – Centre for the Study of the Legitimate Roles of the Judiciary in the Global Order at the University of Oslo Faculty of Law will hold a symposium on “Legitimacy and International Courts,” in Baltimore. The symposium, which will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Center, will bring together experts on specific courts and tribunals including the ICJ, WTO, ECJ, ECHR, Inter-American Court, ICSID, ITLOS, and ICC and specific themes including democracy, effectiveness, and judicial selection. The goal of the conference and the book to follow is to think comprehensively and comparatively about the legitimacy of international courts and tribunals. What can we learn from the experiences of specific courts and to what extent are lessons from one court generalizable to other courts? The event is free and open to the public. The program is available here. Please RSVP here.​

Last week’s events and announcements can be found here. If you would like to post an announcement on Opinio Juris, please contact us with a one-paragraph description of your announcement along with hyperlinks to more information.

 

Weekend Roundup: August 16-22, 2014

by An Hertogen

This week  on Opinio Juris, we had the final instalments of our Emerging Voices symposium, with a post by Tamar Meshel on awakening the “Sleeping Beauty of the Peace Palace” and one by Mélanie Vianney-Liaud on the controversy surrounding the definition of the Cambodian genocide at the ECCC.

More definitional issues arose in Kevin’s post discussing Britain’s expanded definition on terrorism, which now includes watching the video of James Foley’s beheading.

In other posts, Chris blogged about the quilt maps of sovereignty in the Baarles, Deborah argued why shifting alliances in the Middle East matter, Julian renewed his argument that Argentina has no case against the US in its latest ICJ claim, and Duncan commemorated the 150th anniversary of the first Geneva Convention with the question whether there is new IHL to be made and what is should be.

Finally, Jessica wrapped up the news and listed events and announcements.

Many thanks to our guest posters and have a nice weekend!

IHL’s Era of Application?

by Duncan Hollis

Today marks the 150th Anniversary of the signing of the first Geneva Convention — the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.  12 States signed it on August 22, 1864, and the treaty went on to have 57 parties before being replaced by later Geneva Conventions in 1906, 1929 and 1949.  The ICRC is using the occasion to make a call for more action on international humanitarian law and to spread knowledge about that law more generally (including a 4 minute video on the Rules of War in a Nutshell).  

It’s interesting to think about the full arc of IHL that this anniversary represents. It seems we’ve gone from decades of iteration — where States and others worked to hammer out what rules actually exist — to what is now much more an era of application.  Today’s IHL debates (many of which we’ve hosted here in recent weeks) regularly revolve around where, when and how specific rules apply to particular cases.  Or, they debate which rules exist only in treaty form versus those that have the status of customary international law.  Even in areas of new technology, the prevailing effort is to explain how existing rules govern by analogy (see, e.g., the Tallinn Manual).  These are all important and even laudatory causes.  But it does leave me with a question:  Is the corpus of IHL now largely complete, or should we expect another round of law generation akin to the Geneva Convention projects of 150 and 75 years ago?  Simply put, is there any new IHL to be made, and, if so, what should it be?   

I’ve Thought About It Some More: And I Still Think Argentina’s World Court Lawsuit Against the U.S. is Bogus

by Julian Ku

Reasonable people can disagree about the legal merits of U.S. court judgments against Argentina requiring it to pay holdout creditor hedge funds. But I can’t say the same about Argentina’s recently announced claim against the United States at the International Court of Justice. Based on Argentina’s own description of its legal arguments, I stand by my earlier assessment: Argentina’s international law claim against the United States is frivolous and would have almost no chance of succeeding, even if Argentina somehow convinced the U.S. to accept ICJ jurisdiction.

Although Argentina’s complaint to the ICJ has not been publicly released, it is likely that Argentina will accuse the U.S. of allowing its court system to violate Argentina’s immunity rights as a nation-state and to interfere in Argentina’s ability to pay its non-holdout creditors through U.S. banks.

What makes this claim ridiculous is that Argentina chose to grant the U.S. judicial system a wide-ranging jurisdiction over bonds it sold to private investors. When issuing those bonds, Argentina promised that it had “irrevocably agreed not to claim and has irrevocably waived” immunity “to the fullest extent permitted by the laws of the U.S. and New York. Argentina also agreed to allow “any of its revenues, assets or properties” to be subject to judicial execution and enforcement to whatever degree permitted by U.S. law.

Okay, This Time Britain Really Has Killed Terrorism (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last November, I wrote a post entitled “Terrorism Is Dead, and Britain Has Killed It.” I chose that title because I couldn’t imagine a conception of terrorism more absurd than the one argued by the British government and accepted by a Divisional Court: namely, that David Miranda’s mere possession of documents illegally obtained by Edward Snowden qualified as terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2000.

I obviously need to expand my imagination.

Why? Because the British government’s is now arguing that merely watching the video of James Foley’s execution is terrorism. From the Telegraph:

Viewing or sharing the harrowing video of James Foley’s beheading online could be regarded as a terrorist offence, Scotland Yard has warned.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said specialists from the Counter Terrorism unit were continuing to examine the footage in order to look for clues as to the identity of the suspected British jihadist but said the public should refrain from viewing the video.

In a statement a spokesman said: “We would like to remind the public that viewing, downloading or disseminating extremist material within the UK may constitute an offence under Terrorism legislation.”

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe explained that while viewing the video was technically a crime, his officers would be more focused on tracking down those who shared the footage or glorified it.

Um, no — viewing the Foley video is not “technically a crime.” Foley’s execution is a horrific act by a horrific organisation. But there is absolutely no plausible argument that merely watching a video of it qualifies as terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2000 — not even in light of the awful Miranda judgment. We can see why by quoting the UK Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation‘s summary of that case:

What the Miranda judgment reveals is that the publication (or threatened publication) of words may equally constitute terrorist action. It seems that the writing of a book, an article or a blog may therefore amount to terrorism if publication is “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”, “designed to influence the government” and liable to endanger life or create a serious risk to health or safety.

There are two obvious problems with considering the mere act of watching the Foley video an act of terrorism. First, watching the video is not “liable to endanger life or create a serious risk of health or safety,” as required by s 1(2) of the Terrorism Act 2000 — unless, of course, we think that anyone who watches it will somehow magically be transformed into an ISIS terrorist. Second, although I don’t understand why anyone would want to watch the savage murder of an innocent person, individuals are clearly not watching the video “for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause” or because they intend “to influence the government.” So no, watching the Foley video does not qualify as a terrorist act under s 1(1).

Nor does merely watching the Foley video violate any of the substantive offences in either the Terrorism Act 2000 or the Terrorism Act 2006. (Section 1(1) is not an offence in itself; it provides the definition of terrorism for the substantive offences.) In terms of the Terrorism Act 2000, it’s not “support” under s 12, because that section requires the defendant to have “invite[d] support for a proscribed organisation.” It’s not “use and possession” under s 16, because that section, like s 1(1), requires the specific intent to promote terrorism. It’s not “possession for terrorist purposes” under s 57, because merely having the Foley video on a computer (which streaming does not even involve) does not “give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.” And it’s not “collection of information” under s 58, because an execution video, though disgusting, is not “a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”

Merely watching the Foley video also does not run afoul of the Terrorism Act 2006. Section 1 criminalises “encouragement of terrorism,” but it applies only to those who “publish” a statement that encourages “the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism.” Watching a video is not publication. For similar reasons, watching a video does not qualify as “dissemination of terrorist publications” under s 2 — not even in light of s 2(2)(f), which criminalises possessing a terrorist publication “with a view to its” dissemination.

In his most recent report, the Independent Reviewer wrote that “[a] statutory definition [of terrorism] so broad that the enforcement authorities resort to their own rules of thumb in order to make sense of it is unhelpful.” I think the Metropolitan Police’s argument about the Foley video makes his point.

NOTE: I have updated the post in response to Adrian Hunt‘s excellent comment below, which deserves to be read in full.

A Summer of Shifting Alliances?

by Deborah Pearlstein

Just keeping up with the news on international terrorism/counterterrorism this summer could be a full time job. Among many other potentially significant reports, I wanted to highlight this statement recently released by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), often described by U.S. officials as the branch of Al Qaeda that currently poses the greatest threat to the United States. The AQAP statement announces the group’s support for the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL).

“We announce solidarity with our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the crusade. Their blood and injuries are ours and we will surely support them…. We assert to the Islamic Nation [all Muslims worldwide] that we stand by the side of our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the American and Iranian conspiracy and their agents of the apostate Gulf rulers.”

The statement goes on to offer various bits of non-rocket-science tactical advice to the Islamic State – watch out for spies, don’t assume electronic communications are unmonitored, digging trenches can help protect against the impact of shelling (thanks General Pershing). While I can’t generally vouch for the journalistic practices of the Yemen Times (on which I’m relying for the AQAP statement), this seems a simple direct quotation.

Why does this matter? A few reasons potentially. First, core Al Qaeda (led by Al Zawahiri) has condemned ISIL/the Islamic State and dissociated itself with the group. It is unclear how core Al Qaeda will take this move by one of its branches to voice its support for ISIL, but if AQAP intends to signal a real move away from core Al Qaeda, it would be another significant weakening of Al Qaeda’s regional and international capabilities (and a significant boost to ISIL). Second, AQAP has long been understood by the United States as a force “associated with” Al Qaeda for purposes of coverage by the statutory AUMF (authorizing the President to use force – targeting, detention, etc. – against those groups that attacked us on 9/11). If AQAP is moving to break its association with core Al Qaeda, the statutory argument that AQAP remains one of groups Congress meant to authorize force against in 2001 becomes much weaker. Given that the United States has reportedly continued to conduct targeting operations against AQAP forces in Yemen, this poses a potentially significant legal wrinkle in administration arguments that it enjoys statutory authorization for those operations. On the other hand, it would strengthen any case the administration might make to Congress for new authority to use force against ISIL and its associates. Will the administration seek such new congressional authority, particularly when the War Powers Act 60-90 day clock runs on current U.S. operations in Iraq (after which the President is required to seek congressional authorization)? Stay tuned.