06 Nov When Is a “Plain Meaning” Not Plain?
In my post on biological and chemical weapons yesterday, I rejected the idea that Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) “squarely appl[ies]” (Ralf Trapp) or “plainly applies” (Alex Whiting) to chemical and biological weapons by arguing that the drafters of the Rome Statute intended Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii), the war crime of “[e]mploying asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases,” to have precisely the kind of “special meaning” that Art. 31(4) of the VCLT requires us to take into account when interpreting that provision.
After the post went up, Alex and I had a heated but typically friendly exchange on Twitter concerning “plain meaning” treaty interpretation. Interested readers can start with this tweet. Our debate did not focus on the applicability of Art. 31(4) of the VCLT. Instead, we argued about whether simply reading the text of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) makes it plain that it criminalises chemical and biological weapons. Alex thinks it’s evident that it does; not surprisingly, I disagree.
The problem with the debate is both obvious and timeless: if two people disagree about the correct interpretation of a text, how do they determine whose interpretation is correct? Alex rightly rightly pointed out that we should not reject a particular “plain meaning” simply because one person disagrees with it; any such standard would deny the possibility of plain meaning altogether. (Which, to be clear, I’d be happy to do on other grounds, because I follow the neo-pragmatic approach to interpretation associated with Stanley Fish. See, for example, this fantastic essay.)
But if one person’s disagreement cannot render a “plain meaning” not plain, how many people is enough? Five? 10? 100? At some point disagreement over the meaning of a text has to negate the possibility of any particular interpretation being considered “plain.” Alex and I went around and around on this, and he finally advocated what is essentially a procedural solution to the problem: the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) is whatever the ICC’s judges ultimately say it is.
As a descriptive matter, Alex is absolutely correct. But unless we believe the ICC’s judges are legally infalliable — and I certainly don’t! — we have to accept the possibility that they could be wrong about the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii). So we are right back where we started: trying to determine how much disagreement over the interpretation of a text has to exist before we conclude the text has no plain meaning.
I have no easy answer. But I would still maintain that it strains credulity to believe that the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) indicates that it criminalises chemical and biological weapons. To see why, we don’t even have to return (as I think we should) to the drafting history of Art. 8. It is sufficient to note that a significant number of states still believe that Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) does not criminalise chemical or biological weapons. How do we know that? Because 14 states formally proposed amending Art. 8 to criminalise those weapons at the ICC’s Review Conference in 2010: Argentina, Belgium, Bolivia, Burundi, Cambodia, Cyprus, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Mexico, Romania, Samoa and Slovenia. Here, in relevant part, are the provisions the 14 states wanted to add to Art. 8(2)(b):
xxvii) Using the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment and means of delivery as defined by and in violation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, London, Moscow and Washington, 10 April 1972.
xxviii) Using chemical weapons or engaging in any military preparations to use chemical weapons as defined by and in violation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction, Paris, 13 January 1992.
These proposed amendments make no sense if the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) already criminalises chemical and biological weapons. So how can that interpretation be considered the “plain meaning,” given that at least 11% of the States Parties to the Rome Statute do not understand Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) in the supposedly plain manner? Surely such disagreement indicates that there is no “plain meaning” of the war crime.
Does that mean the 14 states are right? Of course not. Perhaps Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) really does criminalise chemical and biological weapons. All I’m saying is that we cannot reach that conclusion by looking to Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii)’s “plain meaning.” The meaning of the war crime is at best ambiguous or obscure.
But that, of course, is a critical realisation. Because it means that we have to look to the drafting history of the Rome Statute to determine the correct interpretation of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) even if we accept a plain-meaning approach to treaty interpretation. (Which we should not.) Here is Art. 32 of the VCLT:
Recourse may be had to supplementary means of interpretation, including the preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion, in order to confirm the meaning resulting from the application of article 31, or to determine the meaning when the interpretation according to article 31:
(a) Leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure.
Even though my understanding of the VCLT accords with Julian Davis Mortenson’s, I am willing to entertain the idea that the meaning of some provisions of the Rome Statute is so plain that we have no practical need to examine their drafting history. Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii), however, is not such a provision. Given the widespread disagreement among states concerning whether the war crime criminalises chemical and biological weapons, the best interpretation of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) is that it has no plain meaning.