Dualism is Overrated – As is Monism: A Response to Julian Ku

by Odile Ammann and Benedikt Pirker

[Odile Ammann is a PhD candidate at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland and a visiting researcher at the University of Oxford. Benedikt Pirker is a Senior Lecturer (Maître d’enseignement et de recherche) at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, where he teaches and does research in international law and EU law.]

In his Opinio Juris blogpost of November 3, Julian Ku contends that “dualism may save the United Kingdom from Brexit.” To make this claim, he starts by emphasizing an alleged correlation between dualism and a State’s propensity to “violat[e] international law obligations by failing to enforce those obligations (usually treaties) domestically.” However, according to Ku, the decision of the High Court of Justice of England in Wales in Miller v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union of November 3 tells us otherwise, namely that dualism “makes it harder [for a State] to withdraw from [its] international obligations.” Ku places an emphasis on the High Court’s statement that while the conduct of foreign affairs (and more specifically “the making and unmaking of treaties”) is a prerogative of the Crown, the Crown cannot change domestic law when making use of these powers. More specifically, the Crown, in using these powers, “cannot without the intervention of Parliament confer rights on individuals or deprive individuals of rights” (Miller, paragraphs 32 and 33; see also para. 89).

We argue that, contrary to Julian Ku’s assessment, dualism is overrated – as is monism, for that matter. In other terms, the domestic procedure that governs the State’s withdrawal from its international obligations does not hinge on whether a State is monist or dualist. It may be equally difficult (or easy) for dualist States to withdraw from (or to violate) their international obligations as for monist States.

Our response has three parts. First, we show that Miller is not a case about dualism. Instead, it addresses the question of the domestic procedure that applies when the State terminates an international agreement. Secondly, neither dualism nor monism encourage (or hamper) the State’s termination of its international obligations. In a third step, we draw an example to Switzerland to demonstrate that monism creates a number of challenges, too, as regards the termination of international agreements and, more generally, State compliance with international law. We also highlight the fact that the Swiss law on the termination of treaties is similar to the procedure identified by the High Court in Miller. In short, neither monism nor dualism encourage or discourage a State’s termination of its international obligations.

I. Miller v. Secretary of State is not a case about dualism

Some passages of the High Court’s decision in Miller could indeed suggest that the case is about dualism. Besides stressing that 1. the Crown cannot, when exercising her prerogative powers to make or unmake treaties, unilaterally change domestic law (para. 32), the High Court notes that 2. domestic courts do not have the power to interpret international law, since “treaties […] are not self-executing,” (para. 33) and 3. that domestic courts cannot examine the legality of the Crown’s exercise of her prerogative powers (para. 33).

Only the second point is a consequence of dualism, however. The issue at stake in Miller does not pertain to the relationship between domestic law and international law, of which monism/dualism is only one aspect besides the issue of rank and direct effect (three distinct issues that are often conflated in practice). Nor is the question one of international law (e.g. the question of the UK’s right under international law to withdraw from the EU), as the Court rightly clarifies (para. 55 f). Rather, and as Aurel Sari’s response to Julian Ku’s post already convincingly suggests, the High Court’s decision is mainly concerned about determining the appropriate domestic procedure to trigger art. 50 of the Treaty on European Union – a procedure that does not hinge on whether a given State is monist or dualist, but rather on the domestic separation of powers.

Ku’s post is pointing at a conjunction of two facts: first, due to dualism, the United Kingdom’s treaty obligations need to be implemented by a domestic statute in order to be valid in the domestic legal order; second, under UK constitutional law, this domestic statute then takes on a life of its own, as the Crown cannot alter it unilaterally. This second point, however, is not a logical consequence of dualism. Dualism per se does not make it more difficult for a State to alter its international obligations. In monist States, domestic law may create similar hurdles, as the Swiss example shows (below, III.). 

II. Neither monism nor dualism allow inferences as to the termination of international obligations under domestic law

As Ku notes, most of us have, at some point, read that dualism encourages violations of international law, while monism is conducive to compliance with international law. However, such phrases spark confusion instead of providing clarity, and they do so for a number of reasons.

To begin with, the notion of “compliance with international law” is indeterminate, especially given the absence of an international court with general jurisdiction that could clarify what States’ international obligations require in practice. Second, monism and dualism pertain to the conditions under which an international legal obligation takes effect in the domestic legal order, but have no bearing on whether State organs 1. actually apply international law (or, in dualist States, the version thereof transposed into domestic law), 2. interpret domestic law in conformity with international law, so as to avoid normative conflicts, and 3. grant international law direct effect. Courts in monist States may be reluctant to apply international law, they may emphasize rather than downplay or avoid conflicts between domestic and international law, and they may refuse to grant international law direct effect – and vice versa. In other terms, monism or dualism should not be taken to mean more than they actually do. Thirdly, the distinction between monism and dualism is not an on-off-switch: rather, it allows for a range of intermediary forms, and whether a State is monist or dualist can vary depending on the norm, source and substantive area of international law that is at stake. One example is what Melissa Waters calls “creeping monism,” i.e. the tendency of some courts in dualist States to rely on international human rights treaties although these treaties have not been incorporated into domestic law.

Importantly, the fact that a State is dualist or monist allows no inference as to the domestic procedure that applies to the termination of international agreements. As a matter of fact, a dualist State may have an analogous procedure to a monist one, as is the case of the United Kingdom and Switzerland (below).

III. A Brief Comparison with Swiss Monism

Neither dualism nor monism have a bearing on the procedure through which States can enter into international legal obligations and withdraw from them under domestic law. Switzerland provides an illustration of this. It also shows that monism does not necessarily go along with compliance with international law (taking into account the fact that the notion of compliance leaves room for indeterminacy, see above, II.). Switzerland is a monist State: contrary to the United Kingdom, international treaties do not require to be transposed into Swiss law to have effect in the Swiss legal order.

First, the Swiss case illustrates that monism does not ensure compliance with international law. Under Swiss law, constitutional amendments must only respect “peremptory norms of international law”, while they can conflict with non-peremptory norms. This risk has materialized through a number of popular votes that have triggered constitutional amendments, while conflicting with some of Switzerland’s international obligations. Moreover, due to the special system of judicial and constitutional review in place in Switzerland, federal laws that conflict with international law must in principle be applied by the courts (art. 190 of the Swiss Constitution). The Swiss Federal Tribunal accepts that domestic laws enacted with full legislative intent to deviate from international obligations take precedence over such obligations (so-called Schubert practice), although the Tribunal has later created some exceptions to this rule, e.g. in the case of domestic laws conflicting with obligations of international human rights law or under the Swiss-EU Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons.

Second, monist and dualist States may have (at least in some respects) analogous laws as regards the domestic procedure to enter into international agreements. In Switzerland, for instance, the federal government has the competence to enter into some international treaties, considered to be “of limited scope” (art. 7a para. 2 and 3 of the Federal Government and Administration Organization Act, FGAO), without an intervention of the federal parliament. In spite of the fact that Switzerland is monist, this competence has proven controversial in some instances. One example pertains to the so-called “UBS-Agreement” of August 19, 2009, initially concluded by the federal government based on its independent powers. Shortly after the Swiss Federal Administrative Court had found that the treaty would have required the approval of the federal parliament, the parliament, in a somewhat awkward pirouette, approved the treaty a posteriori.

Moreover, and notwithstanding the monism of the Swiss legal order, the issue of which authority has the power to terminate international agreements remains unclear (see e.g. Blum/Nägeli/Peters (BNP); Keller/Balazs). Some authors argue that treaties of limited scope can be terminated unilaterally by the Swiss government, while a flexible approach with parliamentary approval is advocated fort he case of „important“ treaties (BNP, S. 542 f.). Other authors consider that parliamentary approval is always required in the context of treaty termination (see the references in Keller/Balazs, footnote 107).

The possibility of terminating international agreements is often raised in the Swiss political debate (see e.g. BNP, p. 552 with further references). Already in 1988, Swiss parliamentarian Hans Danioth requested the federal government to consider withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, and even as Switzerland was celebrating its 40th anniversary of ECHR ratification, some members of the federal government and of the federal parliament were still advocating withdrawal, even if their views were isolated. Swiss voters will soon be required to express their opinion on a proposed constitutional amendment based on which existing international agreements that conflict with the Swiss Constitution must be renegotiated or terminated. On the other hand, the question as to whether a specific international agreement should be terminated is rarely explicitly put to vote, presumably due to its political sensitivity and, hence, of its slight chances of succeeding at the ballot box. The practice of some political parties to avoid the issue of termination, while triggering votes that may eventually require a renegotiation of international agreements, is criticized by some as a way of misleading voters (see e.g. BNP, p. 557).

The Swiss popular vote of February 9, 2014 “against mass immigration” shows that in practice, dualist States like the UK face similar challenges as monist States. The vote led to a constitutional amendment pursuant to which immigration must be subjected to quantitative restrictions – a regulation that flies in the face of the Swiss-EU Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons. While a “Switzerleave” is not up for discussion given that Switzerland is not an EU member, the federal government has three months left to renegotiate its Agreement on Free Movement with the EU – a situation that British negotiators may find eerily familiar.

To conclude, the power of dualism to act as a safeguard against Brexit (or, more generally, against States withdrawing from their international obligations) is overrated – as is monism. What is decisive in this regard are the mechanisms in domestic law to anticipate and address conflicts between domestic and international law. In this respect (and despite the obvious differences that exist between their respective legal orders and the international obligations they have taken on), Switzerland and the UK might well have things to learn from one another in the course of the next few months.


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