Author Archive for
Chris Borgen

Can Crimea Secede by Referendum?

by Chris Borgen

As Julian mentioned, the Crimean parliament is attempting to achieve the secession of Crimea through the use of a parliamentary vote and a referendum. More legal rhetoric in the midst of political crisis. Back in 2007 and 2008, Russia, the U.S. and the EU used quasi-legal arguments to try to explain why one could support the independence of Kosovo, but not South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or vice versa. It looks like a new iteration of this debate is starting. According to CNN:

lawmakers in Crimea voted in favor of leaving the country for Russia and putting it to a regional vote in 10 days.

It’s an act that drew widespread condemnation, with Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk calling the effort to hold such a referendum “an illegitimate decision.”

“Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine,” he said.

The legal issue here is really one of Ukrainian Constitutional law more than of international law, because, as it is generally understood, there is no right to secede under international law. Under international law, a secession is neither a right nor necessarily illegal. It is treated as a fact: a secession either was successful, it was not, or it is still being contested.

There is, however, a right to self-determination, which is understood to be, for communities that are not colonies and are within existing states, meaningful political participation and the pursuit of economic, social and cultural development under the auspices of that existing state, in this case Ukraine.  This conception of internal self-determination makes self-determination closely related to the respect of minority rights and it does not include a right to dismember an existing state. Furthermore, modern views of self-determination also recognize the “federalist” option of allowing a certain level of cultural or political autonomy as a means to satisfy the norm of self-determination. Crimea is already an autonomous republic within Ukraine; more on that in a minute.

Nor does the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence under international law recognize an international right of secession. It side-stepped the question of whether there is a right to secede under international law and framed the legal issue as one of domestic law. It was an advisory opinion that gave very little advice.

If the recent ICJ opinion does not provide much guidance, the tradition of state practice over the longer term does. The international community has not given much legal weight to referenda such as these. Back in the interwar period the Aaland Islands attempted to use a referendum to secede from Finland. In that case, an international commission of jurists brought in to assess the situation for the League of Nations found that there is no right of national groups to separate by the simple expression of a wish. And, particularly relevant today, the ability to choose secession by plebiscite must be granted by the state itself, that is, Ukraine. Otherwise, such a formulation would infringe upon the sovereign right of states. (See the Report of the International Committee of Jurists Entrusted by the Council of the League of Nations with the Task of Giving an Advisory Opinion upon the Legal Aspects of the Aaland Islands Question, League of Nations Off. J., Spec. Supp, No. 3, at 5-10 (1920)).

We have seen more recent examples of referenda, such as when Transnistria tried to use a plebiscite to claim independence from Moldova and possible unification with Russia. It received no support from the international community for that claim. (This tactical use of referenda seems to be used time and again by secessionist groups supported by Russia.)

It is important to keep in mind that the whole population of Ukraine has a right of self-determination, as well, and that includes the right not to have their country be torn asunder either by a local referendum and/or external military intervention.

The only place that could confer a right to Crimea to leave by referendum is the Ukrainian Constitution. As far as I can see, there is nothing there conferring the power to secede by referendum. Title X of the Ukrainian Constitution (revised link) concerns the Autonomous Republic of Crimea; there is no mention of secession by act of regional parliament or by local referendum.

Even the Constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea defers to the Ukrainian Constitution. Article 1 of the Crimean Constitution states:

The Autonomous Republic of Crimea shall be an integral part of Ukraine and it shall solve, within the powers conferred upon it by the Constitution of Ukraine, any and all matters coming within its terms of reference.

The Autonomous Republic of Crimea shall also exercise any and all powers as may be delegated to it by Ukrainian laws pursuant to the Constitution of Ukraine.

By the way, as I understand it (and, again, I invite any readers with particular knowledge in this area to comment), the term “autonomous republic” had a specific meaning in the old Soviet constitutional law.  Under the Soviet constitution, there were “union republics” and “autonomous republics.” Union republics had the highest form of sovereignty within the USSR. When the USSR dissolved, the Union republics such as Russia, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine became new sovereign states. The autonomous republics did not have that level of sovereignty; they were subsidiary entities.

I note that Russia has within it its own autonomous regions and republics. Yet, I see nothing indicating that they believe those entities can voluntarily secede from Russia.

Words like “self-determination” are rhetorically persuasive when kept vague but they also have actual legal meaning. One needs to be careful about setting up unreasonable expectations by claiming certain results (such as secession) as a matter of right, when no such right exists.

Such use of legal rhetoric does not help resolve conflicts; it only makes some people more intransigent and the conflict more intractable.

Who Speaks for Ukraine?

by Chris Borgen

[Expanding and moving this up from the comments section of my previous post.]

In a comment to the previous post, reader “Non liquet” noted that:

The UN Security Council Meeting was interesting in this regard today. Reportedly, the Russian Ambassador to the UN stated he received a letter from the former President of Ukraine dated 1 March requesting intervention of the Russian army in Ukraine.
It seems that the Russians believe they need to frame their own arguments regarding intervention with at least a fig leaf of international law.

“Non liquet” also linked to this Yahoo News article, which reported that:

“The country has plunged into chaos and anarchy,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin read from an unofficial translation of the letter while speaking to reporters after an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. “The country is in the grip of outright terror and violence driven by the West.”

“People are persecuted on political and language grounds,” he read. “In this context, I appeal to the President of Russia Vladimir V. Putin to use the armed forces of the Russian Federation to re-establish the rule of law, peace, order, stability and to protect the people of Ukraine.”

“Non liquet” makes a good point that this is an attempt at a legal fig leaf: arguing that any Russian intervention is not an invasion, but rather a lawful response to a request for assistance by a  government.

But this is predicated on the idea that Yanukovich was empowered to ask for Russian assistance and military intervention. And thus we have the question of where is the actual government of Ukraine and the related legal issue of the recognition of governments.

In a U.S. State Department press conference this past Friday, the spokesperson said:

We are in the same place we have been in, which is that we don’t – we believe that Yanukovych has lost his legitimacy as he abdicated his responsibilities. As you know, he left Ukraine – or left Kyiv, and he has left a vacuum of leadership. So we continue to believe that he’s lost legitimacy and our focus remains on the path forward.

I take that as an indication that the the U.S. government would not take any further statements or actions by Yanukovich as being actions of the government of Ukraine, in part because the Yanukovich regime has fled and no longer has effective control of the country.

Russia, clearly, disagrees… (Continue reading)

The Crimea, Compliance, and the Constraint of International Law

by Chris Borgen

[I ended my previous post stating that I would next consider the options available to Russia, Ukraine, the EU, and the U.S. But then this conversation started… I’ll come back to the “next steps” question in a following post.]

Julian, Eric Posner, and others look to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its takeover of Crimea and see the limits of international law.  But, even in this case, international law and legal rhetoric play a broader, and perhaps more subtle, role in foreign policy than being a brick wall blocking invading armies. (And nowadays brick walls don’t work too well, either.)

Yes, there are the ongoing difficulties of enforcement in a pluralist international community (and, as Peter notes, there are also significant enforcement and compliance problems in domestic societies). But international law and legal discourse also frame expectations and viable policy options in such a way that can have greater long-term constraints on state practice than may be appreciated by international legal skeptics. However, even for this constraint to work, there still needs to be political will to enforce legal rules. And here I think we are all in agreement.

As I mentioned in my previous post, and in various other posts, Russia (and states, in general) cloaks its actions in “law talk” to foster a reputations of being a lawful actor, even-or perhaps especially-when it is not. (Andrew Guzman has written extensively on the role of reputation as a prod towards compliance to international rules. See Andrew T. Guzman, ‘Reputation and International Law,’ 34 Ga J Intl & Comp L 379 (2006).)  How states and other actors use language—what are the bounds of “self-defense,” when may a state legally intervene, what is “self-determination,” and so on—plays an essential role in defining expectations of how states and others will act.  How they use these terms inform other actors as to which arguments may or may not be made legitimately.

This is especially powerful in international law. Regardless as to whether Russia (or any other state) uses legal rhetoric, but especially when it does, it becomes bound-up by the expectation of legal compliance in general.  Invoke the law, get bound by the law.

Yet, just as the lack of a single sovereign means that enforcement is difficult, the pluralist nature of international law means that in most cases there is no final interpreter of what law is. Moreso than the ICJ, the most important interpreters of international law are the states themselves. Their interpretations are in part based on their short-term interests, but also on their long term concerns. These interpretations, in turn, affect international relations. Politics affects international law, which then affects politics, and so on.

International law has thus become a consensual vocabulary and grammar for how states talk about international relations. In short, how we talk about terms like “self-defense” can affect legal substance of what “self-defense” is. Legal rhetoric can frame policy options.

While Eric and Julian focused on the inability of international law to stop Russia from sending troops into Crimea, it is important to keep in mind that the use of force issue is embedded in a much bigger dialogue about the future of Ukraine… (Continue Reading)

Russia’s Intervention in Ukraine: Legal Rhetoric and Military Tactics

by Chris Borgen

Saturday began with reports that Russia had seemingly used private security contractors to take control of the airport in Simferopol, Crimea. Then reports (like this one from CNN) of President Putin requesting from Russia’s Parliament an authorization to use military force in Ukraine because of “threats to the lives of Russian citizens and Russian military personnel based in the southern Crimean region.” Grigory Karasin, Putin’s official representative in the upper house of the Russian parliament, told the Russian government-funded news outlet Russia Today that The approval, which the president will receive, does not literally mean that this right will be used promptly.”

But, less than a day later it was becoming increasingly clear that those weren’t contractors. And Putin hadn’t been waiting. The New York Times:

Russian troops stripped of identifying insignia but using military vehicles bearing the license plates of Russia’s Black Sea force swarmed the major thoroughfares of Crimea, encircled government buildings, closed the main airport and seized communication hubs, solidifying what began on Friday as a covert effort to control the largely pro-Russian region.

So, why is Russia militarily intervening in Ukraine?  The quasi-legal arguments coming from Russia on Saturday  were the same basic arguments that Russia used in justifying its military intervention in Georgia in 2008. In that case, Russia argued that it was acting as a guarantor of peace in the region and had intervened to protect both South Ossetian civilians, Russian nationals, as well as the defense of its military units that were already in South Ossetia.

As for its actions in Ukraine, the reference to the defense  of the Russian forces in Sevastopol was probably meant to argue that Russia was not in violation of the Budapest Memorandum which states in paragraph 2:

The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

[Emphasis added.] I don’t think anything that has occurred in Ukraine rises to the point of Russia have a claim to Article 51 self-defense, but at this point, this isn’t about adjudicating claims, the Russian strategy is about misdirection and wrapping what it does do in a mantle of (seeming) legality. Well, not so much a mantle as a fig leaf.

Consequently, given the centrality of the norm of non-intervention, the self-defense argument sounds weak to my ears. But consider how the situation in Ukraine is being reported by the Russian-government  funded news source, Russia Today:

The move is aimed to settle the turmoil in the split country.

The upper house of the Russian parliament has voted in favor of sending troops to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which would ensure peace and order in the region “until the socio-political situation in the country is stabilized.

…The common notion was that since the power was seized in Kiev, the situation has only been deteriorating with radical nationalists rapidly coming to power and threatening the lives of those opposing their actions, most notably the Russian citizens living in Ukraine.

The developments follow an appeal by the Prime Minister of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, who requested that Russia to help cope with the crisis and ensure “peace and calm” in the region.

Russia as stabilizing force, reacting to a “deteriorating” situation in a “split country” where “radical nationalists” are threatening the lives of Russian citizens.  And this is in response to a request from the Prime Minister of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Keep your eye on increasing references to Crimea’s autonomy.

As in the Georgian intervention, Putin focuses the need to protect Russian nationals and the importance of self-defense of Russian troops. But, as mentioned above, I have seen no credible reports that either the Russian naval base in Sevastopol or the majority ethnic Russian population of Crimea was ever threatened by the Ukrainian government.

So why intervene now? Perhaps more relevant to the actual reason for Russia threatening to act at this point is the February 27 announcement by the new Ukrainian government of its interest in signing the Association Agreement with the EU that President Yanukovich refused to sign at the last minute, triggering the unrest that has convulsed Ukraine. Russia had previously mentioned the issue of secessionism, before there was even any unrest, in the run-up to the EU’s Vilnius summit, when Ukraine was originally supposed to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. At that time, back in September, Russian politicians issued warnings that if Ukraine does not reject the EU association program, it would run the risk of Russia supporting the partitioning of  Ukraine to support Russian nationals there. Civil unrest was not at issue then, only Ukraine agreeing to sign the Association Agreement.  While Yanukovich actively courted Putin, and ultimately set aside signing the Association Agreement, Putin as of this past week was facing an interim government in Kiev with which he had no easy political levers to pull. And they said they wanted to associate with the EU. So, military intervention as an extension of politics.

What we saw on these last couple of days was one more example of Russia actively using legal rhetoric as part of its politico-military strategy. This “law talk” does have two potential effects: (a) it makes arguments to which other countries in the international community attempt to respond,  and (b) it reassures the Russian public of the rightness of their cause.  News cycles on Saturday were focused on the Russian domestic process of Putin seeking an authorization to use force and the international discussions and debates over the legitimacy of Russia using force unilaterally.

Meanwhile, there was some confusion about what was happening “on the ground.” Just who are those camo-wearing armed men? Locals? Contractors?  Oh, no. The Russian military.

This misdirection and confusion may be Russia’s third reason for using legal rhetoric in this case. Putin is allegedly an avid chess player. This was a lesson in using legal rhetoric as a feint, while the real action was elsewhere on the board.  You only grasped the new situation once the pieces were already in place.  But, while this was a tactically deft set-piece using coordinated law talk and military force, international law has a way constraining actions when and where people least expect it.  The efficacy of Putin’s longer-term strategy remains to be seen. Of course, this depends on Russia’s goal.

Putin would doubtlessly most desire Ukraine to turn its back on the EU and join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. Given the popular protests of the recent weeks, that is an all but impossible at this point. Short of that, Russia could attempt to impede Ukrainian association with the EU and remain a necessary party in any discussion of Ukraine’s future. So what might be  Russia’s next moves? And what may be the roles of international legal argument and international institutions in the strategies of Russia, Ukraine, the EU, and the U.S.?

I will consider these questions in my next post.

The Cossacks: A Legal Primer

by Chris Borgen

The recent altercation between members of Pussy Riot and Cossack militia that was caught on video is a red flag signalling a broader issue in the Russian Federation: the resurgent power of the Cossacks and their relation to the Russian state, especially to keep politically-disfavored groups in check.

But who are the Cossacks?  A paramilitary organization? A political party? An ethnic group? And what are they doing at the Sochi Olympics?  This post will try to explain a little about who the Cossacks are, their role in Russia today, and the legal implications for human rights, minority rights in particular, and the use of state power.

The word “Cossack” summons for many images of mustachioed horsemen with bearskin hats. But, as one CNN report put it, “the Cossacks have long symbolized rebellion and military might in Western and Southern Russia and Ukraine.” Today’s Cossack organizations provide contracted-for security services for Russian regional governments.  Aleksandr Tkachev, the governor of Russia’s Krasnodar region, in which Sochi is located, has been at the forefront of contracting with the Cossacks (although, as I’ll explain below, this has been supported from the Presidency on down). About 400 Cossacks are being used as security in Sochi. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

As for the utility of  having Cossacks–a non-state (or perhaps quasi-governmental) entity–provide security services, the official line seems to be that Cossacks will have greater leeway for action. CNN again:

“What you cannot do, a Cossack can,” Krasnodar Gov. Aleksandr Tkachev explained to local police.

His comments sparked an outcry from Sochi natives, minorities and migrants. Analysts say it is not a coincidence that the Cossacks’ revival is taking place as nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise in Russia.

[Emphasis added.]

The Pussy Riot incident in Sochi is simply the most obvious example of a larger trend that could have important implications for the rule of law in Russia and in former Soviet republics. But before looking at the current situation in greater detail, some history and context is needed…

(Continue Reading)

Ukraine: Background, Sanctions, and the Sword of Damocles

by Chris Borgen

The BBC is reporting that dozens of people have died today in new fighting between police and protestors in Ukraine.  For a background to what is underlying the protests, see these posts concerning the struggle over the norms that will define Ukraine,  how Ukraine’s domestic disputes interact with Russian and European regional strategies, and the significance of the eastward spread of the protests and Russia’s technique of push-back against the norm-based arguments of the EU.

Some of these themes are echoed in the BBC report:

Ukraine seems be caught in a modern “Great Game”. Vladimir Putin wants to make Russia a global economic player, rivalling China, the US and EU. To that end he is creating a customs union with other countries and sees Ukraine as a vital and natural element in that – not least because of the countries’ deep cultural and historical ties.

The EU says assimilation and eventual membership could be worth billions of euros to Ukraine, modernising its economy and giving it access to the single market. It also wants to reverse what it sees as damaging infringements on democracy and human rights in Ukraine.

Many Ukrainians in the east, working in heavy industry that supplies Russian markets, are fearful of losing their jobs if Kiev throws in its lot with Brussels. But many in the west want the prosperity and the rule of law they believe the EU would bring. They point out that while Ukraine had a bigger GDP than Poland in 1990, Poland’s economy is now nearly three times larger.

While the immediate issue in the streets of Kiev is an end to the violence, the medium-term Western response may be sanctions against Ukraine, particularly targeting the assets of President Yanukovich and his allies.

But, hanging over all of this like the sword of Damocles is the concern over the stability of the Ukrainian state. The previous Opinio Juris posts, the BBC report linked-to above, and others have noted the sharp electoral and linguistic (Ukraine-speaking/ Russian speaking) divide between western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine. Some have voiced concern that Ukraine faces a possible civil war or a break-up of the country.  Edward Lucas of The Economist has written in an op-ed in today’s (February 20) Telegraph:

Perhaps the authorities will decide that they cannot crush the protesters and will draw back, meaning months of tension, jitters and uncertainty. Even then, Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been shattered, perhaps fatally. In the west, government buildings have been set ablaze. The region – the old Austro-Hungarian Galicia – was the site of a decade-long insurrection post-war against Soviet rule. If pro-Moscow authorities in Kiev try to crack down there, civil war looms…

Equally worrying is Crimea – site of the Charge of the Light Brigade 160 years ago – which could now be the flashpoint for another conflict with Russia, with far more devastating effects. The region is on the verge of declaring independence from Kiev (a move likely to prompt Russian intervention to protect the separatist statelet).

The BBC report sounds a more hopeful note:

Some commentators suggest this shows the country is liable to split violently across the middle. But others say this is unlikely – and that many in the east still identify as Ukrainians, even if they speak Russian.

As I mentioned in my previous post on Ukraine, the answer to the question of whether or not there is civil war or secession, depends in part on what the protestors in the eastern part of the country are protesting about.  If they are willing to continue on the path to closer integration with the EU and set aside closer integration with Russia, then the strand of hair keeps the sword suspended. If the Ukrainians in the east just want Yanukovich out, but still want to avert integration with the EU and increase integration with Russia, then the strand doesn’t necessarily break, but it does fray, as the normative conflict over the future of Ukraine will persist.

But while the question of civil war and secession depends in part on the severity of normative friction in Ukraine, that is not the only determinant. Also important is what role Russia will play in either further exacerbating the conflict or finding a peaceful solution. In September, Russia raised the specter of secessionism in Ukraine, specifically linking it to Ukraine’s signing the EU Association Agreement. Russia actively supports secessionist movements in Moldova and Georgia, two other countries seeking closer relations with the EU. Whether President Putin believes that preventing Ukraine from  signing an Association Agreement with the EU is important enough to push that country to war remains to be seen.

The issue for today is ending the violence in the streets of Kiev. But that is the first step in a long road to finding stability in Ukraine.

Ukraine: Popular Protests, Human Rights Reports, and the Push and Pull of Normative Competition

by Chris Borgen

Following up on my earlier posts on the normative aspects of the struggle concerning Ukraine and other former Soviet countries (1, 2, 3) in the run-up to, and the aftermath of, the EU’s November summit in Vilnius, where Ukraine had been expected to sign an Association Agreement with the EU.  However, the Yanukovich regime backed out at the last minute. I want to focus on recent developments in what analysts are calling the “post-Vilnius” atmosphere and what they reflect about how states and citizens compete over norms.

First, there is the spread of protests from the relatively  pro-EU western Ukraine into the relatively pro-Russia eastern Ukraine.  Electoral maps of Ukraine (1, 2) show the ideological division and why Ukraine is an example of what I’ve called a systemic borderland.  The fact that the anti-government protests moving eastward across the map may be a sign of an increasing tilt towards following the original path of the government in seeking closer association with the EU.  But it also may be nothing more that the populace being tired and angry of the political gridlock and motivated by pictures of anti-protestor violence in the western cities. In this latter scenario, the citizens in eastern Ukraine still want to be more closely tied with Russia, they are just sick of their government brutalizing their own people, for whatever the reason. News reports about protests are one thing, but understanding why people are protesting is very important in situations concerning whether or not domestic norms are in play.

I haven’t seen any significant data on whether there is a deeper normative shift taking place or whether the eastern protests are primarily a reaction to offensive government tactics.

The second development of note is the broadening of the Russia/ EU tensions. The New York Times article on this issue from the January 28 online edition is well worth a full read. Here are a few key points related to the normative aspects of the post-Vilnius tensions:

The future of Ukraine and disagreements over how Russia and EU have approached this are the drivers of the current international bickering. (Keep in mind the domestic tensions are also between the Ukrainian citizens and their government over how the Ukrainian government reacted to protests.)  The international tensions stem from a concern about how Russia perceives its future, vis-à-vis Europe. From the Times:

Russia, [Michael Emerson, the former EU envoy to Moscow] said, needs to show that “all its talk about a ‘common European house’ from Lisbon to Vladivostok is not just a slogan and that Ukraine can be comfortable with both the E.U. and Russia.”

In short: is there one Europe or two?  Will Ukraine be a bridge uniting Europe or a border between two normatively distinct Europes?  A related issue is whether Russia even wants to explore deepening ties with the EU. The Times continues… (Continue Reading)

TED Talks, Placebo Politics, and the Work of International Lawyers

by Chris Borgen

I recently wrote a post that described the virtues of international lawyers thinking about the future and having an international law analog to “design fiction.” The main point being we as international lawyers are often so focused on historical examples, issues, and analogies that we need to spend more time considering the technological changes that are upon us and changing the world in which we live. A bit of tech futurism + international legal practice.

One of the best-known critiques of the profession considered the lack of imagination of the international legal profession. In 2001, Martti Koskeniemi wrote in The Gentle Civilizer of Nations that international law had been depoliticized and marginalized “as graphically illustrated by its absence from the arenas of today’s globalization struggles” or it had become “a technical instrument for the advancement of the agendas of powerful interests or actors in the world scene.” (page 3) He further wrote that international lawyers “in the past 40 years have failed to use the imaginative opportunities that were available to them, and open horizons beyond academic and political instrumentalization, in favor of worn-out internationalist causes that form the mainstay of today’s commitment to international law.” (page 5)

Now, having made a plea for a little more tech futurism in international law, I note that Professor Benjamin Bratton has just done a great job of taking the form of technological futurism most prevalent in TED conferences and smacking it upside the head a few times. Moreover, he did this in a sharp TEDx presentation (and an essay in The Guardian). I highly recommend watching the full TED talk. There’s a lot there that also applies to international legal profession.

Bratton describes the problem of “placebo politics”—focusing on technology and innovation as the solution to major world problems, but not taking into account the difficult issues of history, economics, and politics that bedevil actual workable solutions. Problems become oversimplified. He wrote in The Guardian:

Perhaps the pinnacle of placebo politics and innovation was featured at TEDx San Diego in 2011. You’re familiar I assume with Kony2012, the social media campaign to stop war crimes in central Africa? So what happened here? Evangelical surfer bro goes to help kids in Africa. He makes a campy video explaining genocide to the cast of Glee. The world finds his public epiphany to be shallow to the point of self-delusion. The complex geopolitics of central Africa are left undisturbed. Kony’s still there. The end.

You see, when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation. If you are not cynical you should be sceptical. You should be as sceptical of placebo politics as you are placebo medicine.

For more on Kony 2012, see our discussion of it, here.

Bratton continued:

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.

Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.

[Emphases added.]

International lawyers can be (but aren’t always) good at the facts on the ground, the messy realities of history, politics, economics. If my previous post was about how lawyers need to keep a weather eye on how new tech is changing the present and shaping the future, then Bratton reminds us how the technologists need to appreciate the hard realities of the present and to remember the lessons of past. In other words, each of us has a lot to learn from the other.

China’s Crackdown on the Uighurs and the Case of Ilham Tohti

by Chris Borgen

The New York Times reports that  Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economics professor, has been arrested by Chinese authorities for separatism and inciting ethnic hatred.  A number of his students are also seemingly being detained. Tohti is just one person and, perhaps unfortunately for him, his case is emblematic of larger regional tensions in China and Central Asia.

The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, about 80% of whom live in the southwestern part of the Xianjian Uighur Autonomous Region in Western China.  Xianjiang is a geopolitical crossroads  and is also important for China’s energy policy, with significant oil and natural gas reserves.   Moreover, a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder on Xianjian and the Uighurs explains that

Xinjiang shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, some of which have minority communities of Uighurs. Because of the Uighurs’ cultural ties to its neighbors, China has been concerned that Central Asian states may back a separatist movement in Xinjiang.

The CFR also gives a précis of the last century:

Since the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Xinjiang has enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy. Turkic rebels in Xinjiang declared independence in October 1933 and created the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan (also known as the Republic of Uighuristan or the First East Turkistan Republic). The following year, the Republic of China reabsorbed the region. In 1944, factions within Xinjiang again declared independence, this time under the auspices of the Soviet Union, and created the Second East Turkistan Republic.

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took over the territory and declared it a Chinese province. In October 1955, Xinjiang became classified as an “autonomous region” of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese government in its white paper on Xinjiang says Xinjiang had been an “inseparable part of the unitary multi-ethnic Chinese nation” since the Western Han Dynasty, which ruled from 206 BCE to 24 AD.

And then we come to the story of Ilham Tohti, the economics professor.  The New York Times reports:

A vocal advocate for China’s embattled Uighur minority, Mr. Tohti, 44, was the rare public figure willing to speak to the foreign news media about the Chinese government’s policies in the vast region that borders several Central Asian countries. He was also the target of frequent harassment by the Chinese authorities, especially after he helped establish Uighurbiz.net, a website for news and commentary on Uighur issues.

There has been unrest in China’s west over the past year

(Continue Reading)

Hackers’ Bazaar: the President’s NSA Speech and the Market for Zero-Day Exploits

by Chris Borgen

All Things Considered ran an interview this past Monday with Alex Fowler, the chief privacy officer of Mozilla (developer of the Firefox web browser), stemming from a blog post Fowler had written critiquing President Obama’s speech last week concerning NSA activities. When asked about the “most glaring reform needs” that were not addressed in the President’s speech, Fowler said:

right now, we have a policy approach in Washington which is focused on not closing security holes but actually [on] hoarding information about security backdoors and holes in our public security standards and using those then to exploit them for intelligence needs. In our perspective, and I think certainly those of your listeners – as you think about the news related to Target data breaches and breaches with Snapchat and other common tools that we use every day – that what we really need is to actually focus on securing those communications platforms so that we can rely on them. And that we know that they are essentially protecting the communications that we’re engaged with.

This relates to the market for so-called “zero-day exploits,”  where the U.S. government pays hackers for information about holes in software security that its intelligence and law enforcement agencies can then use for surveillance. (The market for zero-day exploits is described in greater detail in this previous post.) The U.S. also pays the sellers of these exploits to keep the holes secret, not even warning the company that has the security hole, so that the exploit may remain useful to the U.S. government for as long as possible. Unfortunately, this also means it will remain open for criminal hackers who have also discovered the hole.

The injection of U.S. government funds has transformed a formerly loose, reputation-based, market into a lucrative global bazaar with governments driving up prices and the formation of firms with business models based on finding and selling exploits to the U.S. and other governments. Although cash-rich companies like Microsoft are responding by trying to out-bid state actors for information about zero day exploits in their own products, the money in the market has shifted from rewarding security into incentivizing insecurity

(Continue Reading)

Exploring International Law with Opinio Juris in 2013: Highways, Back Roads, and Uncharted Territories…

by Chris Borgen

There’s never a boring year in international law and 2013 turned out to be particularly eventful: Syria, major cases in front of national and international courts, a possible nuclear deal with Iran, and turmoil in Eastern Europe, Egypt, and South Sudan, to name but a few reasons.

This post is not an attempt to log all that we have written about on Opinio Juris this year. There’s just too much.  If any of these topics (or others) are of particular interest to you, you can use our search function to find the posts related to them.  Rather, this post is an idiosyncratic tour of some of the highways, back roads, and other territory that we traversed in 2013… (Continue Reading)

When the “Things to Come” are Already Here, Where Should International Law Go?

by Chris Borgen

Novelists such as H.G. Wells and George Orwell used fantastic fiction to describe their world as it was and to imagine, to use Wells’ title, “The Shape of Things to Come.” This past summer I wrote a post on what current science fiction can bring to international law. I mentioned various books that, though fantastic, illuminated topics related to international law, international relations, or national security.

Well, according to my tricorder, I mean, the newsfeed on my smartphone, this past week reality just got a little more science fictional with the revelations of US intelligence agents roaming around in World of Warcraft and Second Life, on the hunt for any terrorist who might be using these virtual worlds to communicate, plot, and even train.

For all the surprise this has elicited, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen virtual worlds (weirdly) interact with the very real world of international relations. There was that time that the Green Lantern Corps had to patrol a virtual refugee camp that had been built by human rights activists in Second Life’s Sudan in order to protect it from vandals.  Or that proprietary financial system owned by a Chinese company that would support financial transfers and investments across the economies of different virtual worlds.  Or that time that NATO commissioned an interactive model of Afghanistan for planning and training.  And then there’s the Swedish Embassy in Second Life

So, Snowden reveals that U.S. intelligence agents are posing as, let’s say, warrior elves and they’re running around on quests in World of Warcraft looking for al Qaeda organizers.  I’m just not all that surprised.  It is a bit amusing, though, that there ended up being so many intelligence officers online that they had to set up a “deconfliction group” to keep track of who was really whom, so that some Jack Ryan posing as a warrior elf wouldn’t report a wizard as being an al Qaeda operative when that wizard is actually a US agent posing as an al Qaeda operative who’s avatar is a wizard. This truly is “The Looking Glass War.”

These are the types of scenarios one sees in “political science fiction.” Sci-fi bloggers have remarked that the Snowden revelations are not that different from plot points in Neal Stephenson’s novel REAMDE, one of the books I mentioned in my post this summer.  And another author that I wrote about, Charles Stross, has decided to not write the third book in his near future cybercrime trilogy because the present is already arriving at his imagined future. Here’s how Stross put it:

At this point, I’m clutching my head. “Halting State” wasn’t intended to be predictive when I started writing it in 2006. Trouble is, about the only parts that haven’t happened yet are Scottish Independence and the use of actual quantum computers for cracking public key encryption (and there’s a big fat question mark over the latter—what else are the NSA up to?).

I’m throwing in the towel.…<snip> …The science fictional universe of “Halting State” and “Rule 34″ is teetering on the edge of turning into reality. Meanwhile, the financial crisis of 2007 forced me back to the drawing board for “Rule 34″; the Snowden revelations have systematically trashed all my ideas for the third book.

Our colleagues in the world of architecture and design have “design fiction”: films and websites devoted to as-yet non-existent objects as a means of thinking about the possibilities of design and engineering and their relationship to society.  Here are three very different examples (noted by Tobias Revell in the previous link): “New Mumbai,” “Microsoft’s Productivity Future Vision,” and “Post CyberWar.”

As lawyers, we spend much of our time looking at precedent, at the lessons of history.  We cannot stop doing that, as history is the great teacher. But we also have to remember that with every passing second, the future arrives. And, like the writers, the designers, the engineers, and the architects, we have to imagine what things may come, and how our work may shape the future and how the future may shape our work.

Because law is itself a disruptive technology.