Author: Edward Swaine

Most readers are probably keenly familiar with International Law Reporter, the brainchild of Professor Jacob Katz Cogan (Cincinnati).  For those not aware, ILR provides notices of scholarship, conferences, calls for papers, and the like -- and it's available in RSS feeds and via Twitter.  (There's even a tip jar!)  It's invaluable for anyone in international law and, I expect, anyone...

There are lots of initial takes on the legality of the Syria strike.  (I see, just now, a great compendium of short takes at Just Security.)  Some ask for a legal justification, and other experts are holding (for a bit) until one is proffered.  As the posts below by Deborah Pearlstein and Julian Ku helpfully indicate, one thing to watch for is assumed or disputed equivalencies between the positions of the United States as it contemplated these questions in 2013 and as it now confronts them. Other unfolding differences, naturally, include the reactions of other states and of the U.S. Congress. In addition, watch for explicit or implicit claims about the relationship between international law and U.S. domestic law.  International lawyers are free to ignore the latter.  Thus, for example, Marko Milanovic (via EJIL:Talk!) concludes that the strike was “clearly illegal” under international law, but ventures no particular position on U.S. law.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with the rest of the analysis, focusing on this one question is entirely proper, since a violation of international use of force principles does not depend on whether domestic law is satisfied (and it would be very bad if it did).  Maybe, but only maybe, constitutional lawyers can reciprocate by ignoring international law.  For example, Jack Goldsmith (via Lawfare) largely does, though in his case it could be because he confines himself to looking at the issue of constitutionality through the lens of the Office of Legal Counsel’s 2011 Libya opinion, which did not even use the term “international law” at all.  (It did define promoting the credibility and effectiveness of Security Council resolutions as part of the “national interest” inquiry, but that related only indirectly and partially to international law.)  However, as indicated below, and unlike the international law perspective, this runs the risk of offering an incomplete analysis even as to the domestic law perspective. For those opining about both international law and U.S. domestic law, the ground is treacherous. The safer course, usually, is simply to assume for purposes of discussion that the legal constraints are independent and potentially sufficient.  Thus, for example, John Bellinger (via Lawfare) states that legality under U.S. law is dependent on the scope of Article II, and that as a matter of international law, the United States was lacking “clear authority.”  In contrast, however, Marty Lederman (via Just Security) concludes that the United States is “probably” violating international law, and “therefore” violating U.S. law.  Both have expertise and views that go far beyond these posts.  But one thing that stands out is how they hedge on legality, relative at least to non-U.S. views.  I don’t think that’s due to nationality.  It also reflects complicating assumptions about the right analytical approach entailed by grappling with the two questions, as might too a more recent post by Harold Koh (via Just Security).

My earlier Brexit post noted the emerging rigidity of the United Kingdom’s position that its Article 50 notice was irrevocable – not just politically, but to all appearances, also legally.  As the post noted, that evolution has taken place notwithstanding indications that the UK once perceived itself to have the liberty to withdraw that notice.  There are downsides to this new position, particularly if one thinks that Brexit is a bad idea and that history (and the British public) will come to judge it a mistake.  It has also not been well explained, and coverage of the decision has obscured whether the UK is politically or legally committed to this course. Still, the psychology is one familiar to international lawyers, in that the UK is asserting its sovereign authority to bind itself to the mast . . . just in this case, the mast may not be one sailing past a dangerous island and into oceans of multilateral commitment, but rather one that the UK is busy scuttling and directing toward Davy Jones' locker. The EU, however, is joining the UK in obscurity.  In a recent press release, the Commission asked and answered the question:
Once triggered, can Article 50 be revoked? It is up to the United Kingdom to trigger Article 50. But once triggered, it cannot be unilaterally reversed. Notification is a point of no return. Article 50 does not provide for the unilateral withdrawal of notification.
I do not think the irrevocability position is right, for reasons alluded to very briefly in the prior post, and persuasively elaborated in a timely paper by Aurel Sari that has since been brought to my attention. I want here to discuss narrower questions.  First, as with the UK, the EU’s present view is not necessarily the one it has previously had; second, however restrictive both their understandings, there is a potential, meaningful difference, since the EU view is not exactly one of irrevocability.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May had hand-delivered to Brussels—via a black Jaguar, taking a secret route!—a notice “in accordance with Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union of the United Kingdom's intention to withdraw from the European Union.”  Brexit is happening, even if, pending negotiations, it has not yet happened. Must it?  Most Brexit questions are political, or raise questions of UK or EU law, but one interesting international law issue is the stickiness of notice under Article 50—whether (legally speaking) the UK’s notice of withdrawal is irrevocable. This issue has grown steadily murkier, but now it’s more relevant than ever, and the UK should make its views clearer.

[Ed Swaine is Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School] Larry Helfer is the perfect author for a chapter on the topic of treaty flexibility mechanisms: he writes from both theoretical and empirical perspectives, has a wide range of substantive expertise (including in human rights and trade, two fields that are central to this topic), and has a penetrating and remarkably clear style of analysis.  He deliberately provokes a number of questions in his chapter and post; because I’m conscious that blog readers themselves have numerous “exit” options, like closing this tab, I will try to be brief and touch on only a few. This topic includes a wide variety of behaviors – reservations, denunciations, suspension, differentiated treatment, amendment, withdrawal, and so forth – and one set of issues concerns nomenclature and taxonomy.  Larry has a state-of-the-art table in his chapter laying out and sorting the flexibility options.  Personally, I have never been happy with describing certain formal flexibility mechanisms (those involving temporary relief from treaty obligations) as “escape” clauses, supposedly as distinct from “exit” clauses that entail permanent cessation of status as a treaty party.  Prisoners do not “escape” from Alcatraz with a view to returning; a word like “avoidance” better captures the idea in this context.  More generally, the categorization of flexibility mechanisms has certain routine difficulties – the basic problem of trying simultaneously to sort on when a state seeks flexibility and what its legal consequences are; conflicting tendencies both to include and exclude certain noncompliance acts as informal flexibility mechanisms; and an inherently unsatisfying distinction between so-called unilateral mechanisms (not always exploited in a completely autonomous fashion) and collective mechanisms (frequently, one suspects, prone to exploitation or capture by particular states).  Typology is rarely gripping, and I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that Larry’s chapter is focused on these questions or has unique difficulties with them.  However, they matter because we are concerned with the relationship among these mechanisms, principally in order to describe the choices states confront and make; he highlights this in his post as well.  In addition, beyond worrying whether these descriptions have formal integrity, we should also try to explore whether these are in fact the way state representatives think about the alternatives.  It might be the case, for example, that they focus predominately on collective rather than unilateral forms of flexibility, or informal rather than formal avenues, either of which might marginalize other kinds of inquiries. A second set of issues concerns the proper perspective on these questions. 

Thanks to Opinio Juris for hosting this discussion and to the editors of the Virginia Journal of International Law for their discerning taste in publishing such an excellent article. Duncan Hollis (who has published widely both on the international aspects of treaties and on their domestic significance, and so is expertly situated to address this question) and Joshua Newcomer (already publishing...

[Edward Swaine is an Associate Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School. ] The quick scorecard on Medellin is pretty simple: Texas wins, the ICJ loses, and the President loses. I have lots of reactions to what the opinions say about the ICJ, non-self-execution, and even comparative law, but let's just focus on this bottom line. The...