Author Archive for
Julian Ku

Dear Secretary Tillerson (and the World Media): Qatar is NOT Under a “Blockade”

by Julian Ku

Longtime readers of this blog may have noticed that one of my pet peeves is the incorrect usage of international legal terms in public and diplomatic discourse.  Hence, Israel did NOT commit “piracy” during the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid despite lots of governments claiming otherwise.  Cuba is not under a “blockade” despite tons of Cuban government propaganda otherwise. So you can imagine my dismay when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued this statement yesterday calling the situation in Qatar a “blockade.”

We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar. There are humanitarian consequences to this blockade.

(Emphasis added). Global media is using the term  “blockade” as well.

I don’t doubt that Qatar is under severe economic pressure.  It is reported that all of Qatar’s neighbors in the Gulf have cut off air, land and sea trade with Qatar.  Saudi Arabia has blocked the only land border into Qatar, which is a peninsula.  But as powerful as these economic pressures are, they do NOT constitute a blockade as defined by international law.  As this definition from the Max Planck Institute Encyclopedia of Public Law explains:

A blockade is a belligerent operation to prevent vessels and/or aircraft of all nations, enemy and neutral from entering or exiting specified ports, airports, or coastal areas belonging to, occupied by, or under the control of an enemy nation.

There is no evidence, as far as I know, that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are preventing “vessels and/or aircraft of all nations” from entering Qatar ports.  Instead, the Gulf nations are simply preventing anyone in their territories from traveling to or trading with Qatar.  A blockade would mean that the Gulf nations actually used military force to interdict all shipping and flights into Qatar by any nation and through international waters.  Israel has essentially established such a blockade of the Gaza Strip, but that has not happened to Qatar (yet). Until that happens, there is no blockade.

Why is it so shocking that Secretary Tillerson did not recognize this legal distinction? Because the U.S. frequently engages in economic sanctions of the sort currently being imposed against Qatar.  The U.S. has either strict economic sanctions or full-scale embargoes on countries like North Korea, Cuba, and Iran.  Cuba in particular has tried to label the US embargo on it as a “blockade” even though the U.S. does not use military force to prevent other countries from trading with Cuba. The U.S. should not and cannot water down the legal definition of “blockade” without imperiling an crucial tool in its diplomatic toolbox.   Moreover, since “blockades” are traditionally seen as an “act of war,” they would probably constitute a “use of force” under Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter.  The U.S., more than any country, should want to maintain the legal right to impose embargoes.

So please, Secretary Tillerson, consult your many talented and knowledge State Department lawyers.  Qatar is NOT being blockaded, and the U.S. (of all countries) should avoid saying so.

Emailing Does Not Pass the Kiobel Test: US Court Dismisses ATS Case Against Anti-Gay Pastor

by Julian Ku

Distracted by #ComeyDay and other international crises, I missed this recent U.S. federal court decision in Sexual Minorities of Uganda v. Livelydismissing an Alien Tort Statute lawsuit on Kiobel extra-territoriality grounds.  While using unusually critical language to denounce U.S. pastor-defendant Scott Lively’s involvement in Uganda’s anti-homosexual laws and actions, the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts held:

…Defendant’s status as an American citizen and his physical presence in the United States is clearly not enough under controlling authority to support ATS extraterritorial jurisdiction. The sporadic trail of emails sent by Defendant to Uganda does not add enough to the record to demonstrate that Plaintiff’s claims “touch and concern the territory of the United States . . with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.” Kiobel, 133 S. Ct. at 1669.

What is notable about this case is that the same court and judge refused to dismiss this case on Kiobel grounds back in 2013 with largely the same allegations. The main difference with the result in 2017 seems to be that discovery revealed that Lively, the U.S. pastor, did not provide any

financial backing to the detestable campaign in Uganda, he directed no physical violence, he hired no employees, and he provided no supplies or other material support. His most significant efforts on behalf of the campaign occurred within Uganda: itself, when he appeared at conferences, meetings, and media events.

On these facts, this seems like the right result.  Kiobel requires something more than communications from the United States to “displace the presumption against extraterritoriality.” But caselaw continues to be a little muddy and I fully expect this to be appealed.

 

Actually, President Trump CAN Unilaterally Withdraw the U.S. From NATO

by Julian Ku

The estimable professor-pundit Daniel Drezner has a typically smart blogpost on President Trump’s refusal to affirm the U.S. commitment to Article 5’s collective defense provision of the North Atlantic Treaty.  I don’t have a problem with his views here, but I can’t help jumping in to correct this paragraph from his post:

So why is this such a big deal of a story? The United States is a member of NATO, which means that Article 5 is legally binding whether Trump says so out loud or not. Unlike NAFTA or the Paris climate treaty, I’ve been assured by smart lawyer types that Trump cannot unilaterally withdraw.

[Emphasis added].

Actually, as a matter of U.S. constitutional law, Drezner and his smart lawyer friends have things kind of backwards here, at least with respect to NAFTA and NATO. The broad consensus view is that the President has the unilateral authority to terminate a treaty pursuant to that treaty’s termination provisions or consistent with international law.  This means that as long as the President follows Article 13 of the North Atlantic Treaty — which requires the U.S. provide one year’s notice before termination — President Trump can terminate US membership in NATO without first getting consent from the Senate or the Congress as a whole.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on this question definitively, but it strongly hinted that the President has this power in its seminal 1979 Goldwater v. Carter decision refusing to require senatorial consent before President Carter’s termination of the U.S.-Republic of China (Taiwan) Mutual Defense Treaty.  The American Law Institute’s newly approved section on Treaties in the forthcoming Restatement (Fourth) on U.S. Foreign Relations Law explicitly endorses the President’s unilateral treaty termination power, and this was not even a change from the earlier Third Restatement.

Terminating NAFTA is the more complex problem, as John Yoo and I have argued here.  Although the President also has the power to terminate NAFTA’s international agreement status, he has to separately nullify the domestic legal effect of NAFTA. Some of that might be done via executive action, but it is our view that he will need another statute to completely eliminate all domestic legal effects of NAFTA.

It is also worth noting that the President’s unilateral termination power calls into question those who criticized President Obama for failing to submit the Paris Agreement to the Senate on the theory that this would have somehow insulated Paris from a unilateral President Trump termination.  In fact, President Trump could have terminated the Paris Agreement unilaterally, whether or not it was approved by the Senate.

None of this is meant to encourage or endorse any of President Trump’s actual or threatened treaty terminations.  But as a matter of U.S. constitutional law, there is no reason to doubt he can take the U.S. out of NATO, Paris, and many other international agreements.

Taiwan’s Constitutional Court Rules in Favor of Same-Sex Marriage, and Cites U.S. Supreme Court (But Not For Law)

by Julian Ku

Grand Justices of the Constitutional Court, Judiciary Yuan, Republic of China – Taiwan

In a first for Asia, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ruled today (with two dissents) that Taiwanese law limiting marriage to a man and a woman violated the Republic of China’s constitutional guarantee of “equality before the law.” (Taiwan is home to the exiled Republic of China government, and its constitution is an amended version of one adopted on Mainland China back in 1946).
I don’t claim to be an expert on the Taiwan-ROC Constitution.*  I also haven’t read the decision very carefully, and do not purport to offer any deep analysis of the decision here.  But to build off Anthea’s great post from Monday, I will note that the decision (in Chinese here)  cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.**  But it doesn’t cite Obergefell’s legal analysis on the relationship between same-sex marriage and equality, which actually is quite on point.  Rather, the Taiwan court cites Obergefell in footnote 1 as one of several sources for the proposition that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic. (In a somewhat ironic note, the decision also cite findings of the World Health Organization, whose governing body just recently excluded Taiwan from participating as an observer).

I think there are many good reasons to cite, or not cite, foreign court decisions when interpreting a domestic constitution. I can see the Taiwan-ROC Constitutional Court, which is still a relatively new institution, wanting to cite foreign authority to bolster the legitimacy of its decision.  But I can also see that the Court would want to make this decision as domestic as possible to ward off the very substantial domestic criticisms that are already being made of the results of this decision.  The Taiwan-ROC Court made a reasonable choice to cite the U.S. Supreme Court in a limited and non-legal way.  I don’t fault it (or the U.S. Supreme Court) for avoiding foreign and international legal authority.  No doubt there was a jurisprudential influence from the U.S. and other jurisdictions in this decision, but I wonder if it was in any way decisive.

There are, of course, international relations implications from this decision.  Taiwan, under the current sort-of-anti-China governing party, is carving an international image for itself as a socially progressive haven in a relatively socially conservative Asia.  This can’t hurt Taiwan as it continues to seek ways to maintain its separate identity from China in the eyes of U.S. and European elites. The mainland has a similar “equality before the law” provision in Article 33 of its Constitution as the one that is the main basis for the Taiwan court decision, but I wouldn’t count on any action on that front in the near future.

*But I did have noodles in Taipei with a member of the Taiwan Constitutional Court not two weeks ago and he gave me no clues about this pending decision.

**My original post actually got this wrong, claiming there was no citation at all. Sorry for the confusion. But my larger point stands.

American Law Institute Approves First Portions of Restatement on Foreign Relations Law (Fourth)

by Julian Ku

Big news (for international law nerds)! The full membership of the American Law Institute has approved the first three sections of the new Restatement of U.S. Foreign Relations Law (Fourth).  This is the first official change to the venerable Restatement (Third) that was approved by the ALI back in 1987.  Summaries of the changes to the newly approved sections on Jurisdiction, Treaties, and Sovereign Immunity are linked here.

The Restatements are supposed to “restate” the law in the United States.  But it is influential in shaping the law, especially in this area, since U.S. courts frequently cite the Restatement on questions of international law.  It is an important statement of where U.S. courts are, and will likely go, on questions of foreign relations and international law in the near future. As such, the Restatement should be interesting to non-US scholars as well.

The Restatement (Third) has been subjected to some pretty tough academic criticism over the years, but (from what I can recall), these three topics have not  been particularly controversial.  I am a member of the ALI and I have attended some of the meetings during this drafting process, but I haven’t been paying as much attention as I should have.

I will say that one general trend I have noticed in the new sections has been to cut back on statements in the comments of Restatement (Third) that may have gone beyond the caselaw at the time or no longer reflect current caselaw.  For instance, the new Restatement eliminates a comment in Restatement (Third) that suggested there are no subject-matter limitations on the treaty power (which itself departed from the Restatement (Second).  The Fourth Restatement says nothing about this point, which is probably the smart thing given there has been really no caselaw on this one way or the other from the Supreme Court or lower courts.

Having said that, I will note that Georgetown law professor Carlos Vazquez has already published a criticism of the newly approved sections on the self-execution doctrine.  I won’t go into his criticisms here, but they do suggest the new Restatement is unlikely to completely settle the continuing debate over the nature of this tricky doctrine.

There is a lot here to digest. At this point, I will simply salute the scholars who have made this project happen, all of whom I think we can count as prior contributors to and friends of the blog: Sarah Cleveland, Paul Stephan, Bill Dodge, Anthea Roberts, David Stewart, Ingrid Wuerth, Curt Bradley, and Ed Swaine. Of course, Duncan was also involved and I am sure other members of the OJ community.  There is more to do, of course, but what has been completed so far is a great achievement and one that will last for at least another thirty years, if we are lucky.

Why It Doesn’t Seem to Matter that the Syria Strikes Violated International Law

by Julian Ku

Over at Vox, I have published an essay fleshing out the thoughts I first published here on the legality of the recent U.S. cruise missile attacks on Syria and the international reaction to it.

President Donald Trump’s surprising decision to launch a cruise missile strike on Syria was sharply criticized by Russia as a “flagrant violation of international law.” While it might be tempting to dismiss this claim as mere Putinesque propaganda, on this question at least, Russia is almost certainly correct. In the view of most international lawyers, the US strike on Syria is a crystal-clear violation of the UN Charter. So why doesn’t anybody, except Russia and some international lawyers, seem to care?

The uncomfortable answer seems to be that, at least with respect to this question — can a state use military force against a regime that uses banned weaponry against citizens? — international law simply doesn’t matter very much. And this suits the United States and the Trump administration just fine.

Please read the whole thing. I am especially pleased with this line, drafted with the assistance of one of the very smart editors they have over there:

So the UN will not become an irrelevant bystander, but neither will it operate as the final authority on the US decision to use force. This may not be ideal, but one important lesson of the reaction to the Syria strikes is that we should all start getting used to this reduced role for the UN, and stop the unrealistic fetishization of Article 2(4).

Almost Everyone Agrees that the U.S. Strikes Against Syria are Illegal, Except for Most Governments

by Julian Ku

The blogosphere is now so fast that we can get an enormous sampling of expert opinion in a very short time. So within 24 hours of President Trump’s military strikes on Syria, we have already heard from former Bush State Department Legal Advisor John Bellinger, former Obama State Department Legal Advisors Harold Koh and Brian Egan, former DOJ officials and law profs Jack Goldsmith and Ryan Goodman, as well as numerous law profs and other experts including our very own Deborah Pearlstein and Edward Swaine. The bottom line: Almost everyone (except for Harold Koh) thinks the strikes violate the U.N. Charter and many think it also violates the U.S. Constitution.

Most of what I have to say I said in 2012-13 on this issue, but I am struck by one group of important actors who seem relatively untroubled by the “illegality” of the U.S. strikes under the UN Charter: states.  With the notable exception of the Russian government, very few states have come out to criticize the U.S. strikes as a violation of international law. No one is saying it is illegal, but it is striking how few are willing to say it is illegal.  I’ve gathered a few statements and links below.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

Q: Does China consider the missile strike on the Syrian airbase to be within the scope of international law? Or do you think it violates existing rules about intervention in other country’s sovereign territory?

A: The Chinese side has always stood for a political settlement of the Syrian issue. Under the current circumstances, we hope all parties can keep calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalating the tension.

The latest developments in Syria highlight once again the urgency of resolving the Syrian issue through political means. We call on all parties not to walk away from the process of political settlement.

 

France and Germany (President and Chancellor):

The joint statement by Mr Hollande and the German chancellor Angela Merkel said that “President Assad alone carries responsibility for these developments” with his “repeated use of chemical weapons and his crimes against his own people.”

United Kingdom Defence Minister:

The UK says it “fully supports” the US missile strike in Syria and has urged Russia to put more pressure on the Assad regime to end the civil war.

The US targeted an air base it says was responsible for a chemical attack which killed dozens of civilians.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the UK was not asked to take part but backed the “wholly appropriate” strike.

European Union, President of European Council:

“US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria.

Turkey, Deputy Foreign Minister:

TURKEY: NATO ally Turkey, which is a key player in the Syria conflict and has endured choppy relations with Washington recently, welcomed the strikes as “positive.” The deputy foreign minister added: “We believe that the Assad regime must be punished completely in the international arena.”

Turkey called for a no-fly zone in Syria in the wake of the US strike.

Japan, Prime Minister

JAPAN: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan “supports the US government’s resolve that it will never tolerate the spread and use of chemical weapons.”

This survey is not comprehensive and some large players, like India, have yet to weigh in.  But it seems only Russia and Iran have condemned the strikes vigorously.  The general support for the attacks in Europe, the Middle East, along withChina’s acquiescence, seems to show that many states are not very troubled by the violation of Article 2(4) most scholars think has occurred here.  Is this because it is a one-off attack? Or does it suggest Article 2(4) has very little pull with many foreign governments these days?

On the domestic US law front, FiveThirtyEight has counted 69 senators have already issued statements supporting the Syria Strikes and while there are critics on constitutional grounds, it doesn’t seem like close to a majority in Congress.

Of course, none of this means that the experts are wrong on the law. But it is at least worth noting the limited impact of the law so far on governmental actors, as the debate on the legality of the Syria Strikes continues.

The Syria Attacks: Haven’t We Had These Debates Already?

by Julian Ku

Reports of another horrific use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria seems to have affected President Trump. In comments today, President Trump said the chemical attacks against civilians “crossed a lot of lines for me” and changed the way he views Syria and leader Bashar al-Assad. Although it is always hard to interpret the President’s comments, he did cite his “flexibility” to change his policies. One might interpret this to mean that the U.S. my change course and directly use military force against the Assad government in Syria.

As tragic as this latest attack is, I also feel like I am in a time-warp that has sent me back to 2012-13 when similar chemical weapons attacks led to similar global outrage which led to an American debate about whether to launch military attacks on Syria.  President Obama famously decided to launch such strikes (without Congress or the UN) and then changed his mind and sought congressional consent.  He never got that, but he did work out an agreement with Russia and the Assad government to remove Syria’s chemical weapons capability.  That didn’t work out as well as he hoped (to use a tragic understatement).  But the factual and legal issues are almost identical today.

So as a service to readers, let me just link to some of the legal analysis we posted back then, much of which still applies today. Updates of course will be necessary, but this is the right place to start.

I argued in 2012 that a strict reading of the U.N. Charter prohibited any U.S. strike on the Syrian government without consent from the U.N. Security Council.  This would be the case even if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians during its civil war.  Former top UK legal adviser Daniel Bethlehem took issue with my formalist reading of the U.N. Charter.

Kevin wondered why the use of chemical weapons itself was so significant as opposed to the civilian deaths it caused.  Put another way, he pointed out that the use of chemical weapons, however horrible, was not necessarily any more of a war crime for legal purposes that the use of non-chemical weapons against civilians and non-combatants.  He also points out in a later post that the Rome Statute does not single out chemical weapons use alone as a crime, despite an initial proposal by drafters to do so.

Finally, we held an “insta-symposium” on Syria with many great contributions from scholars, legal and non-legal, on the difficult questions raised by the Syria conflict.  A list of those posts can be found here at the bottom of the first post in that symposium, from Stephanie Carvin.

Hopefully, this will help all of us refresh ourselves for the great Syria intervention debate, Round II (Donald J. Trump edition).

The Unattractive Question is Back: SCOTUS (Again) Considers Corporate Liability Under the Alien Tort Statute

by Julian Ku

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Jesner v. Arab Bank in order to resolve a single issue: “[w]hether the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1350, categorically forecloses corporate liability.” This post will briefly review the case and offer a quick assessment of the ATS corporate liability issue.  Longtime readers will not be surprised to read that I side with the Defendants on this issue, although I will also add that I think my side on this case will have an uphill battle to prevail in the high court. 

Should the Court have agreed to hear the case?

The Court’s decision to hear the case is a bit surprising given that it had refused to hear at least two cases raising the same issue in the previous two terms.  On the other hand, the Court’s decision to hear the case is also quite understandable given the fairly sharp split between lower circuit courts on the question. Such an enduring split among the opinions of lower courts is always an important factor for the Court in deciding whether to hear a case. The rather dramatic divisions among judges on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on this issue probably caught the Court’s attention as well.

Still, it is also worth noting that the Court granted cert on this exact same issue not six years ago when it first agreed to hear Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum in the fall of 2011.  The parties submitted briefs and held oral arguments on the corporate liability issue itself.  But during argument, the Court decided that the question of whether the Alien Tort Statute has extraterritorial reach needed to be resolved first, and sent the case back for re-argument the next term.  That re-argued case eventually became the 2013 Kiobel decision sharply limiting the extraterritorial scope of lawsuits brought under the ATS to cases that “touch and concern” the territory of the U.S.  The corporate liability issue was left fully argued and untouched.

To be sure, since 2013, several other circuit courts have issued opinions on the corporate liability issue and all have split from the original Second Circuit Kiobel decision denying corporate liability under the ATS. And the Court may have a new member by the time Jesner v. Arab Bank is decided.  So while that is a possible reason for reversing course and granting cert, it is still unusual for a Court to hear a case on the exact same issue it already heard in argument a few years ago.

What Law Should Determine Whether Corporations Should Be Liable Under the Alien Tort Statute?

One of the more annoying hard-to-explain legal issues in ATS cases is also one of my favorite law-nerd issues: what law should govern?  On its face, the ATS calls for the application of “the law of nations” but courts have long disagreed about whether international law also applies to questions such as standards for aiding and abetting liability and whether a corporation can be liable.  ATS plaintiffs have typically argued that these questions should be governed by domestic law, that is to say, federal common law. Under federal common law, corporations are typically liable for torts and application of this law would almost certainly favor the plaintiffs on this question.

But the Court has never fully resolved this issue.  To me, it has always seemed that any questions affecting the substance of a case against an ATS defendants should be governed by international law, as the ATS’ text seems to demand.  The temptation to fill in the many gaps left by international law with U.S. common law is strong, but the ATS clearly sought to ask US courts to apply international law.  Getting past that textual directive will be difficult for me, and I suspect the textualist-oriented justices on the Court.

Will Justice(?) Gorsuch’s Vote Matter?

The circumstances of this grant for cert, which occurred after several prior opportunities were rejected, does not bode well for respondents.  Nor is the fact that the cert grant adopts the petitioners’ phrasing of the issue word-for-word.  I would be particularly troubled by the Court’s decision to phrase the question as whether the ATS “categorically” forecloses corporate liability. This is plainly language structured to favor the plaintiffs’ case.

My views on the ATS corporate liability question should be well known to most OJ readers.  I think the issue of corporate liability should be governed by international law and that the strict standards for recognizing an actionable norm under the Court’s prior decision in Sosa precludes recognizing an ATS cause of action against corporations.  I joined a great amicus brief saying basically that in the original Kiobel case back in 2012.

I have also recognized, however, that this is pretty formalistic argument that is unusually unattractive to most observers. Still, the international norms haven’t really changed since 2012.  Plaintiffs will not be able to cite to many (or any) sources that hold corporations liable for violations of international law norms.  But they can still pound the table and simply say it is ridiculous to “immunize” corporations for torts, which I think still has quite a bit of force.  The response has got to be that corporations are often liable for torts, but not always.  Even under domestic law, the U.S. Supreme Court has foreclosed corporate liability for certain statutes (like the Torture Victim Protection Act) or for constitutional norms in the context of Bivens actions).

This leads me to Judge/Justice Gorsuch.  Since the case will be heard next term, Judge Gorsuch will have a chance to rule on the case if he is confirmed.  Will he be willing to sign on to a formalistic/textualist interpretation that is extremely normatively unattractive?  I don’t know enough about Judge Gorsuch to know, but I am not sure this will matter. My guess is that Justices Roberts and Kennedy were sufficiently repulsed by the idea of ruling against ATS corporate liability back in 2012 that they sought (and found) a different way of resolving the case.  I suspect (without having any inside information) that they would like to find an out again.  If they can’t, I can see a 6-3 opinion for the plaintiffs, with Chief Justice Roberts writing an opinion that he tries to make as narrow as possible.

So that’s my first take on Jesner v. Arab Bank.  I will no doubt be back for more. Stay tuned!

Will International Law Matter to the Trump Administration?

by Julian Ku

There are lots of panels and conferences being held around the U.S. (and maybe outside the U.S.) on the new Trump Administration’s policies and their impact on international law. I would like to recommend our readers view some or all of the video from this half-day conference recently hosted in Washington D.C. by the Federalist Society and the American Branch of the International Law Association.  Entitled “International Law in the Trump Era: Expectations, Hopes, and Fears,” the conference has lots of interesting scholars and former U.S. government officials participating.  All of the panels look great, but it is hard to avoid highlighting the panel discussion below with friend of blog John Bellinger and Georgetown lawprof Rosa Brooks tackling the question everyone is asking:

Strangely Enough, President Trump Can Use His Executive Power Over Immigration to Advance Human Rights and Battle Corruption

by Julian Ku

statue-of-liberty-1210001__340The legal battle over President Trump’s recent executive order has cast a spotlight on the president’s broad and potentially abusive powers over U.S. immigration laws.  But it is worth remembering that this power can be used in many different ways, including in ways that the President’s critics would support.  This past December, Congress delegated to the president broad discretionary powers to use his executive power over immigration to protect international human rights and to battle against corruption. These powers could advance the protection of human rights far more effectively than any Alien Tort Statute lawsuit.  But a successful use of this new law would require President Trump and his critics to work together. And this prospect seems awfully hard to imagine right now.

Enacted as part of the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act and modeled on a similar law targeting Russia only,  the “Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act” delegates to the President broad powers to impose targeted sanctions on foreign persons who commit or materially assist the commission of “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” or “acts of significant corruption.”  In particular, the President is authorized to deny or revoke visas to foreign “persons”, or simply deny them entry.  A foreign “person” is specifically defined to include dual nationals.  (The exercise of this power might sound familiar to those of us still wrestling with the impact of last week’s immigration order.)

The Global Magnitsky Act goes farther than visa denial, however, and also authorizes the President to block “all transactions in property” of a foreign person that are in the United States or are in the possession of a U.S. person.   “Blocking” means that the property is frozen so that the owner cannot exercise any power or control over it despite still retaining title.

In order to impose such sanctions, the President simply needs to determine, based on “credible evidence,” that a foreign person either is “responsible” for a “gross violation[]” of internationally recognized human rights or acted as an agent for that person.  The same “credible evidence” standard applies to sanctions for corruption, or “materially assisting” corruption.

Taken together, it is hard to read this law as anything other than a grant of highly discretionary or possibly unreviewable power for the President to block the entry and/or freeze the assets of any foreign national he thinks is connected to human rights violations or corruption.  It might be unreviewable because courts are hesitant to review presidential exercises of a delegated power to impose sanctions, and even if it did, it would be nearly impossible for a court to find the lack of “credible evidence”.

Thus, President Trump has a new sweeping, possibly unreviewable power to deny entry into the U.S. and/or freeze the property of foreign nationals on the basis of human rights violations or corruption.  Previously, the President would have had to invoke a “national emergency” under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to impose such sanctions, and violations of human rights were not specifically authorized as the basis for imposing such sanctions.  The Global Magnitsky Act thus hands President Trump a pretty powerful tool to support and advance the cause of international human rights.   Will he use it?

It is hard to predict anything for certain about our new president, but the statute does build in some mild procedural encouragements for him to use this new power.  For instance, the President must issue a report to four congressional committees (Senate Banking, Senate Foreign Affairs, House Finance, and House Foreign Affairs) reporting on sanctions he has imposed within 120 days of the law’s enactment (April 7, 2017).  Moreover, the President must also respond within 120 days to any request by the chair and ranking member of one of the congressional committees to impose human rights sanctions.  If the chair and ranking member of one of the House committees and one of the Senate committees sends him a request to impose corruption related sanctions, he must also respond within 120 days.  The Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor is authorized to submit the names of possible sanctions targets to the Secretary of State for review. Moreover, nothing in the statute prevents the President from acting on his own.  Human rights NGOs, many of whom are the Trump administration’s fiercest critics, could also submit lists if they choose.

Even if President Trump uses this power, will it have any effect? How many “gross violators” of human rights or corrupt foreign government officials want to enter the U.S. or have property or assets here?  It is hard to say for sure, but the number is probably more than zero.  It might even be a lot more than zero.  In any event, it is also worth noting that the sanctions imposed by the Global Magnitsky Act are almost as severe as any judgment that could be collected in a lawsuit brought under the Alien Tort Statute.  Will petitioning the White House to impose sanctions replace ATS lawsuits?  Probably not, but if used aggressively, the Global Magnitsky Act would have a much greater impact in support of international human rights than any five ATS lawsuits put together.

It is still too early to tell how this law will work in practice.  But human rights and anti-corruption NGOs should be dusting off their political lobbying skills and start approaching the State Department and the chairs and ranking members of the relevant congressional committees with names. Since Maryland Senator Ben Cardin sponsored the Global Magnitsky Act and is the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I bet he would be more than happy to submit some names to President Trump.    Such lobbying is a lot easier than filing an ATS lawsuit, and has a much higher chance of having a real impact.   But it will also mean petitioning an unpopular president to exercise his much vilified executive powers on their behalf. Will a future photo from the Oval Office depict President Trump signing a Magnitsky Act executive order while officials from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stand beside him to applaud him?  As I said, this is awfully  hard to imagine today, but stranger things have happened.

Why You Shouldn’t Panic Over President Trump’s Draft Executive Orders on Funding for International Organizations

by Julian Ku

Because I am on sabbatical this semester, I have been lying low during these first few (very busy!) weeks of the Trump administration.  But I have noticed that the sheer volume of Trump administration actions, and reactions to its actions, is confusing both its supporters and its critics.  While Trump has already taken actions that are worthy of severe criticism (see, e.g., his much-maligned immigration executive order), some of his other proposed actions are being overblown as further threats to the Republic.  This type of overstatement and mischaracterization is as damaging to Trump’s critics as they are to the Trump administration itself.

For instance, two draft Trump executive orders on international organizations and multilateral treaties leaked late last week causing a flurry of instant condemnation on social media and elsewhere.  The initial reports about these orders, especially on twitter and in headlines, suggested that Trump would by executive order “to dramatically reduce funding of United Nations.”  New York Magazine’s summary of the draft order is particularly sensational:

….Donald Trump is preparing to decimate this tool of American hegemony [the U.N.] — and global peacekeeping and poverty reduction — with a stroke of his pen.

The Trump administration has drafted an executive order that would radically reduce American funding of the U.N. and other international organizations. The order would terminate all U.S. funding to any international body that meets any one of a long list of criteria. Among other things, the order would bar American funding of any organization that gives full membership to the Palestinian Authority or Palestine Liberation Organization, supports programs that fund abortion, or that is “controlled or substantially influenced by any state that sponsors terrorism.” (Emphasis added).

The problem with this summary is that it is totally inaccurate.  The actual draft executive order simply forms a committee to study and provide recommendations on whether and how to cut U.S. funding to the U.N. and other international organizations.  The order does not “terminate” anything with “a stroke of a pen.” Its most aggressive section would simply require the Committee to “recommend appropriate strategies to cease funding” international agencies that grants membership to the Palestinian Authority or supports terrorism.  Funding for these agencies is already prohibited by U.S. statute, so this is really an order to think of ways to comply with U.S. law.  To be sure, the order takes a much harsher and negative view of funding international organizations than prior U.S. administrations, but the order is hardly the end of the United Nations as we know it.  This is especially true if we recall that Congress, and not the President, has the power to fund or not fund international organizations like the U.N..

The draft executive order on multilateral treaties is potentially more significant because the President has broad powers to withdraw from treaties.  But the order itself simply creates another committee to review U.S. participation in all multilateral treaties that the U.S. is negotiating, in the process of considering ratification, or already ratified and joined.  The committee is instructed to recommend whether the U.S. should continue negotiating, ratifying, or being part of those treaties.

The only unusual part of this process is to elevate treaty review to an interagency committee. But such a review process is reasonable for any new administration.  The only real action in the draft order is a moratorium on submitting new treaties to the President or the Senate absent a committee recommendation.  This might slow down the already slow treaty ratification process, but given the glacial pace of Senate consideration of most treaties, I doubt this “moratorium” will have much an effect.

There is plenty to criticize and even protest in the new Trump administration’s flurry of executive orders and statements.  But Trump’s critics need to carefully distinguish between what is truly troubling and what bears watching, and what is not really significant. Otherwise, they risk undermining their credibility and the effectiveness of their critiques.  These two draft executive orders bear watching as a signal of the new administration’s priorities.  But they are not a cause for panic.

So everyone take a step back, and read beyond the headlines or twitter summaries before reacting and overreacting.  There is and will be plenty to criticize in the new administration.  Save your ammunition for when it is truly needed.