Author Archive for
Julian Ku

Why Japan Would Violate International Law If It Militarily Intervened to Defend Taiwan (But Why Japan Should Do So Anyway)

by Julian Ku

I’ve been swamped with various projects and distractions here in Taiwan (mostly food-related), so I didn’t notice until today this very interesting Zachary Keck post about how Japan’s recent decision to re-interpret its constitutional provision to allow expanded overseas military activities would enable Japan to help defend Taiwan against an attack from China.  It’s a fascinating post, but it also made me think of an interesting wrinkle that cuts against his argument.  It is almost certainly true that international law prohibits any military action by Japan (or the US) to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack.

In his post, Keck notes that Japan’s decision to reinterpret its constitution does NOT allow Japan to fully exercise its rights to collective self-defense under international law, but it does allow Japan to provide military support to allies where Japan itself is threatened.  But he then argues that even under this more narrow “collective self-defense” right, Japan could  (and probably would) intervene to assist Taiwan in a military defense against a Chinese invasion.

I think this could be right as a matter of Japanese constitutional law if an invasion of Taiwan could be plausibly construed as a threat to Japan, but there is a strange international law flaw to this argument.  Under black-letter international law, Japan cannot use military force in Taiwan absent China’s consent, even if the Taiwan government requests its assistance.  Why? Because the UN Charter’s Article 51 only authorizes an act of “collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, and to make matters worse from Taiwan’s perspective, Japan recognizes the government in Beijing as the rightful government of China, and Japan further recognizes that Taiwan is part of China. 

So unless Japan is able to plausibly claim that an attack on Taiwan triggers Japan’s own inherent self-defense right (and I think this is a non-starter as a legal argument), and unless a Chinese invasion could be said to justify humanitarian intervention (another very difficult argument), Japan would violate the U.N. Charter if it used military force in a way that violated the territorial integrity of another UN member (China).  Japan could not invoke its collective self-defense rights unless it recognized Taiwan as an independent nation.  And even that would probably not be enough to satisfy international law requirements, since Japan’s unilateral recognition of Taiwan as an independent state would necessarily satisfy international law either.  And good luck, Taiwan, getting U.N. membership.

By the way, this analysis applies equally (or even with greater force) to the United States.  The U.S. quasi-defense guarantee to Taiwan has it completely backwards (from a legal point of view):

  • If Taiwan declares independence, the U.S. has signaled it would not consider itself bound to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. Yet that would be (at least in theory) one state (China) committing aggression against another state (Taiwan), and almost certainly illegal.
  • If Taiwan keeps the status quo and does not declare independence, and China still invades, the U.S. has signaled that it would come to Taiwan’s defense. But that would be one state (China) using force within its own territory to put down secessionists (a la Ukraine) and almost certainly legal.

So the U.S (and maybe Japan) are now committed to defend Taiwan only in a situation that would require the US and Japan to violate the U.N. Charter.  It’s international-law-bizarro world!

Of course, this bizarro-from-a-legal-point-of-view policy suits U.S. purposes, since it is the policy most likely to avoid military conflict with China.  But it also reveals how use of force rules in the U.N. Charter have little relevance to shaping the behavior of the U.S., Japan (and probably China) in any conflict over Taiwan.  Japan and the US should (and probably are) ready to ignore these legal rules when making their determinations about whether to defend Taiwan.  And all in all, that’s a good thing (especially while I am still here in Taipei!).

The Supreme Court Misses an Opportunity to Place Constitutional Limits on the Treaty Power in Bond v. United States

by Julian Ku

My co-author John Yoo and I have a piece up on Forbes today arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court missed a grand opportunity in Bond v. U.S. to place constitutional limits on the treaty power.  We take aim at Missouri v. Holland head-on.  We criticize the interpretation of the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act adopted by the opinion for the Court of Chief Justice Roberts and argue this decision has echoes of his opinion in Sebelius on the Affordable Care Act. Here is an excerpt:

Holmes was wrong in 1920, however, and the Obama administration is wrong today. The Founders’ original understanding supports a federalism limitation on the treaty power, and this is especially compelling in light of today’s far-reaching and ambitious modern treaties. Unfortunately, the Court’s opinion refused to directly reject Missouri’s mistaken approach.

 

 

The Battle of the South China Sea Editorials

by Julian Ku

The conflict between China and Vietnam over a Chinese oil rig has (thankfully) calmed down a little bit, with fewer reports of rammings and water cannon fights in the South China Sea.  But the war of press release and government-sponsored editorials has heated up and all of them are wielding international law as a weapon of authority and legitimacy.

Vietnam’s government has been flooding the Internet with various articles, interviews, and statements accusing China of violating international law by moving an oil rig into waters Vietnam claims as its own.  See here, here, and here.  In general, these are pretty effective, although I do think Vietnamese scholars lose a bit of credibility when they insist that China has “no legal grounds” for its actions. Meanwhile, the Philippines has continued its steady drumbeat of legal articles, including this fascinating essay by Philippines Supreme Court Judge Antonio Carpio.

China has struck back with several English-language articles of its own from Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.  These have been much less effective or credible, and not just because China has a weaker (although not indefensible) legal position.  Here’s a doozy from the opening paragraph of a recent Xinhua offering:

China’s repeated rejection of Manila’ s plea for arbitration in the dispute in the South China Sea is by no means defiance of the tribunal in The Hague. On the contrary, it shows China’s respect for international law.

I understand what they are trying to say, but this argument just sounds bad.  China has no legal obligation to participate in the UNCLOS arbitration, but its non-participation is hardly a sign of respect for international law when that arbitral tribunal has the power to determine its own jurisdiction.

This Xinhua essay on the Vietnam dispute is much better.  Most importantly, it relies on China’s territorial claim to the Xisha (Paracel) Islands as the basis for China’s right to place the oil rig.  It does not claim any rights here flow from the so-called “Nine Dash Line” that often gets all the press and is undoubtedly the weakest part of their legal argument.  It focuses on the threats to the safety of Chinese sailors and workers, and Vietnam’s legal obligations under the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.  

Of course, international law is not China’s strongest suit here. But it is interesting to see how China is using international law to support its actions.  Moreover, all China has to do is muddy the waters by establishing that international law does not plainly compel any particular outcome (as Vietnam and the Philippines seem to argue).  If the international legal arguments are fought to a draw, China is in a good position to win the overall game.

Washington University Law Professor Sworn in as Malawi’s President

by Julian Ku

So, Professor of Law, what are you going to do after you retire from your tenured post teaching and finish writing all the articles and books you want to write? Well, I guess I’ll become President (of Malawi)!

On Saturday, [Peter] Mutharika, now 74, a soft-spoken professor with a proper English-educated accent and who smoked a pipe while he taught in the 1970s, shocked many of his former colleagues and students when he was officially named the southeastern African country’s president after a tumultuous election that took more than a week to resolve.

It was an ascent to power just three years after his formal retirement from Washington University.

Congrats to Professor (er, I mean President) Mutharika!   It is not very often that a professor of international commercial law and contracts becomes a head of state.  It sounds like there are many serious obstacles facing him (and only a few of those are related to his background as a U.S. law professor), but I am sure all of us in the U.S. law academy wish him the best!

Game On, Again? Vietnam Planning to File Legal Action Against China Over South China Sea Dispute

by Julian Ku

There have been lots of reports out in the last 24 hours saying that the Government of Vietnam is planning to take legal action against China for its movement of an oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea.  Indeed, the Philippines Government has stated that Vietnam has consulted it about its ongoing arbitration case against China and the two nations issued a joint statement of solidarity opposing China’s actions in the South China Sea.

What would the Vietnam legal action look like? The most likely action would be to seek arbitration under Annex VII of UNCLOS, just as the Philippines has done.  Of course, China would have the same defense and likely the same reaction to any Vietnam claim: that China’s Article 298 declaration excluding disputes over matters involving “sea boundary delimitations”or “involving historic bays or titles….” would exclude jurisdiction.  Moreover, China might further argue that Article 298 also allows it exclude “disputes concerning military activities, including military activities by government vessels and aircraft engaged in non-commercial service, and disputes concerning law enforcement activities in regard to the exercise of sovereign rights or jurisdiction….”

At first glance, I can’t see how Vietnam’s claim would be any better or worse than that of the Philippines with respect to jurisdiction.  Vietnam has the same objection to China’s Nine Dash Line, and Vietnam similarly argues certain South China Sea features claimed by China are not “islands” for purposes of UNCLOS entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone.  So I think we will see a rerun of the Philippines arbitration.  Vietnam will constitute a tribunal, China will not participate, and away it goes.

Some other reports out of Vietnam suggest it will file a claim with the International Court of Justice, if only to show their good faith, even though the ICJ has no jurisdiction over China.  I don’t think this is a great strategy, but maybe it will be a useful diplomatic showcase.

Finally, there are reports Vietnam will allow its state-owned oil company to file an action against China’s state-owned oil company in Vietnamese courts.  This actually seems like an interesting idea, since once the Vietnamese company won the judgment, it could in theory try to enforce it against the assets of the Chinese company overseas.  It is not a slam-dunk, but it certainly could be a plausible claim.

I am doubtful that  an additional arbitration will lead to China backing down.  Certainly, the Philippines arbitration has not caused China to moderate its behavior toward the Philippines.   The extra added pressure of  a Vietnam arbitration is not huge, and my guess is that China will continue to simply ignore the arbitrations, reputational costs be damned.  I am not saying that it is bad strategy for Vietnam to try the arbitration route, but Vietnam should be realistic about the veryreal costs, and limited benefits of this strategy.

Why Taiwanese Investors Should Think About Becoming Chinese (At Least When Suing Vietnam)

by Julian Ku

I’ve been settling into my digs this summer at the National Taiwan University College of Law as a visiting research fellow with the support from a grant from the Taiwan Fellowship. Mostly, I’ve been spending my time eating my way through what I believe is the best Chinese food scene in the world  (I am posting pictures of my eating exploits on my facebook page for those interested in Chinese food).

But in between absurdly delicious meals, I have also been following the anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam that have caused over 500 different businesses to be shut down there over the past week and thousands of Chinese and Taiwanese nationals to flee Vietnam. Those violent riots were apparently in response to China’s placement of an oil rig in disputed South China Sea waters.

The lively Taiwanese media has been following these riots with much more intensity than their Chinese counterparts, because a large proportion of the burned or trashed businesses are actually owned by Taiwanese nationals, with Chinese workers or managers administering it for them.  TV news here is filled with pictures of Taiwanese flying home with harrowing stories of dodging rioters by hiding in trash cans, etc.  Their plight has caused some soul-searching here in Taiwan because Taiwan’s status as a non-country that is recognized in Vietnam only as a province of China means they receive the blowback for China’s actions and Taiwan’s government has limited means to respond and protect their own nationals.  (Their foreign ministry did helpfully issue stickers to their nationals saying, in Vietnamese, “I am from Taiwan”. Reminds me of the time I was told to put little Canadian flags on my backpack when I wandered through sketchy areas of Egypt).

In addition to advising their nationals to emphasize their “Taiwaneseness”, the Taiwan government’s main action has been to invoke the 1993 Taiwan-Vietnam Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (in Chinese).   The Taiwan government is using this agreement as proof that it can protect and seek compensation for its nationals abroad.

This is sort of like a bilateral investment treaty, but not quite, because of Taiwan’s odd non-country status.  It is technically an agreement between the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vietnam and the Vietnam Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei” which means it is an agreement between two quasi-government agencies, and not the governments as a whole. This means it is unlikely to be governed by international law, although the agreement doesn’t choose any governing law either.  Moreover, the agreement does not provide for referral to an ICSID tribunal for any investor claims against the host government (in this case Vietnam). Rather, it seems to allow for referral to arbitration under the “1988 International Chamber of Commerce” Rules.  Moreover, such referrals seem to require the mutual consent of the parties in Article 8.  This might allow Vietnam to block a referral to arbitration by a Taiwanese investor.  (Oops! This provision refers to disagreements between the two parties to the agreement, not the investor and the host state. Sorry about the misreading. But I think my larger critical take stands). Since the Agreement doesn’t otherwise waive Vietnam’s state immunity, I am not confident about the ability of an investor to enforce any awards from an ICC tribunal without such consent anyway.

In other words, I am skeptical that the Taiwan-Vietnam Agreement is going to be very effective at winning compensation for investors.  Instead, if I was a Taiwanese investor, I would think about invoking the Vietnam-China BIT.  True, that agreement is limited to natural persons and economic entities who have the “nationality of the People’s Republic of China”, but it is not entirely clear this would exclude the PRC’s “Taiwanese compatriots” who are officially treated in China as “nationals” for some purposes.  Even if this argument doesn’t fly, many of the Taiwanese companies in Vietnam may have Chinese national employees or entities that could make a claim on their behalf.  Of course, this would be pretty bad PR here in Taiwan, where no one really wants to be associated with the Chinese government.  But if they managed to get an ICSID tribunal constituted, a Taiwanese investor has a much better chance to forcing Vietnam to pay out compensation under the Vietnam-China BIT than the Vietnam-Taiwan agreement.  Another example of why being a non-state is such a pain for Taiwan and the Taiwanese.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court Says ICJ Rulings Are Not Self-Executing; Medellin v. Texas in Bogota?

by Julian Ku

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Medellin v. Texas that rulings of the International Court of Justice are not “self-executing” under U.S. law.  For this reason, the Supreme Court refused to require Texas to stop executions that the ICJ had held in violation of U.S. treaty obligations.  It looks like Colombia’s Constitutional Court has followed that same approach with respect to Colombia’s Constitution:

Colombia’s constitutional court ruled on Friday that applying a decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that granted Nicaragua a disputed area of Caribbean waters could not take effect without a treaty between the countries.

The court’s verdict upholds the position taken by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who said the Hague-based ICJ’s decision was not applicable according to Colombia’s constitution without such a treaty, ratified by the Andean nation’s congress.

Colombia’s government has been pretty consistent in its public statements. It does not dispute the legal obligation represented by the ICJ’s ruling, but it does not believe the ruling can override domestic Colombian constitutional law either.  This court decision appears to endorse this dualist approach.   Of course, I have not read the ruling (anyone have a link?) and even if I had the ruling, I can’t read Spanish (anyone have a link and a translation?).  So I might be overstating things here. But it is worth looking into.

Florida Narrows Foreign Law Ban to Foreign Family Law

by Julian Ku

Florida’s legislature has just passed a bill that is an interesting variation on the wave of other foreign law bans that have been enacted in U.S. states.  Florida’s new law would ban the use of foreign law in Florida state courts if that law “contravenes the strong public policy” of Florida or if the “law is unjust or unreasonable.”  It also limits the use of foreign law in choice of law provisions in contracts or forum selection clauses under the same “strong public policy” standard.

In fact, Florida’s law is much narrower than it appears.  Apparently drafted with the help of the International Law Section of Florida’s Bar, the law only applies to matters “arising out of or relating to Chapters 61 and 88″ of Florida’s statutory laws. And these turn out to be related to marriage, divorce, child custody, and child support.  So we are really down to prenuptial agreements and child custody agreements, for the most part.

Critics of these bills have called them pointless and possibly xenophobic as well. I am more on the “pointless” end of the spectrum, since I agree these laws do very little, although this bill is at least narrowly targeted at what the supporters of the bill are actually worried about: US courts enforcing agreements or requirements in family law matters based on foreign legal principles, especially Islamic law.  This same issue is actually causing a minor uproar in the UK.  Maybe they need a Florida bill there too?

In any event, I think this bill is pretty harmless, and it is actually narrowly targeted at what the supporters are worried about: “sharia law” in US courts.  It is certainly better than the previous version, which would have swept far more broadly. And I don’t think there should be any constitutional problems with this provision.

Marshall Islands Sues to Enforce Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty; UK May Be Dragged Into ICJ

by Julian Ku

This lawsuit is mostly just grandstanding by a very small nation with the help of a savvy (but sloppy) US law firm.  But there is one possibly meaningful outcome.  It could result in an ICJ proceeding involving the United Kingdom.

The tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands is taking on the United States and the world’s eight other nuclear-armed nations with an unprecedented lawsuit demanding that they meet their obligations toward disarmament and accusing them of “flagrant violations” of international law.

The island group that was used for dozens of U.S. nuclear tests after World War II was filing suit Thursday against each of the nine countries in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. It also was filing a federal lawsuit against the United States in San Francisco, naming President Barack Obama, the departments and secretaries of defense and energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Reviewing the complaint and the ICJ applications, I conclude these cases are (mostly) going nowhere.

As for the U.S. complaint, the Marshall Islands is suing both the United States itself, and its President, and various military and civilian departments.  As an initial matter, there should be grave doubts about whether the NPT is self-executing. It is hard to imagine that it is.  And there are some grave doubts as to whether the U.S. has waived its sovereign immunity for this kind of claim in its own courts. And there are a variety of other problems: standing? political question? justiciability? that will no doubt make themselves felt here.

With respect to the ICJ applications, none of the target countries have accepted ICJ compulsory jurisdiction except the UK.  Indeed, the ICJ application against China mistakenly refers to it as the “Republic of China”, which is the name of the government in Taiwan, not China. I think Taiwan would be thrilled to be sued here, since they are not even allowed to join the ICJ or the U.N.  The China they want is the “People’s Republic”.

Putting both Chinas aside, the key here is that the UK has accepted compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ, so this might require the UK to litigate this.  This seems like the one aspect of this case that might come to a real judicial outcome.

So if we get to the merits, I am deeply dubious.   What exactly is the “obligation to negotiate in good faith”? How can you ever tell if it has been violated?  The affidavit by Prof. Weston of the University of Iowa gives some content to this idea, but I don’t find it very persuasive.  

My basic thought is that this case is going nowhere, but will get some attention of the UK is forced to show up at the Hague and argue the merits.  Only then will we get to see if Prof. Weston’s idea tested by the ICJ.

The Case That Won’t Die: U.S. Court Revives South Africa Apartheid Alien Tort Statute Lawsuit

by Julian Ku

So maybe the use of the Alien Tort Statute against corporations for overseas activities isn’t fully dead. Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has revived In re South Africa Apartheid Litigation, a twelve-year-old litigation that just won’t die. A copy of the opinion can be found here.

Most of the opinion deals with whether a corporation may be sued under the Alien Tort Statute, an issue most thought was settled within the Second Circuit (the federal appeals circuit that includes New York). As a lower court within that circuit, the district court should have been bound to follow that court’s 2010 opinion Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell, which held that corporations cannot be sued under the ATS.  The lower court judge, Shira Scheindlin, decided that since the Supreme Court had ended up dismissing the Kiobel plaintiffs on other grounds (e.g. extraterritoriality), the Court had sub silentio reversed the original Kiobel decision’s ruling on corporate liability.  That is quite a stretch, and appears based almost solely on the Supreme Court’s reference to “mere corporate presence” as being insufficient to overcome the statutory presumption against extraterritoriality.  This language, and the Supreme Court’s decision not to otherwise mention the corporate liability issue, was enough for Judge Scheindlin to revisit the corporate liability issue.  I don’t really buy this sub silentio interpretation of Kiobel, but to give credit where credit is due, this argument was previewed in our Kiobel insta-symposium by Jordan Wells, a third year law student.  Let’s just say Judge Scheindlin really went out of her way to re-open this question.  

My views on the corporate liability issue haven’t changed since I published my full length attack on it back in 2010.  In my view, the Supreme Court’s decision in Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, finding that the Torture Victim Protection Act does not allow torture claims against corporate defendants, provides an unappreciated boost to the policy rationale for limiting these kinds of lawsuits to natural persons.  But other circuits, and apparently Judge Scheindlin, refuse to agree with me (I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true).

Putting aside the corporate liability issue, it is perhaps more surprising that Judge Scheindlin did not simply dismiss all of the defendants on Kiobel extraterritoriality grounds.  The Second Circuit appeals panel in this case held that all of the defendants (U.S. and foreign) should be dismissed because all of the alleged relevant conduct occurred in South Africa.  The U.S. corporate defendants (Ford and IBM) did not overcome the Kiobel presumption because the complaints only allege vicarious liability as parent corporations to their South African subsidiaries.   Yet Judge Scheindlin only dismissed the foreign defendants and will allow the plaintiffs to re-file their complaints against the US defendants to overcome the new Kiobel extraterritoriality presumption.  This means that she is willing to explore in greater detail the Kiobel requirement that plaintiffs’ claims “touch and concern” the territory of the U.S. with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritoriality.  Will knowledge by the US parent of the subsidiaries’ activities in South Africa be enough? Will receiving profits from the subsidiaries be enough? I assume that is the best the plaintiffs will be able to plead is knowledge by the U.S. parent.

I assume this is going back to the appeals panel in this case, and we should expect some rather testy reactions. Judge Jose Cabranes (the author of the appeals court panel decision) and Judge Scheindlin have recently tangled over a local NY case against aggressive police tactics resulting in the controversial removal of Judge Scheindlin from that case (Judge Cabranes was one of three judges involved in that removal order).  This latest Scheindlin order seems a double-insult at Judge Cabranes.  It “reverses” his earlier Kiobel decision on corporate liability (from a lower court no less!), and then it ignores his subsequent opinion holding that all defendants should be dismissed via a motion for judgment on the pleadings.   A little tension brewing at 40 Foley Square, perhaps?

The Not Very Persuasive International Law Arguments in Favor of the Iran Visa Denial

by Julian Ku

I think it is fair to say that when Kevin and I agree on a legal question, there is a good chance there is a lunar eclipse happening or some other rare astronomical phenomenon occurring somewhere.  But since both of us think that the U.S. has no international legal basis to deny a visa to Iran’s new UN ambassador, this “fair and balanced blog” should consider the international law arguments offered in favor of the U.S. decision, especially as Iran has signaled it is going to fight this US decision, maybe by seeking an ICJ advisory opinion or an arbitral tribunal. This NYT article outlines three international law arguments that the U.S. might invoke in descending order of persuasiveness (at least to me):

Precedent and Practice Trump: Larry D. Johnson, who served as the Deputy Legal Counsel to the U.N. in the past, suggests that the U.S. and the U.N. have come to a tacit agreement to avoid disputes on visa denials.  If a visa is denied, the country facing denial must bring this matter up with the U.S.  The U.N. will not do so.  If this past practice is followed by the U.N., it effectively undermines the legal basis for Iran’s challenge.  Absent the Headquarters Agreement with the U.N., the U.S. has no obligation to issue a visa to Iran’s UN envoy, and Iran (not being a party to the Headquarters Agreement) has no international legal basis to protest.

My take: If this is current practice, and there is some evidence for this, the U.S. is really just acting consistent with its nearly sixty year pattern of practice by denying the visa in this case.  This doesn’t exactly legalize (internationally) the US act, but it does help.  

The Iranian Hostage Crisis Trumps: John Bellinger, over at Lawfare, suggests that because Iran’s UN Envoy was involved in one of the most egregious violations of diplomatic immunity rights in the past century, there will be little sympathy from other countries for Iran.

My take: This might be right, but it is not clear to me that the past violations would meet the “security exception”, and it is not even clear that the security exception is a valid international reservation to the Headquarters Agreement.  In any event, this is not really a legal argument, but a judgment on international politics.  If Iran goes to the General Assembly, the merits of this political judgment will be tested.

The UN Charter’s Human Rights Obligations Trumps: University of Houston lawprof Jordan Paust argues that because Iran’s UN Ambassador was involved in what the ICJ called a violation of human rights, the U.S. would be justified denying him a visa in reference to its U.N. Charter obligation to “respect human rights.”

My take: With all due respect to Professor Paust, I don’t think the U.N. Charter can be fairly read to require states to “respect human rights” in violation of their other international obligations.  The language of the Charter in Article I asks states to “promot[] and encourag[]” human rights. It is far from mandatory language.

Moreover, if correct, this is the exception that swallowed the UN Headquarters Agreement.  The U.S. could deny a visa to anyone whom it believes has or is likely to undermine “respect for human rights.” Past practice suggests the U.S. has not interpreted either the Charter or the Headquarters Agreement in this way.

If Iran decides to seek a General Assembly resolution, it will not require the U.S. to change its decision, but it would probably be a good test of John Bellinger’s thesis about where countries’ sympathies lie. My guess is that we are going to see tons of absentions.

If Iran gets the U.N. to demand arbitration under the Headquarters Agreement, this would be more interesting.  The U.S. might have to follow China and Russia’s example by simply refusing to participate in the arbitration. And the U.S. would probably lose that arbitration (although enforcement is another matter).   If I were Iran’s government, that would be a pretty ideal outcome. They still will not get their ambassador, but they can cause some pretty serious soft power damage before they give up.

Can the U.S. Legally Deny Iran’s New U.N. Ambassador a Visa to New York? Nope.

by Julian Ku

According to Reuters, the U.S. is thinking hard about denying a visa to Iran’s new U.N. Ambassador, thus preventing him from taking up his post in New York. The new ambassador, Hamid Abutalebi, apparently participated in the Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran back in 1979. Although nothing is official yet, it looks like the U.S. is going to invoke its “security exception” to the U.N. Headquarters Agreement to deny Abutalebi a visa.   As in the case involving President Bashir of Sudan, denying a visa to Iran’s ambassador would almost certainly violate the Headquarters Agreement.  Let’s take a look at Section 11:

The federal, state or local authorities of the United States shall not impose any impediments to transit to or from the headquarters district of (1) representatives of Members or officials of the United Nations…

Iran’s ambassador is clearly covered by this language. The only U.S. argument flows from the “security” exception attached to the Headquarters Agreement upon its approval by the U.S. Congress.

Nothing in the agreement shall be construed as in any way diminishing, abridging, or weakening the right of the United States to safeguard its own security and completely to control the entrance of aliens into any territory of the United States….

As a matter of international law, I do not think the United Nations ever officially accepted this amendment to the original Headquarters Agreement, and certainly it has never accepted the rather broad U.S. interpretation of this provision.  A deal was struck in the past to allow the U.S. to give very limited visas that kept visitors within 15 miles of UN Headquarters.

In any event, the U.N. has battled with the U.S. several times in the past over the use of this clause to deny visas to the PLO, or even to close down PLO observer missions at the U.N.  The U.N. even sought arbitration (as provided by the Headquarters Agreement) as well as an advisory opinion from the ICJ when the US went after the PLO back in the late 1980s.

Does this mean the U.S. cannot deny the visa? I think under domestic U.S. law, there is certainly a plausible basis for denial given Abutalebi’s past connections and U.S. practice in this area.  But the U.N. would be well within its rights to claim a violation of the Headquarters Agreement and to demand an arbitration that it would have a good chance of winning.   I don’t get why the U.S. wants to pick this fight at this time. I’d prefer it hang tough on its demand that Iran eliminate its nuclear weapons program rather than deny a visa over actions taken by a guy 35 years ago.  But it looks like we are going to have this fight, so stay tuned.