Author Archive for
Julian Ku

Breaking: UNCLOS Tribunal Rules Against China, Unanimously Finds It Has Jurisdiction Over Philippines South China Sea Claims

by Julian Ku

It’s been a rough week for China’s South China Seas policy. In addition to facing a US Freedom of Navigation operation near one of its artificial islands, the arbitration tribunal formed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has decided that it has jurisdiction to proceed to the merits on the Philippines’ legal challenge to certain Chinese activities in the South China Sea.

I will blog more about this later, but for now it is worth noting that the tribunal unanimously ruled that it can proceed to the merits on seven out of 15 of the Philippines’ claims, and that it reserves the question of jurisdiction on seven other claims as being so interwoven with the merits that it cannot be resolved without first considering the merits.

I will note that the tribunal reserved the question of jurisdiction over the Philippines’ biggest and most flashy claim: the argument that China’s Nine Dash Line “historic rights” claim is inconsistent with UNCLOS. It held that:

The Philippines’ Submission No. 1 does, however, require the Tribunal to consider the effect of any historic rights claimed by China to maritime entitlements in the South China Sea and the interaction of such rights with the provisions of the Convention. This is a dispute concerning the interpretation and application of the Convention. The Tribunal’s jurisdiction to consider this question, however, would be dependent on the nature of any such historic rights and whether they are covered by the exclusion from jurisdiction over “historic bays or titles” in Article 298. The nature and validity of any historic rights claimed by China is a merits determination. The possible jurisdictional objections with respect to the dispute underlying Submission No. 1 therefore do not possess an exclusively preliminary character. Accordingly, the Tribunal reserves a decision on its jurisdiction with respect to the Philippines’ Submission No. 1 for consideration in conjunction with the merits of the Philippines’ claims.

On the other hand, the Tribunal did find that the question of whether the Scarborough Shoal is a “rock” or an “island” is clearly within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, irrespective of the merits. It did so because it held that there are no overlapping sovereignty or sea boundary claims that might impact the determination.

Overall, it should never be surprising when an arbitral tribunal finds that it has jurisdiction to hear a case. The Tribunal did throw China a bone by noting that it is still possible that seven of the Philippines’ claims (including the Nine Dash Line challenge) could be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction at the merits stage.

But by reserving the question of jurisdiction, and guaranteeing it will rule on the merits for several other claims, the Tribunal shoves the ball back onto China’s court.  Will China continue to claim it is not bound by the Tribunal for lack of jurisdiction, when the Tribunal has now found it has jurisdiction?  China would more clearly be in violation of UNCLOS now than it was before, because UNCLOS Article 288(4) makes it clear that “[i]n the event of a dispute as to whether a court or tribunal has jurisdiction, the matter shall be settled by decision of that court or tribunal.”  My guess is China will pretend that Article 288 doesn’t exist and continue to refuse to participate.  The interesting question is whether China will pay any serious price (in reputational terms) if it does so.

China’s Weak Legal Basis for Criticizing the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

The US Navy executed a much anticipated “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) today within 12 nautical miles of Subi reef, the site of one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.   Predictably, China has reacted sharply to this operation by sending two Chinese destroyers to shadow the U.S. ship and planes, summoning the U.S. ambassador, and issuing angry public statements (see below).  Although it is not the main focus of their complaints, the Chinese have repeatedly described the U.S. operation as “illegal” thus highlighting the legal conflict underlying this naval showdown.

The most detailed official reaction was presented by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lu Kang.

The USS Lassen illegally entered waters near relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands without the permission of the Chinese government on October 27. Relevant authorities of the Chinese side monitored, followed and warned the US vessel. Relevant actions by the US naval vessel threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, put the personnel and facilities on the islands and reefs at risk and endangered regional peace and stability. The Chinese side hereby expresses strong dissatisfaction and opposition.

It is unclear exactly how the U.S. ship put personnel on the islands and reefs at risk, but in any event, the spokesperson went on to assure the world that China has, and always will, respect the freedom of navigation consistent with international law.

China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui echoed these remarks, although this statement focused more on China’s “indisputable sovereignty” than on the legality of the U.S. actions.  China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi simply warned the U.S. against “stirring up trouble.” Perhaps more seriously, China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson called the U.S. action an “abuse” of the principle of “freedom of navigation under international law” that would cause “harm” to bilateral trust and relations.

As I suggested in a previous post, the US and China might have chosen to downplay this incident by treating the U.S. naval visit as an “innocent passage” through China’s territorial seas.  But China believes even innocent passage requires its permission, and the U.S. Navy made sure that its destroyer was accompanied by naval surveillance aircraft. The inclusion of the aircraft makes it clear that the U.S. is not trying to claim an “innocent passage.” Rather, the U.S. is stating (through its actions) that it does not believe Subi reef (where the Chinese have added an artificial island) is a rock or island generating a territorial sea.  Therefore, US naval vessels should be free to conduct any activity they wish in this area.

It is interesting that at least one Chinese media outlet is claiming that there is no real conflict over international law between the two sides.  In this portrayal, China’s actions in building artificial islands is “completely legal” and the U.S. is just trying to flaunt its power by “harassing” China.  China’s legal position appears to be that it is building artificial islands on reefs that are entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea.  Or, as another commentator sympathetic to China’s position has argued, because China claims every land feature in the South China Sea, even if the relevant reef is not entitled to a territorial sea, other nearby land features (also claimed by China) probably generate such rights.

In my view, the U.S. has a much stronger legal position.  Indeed, China is barely offering any serious legal defense other than repeating the words “indisputable sovereignty” repeatedly.  China is not doing itself any favors by calling US actions illegal, but failing to offer any specific criticism or explanation of its own legal position.

On the other hand, perhaps it is China’s interest to downplay the legal aspects of this dispute, and to feed the narrative that the U.S. is “provoking” a confrontation.  To some degree,this is working, as the global and Chinese media are feeding the narrative about a US-China naval showdown and ignoring the niceties of the U.S. legal position.  Indeed, if China raises the stakes by threatening some military response (as it is getting close to doing), it will be hard to convince the world (or the U.S. public) that such a conflict is worthwhile in order to vindicate an abstract legal principle like “freedom of navigation.”

Why “Following International Law” Won’t Necessary Solve the South China Sea Conflict Over Freedom of Navigation

by Julian Ku

As Chris notes below, it seems like there will be a showdown soon between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea over the right of freedom of navigation set out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law. It is tempting to see this as a problem of one side ignoring international law, and the other trying to uphold it.  But the U.S. and China have a fundamentally different understanding of what international law requires and allows under the principle of “freedom of navigation”. So getting all sides  to “follow” international law is not necessarily going to solve the dispute here.

The U.S. definition of freedom of navigation means all ships (including warships) are allowed to traverse both the 200 nm exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and the 12 nm territorial seas without obtaining the permission of the coastal state.  In the 200 nm EEZ, the U.S. believes that military ships may conduct any activity, including surveillance of the coastal state (e.g. “spying”).  Within 12 nm, the U.S. believes military ships must abide by the rules of “innocent passage” which precludes any overt military-related activity.

The Chinese definition of freedom of navigation is quite different.  Essentially, the Chinese argue that military ships should have to follow rules of innocent passage even in the 200 nm EEZ, and that military ships must get permission to enter the 12 nm territorial sea, even if those ships are planning to make an innocent passage.

Why does this difference in the definition of freedom of navigation matter?  Because it allows both sides to say that they are abiding by the rules for freedom of navigation set forth in UNCLOS, while disagreeing dramatically on what each side is allowed to do.  From the U.S. perspective, its navy should be allowed to enter the 12 nm territorial seas around China’s “islands” as long as they abide by the rules of innocent passage.  But the Chinese will say that freedom of navigation doesn’t permit this activity.

Most states agree with the U.S. definition of freedom of navigation.  But some states (including neighboring South China Sea coastal states) do agree with the Chinese view on the EEZ (like Malaysia) and others follow the Chinese view on the 12 nm territorial sea (like Vietnam). So although I think the U.S. reading of UNCLOS is the correct one, the Chinese are not alone in their interpretation.  And as this editorial from China’s leading state-run English language paper indicates, the Chinese are going to emphasize this difference in legal interpretations in their response.

Of all foreign military activities in the special economic zones (especially those of China and the U.S.), the innocent passage of warships through territorial seas, have fueled the majority of clashes and disagreements, as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea fails to provide explicit regulations on such activities.

To be sure, the Chinese may be shifting their own views since the Chinese Navy recently entered U.S. territorial seas on an “innocent passage”. But the official Chinese position still would require the U.S. to get permission before entering its 12 nm territorial seas.

One more note:  because several of China’s “artificial islands” are not islands but underwater features like shoals or reefs, the U.S. position ought to be that there is no “innocent passage” requirement for its naval ships even after entering within 12 nm miles.  Because China’s artificial island do not generate a 12 nm territorial sea, the U.S. should make clear it is NOT following the rules of innocent passage.

In any event, although international law is important, it cannot by itself resolve this festering US-China dispute until both sides agree on what international law actually requires.

Under the New “Investor-State Arbitration” in the Trans Pacific Partnership, Claimants May Have to Pay Attorneys’ Fees

by Julian Ku

The U.S. and eleven other Pacific Rim countries announced they have reached agreement on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which will more tightly integrate 40% of the world’s economy into a single regional bloc. There will be a huge fight in Congress over the TPP by progressive Democrats in the U.S. Even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has already announced her opposition (sort of).

One area of ire for critics will certainly be the TPP’s provisions for investor-state dispute resolution (See Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s attack on this area here).  The TPP negotiators seem to have recognized that those provisions needed modifications and they seem to have focused on providing more transparency in arbitral proceedings.  But I was particularly struck by the U.S. Trade Representative’s official summary of the agreement’s provisions on investor state arbitration below.

The chapter also provides for neutral and transparent international arbitration of investment disputes, with strong safeguards to prevent abusive and frivolous claims and ensure the right of governments to regulate in the public interest, including on health, safety, and environmental protection.  The procedural safeguards include:  transparent arbitral proceedings, amicus curiae submissions, non-disputing Party submissions; expedited review of frivolous claims and possible award of attorneys’ fees; review procedure for an interim award; binding joint interpretations by TPP Parties; time limits on bringing a claim; and rules to prevent a claimant pursuing the same claim in parallel proceedings.

I find this provision on attorneys’ fees fascinating. I presume this will allow state-respondents to actually recover attorneys’ fees from investor-claimants if those claims were somehow deemed frivolous.  I didn’t realize frivolous claims were actually a huge problem in investor-state dispute resolution.  I am not aware of data showing lots of weak claims being filed with state-respondents just settling to avoid the costs of arbitration.

I am also not aware of any other kind of international dispute resolution, public or private, which has this kind of arrangement. It is worth the wait to see the details, but it is sign the TPP negotiators are getting ready to take fire on this area from folks like Sen. Warren, and have added a little armor ahead of time.

The U.S. Embargo on Cuba May Be a Bad Idea, But It Doesn’t Violate the UN Charter

by Julian Ku

The UN General Assembly is set to vote once again (for the 24th consecutive year) on a Cuba-sponsored resolution condemning the United States’ economic, commercial, and financial embargo against Cuba.  This resolution will probably get near majority support, and perhaps even unanimous support.  Indeed, there are rumors that the U.S. government itself may abstain from voting against the resolution, which is certainly odd and perhaps unprecedented.  Cuban President Raul Castro’s speech at the UN reiterated his demand that the U.S. end its embargo and sanctions on Cuba.

I don’t want to get into the merits of whether the U.S. should have an embargo on Cuba here, but I am baffled by the implication that the embargo violates international law.  The GA resolution doesn’t quite condemn the US embargo as illegal, but it comes close.  From last year‘s resolution:

2. Reiterates its call upon all States to refrain from promulgating and applying laws and measures of the kind referred to in the preamble to the present resolution, in conformity with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and international law, which, inter alia, reaffirm the freedom of trade and navigation;

Now Cuba has long called the U.S. embargo a “blockade”, which would be illegal under international law.  But despite some economic penalties on third-party countries trading with Cuba (largely never applied and always suspended), the U.S. does not actually prevent, militarily or otherwise, other countries from trading with Cuba.

I am heartened to see that the GA thinks the UN Charter reaffirms the freedom of trade and navigation, but I am not aware of any authority for the proposition that a country’s choice not to trade with another country is a violation of the Charter’s non-existent textual references to the freedom of trade and navigation.

Here’s the problem with U.S. (and other nations’) acquiescence with the Cuba resolution’s language.  It strongly suggests that a country cannot impose a unilateral embargo on another country without somehow violating its UN Charter obligations.  This can’t possibly be something the EU or Canada can or should sign onto as a matter of principle.  And it is even odder for the U.S. administration to agree to this idea, when its main policy for dealing with foreign aggression (e.g. Russia in Ukraine) is the unilateral imposition of sanctions.

So I think it would be perfectly appropriate (and indeed necessary) for the U.S. and other countries that impose unilateral sanctions to oppose this resolution on principle.  They won’t of course, but they should.

ICJ Rules (14-2) It Has Jurisdiction to Hear Bolivia’s Claim Against Chile

by Julian Ku

So the ICJ ruled today (14-2) that the Court does have jurisdiction to hear Bolivia’s claim that Chile has violated its legal obligation to negotiate “sovereign access to the sea” despite a 1904 Treaty that had settled the borders between the two countries.  I have been super-critical of Bolivia’s claim, going so far as to suggest there was a slam-dunk case against admissibility and jurisdiction since the basis of jurisdiction, the Bogotá Treaty, excludes cases where dispute has been settled by “arrangement” between the parties.  I suggested on Tuesday that perhaps the Court would take the case after all, despite the weaknesses of Bolivia’s case, and I received some tough criticism from commenters suggesting Bolivia has a very strong case for jurisdiction.

I still think Bolivia (and the commenters) are wrong, but obviously 14 judges of the ICJ disagree with me.  I’ve said my piece, so I won’t beat a dead horse (for too much longer).  I will only excerpt below Professor Harold Koh’s pithy explanation (from his oral presentation) as to why granting jurisdiction here is going to lead to lots of bad consequences.

10. Under Bolivia’s novel theory, by clever pleading, applicants could manufacture jurisdiction in this Court regarding previously settled matters. And this Court can expect to hear many more preliminary objection sessions like the one yesterday, replete with snippets of speeches, ministerial statements, and diplomatic exchanges as reasons to avoid the jurisdictional bar of Article VI. Notwithstanding Mr. Akhavan’s effort to underplay, Bolivia’s theory would doubtless encourage unilateral attempts to re-litigate the continent’s history and borders. The careful limits established by the Pact of Bogotá would become increasingly meaningless.

11. Mr. President, Members of the Court, the stakes here are larger than the interests of just these two Parties. The two treaties relevant to jurisdiction are part of a larger treaty network that binds Bolivia and Chile. The Pact of Bogotá succeeded in barring existing territorial settlements and other settlement matters from being reopened at the sole initiative of one State. But as Sir Daniel recounted, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, at least 12 separate treaties Bolivia settled disputed boundaries not just with Chile, but also with all four of its other neighbours106. May Bolivia now come before this Court to seek an order directing renegotiation of all of those other borders as well? And even if Bolivia did not, could those other regional partners also come to the Court seeking an order directing renegotiation of their borders?

Here Comes the ICJ’s Chile-Bolivia Ruling

by Julian Ku

Latin  America is a trendy place for ICJ litigation these days with Colombia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Chile and Bolivia all currently embroiled in ICJ cases.  Indeed, it seems like Nicaragua alone is generating almost half of the ICJ’s current docket.  On Thursday (September 24), the ICJ will (finally) issue its ruling on Chile’s preliminary objections to its jurisdiction over Bolivia’s demand that Chile open negotiations to grant Bolivia sovereign access to the sea.

I have been harshly critical of Bolivia’s case calling it a slam dunk case for Chile on admissibility. To summarize briefly, Chile and Bolivia agreed in a 1904 treaty on a territorial settlement. Bolivia alleges that Chile has subsequently undertaken a legal obligation to “negotiate sovereign access to the sea” for Bolivia.  I found Bolivia’s evidence that Chile has undertaken such an obligation to negotiate extremely thin.

Having scanned the memorials, I am not very much more impressed by Bolivia’s arguments. On the other hand, I see that Chile has retained a pretty high-powered set of international lawyers including U.S-based law professors Claudio Grossman, Dean at American University, Harold Koh, former Dean at Yale Law and U.S. Legal Adviser, and Nienke Grossman, Professor, University of Baltimore.  And this list does not even mention well-known Europeans such as Sir Daniel Bethlehem, Q.C., Barrister, Bar of England and Wales, 20 Essex Street Chambers and Pierre-Marie Dupuy, Professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies and Development, Geneva. And I haven’t even mentioned the dozen other high-powered folks on Chile’s legal team.   I totally agree with their arguments (even Harold Koh and I agree!).

Though I think Chile has very good arguments, the fact that Chile has retained (and presumably paid) so many top international lawyers suggests Chile is worried the Court will allow Bolivia’s claim to proceed.  So even though I think Bolivia’s claim is very weak, it is probably true that courts, international or domestic, hate giving up cases on jurisdiction if there is the thinnest basis for taking the case.  Given the ICJ is not all that busy these days, this could be tempting for the court, and that could be trouble for Chile.

Does President Obama Have to Send the “Cyber Arms Control” Agreement with China to the Senate?

by Julian Ku

U.S. and Chinese negotiators are apparently very close to working out an agreement to limit the use of cyberweapons against each other.  There is talk that this agreement will be concluded before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the U.S. next week.  The agreement will be pretty narrow in scope and apparently would not address the acts of cyber-theft and espionage that China allegedly carried out earlier this year. According to the NYT:

The United States and China are negotiating what could become the first arms control accord for cyberspace, embracing a commitment by each country that it will not be the first to use cyberweapons to cripple the other’s critical infrastructure during peacetime, according to officials involved in the talks.

I am skeptical that this kind of agreement could be effective for the reasons that Jack Goldsmith and Paul Rosenzweig have laid out (see also Goldsmith at greater length here).  But putting aside its effectiveness, it is worth asking whether a “cyber arms control agreement” would be the type of an agreement that required approval by two-thirds of the Senate as a treaty.

Much depends on exactly what the agreement purports to do.  If the agreement actually contains a commitment by the U.S. to “not be the first to use cyberweapons to cripple the other’s critical infrastructure”, than it is much closer to the traditional kinds of arms control agreements that have usually been approved under the U.S. system as treaties.  Unlike the Iran Nuclear Deal (which is mostly about lifting economic sanctions), the U.S. would be committing to refraining from using certain weapons or from exercising its military forces.

On the other hand, U.S administration sources caution that this agreement would not lay out specific obligations, but it “would be a more ‘generic embrace’ of a code of conduct adopted recently by a working group at the United Nations.” But even an agreement incorporating that code of conduct might be considered an “arms control” agreement since it requires that a state “should not conduct or knowingly support ICT activity contrary to its obligations under international law that intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use and operation of critical infrastructure to provide services to the public;” The rest of the code of conduct also imposes fairly robust obligations on a state.

I will have to think about this some more, but on first cut, it is possible that this cyber control agreement will have to be sent to the Senate as a treaty.  I think Senate approval of such a treaty would be a non-starter given the current political climate, so perhaps the Obama Administration will announce that this will be a sole executive agreement after all.  Whether that is permitted under the Constitution remains unclear though.


Why Professors Ackerman and Golove Are Still Wrong About the Iran Deal

by Julian Ku

I thank Professors Ackerman and Golove for taking the time to respond to my earlier post on whether a future President could unilaterally withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal.  But I remain unconvinced by the claims they made in their original Atlantic essay that a future President’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Deal would be “lawless”. Here’s why I still think they are wrong:

1)  Ackerman and Golove argue that the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act “authorizes” President Obama to enter into binding congressional-executive agreement with Iran.  In their sur-reply, Professors Ackerman and Golove cite two pieces of statutory text from the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act which they say is congressional authorization for the President to conclude the Iran Deal (the JCPOA).  They point out that the act “specifically defines ‘agreement’ to include any accord with Iran ‘regardless of whether it is legally binding or not.’ § 2610e(h)(1).” They then point out that the Act “authorizes the President to implement sanctions relief unless Congress enacts ‘a joint resolution stating in substance that the Congress does not favor the agreement.’ 42 U.S.C. § 2610e(c)(2)(B).”

For the purpose of this argument, it doesn’t really matter whether the agreement is legally binding or not.  The real problem is that Professors Ackerman and Golove do not (and cannot) cite statutory text “authorizing” the President to enter into an agreement with Iran.  They can’t cite this text because that language does not exist in the Act.  The Act defines an “agreement” broadly because Congress wants the President transmit everything, including supporting materials and annexes, to Congress.  The Act suspends the President’s pre-existing power to suspend or terminate sanctions on Iran while Congress “reviews” the agreement.  Congress may vote a resolution of disapproval, which would prevent the President from lifting or waiving sanctions, but it doesn’t say he can’t enter into the Agreement.  But Congress may also simply do nothing (which is what it has done), which would also allow the President to lift the sanctions after 90 days.  Nothing in the Act says the President can’t enter into the Agreement. It just says, once he does so, he has to disclose that agreement to Congress and hold off on implementation.*

Professors Ackerman and Golove somehow read this framework as an authorization of the President’s power to conclude an agreement, but a more plausible reading of the Act as a whole sees it as a suspension of the President’s pre-existing power to implement an agreement.  If you think (as I do) that the President has broad powers to conclude international agreements (especially nonbinding ones) without Congress, then this law makes a lot of sense since it requires the President to suspend implementation of the agreement for 60 or 90 days and disclose all information about the agreement.

Under the Ackerman/Golove reading of this language, Congress has authorized the President to enter into whatever agreement with Iran he wants, and the only condition it places on it is that Congress gets 90 days to review it before it automatically goes into effect. Why would  Congress bother to give the President the power to enter into an agreement without reserving for itself the power to approve it?

It is worth noting that Congress knows how to specifically authorize an executive agreement, and require its approval before going into effect.  In Section 103(b) of the Trade Promotion Authority Act (enacted about the same time as the Review Act), Congress states that:

“[w]henever the President determines that one or more existing duties or other import restrictions of any foreign country or the United States are unduly burdening and restricting the foreign trade of the United States and that the purposes, policies, priorities, and objectives of this title will be promoted thereby, the President

(A) may enter into trade agreements with foreign countries before— (i) July 1, 2018…

[Emphasis added].

Moreover, the trade agreements require approval by a separate Act of Congress.  As the TPA bill makes clear in Section 106, no agreement “entered into under section 103(b) shall enter into force with respect to the United States if (and only if)—” among other requirements — “(F) the implementing bill is enacted into law.” [Emphasis added).  Again, Congress is making clear that it ( and not the President) is the one who has authorized the agreement and that the agreement cannot have any force until Congress acts to approve and implement it.

It bears repeating: there is no language even remotely like this in Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. There is no language saying the President can enter into an agreement, nor is there language explaining when that agreement has “entered into force.”  Congress knows how to authorize an international agreement, and the most natural reading of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act is that it didn’t do so there.

2) Professors Ackerman and Golove also argue that a future President cannot legally (under U.S. law) terminate this agreement without either approval from Congress or without undermining U.S. credibility in trade agreements like NAFTA or the WTO.

I find this argument lacking for at least two reasons.

First, as I stated above, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act doesn’t follow the pattern of trade promotion authority laws  in any way so it is highly unlikely that any trading partners will worry about a President Rubio pulling out of the WTO because he pulled out of the JCPOA. (Simon Lester makes that point here)

Moreover, the Review Act does not in any way prohibit a future President from withdrawing from the JCPOA, nor does it prohibit the President from reimposing sanctions on Iran. He is perfectly free to put them back on without violating the Review Act or any other U.S. statutory law.

The contrast with trade agreements is again instructive because Congress knows how to reserve to itself the power to terminate an agreement.  Under Section 125 of the Uruguay Agreements Implementation Act, Congress can vote every five years on whether to pull out of the WTO. This suggests that Congress has reserved for itself some power to terminate the WTO agreement. And because the laws implementing the WTO agreement change all sorts of other U.S. laws, it makes sense for Congress to supervise how and when the U.S. gets out. (It bear repeating: terminating the JCPOA does NOT violate or change any U.S. domestic law).

Second, as I noted in my original post, even if the Iran Deal was a treaty approved by the Senate, there is good reason to think the President could withdraw from the Iran deal-treaty without going back to the Senate for approval.  President Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty without going to the Senate, President Carter withdrew from the U.S.-Taiwan defense treaty without going to the Senate, etc.  For this reason, a future President could withdraw from the JCPOA (even if the JCPOA is legally binding) without going back to Congress, especially where the Review Act does not reserve to Congress any termination rights.  Thus, even if Professors Ackerman and Golove are right that the Review Act authorizes the President to enter into an agreement, it doesn’t REQUIRE him to do so or REQUIRE him to stay in the JCPOA. (And he can withdraw via the JCPOA’s provisions if he chooses).

In conclusion, I am back where I started.  Professors Ackerman and Golove use the thinnest of statutory language to claim that Congress “authorized” the President to make an agreement, and further, that Congress has also prohibited the President from withdrawing from it.  That’s a lot of work for a mere definition of the word “agreement” to carry. It’s far too much, especially when one considers the way Congress goes about its business in the trade agreement context.  The next President can unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA. And, with all due respect to Professors Ackerman and Golove, such a withdrawal will be the opposite of “lawless.”


*As a side note, the fact that the definition of an agreement includes non-binding political commitments suggests that Congress is really after review and disclosure, not authorization and approval.  Could Congress authorize the President to enter into a non-binding political commitment? And then require him and future presidents to stick to such a commitment?

President Rubio/Walker/Trump/Whomever Can Indeed Terminate the Iran Deal on “Day One”

by Julian Ku

Professors Bruce Ackerman and David Golove argue in this Atlantic essay that the next President cannot withdraw from the Iran agreement because it is a “congressionally authorized executive agreement.” They argue that Senator Marco Rubio’s pledge to terminate the Iran Deal on day one “would destroy the binding character of America’s commitments to the IMF, the World Bank, NAFTA, and the World Trade Organization….The President can no more walk away from them than he can from any other law or treaty.”

I am sorry to say that this article, which comes from two super-respected legal scholars, is deeply and badly mistaken.

This argument is based on the premise that the “legislation that Congress adopted last May, …explicitly grants the Administration authority to negotiate and implement binding legal commitments with Iran.” In their view, the Iran Deal is a simply a congressional-executive agreement exactly akin to U.S. trade agreements like NAFTA.

But this premise is wrong.  The U.S. government has repeatedly stated (see here)  that the “Joint Coordinated Plan of Action” between Iran and the P-6 powers is a “nonbinding” political commitment. And the JCPOA itself talks only of “voluntary measures.” (see Dan Joyner’s discussion of this here).   Even the United Nations Security Council Resolution that implements the JCPOA does not legally bind the U.S. to stick to the JCPOA (as John Bellinger argues here).

Nor does the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act explicitly (or implicitly) authorize the President to make an agreement with Iran that would go beyond the President’s existing constitutional powers to make sole-executive agreements or nonbinding political commitments. The Review Act simply sets up a disclosure and timetable regime for the President’s disclosure of his foreign affairs activities that he wouldn’t otherwise have to disclose to Congress.

It is nothing like the Trade Promotion Authority that the President has received to conclude trade agreements like NAFTA or the WTO. While the Review Act discusses agreements that were already made and sets out disclosure and timing requirements, Trade Promotion Authority laws (like the most recent one) say things like: “the President— (A) may enter into trade agreements with foreign countries before” certain dates and then cannot afterwards.”  This is explicit authority, and no similar language can be found in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

In any event, Ackerman and Golove are also mistaken on a more mundane point. Even if the Iran Deal is a binding congressionally authorized international agreement, a future President could withdraw from such an agreement unilaterally.  This is true because: 1) the JCPOA itself has an “exit ramp” under Paragraph 36 which allows the U.S. to terminate its participation after 35 days if its concerns about Iran’s compliance are not satisfied; and 2) the President appears to have broad constitutional powers to unilaterally terminate treaties without Congress or the Senate’s approval.  Surely, the President could terminate a nonbinding voluntary “plan of action” without going back to a Congress that didn’t really authorize him to make an agreement in the first place.

Even though I am increasingly convinced that the Iran Nuclear Deal is a bad deal for the U.S. and Europe (not to mention Israel), I have publicly defended the legality of President Obama’s decision to conclude a nuclear “agreement” with Iran without going to Congress to get approval. But the decision to bypass Congress has got to have a price for the President.  And that price is that the Iran Deal does not bind his predecessor either as a matter of constitutional or international law.

The Difference Between the British and American Debates Over the Legality of Drone Strikes: The Brits Seem to Care About International Law

by Julian Ku

Earlier this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK had conducted a lethal drone strike against one of its own nationals (affiliated with ISIS)  in August and that the British government was confident of the strike’s legality under international law.

As an outside observer, I am fascinated at how important the drone strike’s legality under international law seems to be for UK policymakers and commentators.  The BBC’s useful analysis of “Who, What, Why: When is it legal to kill your own citizens?” is exclusively focused on the legality of the strike under international law.  So is this editorial from the UK newspaper The Independent.

To be sure, the US debate over drone strikes also dealt seriously with international law.  But the most powerful legal arguments against drone strikes were those made on the basis of the U.S. Constitution’s Due Process Clause and U.S. statutes criminalizing murder of U.S. nationals abroad. International legality has not played a big part in this litigation, nor even in its broader public debate. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky famously filibustered for a whole day against targeted killings but his legal complaint was wholly constitutional.

But as far as I can tell, there has been little discussion of whether the UK government’s killing of a UK national abroad violates the UK Human Rights Act (incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights) or UK statutory law more generally.  I may be missing something, but it does seem a telling difference in the nature of public and legal discourse in the two countries.


U.S. Prepared to Launch Possibly Illegal Airstrikes Against Assad (But That’s OK)

by Julian Ku

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama has authorized U.S. military forces to use air power to defend  U.S.-trained Syrian rebels if those rebels are attacked by the Syrian government forces.

President Barack Obama has authorized using air power to defend a new U.S.-backed fighting force in Syria if it is attacked by Syrian government forces or other groups, raising the risk of the American military coming into direct conflict with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“For offensive operations, it’s ISIS only. But if attacked, we’ll defend them against anyone who’s attacking them,” said a senior military official. “We’re not looking to engage the regime, but we’ve made a commitment to help defend these people.”

I totally understand the reason for this policy. If the U.S. is going to train and support Syrian forces, and give them air support, it makes sense to provide air cover against all attacks.  But the legality of this policy under U.S. law requires reliance on the kind of pure presidentialism President Obama is supposedly against.  And its legality under international law is pretty tenuous as well.

Under U.S. law, the President is sort-of-authorized to attack ISIS under a very sketchy interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. It is a very sketchy interpretation, but even that sketchy interpretation can’t justify air strikes on the Syrian government in Syrian territory and in defense of rebels involved in the Syrian civil war.  So the only legal theory that would support the U.S. position here is reliance on the President’s inherent powers under Article II of the Constitution without any claim of congressional authorization.  That’s all well and good, but it is another nail in the coffin for the congressionalist legal theory embraced by Candidate Obama in 2007.  Remember that? When Obama said the Constitution required the President to go to Congress unless the President needed to act against an imminent attack?  It seems so long ago.

Under international law, the Russians are already pointing out that using military force in a foreign country against that country’s recognized government is a violation of the U.N. Charter since there is no Security Council authorization here.  There isn’t even a clear “humanitarian intervention” theory here, at least not if the air strikes are only defensive.

And yet, I have little doubt that the U.S. will carry out the strikes if needed and that there will be almost no fuss in the U.S. about its constitutionality.  Article II is alive and well in the Obama era.  There may be little bit more fuss overseas about its legality under international law, since that seems a tough case to make. But it is hard to imagine that international law will act as much of constraint here either.