Archive of posts for category
Featured Posts

Defending the FSA Against Russia — the Jus ad Bellum Perspective

by Kevin Jon Heller

It’s been widely reported over the past few days that Russia has been bombing the Free Syrian Army under the pretext of joining the fight against ISIS. That development spurred an interesting post at Lawfare by Bobby Chesney about whether Art. II of the Constitution — the Commander-in-Chief Clause — would permit the US to defend the FSA, which it has been equipping and training. As Bobby points out, rather skeptically I think, the USG seems to believe it would (internal block quote omitted):

[I]t is an interesting legal question, especially in light of recent testimony from Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Wormuth to the effect that Article II could be invoked to permit U.S. forces to defend DOD-trained Syrian forces in the event of an attack on them by Assad regime forces.  Wormuth’s position was repeated by an unnamed “senior administration official” a few days ago.

Given this position, is there any reason to think the answer would be different if we are talking instead about Russian forces attacking those same DOD-trained units?  I see no reason why that would be the case, though the policy stakes obviously are immensely different.  Next, is there anything different if instead we are talking about CIA-trained, rather than DOD-trained, Syrian forces.  Again, I can’t see why this would alter the analysis; under the apparent theory of the Obama administration, the government already possesses whatever legal authority would be needed to use force to prevent Russian jets from striking U.S.-sponsored Syrian units.

I have no doubt Bobby’s right — as I said on Twitter, he has forgotten more about Art. II than I ever knew. I just want to point out that invoking Art. II to defend the FSA against Russia would be more than a little perverse given the status of such an attack under international law — the jus ad bellum, in particular.

Let’s start with Russia. Although its attacks on the FSA might have violated the jus in bello — I certainly wouldn’t be surprised — they did not violate the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force with regard to Syria, because they were conducted with the Syrian government’s consent. Nor is there any plausible argument for viewing the Russian actions as an armed attack on the US — whatever the Art. II argument about the US’s “national interest” (see this skeptical Jack Goldsmith post), an attack on the FSA is not a use of force against the US’s “territorial integrity or political independence.”

What this means, of course, is that the US could not invoke self-defense under Art. 51 to justify using force against Russia to defend the FSA — say, by destroying a Russian bomber. Not only would such a use of force create an international armed conflict between the US and Russia, it would itself qualify as an armed attack under Art. 2(4), thereby permitting Russia to use force against the US in self-defense. Russia would simply be responding to an unlawful act of aggression by the US.

(To be sure, the same analysis would apply to any US use of force against Syria in defense of the FSA. But it would obviously be a much bigger deal for the US to commit an aggressive act against a major Western power — one that is also a permanent member of the Security Council.)

Again, I have no idea how these jus ad bellum considerations affect the Art. II analysis. Knowing the US, the fact that attacking Russia would qualify as an unlawful act of aggression might be irrelevant. The optics of using Art. II to justify such an attack would nevertheless be deeply troubling, to say the least.

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.

That “Broad Consensus” for Unwilling/Unable Just Got Less Broad

by Kevin Jon Heller

A few days ago, I pointed out that Kate Martin’s “broad consensus that there is a right to use military force in self-defense when the host country is unable or unwilling to stop the attack” actually includes no more than four of the world’s 194 states. That consensus is not exactly broad — and it looks even shakier now that Russia has apparently rejected the “unwilling or unable” test in the context of Syria:

On Saturday, France launched a campaign of airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. Commenting on the effort, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova pondered what kind of conception of ‘self-defense’ would drive one country to carry out an operation to bomb another without that country’s explicit permission.

Earlier, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was cited by French media as saying that Paris’s bombing campaign constitutes self-defense. “We are acting in self-defense,” Valls noted, according to Reuters.

In a post on her Facebook page, Zakharova pondered that “it would be nice to know more about this concept of self-defense, in the form of air strikes [on the territory of Syria,] a state which did not attack anyone, and without its consent, and about this concept’s compliance with international law.”

The spokeswoman referred to the fact that in its air campaign against ISIL, the Western coalition never once found the need to consult with Syria’s legitimate government, and on the contrary, has repeatedly declared that the elected government of Bashar Assad cannot be part of Syria’s future.Zakharova noted that she found it entertaining that “the referendum in Crimea is called an annexation, but air strikes conducted without the approval of the Security Council or of the receiving side is self-defense.”

The spokeswoman emphasized that while “it’s clear that the Islamic State is a threat to the entire world,” first two questions must be answered: “First, who was it that created ISIL? And second, on what basis are you acting on the territory of a sovereign state, bypassing a legitimate government which not only does not support, but is selflessly fighting against ISIL?”

Zakharova concluded that “this is not international law; this is its abolition in front of a shocked international community.”

If I was being picky, I would acknowledge that Zakharova did not specifically reject “unwilling or unable.” Her emphasis on the requirement of Syria’s consent nevertheless implicitly rejects “unwilling or unable” far more clearly than the statements by various governments that supposedly — according to Ashley Deeks — support the test. So it is more than fair to count Russia in the anti-“unwilling or unable” camp.

If you’re keeping score at home, that makes it: at most four states that support “unwilling or unable”; at least one state that rejects it.

And yet scholars claim that there is a “broad consensus” in favour of the test. Thus does method die not with a bang, but a whimper.

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?

Book Symposium: Cyber War–Introduction

by Kevin Govern

[Kevin Govern is Associate Professor of Law at Ave Maria School of Law.]

The science fiction author William Gibson coined the term cyberspace in his short story, Burning Chrome (1982), before most of the public had a concept of, let alone experience with, using networked computer systems. Science fiction has given way to cyber reality, with 42.3% of the world’s population using the Internet on a regular basis, some 741% growth between 2000-2014 alone. At the same time, cyber weapons and cyber warfare are among the most dangerous innovations in recent years. Cyber weapons can imperil economic, political, and military systems by a single act, or by multifaceted orders of effect, with wide ranging potential consequences. A non-exclusive list of some notable past cyber incidents includes but is not limited to:

The US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, recently told the House intelligence committee the next phase of escalating online data theft most likely will involve manipulation of digital information, with a lower likelihood of a “cyber Armageddon” of digitally triggered damage to catastrophically damage physical infrastructure.

Contemporaneous with this writing, a Chinese delegation met with representatives from the FBI, the intelligence community and the state, treasury and justice departments for a “frank and open exchange about cyber issues” amounting to “urgent negotiations…on a cybersecurity deal and may announce an agreement when President Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Washington on a state visit on Thursday [24 September].”

In this era of great cyber peril and opportunity, my colleagues and co-editors Jens Ohlin from Cornell Law School and Claire Finkelstein from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and I had the privilege of contributing to and editing a book that assembles the timely and insightful writings of renowned technical experts, industrial leaders, philosophers, legal scholars, and military officers as presented at a Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law roundtable conference entitled Cyberwar and the Rule of Law.

The collected work, Cyber War – Law and Ethics for Virtual Conflicts, explores cyber warfare’s moral and legal issues in three categories. First, it addresses foundational questions regarding cyber attacks. What are they and what does it mean to talk about a cyber war? State sponsored cyber warriors as well as hackers employ ever more sophisticated and persistent means to penetrate government computer systems; in response, governments and industry develop more elaborate and innovative defensive systems. The book presents alternative views concerning whether the laws of war should apply, whether transnational criminal law or some other peacetime framework is more appropriate, or if there is a tipping point that enables the laws of war to be used. Secondly, this work examines the key principles of the law of war, or jus in bello, to determine how they might be applied to cyber-conflicts, in particular those of proportionality and necessity. It also investigates the distinction between civilian and combatant in this context, and studies the level of causation necessary to elicit a response, looking at the notion of a “proximate cause.” Finally, it analyzes the specific operational realities implicated by cyber warfare technology employed and deployed under existing and potential future regulatory regimes.

Here is the full Table of Contents: (more…)

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.


Guest Post: A Presumption Against Authorization in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act

by David H. Moore

[David H. Moore is a Professor at the J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University.]

Professors Ackerman and Golove, on one hand, and Professor Ku, on the other, disagree over whether the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act provides statutory authorization for the recent Iran Deal. The resolution of this question bears on whether a future President may unilaterally withdraw from the Deal. Both sides begin and end their analysis in the text, purpose, and history of the Act. At the outset, however, the authorization inquiry should face a presumption against authorization.

Analysis of presidential power questions is stacked in the President’s favor. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly explained, the President acts lawfully when supported by constitutional or congressional delegations of power. Defining the President’s constitutional powers presents difficult and far-reaching questions such as the meaning of the Vesting Clause and the distribution of war powers. Accordingly, the Court has an incentive to decide presidential power cases by reference to Congress.

Applying Justice Jackson’s framework, the Court upholds presidential action, with very rare exception, if the President acts with congressional approval. If Congress has remained silent, the President, and perhaps more importantly, the Court sits in a twilight zone in which Jackson’s analysis provides little to no guidance as to the legality of the President’s conduct. If Congress disapproves the President’s action, the President’s power is at its lowest ebb. The President will lose unless, as in Zivotofsky, the President possesses an exclusive power to perform the challenged actr. But to find exclusive power, the Court must engage those difficult constitutional questions. Thus, the easiest way to resolve a case is to find congressional approval. As Dames & Moore illustrates, the Court will sometimes scratch hard for evidence of authorization. The President exploits this dynamic by avoiding Congress and cobbling together evidence of congressional approval. Reliance on the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force to combat ISIS is, in my mind, a good example.

Further, even if a statutory authorization is clear, it is suspect. As I have discussed here, Congress has a variety of reasons to delegate power to the President against institutional interest. Reelection concerns, for example, might motivate Congress to affirmatively delegate foreign affairs decisions to the President to leave time to focus on domestic matters that are more salient to constituents.

The aggregation of these dynamics means that assessing the legality of presidential action by reference to Congress tends toward the expansion of presidential power. One way to check this expansion is to begin the search for congressional approval with a presumption against authorization. Applying such a presumption to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act would render Professor Ackerman and Golove’s interpretation, and similar arguments for congressional approval, even more suspect than Professor Ku asserts.

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?

Guest Post: The Lawless Presidency of Marco Rubio–A Reply to Professor Ku

by Bruce Ackerman and David Golove

[Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, is the author of The Decline and Fall of the American Republic and David Golove, Hiller Family Foundation Professor of Law, New York University School of Law, is the co-author of Is NAFTA Constitutional?]

Responding to our essay in the Atlantic, Professor Julian Ku believes that we are “deeply and badly mistaken” in criticizing Senator Rubio’s claim that the next President has constitutional authority to repudiate the Iran Nuclear Agreement on his first day in office.

We are not convinced.

According to Professor Ku, nothing in the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act explicitly (or implicitly) authorize[s] 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.”

This claim boldly ignores the Iran Act’s key operative provisions. The Act specifically defines “agreement” to include any accord with Iran “regardless of whether it is legally binding or not.” § 2610e(h)(1).  It then 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).

Professor Ku is simply wrong in asserting that the statute is silent on the issue of legality. Congress was fully apprised of the President’s intention to conclude an accord. Far from objecting to his plans, it granted him authority to implement any “agreement” – so long as it passed its own specially devised procedure for reviewing the deal

He does, however, have a fallback position. Although Congress plainly gave the president authority to create a “legally binding” agreement, it did not require him to do so – and Professor Ku notes that the Administration at one stage denied that it had any such intention.

When those comments were made, President Obama was thinking of making an Iran deal entirely on his own authority. If he had taken this route, it was only natural for him to concede that he could not bind his successors to his purely executive agreement.

But the constitutional situation radically changed once the President signed the Iran Act in May. When Secretary Kerry hammered out the terms of the Six Power Agreement with Iran on July 14, he could do so with assurance that the agreement had the force of statutory authorization behind it, so long as it survived Congressional review.  Professor Ku fails to point to any subsequent statement from the State Department suggesting that the Administration did not take full advantage of its new legal powers.[1]

In any event, we should be looking at the text of the Agreement itself to determine its legal status. Once again, Professor Ku’s interpretations of the text refute, rather than confirm, his larger claim. He emphasizes that Paragraph 36 of the Agreement creates an “exit ramp” for any party confronted with “significant non-performance” by another signatory.  This is surely an important provision, but it supposes that the American commitment is indeed binding unless and until such a “significant” breach has been established.

To override this obvious implication, the Agreement could have declared explicitly that, appearances to the contrary, it was non-binding.  But no such provision exists. Contrast a recent agreement also dealing with military affairs – the 2011 Vienna Document on Confidence and Security-Building Measures – which loudly proclaims: “The measures adopted in this document are politically binding and will come into force on 1 December 2011.”

Since Professor Ku rests his textual case on Paragraph 36, he has failed to present a convincing defense of Rubio’s position. The Senator is not telling the American people that he would terminate the agreement if he soberly determined that Iran’s on-going conduct fell significantly short of its commitments. Instead, he is saying that “there is nothing” about the agreement “that is binding on the next administration.”

Other commentators have presented additional arguments – both pro and con – based on the language of the agreement. Compare here with here.  A full assessment is beyond the scope of a brief blog-post. It is enough to explain why Professor Ku’s critique entirely fails to refute our position.

[1] Our own independent search of the record has uncovered one relevant sentence from the post-ratification period. It appears on the White House site encouraging the general public to submit petitions soliciting presidential action. This particular petition, with 322,000 signatures, asserted that “47 senators have committed treason”, as well as a violation of the Logan Act, in writing a  “condescending letter to the Iranian government stating that any agreement brokered by our President would not be upheld once the president leaves office.” We do not know who was assigned the task of preparing a brief response to this inflammatory petition. But the anonymous author refused to confront the treason charge directly, providing a discussion which emphasized Congress constructive role, and contenting itself with the observation that “The United States has a longstanding practice of addressing sensitive problems in negotiations that culminate in political commitments, including in areas of national security significance.” See here. This sentence did not engage in any discussion of the Agreement’s text, nor does it explicitly address the interpretive issues we have discussed. Given the surrounding context, it cannot be fairly construed as a serious statement from a high-level official committing the Administration to a well-reasoned position that rejects the legally binding  character of the Iran agreement.

Guest Post: Is the International Criminal Court in Need of Support to Clarify the Status of Heads of States’ Immunities?

by Alexandre Skander Galand

[Alexandre Skander Galand is a Ph.D. Candidate at the European University Institute (EUI), Law Department.]

In the aftermath of the last episode of the ‘Al-Bashir saga’, one might have wondered what the International Criminal Court (ICC) will do with the last report (filed on 17 June 2015) of the ICC registry concerning South Africa’s failure to arrest and surrender Sudan’s President. The answer is now clear: there will be proceedings to determine whether South Africa failed to cooperate with the ICC. Indeed, last Friday 4 September, Pre-Trial Chamber II issued an “Order requesting submissions from the Republic of South Africa for the purposes of proceedings under article 87(7) of the Rome Statute”.

As it is known, the Decision of Pretoria High Court Judge Hans Fabricius on 15 June directing the various executive authorities of South Africa to take all necessary steps to prevent President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan from leaving South Africa was overlooked by the concerned authorities. On the next day, just after the High Court handed down its decision that Al-Bashir be arrested and detained, the counsel for the South African executive authorities informed the Court that Sudan’s President had already left the country.

The ‘Al-Bashir Saga’ raises the question of whether it is crystal clear that Al-Bashir is not immune from the ICC and its States parties’ exercise of jurisdiction. Is the immunity of Heads of States not parties to the Rome Statute completely irrelevant when a State enforces an ICC arrest warrant? Or, must the State be deemed to have waived its immunity? If so, is a Security Council (SC) referral sufficient to waive the immunity of a Head of State? Or, must the immunity to which the Head of State is entitled under international law be explicitly waived by the SC?

The ICC says: In claris non fit interpretatio

Three days before the Pretoria High Court ruling, the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) held:

“it is unnecessary to further clarify that the Republic of South Africa is under the duty under the Rome Statute to immediately arrest Omar Al-Bashir and surrender him to the Court, as the existence of this duty is already clear and needs not be further reiterated. The Republic of South Africa is already aware of this statutory duty and a further reminder is unwarranted.” (§ 10)


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.