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Is the “Norm” Against Torture Dying (At Least in the U.S.)?

by Julian Ku

Christopher Kutz, Professor of Law in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program at Berkeley Law School, has a fascinating new essay examining the possibility that “norms” against torture and assassination have died in the United States in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  Kutz is not writing to support the CIA interrogation program or the US government’s use of assassination, but he does think that, as a descriptive matter, the rules against torture and assassination may be dead or dying in the U.S. He suggests that democracies have a limited ability to maintain commitment to these kinds of norms because of a democracy’s “sensitivity” to public mobilization.  Eric Posner has a typically interesting response to Kutz here.

I don’t know if the norm against torture is dead in the U.S., but I will say that the U.S. public appears completely unmoved by the release of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s very critical report on the CIA interrogation program.  A raft of new polls shows that the U.S. public’s support for an absolute ban on torture remains relatively low, while a majority, or perhaps a strong plurality, support the actual CIA program and methods that was so harshly criticized by the Senate Report.  See the WSJ/NBC poll here.  See the Pew Research Survey poll here.  We can quibble about the details, but those post-Senate Report polls show almost no change from pre-Senate Report polls.

I emphasize again that the U.S. public’s support for the CIA program does not in any way justify the legality or the morality of the program.  But the public’s failure to support a ban on torture, especially the absolute ban on torture embedded in international law and U.S. law, cannot be ignored either.  It suggests there is little chance of a prosecution over the CIA program, and it really poses a tough challenge for international lawyers. What should the response of international lawyers be when public opinion in a democracy refuses to support a central key rule of international law?  As Kutz’s paper suggests, this whole episode suggests widely accepted international law norms can be fragile, even (or especially) in liberal democracies.

 

Do Attacks on ISIS in Syria Justify the “Unwilling or Unable” Test?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Almost three years ago to the day, I critiqued an article by Ashley Deeks that argued the right of self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter extends to situations in which states are “unwilling or unable” to prevent non-state actors from using their territory to launch armed attacks. As I noted in my post, Deeks herself admitted that she had “found no cases in which states clearly assert that they follow the test out of a sense of legal obligation (i.e., the opinio juris aspect of custom).”

When Deeks wrote her article, ISIS did not yet exist — and the US and other states had not started attacking ISIS in Syria. It is not surprising, therefore, that Deeks is now relying on the international response to ISIS to argue, in the words of a new post at Lawfare, that “the ‘unwilling or unable’ test is starting to seem less controversial and better settled as doctrine.”

There is no question that the US believes the “unwilling or unable” test is consistent with Art. 51. As Jens noted a few months ago, the US officially invoked the test with regard to ISIS and the Khorasan Group in a letter to the Security Council. Moreover, the UK seems to agree with the US: according to Deeks, the UK submitted a similar Art. 51 letter to the Security Council, stating that it supports international efforts to defend Iraq “by striking ISIL sites and military strongholds in Syria” — a position that, in her view,”implicitly adopts the ‘unwilling or unable’ test.”

Deeks does not provide a link to the UK letter, but I have little doubt she is characterizing the UK’s position accurately. I have significant issues, though, with the rest of her post, which argues that three other factors related to the international response to ISIS support the “unwilling or unable” test. Let’s go in order. Here is Deeks’ first argument:

[S]tates such as Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, which also have undertaken airstrikes in Syria, presumably are relying on the same legal theory as the United States and UK.  (That said, those states have not proffered clear statements about their legal theories.)

There are two problems with this claim. To begin with, even if the four states are relying on “unwilling or unable” to justify their attacks on ISIS in Syria, they have not said so publicly — which means that their actions cannot qualify as opinio juris in support of the test. The publicity requirement is Customary Law 101.

More importantly, though, and pace Deeks, it is actually exceptionally unlikely that these states support the “unwilling or unable” test. All four are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which has consistently rejected the test, most notably in response to Turkey’s cross-border attacks on the PKK in Iraq (see Ruys at p. 431):

We strongly condemn the repeated actions of Turkish armed forces violating the territorial integrity of Iraq under the pretext of fighting guerrilla elements hiding inside Iraqi territory. … We also reject the so-called ‘hot pursuit’ measures adopted by Turkey to justify such actions that are abhorrent to international law and to the norms of practice amongst States.

To be sure, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE have not rejected the “unwilling or unable” test since 9/11 — the statement by NAM above was made in 2000. But there is little reason to believe that their understanding of Art. 51 has fundamentally changed over the past decade. On the contrary, all four are also members of the Arab League, and in 2006 the Arab League formally rejected the “unwilling or unable” test in the context of Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon (see Ruys at p. 453).

Here is Deeks’ second argument:

Iraq vocally has supported strikes within Syria.

This is not surprising, given that ISIS is using Syria as a base for attacks on Iraq. But does Iraq’s support for airstrikes on ISIS in Syria count as opinio juris in favour of the “unwilling or unable” test? I doubt it. After all, not only is Iraq a member of the Arab League, it consistently denounced Turkey’s attacks on PKK bases in its territory between 2007 and 2008 as inconsistent with its sovereignty (see Ruys at p. 461). Iraq’s attitude toward the “unwilling or unable” test thus seems driven exclusively by political opportunism; there is no indication that it considers the test to represent customary international law.

Here is Deeks third argument:

Syria itself has not objected to these intrusions into its territory.

This factor seriously complicates Deeks’ argument. Another word for “not objecting” is “consenting.” And if Syria is consenting to attacks on ISIS in its territory, it is problematic to simply assume — as Deeks does — that all such attacks provide evidence in favour of the “unwilling or unable” test. The US and UK may not want to rely on Syrian consent to justify their attacks. But it seems likely that Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE are relying on Syrian consent rather than Syrian unwillingness or inability to justify their attacks on ISIS in Syria — particularly given their traditional narrow understanding of Art. 51.

Finally, it is important to note what Deeks says immediately after claiming that “[i]In view of these developments, the ‘unwilling or unable’ test is starting to seem less controversial and better settled as doctrine”:

Whether other European states ultimately commit to airstrikes in Syria will be informative; to date, states such as France, Denmark, and Belgium only have provided support to strikes against ISIS within Iraq, not Syria.

This is an important admission, because it means that a member of P-5 and two other important Western states have suggested they are not comfortable with using the “unwilling or unable” test to justify attacks on ISIS in Syria.

So, to recap: the US and UK clearly support the “unwilling or unable” test; Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE are likely basing their willingness to attack ISIS in Syria on Syrian consent; Iraq has a completely opportunistic approach to the “unwilling or unable” test; and France, Denmark, and Belgium seem to reject the test, even if they have not done so explicitly.

And yet we are supposed to believe that the “unwilling or unable” test “is starting to seem less controversial and better settled as doctrine”?

Game On with New Player? Vietnam Files Statement Against China at UN Arbitral Tribunal

by Julian Ku

The government of Vietnam appears to have filed a statement of its legal views with the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea arbitral tribunal formed to resolve the Philippines-China dispute in the South China Sea.  It is a little unclear exactly what Vietnam has filed.  According to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs website:

In response to the question on Viet Nam’s position regarding the South China Sea Arbitration case, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam Le Hai Binh affirmed that:
“To protect its legal rights and interests in the East Sea which may be affected in the South China Sea Arbitration case, Viet Nam has expressed its position to the Tribunal regarding this case, and requested the Tribunal to pay due attention to the legal rights and interests of Viet Nam.”/.

According to the South China Morning Post, the Vietnamese submission has three points.

1) It supports the Philippines on the question of the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
2) It asks the tribunal to give due regard to Vietnam’s legal rights and interests
3) It rejects the legality of the Chinese “nine-dash line”.

I think this filing has much more political than legal significance.  As a legal matter, I don’t think there is any procedure in the UNCLOS dispute settlement system for third-party interventions, so I think this is really just like sending a letter to the arbitral tribunal.  It has no legal significance, and the tribunal has no obligation to consider it. But of course, it has the right to do so if it believes it is relevant to the dispute before it.

On the other hand, this is a political victory for the Philippines, since it means that Vietnam has tacitly agreed to join a common front against China.  I remain skeptical (as I wrote yesterday) of the Philippines’ legal strategy, even with this support from Vietnam, because China has the same arguments against Vietnam and it will not likely change course.   The next question: Will Vietnam file its own legal claim and form its own arbitral tribunal? That might push China into a different response, but I would still bet against it.

Why Doesn’t the U.S. Public Agree with International Law’s Absolute Ban on Torture?

by Julian Ku

I don’t have much useful to add to the already voluminous online debate on the legality or morality of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” or “torture” program.  In this post, I want to focus on an interesting data point coming out of this debate.  As best as I can tell, international law’s position that torture can never be legally justified doesn’t seem to be shared by a majority (or even close to a majority) of the U.S. public.  This doesn’t mean that the CIA program was legal.   But international lawyers need to also consider the fact that U.S. public support for international law’s absolute prohibition of torture has only declined over the past 13 years, despite the much greater awareness and public discussion of these issues, especially by international lawyers.

I don’t think I am wrong in stating that the CAT is essentially an absolute ban on torture, no matter what the circumstances or justification.  (From CAT Art. 2(2): “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”).  There might be some debate as to whether there is an implicit necessity defense in U.S. law, but I don’t think there is much international support for this view.  This absolutist position would seem to limit or perhaps eliminate the “necessity” defense that has drawn so much attention in the U.S. political debate. I think international law’s prohibition on torture in any circumstances explains why international lawyers are among the most vehement critics of the CIA program.

For instance, the U.N.’s Ben Emmerson is calling again for prosecutions, and experts continue to suggest foreign countries may prosecute Bush-era officials for torture international international law.  The ICC may open an investigation, although as Eugene Kontorovich outlines here, there are pretty serious jurisdictional obstacles including questions as to whether the CIA program involving 39 detainees would even satisfy the murky Art. 17 “gravity” requirement.  In any event, I think it is safe to say there consensus among most international lawyers that many if not all of the methods in the CIA program were indeed “torture”  or at least “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment as defined in the Convention Against Torture.  Furthermore, there is strong support for “accountability” via prosecutions of Bush-era officials.

However, it is worth noting that reliable public opinion surveys show that U.S. public opinion has actually shifted away from the international law “absolute ban on torture” view toward a more flexible “torture is OK in some circumstances” view.  FiveThirtyEight.com points out that the Pew Research Survey, which has polled Americans on whether torture can be justified since 2004, has found a decline in support for the absolute ban on torture.  Indeed, in its last survey back in 2011, 53% of those surveyed said torture could “sometimes” or “often” (!!) be justified.  Another nearly 20% were willing to allow torture in “rare” cases.  Only 30% or so of those polled supported an absolute ban on torture, which is the position taken by international law.  This means nearly 70% of the U.S. public seems to be willing to tolerate torture in some exceptional circumstances.

An overnight poll after the Senate report was released has not shown drastically different numbers. When asked specifically about waterboarding and the other tactics described in the Senate report, 47% of the “likely voters” surveyed said they agreed the tactics should have been used, with 33% disagreeing and 20% unsure.  It is likely that many of the 20% are unlikely to support an absolute ban on torture, but might agree that waterboarding and other tactics in this particular case were unjustified.

Again, I am not claiming that public opinion should determine whether the CIA program was legal.  But international lawyers cannot ignore the disconnect between US public opinion and international law’s absolute ban on torture.   This disconnect may explain why, despite international law’s rejection of a necessity defense, the U.S. public debate is almost all about whether the CIA program was effective or not. This divergence will probably explain why there will be no prosecutions or truth commissions in the U.S. over the CIA program.  And it should remind international lawyers that even the most widely shared and unquestioned of international treaties can diverge sharply from the general public’s views.

Star Wars, Indeed: US Navy Will Deploy Its First (Hopefully Legal) Laser Cannons to Persian Gulf

by Julian Ku

It looks like the US Navy is going to go ahead and start deploying its new laser cannons to the Persian Gulf next year, according to this Washington Post report.  The Navy has been developing this weapon for years as a cheaper alternative to missiles for attacking smaller targets, especially drones (My 2005 self is still kind of amazed at my 2014 self for writing this last sentence in all seriousness and not as part of a science fiction fantasy).  But you have to watch this video…

Is there any legal limitation on this new weapon?  Well, the Navy is planning to limit it to self-defense for now, according to this WSJ($) report.

“We have the authorities right now to use it in self-defense,” Adm. Klunder said. “If someone was coming to harm the USS Ponce, we could use this laser system on that threat and we would intend to do so.”

The U.S. is also party to the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, ratified by the U.S. back in 2008.  The Protocol limits the U.S. Navy’s lasers in this way:

Article 1

It is prohibited to employ laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision, that is to the naked eye or to the eye with corrective eyesight devices. The High Contracting Parties shall not transfer such weapons to any State or non-State entity.

The scope of this provision is limited by Article 3, which appears to allow blinding via lasers if it is an incidental or collateral effect.

Article 3

Blinding as an incidental or collateral effect of the legitimate military employment of laser systems, including laser systems used against optical equipment, is not covered by the prohibition of this Protocol.

This would seem to give the US Navy enough room to use its laser cannons, which are not intended just to blind, but to actually destroy targets (take a look at that video one more time).  Still, it is possible that blinding would be one of its effects, since it is intended to be used against small targets, including small boat attacks favored by Iran.  Soldiers in these open boats could be “blinded” by a laser attack, and Article 2 requires the U.S. to take all feasible precautions to avoid the incidence of permanent blindness to unenhanced vision.” Still, I think Article 3 is enough cover for the U.S. Navy to justify its use in combat.  And just in case, the U.S. added a declaration upon accession:

“It is the understanding of the United States of America with respect to Article 2 that any decision by any military commander, military personnel, or any other person responsible for planning, authorizing or executing military action shall only be judged on the basis of that person’s assessment of the information reasonably available to the person at the time the person planned, authorized or executed the action under review, and shall not be judged on the basis of information that comes to light after the action under review was taken.”

Star Wars is here, and no treaty is going to stop it….

 

 

The ACLU Endorses Blanket Amnesty for Torture

by Kevin Jon Heller

I am very rarely shocked, but that was my response to yesterday’s editorial in the New York Times by Anthony Romero — the Executive Director of the ACLU — arguing that Obama should pre-emptively pardon all of the high-ranking officials responsible for the Bush administration’s systematic torture regime at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, various Eastern European black sites, etc. Here is a painful snippet:

Mr. Obama could pardon George J. Tenet for authorizing torture at the C.I.A.’s black sites overseas, Donald H. Rumsfeld for authorizing the use of torture at the Guantánamo Bay prison, David S. Addington, John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee for crafting the legal cover for torture, and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for overseeing it all.

[snip]

The spectacle of the president’s granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn. But doing so may be the only way to ensure that the American government never tortures again. Pardons would make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals; and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware. Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s box of torture once and for all.

I struggle to discern even the basic logic of this argument. I guess the key is that “[p]ardons would make clear that crimes were committed,” the idea being that you can’t pardon someone for doing something legal. But Romero’s argument has an obvious fatal flaw: “pre-emptive pardons” might make clear that Obama believes Bush administration officials committed torture, but they would say nothing about whether the Bush administration officials themselves believe they did. Romero is not calling for a South-African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would condition amnesty on confession of wrongdoing; he wants to skip the confession part and go right to the amnesty. And the Bush administration’s torturers continue to believe that they did nothing wrong. To the contrary, they still cling to their puerile belief that they were the true patriots, Ubermenschen willing to do what lesser men and women wouldn’t to save the US from the existential threat of terrorism. No amount of evidence will pierce the veil of their self-delusion — and no pardon will have any effect whatsoever on their own perceived righteousness.

That Romero fails to see this is baffling enough. But I’m flabbergasted by his assertion that a blanket amnesty for torture — the correct description of his proposal — is necessary to make clear “that future architects and perpetrators should beware.” Beware what? Not prosecution, unless we are naive enough to believe that there is deterrent value in saying to the Bush administration’s torturers, “okay, we’re giving you a free pass for your international and domestic crimes this time — but next time will be a different story.” I’m sure future Bushes, Cheneys, Rices, Rumsfelds, Yoos, and Bybees will be positively quaking in their boots.

It’s also important to note something that Romero completely fails to address in his editorial — the message blanket amnesty for torture would send to the rest of the world. It’s bad enough that the US portrays itself as a champion of human rights abroad while it simply ignores its obligations under the Torture Convention. But there is a significant difference between lacking the political will to prosecute the Bush administration’s torturers and having the political will to offer them a blanket amnesty. If Obama “pre-emptively pardons” those who committed torture, how could the US ever criticise another government that decides to choose “peace” over justice? Some states in the world can at least plausibly argue that amnestying the previous regime’s crimes is necessary to avoid political destabilisation and future conflict. But the US is not one of them. Republicans and Democrats will not start killing each other if Obama does not pardon the Bush administration’s torturers. Ted Cruz will not lead a convoy of tanks emblazoned with the Texas flag on Washington.

But if Obama does issue Romero’s pardons, you can guarantee that future government officials will turn once again to torture the first time it seems “necessary” to counter a serious threat to the Republic. (Such as ISIS, which will no doubt be exploding Ebola-ridden suicide bombs in downtown Chicago any day now.) That’s the logic of criminality, at least when the crimes are perpetrated by the powerful — impunity simply emboldens them further. Give them an inch, they will take Iraq.

The bottom line is this: you want to make clear that torture is wrong, that torturers are criminals, and that future torturers should beware? You don’t offer blanket amnesty to the Bush administration officials who systematically tortured.

You prosecute them.

So Ukraine May Sue Russia for Violating Anti-Terrorism Financing Convention

by Julian Ku

Things are not going well for Ukraine these days as Russia has managed to solidify its control over Crimea and is continuing support for breakaway regions in Eastern Ukraine. It is very hard to justify the legality of Russia’s actions, so it is not surprising that Ukraine is looking for any and all international fora to sue Russia.

As usual, the great challenge is to find an international court with jurisdiction. Ukraine has added a bunch of new cases to the already crowded Russia docket of the European Court of Human Rights. But I had been wondering how Ukraine planned to bring Russia to other courts like the International Court of Justice since Russia has not accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of that court.

Well, according to this report, it looks like Russia has accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of ICJ for disputes under the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.   Article 24(1) of the Convention states:

Any dispute between two or more States Parties concerning the interpretation or application of this Convention which cannot be settled through negotiation within a reasonable time shall, at the request of one of them, be submitted to arbitration. If, within six months from the date of the request for arbitration, the parties are unable to agree on the organization of the arbitration, any one of those parties may refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice, by application, in conformity with the Statute of the Court.

Although Russia could have avoided jurisdiction under paragraph 2 (as the United States did), Russia did not do so. So Russia could face an ICJ case, which I imagine it will ignore.  But I am not sure it could brazenly claim the ICJ lacked jurisdiction, so it will be interesting to see whether Russia decides to litigate (and maybe even file counterclaims)?

China Manages to File (and Not File) a Legal Brief in the Philippines Arbitration

by Julian Ku

The UNCLOS arbitral tribunal formed to hear a dispute brought by the Philippines against China has set December 15 as a deadline for China to submit a legal brief or memorial. As most of our readers know, China has steadfastly refused to even participate in the arbitral process. It has not selected any arbitrators and it did not attend the first hearing last spring. I (like most observers) expected China to ignore the December 15 deadline as well.

Although it looks like China will not file a formal legal memorial, it released yesterday a long, tightly argued “position paper” that looks a lot like a formal legal memorial (at least on the question of the tribunal’s jurisdiction).   So China is going to essentially file a jurisdictional objection (since the tribunal will surely read this paper) without having to file a formal legal brief.

It’s the best of both worlds for China, since if the tribunal is influenced by the position paper, then this is good for China. If the tribunal ultimately reject the legal position and asserts jurisdiction, China will be able to say that it never actually participated in the arbitration anyway.

As a legal document, the position paper is very well done and is the best legal analysis of the jurisdictional issues in the Philippines arbitration I have seen coming out of China, and certainly from the Chinese government. Granted, the Philippines have not released their own memorial so I haven’t had the chance to read their side. Essentially, China has three arguments against jurisdiction:

  • The essence of the subject-matter of the arbitration is the territorial sovereignty over several maritime features in the South China Sea, which is beyond the scope of the Convention and does not concern the interpretation or application of the Convention;

  • China and the Philippines have agreed, through bilateral instruments and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, to settle their relevant disputes through negotiations. By unilaterally initiating the present arbitration, the Philippines has breached its obligation under international law;

  • Even assuming,arguendo, that the subject-matter of the arbitration were concerned with the interpretation or application of the Convention, that subject-matter would constitute an integral part of maritime delimitation between the two countries, thus falling within the scope of the declaration filed by China in 2006 in accordance with the Convention, which excludes,inter alia, disputes concerning maritime delimitation from compulsory arbitration and other compulsory dispute settlement procedures;

What is good about the position paper is that offers careful and credible legal analysis and avoids (for the most part) the annoying official propaganda tone that is the bane of every China-analyst.  I haven’t had the time to go through the paper with any great detail, so I will offer more detailed analysis at a future time. I will just say for now that I am most skeptical of China’s second argument: that the “Philippines has breached its obligation under international law” by failing to settle this dispute via negotiations. While China has usefully offered facts to explain how the Philippines has not really fulfilled its obligations to negotiate, I just don’t think the Declaration of Conduct China is relying upon can be interpreted to bar any and all UNCLOS arbitrations indefinitely, as China would seem to have it.

But there is a lot here to chew on.   I will try to share more of my thoughts when I’ve had time think about this paper more carefully. And I’m sure the Philippines will be tempted to release at least the jurisdictional portion of their brief as well. I hope they do, since the public reaction to their legal arguments will be just as important as any ruling the tribunal makes.

Did the Supreme Court Implicitly Reverse Kiobel’s Corporate Liability Holding?

by Julian Ku

Way back in 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Second Circuit held that corporations cannot be held liable under customary international law in ATS lawsuits.  That decision, which was the original basis for the Supreme Court’s consideration of the Kiobel case, has remained the law of the Second Circuit (New York, Connecticut, Vermont) though no other circuit court in the U.S. has followed it.  The Supreme Court was initially going to review that original Kiobel decision, but then decided Kiobel on other grounds, namely, that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to claims brought under the Alien Tort Statute.  In recent cases, ATS plaintiffs have raised questions about the viability of the original Kiobel corporate liability holding. Did the Supreme Court leave that question open or had it reversed the lower court’s corporate liability decision sub silentio?

The argument that the Kiobel corporate liability holding no longer stands has two parts.  First, a plain reading of the Supreme Court’s Kiobel decision turns up language suggesting that corporations could be liable under the Alien Tort Statute.  In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts stated that ““[c]orporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices [to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application].”  The argument here is that although “mere corporate presence” is not enough, corporations with other, deeper connections might displace the presumption against extraterritoriality. (Since the Court in other places explicitly stated it was not reaching the corporate liability question, I am skeptical of this argument).

Second, and more persuasively, you might argue that because the Supreme Court dismissed the Kiobel case on the grounds that the presumption against extraterritoriality applied to the Alien Tort Statute and that the presumption only applies if the court has reached the merits (e.g. whether the statute applies to the facts at hand).  Because the corporate liability defense was a jurisdictional ruling, this line of reasoning goes, then the Supreme Court must have implicitly found that it had jurisdiction over corporations in order to dismiss the case on the merits.

This second argument has some force to it (it was previewed in our insta-symposium last spring), and it was accepted by Judge Shira Scheindlin in a separate New York district court ATS case even though she ended up dismissing that case on other grounds.   It looks like the plaintiffs in another ATS case, Jesner v. Arab Bank, will get the appeals court to consider the issue as well, according to this NY Law Journal write up of oral argument in that case.

I think it is unlikely that the panel will conclude that the Kiobel corporate liability holding has been implicitly reversed, but I do think there is enough of an argument here to attract review of the full en banc Second Circuit. The tricky part here is that the ATS is itself a “jurisdictional” statute, and as the Supreme Court in Kiobel acknowledged, the presumption against extraterritoriality doesn’t typically apply to jurisdictional statutes.  So the Kiobel presumption is a little different and its application to causes of action that can be brought under the ATS is not exactly the same as when the standard presumption against extraterritoriality is applied to a regular non-jurisdictional statute. But it is unclear whether it is different enough to matter.

I am still coming to my own point of view on this issue. I don’t think the defendants in Jesner really addressed this issue effectively in their brief, but it is a complex issue.  At the very least, I think it will be resolved in the near future by the Second Circuit, either by this panel or by the full court. Corporate liability under the Alien Tort Statute is not quite a dead issue, but ti will take some time to figure out how alive it is.

The OTP’s Afghanistan Investigation: A Response to Vogel

by Kevin Jon Heller

As a number of commentators have recently noted, the latest report on the OTP’s preliminary-examination activities indicates that the OTP is specifically considering whether US forces are responsible for war crimes relating to detainee treatment in Afghanistan — something it only hinted at in its 2013 report. Here are the relevant statements (pp. 22-23):

94. The Office has been assessing available information relating to the alleged abuse of detainees by international forces within the temporal jurisdiction of the Court. In particular, the alleged torture or ill-treatment of conflict-related detainees by US armed forces in Afghanistan in the period 2003-2008 forms another potential case identified by the Office. In accordance with the Presidential Directive of 7 February 2002, Taliban detainees were denied the status of prisoner of war under article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention but were required to be treated humanely. In this context, the information available suggests that between May 2003 and June 2004, members of the US military in Afghanistan used so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” against conflict-related detainees in an effort to improve the level of actionable intelligence obtained from interrogations. The development and implementation of such techniques is documented inter alia in declassified US Government documents released to the public, including Department of Defense reports as well as the US Senate Armed Services Committee’s inquiry. These reports describe interrogation techniques approved for use as including food deprivation, deprivation of clothing, environmental manipulation, sleep adjustment, use of individual fears, use of stress positions, sensory deprivation (deprivation of light and sound), and sensory overstimulation.

95. Certain of the enhanced interrogation techniques apparently approved by US senior commanders in Afghanistan in the period from February 2003 through June 2004, could, depending on the severity and duration of their use, amount to cruel treatment, torture or outrages upon personal dignity as defined under international jurisprudence.

I highly recommend the posts by David Bosco at Multilateralist and Ryan Goodman at Just Security on the OTP’s report. But I have reservations about Ryan Vogel’s post at Lawfare. Although Vogel makes some good points about the political implications of the OTP’s decision to investigate US actions, his legal criticisms of the OTP are based on a problematic understanding of how gravity and complementarity function in the Rome Statute.

First, there is this claim:

Whatever one’s views regarding U.S. detention policy in Afghanistan from 2003-2008, the alleged U.S. conduct is surely not what the world had in mind when it established the ICC to address “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole.”  The ICC was designed to end impunity for the most egregious and shocking breaches of the law, and it is hard to see how alleged detainee abuse by U.S. forces meets that standard.

It is not completely clear what Vogel’s objection is, but it’s likely one of two things: (1) he does not believe US actions in Afghanistan qualify as torture; or (2) he does not believe any acts of torture the US did commit are collectively serious enough to justify a formal OTP investigation.The first objection is irrelevant: whether acts qualify as torture is for the ICC to decide, not the US. The second objection is more serious, but is based on a misunderstanding of the difference between situational gravity and case gravity…

Guest Post: Gabor Rona on Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration

by Gabor Rona

[Gabor Rona is a Visiting Professor of Law and Director, Law and Armed Conflict Project at Cardozo Law School.]

Over at Lawfare Jack Goldsmith provides a somewhat more nuanced analysis of President Obama’s executive action on immigration than the inflammatory rhetoric flowing from some quarters, see here, here, and here. Jack nowhere uses the words “impeachment” (except to say that it appears to be off the table) or “emperor” in reference to the president. When Jack notes “President Obama’s transformation, in less than three weeks, from an irrelevant lame duck to an overbearing threat to our constitutional order,” I assume it’s a derisive reaction to both hyperbolic extremes. In fact he says that Obama’s move is likely constitutional, but possibly violates “sub-constitutional norms,” according to which congress and the president are supposed to work together to solve big, tough domestic issues.

Here’s why I think Jack’s comparatively mild criticism is still off base.

First, let’s acknowledge the important difference between thwarting the expressed will of congress and merely circumventing a dysfunctional congress. The studied tantrums of a few legislators should not be confused with congressional consensus. The constitution quite clearly provides the president with the power to dismiss congressional will – it’s called the veto power. (Of the last ten presidents, the five Republicans have hit the veto button twice as often as the five Democrats, says Wikipedia.) And since the founders thought it prudent to empower the president to tell congress to shove it, isn’t it a bit of an overreaction to even ask if the sky is falling because the president has used constitutional authority to fill a vacuum where congress has been absent?

Perhaps you’re thinking “What does he mean ‘congress has been absent?’” After all, the president is proposing to waive the application of existing law for certain classes of non-citizens. But if the president’s constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” means he must enforce every violation of every law congress passes, we’d all be in jail! (Check this out, just for fun).

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution says this about the “take care” clause:

To be sure, the extent of the faithful-execution duty is rather unclear. Plainly, the President need not enforce every law to its fullest extent. Common sense suggests that the President may enjoy some discretion in order to gauge the costs and benefits of investigation, apprehension, and prosecution.

There are at least a couple of reasons the institution of prosecutorial discretion is well established in U.S. jurisprudence. One is that the law can be a blunt instrument, so we’ve always accepted the role of human discretion in the delivery of justice. (Yes, that same prosecutorial discretion has been applied discriminatorily, but that’s a flaw that law has rightly attempted to deal with discretely, rather than through a baby-out-with-bathwater approach).

Secondly, I don’t recall a groundswell of angst about the “sub-constitutional” order when Presidents Reagan and Bush, and for that matter, every U.S. president in the last half century granted limited relief from enforcement of immigration law to one or more groups by executive action.

Finally, let’s turn the spotlight back on congress. A responsible legislative branch recognizes that laws don’t enforce themselves. Then why is there such a huge gap between the inventory of laws and the infrastructure/resources required to enforce them? Perhaps because lawmakers expect the exercise of executive discretion. And perhaps because a lot of lawmaking is really about posturing rather than governing. (My favorite example is the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s enforcement of the Trading with the Enemy Act/Cuba travel embargo, for which alleged violators are entitled to a hearing, except that no one bothered to create a mechanism for hearings. Ask for a hearing and the case is dismissed. Have you seen the outrage at this hypocrisy? Neither have I.) So if congress is serious about deporting every illegal alien, then let it find and appropriate funds for that gargantuan task, as well as for jailing or fining every druggie, fraudster, tax cheat and every trader with the enemy in Havana. Only then should we hear complaints about how congressional will is being thwarted. Until then, the executive not only may, but must find principled ways of deciding what laws to enforce, and against whom.

There’s another element of the drama that Jack fails to address: we’re already in something of a constitutional crisis and it is of congress’s making. Never before had I heard leaders of the opposition party admit that their strategy is to make it impossible for the president to govern. And they’ve been pretty effective at it, albeit due in part to the present White House occupant’s acquiescence. That’s not merely “subverting the sub-constitutional order,” it’s more like a middle finger to the constitution and the national interest, however defined. In isolation, the president’s unilateral action on immigration could be seen as impolite and impolitic. But can we really say that these are not times that try America’s soul?

So what course of executive action is more harmful to the constitution and the republic? That which is legal but impolite and perhaps sets an uncomfortable “sub-constitutional” precedent? Or doing nothing while congress allows Rome to burn for political profit?

Stewart Mini-Symposium: A Response to Beth Stephens

by James G. Stewart

[James G. Stewart is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law at Allard Hall, University of British Columbia. His new article, The Turn to Corporate Criminal Liability for International Crimes: Transcending the Alien Tort Statute, can be found here.]

Professor Beth Stephens was a pioneer in thinking about corporate accountability under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), and a guiding light for all those emerging into a scholarly field that seemed strangely tolerant of a world without accountability in the corporate realm. When economists and political scientists problematized accountability as too costly or controversial, hers was the authoritative voice reminding us that a world without accountability is perverse. Thus, it is a great honor for me that she agreed to criticize my recent contribution to our common attempt at promoting accountability where there is usually (almost) none.

To begin, I fear that Stephens may have misunderstood my central claim, for which I should take some responsibility. At different points, I get the impression that my article registered with her as a full-throated attack on the ATS and all those who worked so hard to develop it, as if I believed that the entire history of the Statute amounts to little more than a misguided blunder next to the flawless system of corporate criminal accountability for international crimes that was always waiting in plain sight to be deployed. This is far from my position, so I begin by clarifying this misunderstanding in case it has tainted her view of my argument, before addressing some of her more substantive concerns.

I am very much for the ATS, before and after Kiobel. My project is purely comparative. At the beginning of my article, I confirm as much by stating “I prefer to isolate the upsides of corporate criminal liability for international crimes relative to ATS litigation, in the hope of identifying a form of accountability that will operate in a more cohesive and principled fashion with the ATS and other mechanisms moving forward. This, in other words, is a comparison not critique of the ATS, which I view as hugely important.” Although I gesture at this position once or twice later, I suspect that I needed to weave the point into much more of my argument to avoid being misunderstood by my kin.

If my piece gives the impression that I view my ATS friends and colleagues as “short-sighted” in a pejorative sense, this is an unwelcome outcome I attempted to guard against in my drafting. In writing the paper, I was careful to insist that ATS scholars and practitioners “understandably” left out ideas that emanate from the criminal law. My recurrent use of the word “understandably” was intended to recognize that there was never any obvious reason that even the most brilliant experts in ATS would also be familiar with the intricacies of, say, the German theory of aiding and abetting. How could they know? If these issues bubble to the surface of these discussions now, it’s only because German theory has permeated ICL in ways that are largely unthinkable for American civil litigation. No one can see around corners.

There is a deeper insight in this history that is so crucial for questions about corporate responsibility moving forward. David Kennedy is right that we all unavoidably have our intellectual blindspots. To deal with my own, I have tried hard within the article to call repeatedly for alternative, contradictory, interdisciplinary perspectives as part of my wider campaign for greater scholarly investment in these hugely important global questions. At the same time, I have also actively sought out the frank criticism of the world’s leading scholars (in slightly different fields) who see these things differently, as this series of blogs attests. I don’t believe that any meaningful attempt at regulating something as colossal as global commerce can afford to do otherwise—there’s too much our individual disciplinary biases blind us to.

Next, Stephens argues that the “discovery” metaphor I employ to describe the recent debut of corporate criminal liability for international crimes in practice unjustifiably leaves out the valuable work of organizations like the International Commission of Jurists and the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable on these questions, but I very much see them as part of the discovery not separate from it. (more…)