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Huge Win in the Zimbabwe Torture Docket Case

by Kevin Jon Heller

Earlier this year, Chris Gevers blogged about the Zimbabwe Torture Docket case, in which the Constitutional Court of South Africa was asked to determine whether the South African Police Service (SAPS) is required to investigate allegations that high-ranking government and security officials in Zimbabwe committed acts of torture. Those acts took place solely in Zimbabwe and involved only Zimbabweans, so the key issues in the case were (1) whether South Africa’s adoption of universal jurisdiction over torture obligated SAPS to investigate the torture, and (2) if so, what conditions, if any, qualified that obligation.

As Chris noted in his post, I and three other international criminal law scholars (Gerhard Kemp, John Dugard, and Hannah Woolaver, with Hannah doing most of the heavy lifting) filed an amicus brief with the Court addressing the question of whether anything in international law prohibits a state from opening a universal-jurisdiction investigation in absentia — without the presence of the suspect. That was a critical sub-issue in the case, because although the Zimbabwean suspects travel regularly to South Africa, they would not necessarily be present at the beginning of a SAPS investigation.

The Court released its decision today — and it’s a complete win for the amici and (far more importantly) for the excellent Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), which brought the case. First, with regard to the in absentia issue, the Court agreed with amici that international law did not prohibit universal-jurisdiction investigations in absentia (p. 27). I won’t rehash the Court’s analysis, but I do want to quote the Court’s excellent explanation of why states should be allowed to conduct such investigations (p. 28):

[48] This approach is to be followed for several valid reasons. Requiring presence for an investigation would render nugatory the object of combating crimes against humanity. If a suspect were to enter and remain briefly in the territory of a state party, without a certain level of prior investigation, it would not be practicable to initiate  charges and prosecution. An anticipatory investigation does not violate fair trial rights of the suspect or accused person. A determination of presence or anticipated presence requires an investigation in the first instance. Ascertaining a current or anticipated location of a suspect could not occur otherwise. Furthermore, any possible next step that could arise as a result of an investigation, such as a prosecution or an extradition request, requires an assessment of information which can only be attained through an investigation. By way of example, it is only once a docket has been completed and handed to a prosecutor that there can be an assessment as to whether or not to prosecute.

The Court then proceeded to hold that SAPS not only had the right to open a universal-jurisdiction investigation into torture in Zimbabwe, it had an obligation to do so — a remarkable position for the Court to take…

What Does China Mean When It Celebrates the “International Rule of Law”?

by Julian Ku

In observance of United Nations Day on October 24, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi issued a long statement expressing China’s view of itself as a “staunch defender and builder of international law” (Chinese version here). As China-watchers know, China’s Communist Party has just completed its “Fourth Plenum” (sort of a Party leadership strategy meeting) on the theme of the promotion of the rule of law, so it is not surprising that China’s leadership would have something to say about the international rule of law as well.

The statement is pretty predictable (and largely unobjectionable) in its broad pledge for Chinese support to “international law” or the “international rule of law.”  It is hardly pathbreaking.  Still, as I have suggested in earlier posts, China’s government tends to have a slightly different view on what constitutes “international law” as compared to the United States or Europe.  So while much of the statement is pretty anodyne (it is communist-party-speak, after all), there are a few points relating to China’s emphasis on sovereignty and its allergy to human rights that are worth noting:

1) International Law and China’s History of National Humiliation

The statement places China’s commitment to international law in the context of its historical struggles facing foreign oppression in invasion beginning with the Opium War of the 1840s.  This reference to China’s historical weakness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is standard nationalist fare in China, but it is interesting that it is linked here to modern international law. As the statement notes, “[s]eeing the contrast between China’s past and present, the Chinese people fully recognize how valuable sovereignty, independence and peace are.”  I think this historical experience is a useful explanation for why there are deep roots to the version of international law presented here.  For China, international law is closely linked to its achievement of independence from foreign powers, and there is no principle more dear to China in international law than “sovereignty” and independence from foreign domination.  Those of us educated in the States have been taught that sovereignty is usually an obstacle to the promotion of international law (Louis Henkin even called it the “S” word), but that concept is still hard to sell in China.

2) Sovereignty 5:  Human Rights 0

Indeed, the statement mentions “sovereignty” five times as a fundamental principle of international law, as referenced in the United Nations Charter. Thus, the statement cites certain universally recognized norms of international law and relations such as

…[A]s respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of international disputes and non-interference in the internal affairs of others, as enshrined in the UN Charter, are the foundation stones upon which modern international law and conduct of international relations are built.

This is right out of Article II of the UN Charter.  But it is hard to imagine a statement by the United States about international law that did not also mention the UN Charter’s commitment to the protection of human rights.  To be sure, human rights protection is not in Article II of the UN Charter’s list of “Principles” but it is odd (at least to an American) to see it ignored so completely here.

3) Just Say No to Responsibility to Protect 

The statement takes direct aim at those countries who are interventionist.

Hegemonism, power politics and all forms of “new interventionism” pose a direct challenge to basic principles of international law including respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Some countries follow a pragmatist or a double-standard approach to international law, using whatever that suits their interests and abandoning whatever that does not.

Hmm.. I wonder which country or countries it is referring to here?  This position also reflects longstanding Chinese policy against any kind of military intervention (and most other kinds as well) no matter what the justification.  So don’t count on a Chinese vote for that Syria intervention.

4) Go Democracy (between, but not within, nations)!

The statement also endorses democracy…that is to say, democracy in international lawmaking.  It accuses some countries (the One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) of trying to make “rules of certain countries as “international rules”, and their standards “international standards”. I am guessing this is clearly a shot at the U.S. in areas as varied as trade laws, IP, and human rights.

5) Philippines and UNCLOS arbitral tribunal: Don’t You Dare Ruin International Law

Not surprisingly, the statement takes aim at international and national courts.   It declares:

“National and international judicial institutions should avoid overstepping their authority in interpreting and applying international law. Still less should they encroach on the rights and interests of other countries under the pretext of”the rule of law” in total disregard of objectivity and fairness.”

I think this is clearly a warning signal to the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal formed to resolve the Philippines claim against China.  This is another sign there will be no backing down on this arbitration. China is going to continue to loudly proclaim its commitment to rule of law, and continue to reject and maybe even denigrate the legitimacy of this arbitration.

6) International Rule OF Law, not Rule BY Law

Finally, I’ll note that the statement’s use of the phrase “international rule of law” might help clarify a debate among China-watchers as to what China means by the phrase “rule of law.”  As Josh Chin has usefully explained in the Wall Street Journal here, the Chinese phrase “法治“ (fazhi) is often translated as “rule of law” but could also be translated as “rule by law”.  Indeed, there is a traditional Chinese “Legalist” tradition that thinks of law as an instrument for ruling society, but less so as a constraint on lawmakers and government.  Most China-watchers would probably say that “rule by law” is a more accurate translation of what the Chinese Communist Party means when they call for the promotion of the “法治” (fazhi) in domestic reforms, since most expect the Party to remain effectively above the law for most key matters in the future, but for law to be used as a mechanism of social and political control of everyone else.

No matter what the Party means domestically by 法治 (fazhi), it is clear that its use internationally fits within the Western conception of law as an autonomous force constraining state power and preserving state equality.

In promoting international rule of law, the most important thing is to use universally applicable rules in international relations to distinguish right and wrong, end disputes and seek a win-win solution through coordination. This is vital to international rule of law. The formulation, interpretation and application of international law should all be conducive to this goal. Under no circumstances should we inflate the arrogance of hegemonism and power politics, still less use international rule of law to instigate disagreement and friction,for it will only lead us to a wrong direction.

Indeed, in its call for universally applicable principles, democratic lawmaking, and the use of law to restrain strong states from taking advantage of the weak, the Chinese Communist Party is invoking a version of rule of law that many Westerners would be familiar with.  It will be interesting to see if this conception bleeds over into the Party’s push for domestic rule of/by law reform.

 

Mark Kersten on the Terror Attacks in Canada

by Kevin Jon Heller

These days, I usually use Twitter to point readers to blog posts that deserve their attention. But Mark Kersten’s new post at Justice in Conflict is so good — and so important — that I want to highlight it here. The post achieves the near-impossible, passionately indicting Canada’s right-wing government for creating a political environment ripe for terrorism without in any way suggesting that Wednesday’s terror attacks were justified. It’s a truly brilliant post, from top to bottom. Here is a snippet, concerning the Harper government’s foreign-policy disasters:

The Canadian government has actively pursued a political philosophy of retribution and control that tarnishes the country’s image as an ‘honest international broker’. Harper’s record attests to an unyielding mission to reshape Canada’s international identity as a tough and hard-power state. The Harper government plays the part of destructive belligerent in climate change negotiations and tar-sands cheerleader. It is first in line to threaten Palestine with “consequences” if Ramallah pursues accountability for alleged crimes committed by Israeli forces in Gaza. While it isn’t usually described as such (many prefer terms like “militarily engaged”), the reality is that Canada has been at war, primarily in Afghanistan, for most of the last decade. And while we should judge each decision to engage in wars on their own terms, the government has positioned itself as a military – rather than diplomatic or humanitarian – middle power. The role of Canadian citizens in the Afghan detainee scandal has been swept under the rug. The government willfully left a child soldier, Omar Khadr, to rot in Guantanamo and were the only Western government not to request the repatriation of their citizens from that nefarious island prison. It left Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen wrongly accused of terrorism, stranded in Khartoum for years and threatened anyone who tried to help him return to Canada with aiding and abetting terrorism. In a country that takes pride in seeing Lester B. Pearson as the father of peacekeeping, the government prefers to count the number of fighter jets it will buy than the number of peacekeepers it deploys. And, making matters worse, those who disagree with the Harper government’s approach to being “hard on crime”, “tough on justice”, and “a military power” are too often portrayed as naive or betraying Canadian values.

Sadly, it’s not just Canada that has pursued the kind of right-wing policies that make horrific acts of terrorism more likely. Very similar posts could — and should — be written about the Key government in New Zealand, the Abbott government in Australia, and (yes) the Obama government in the US. These misguided policies have done next to nothing to prevent terrorism; they create the illusion of security, not its actuality. Indeed, insofar as they do little more than further radicalize the populations they affect, the policies have made us all that much less safe.

Read Kersten. And if you are on an academic committee that is looking to appoint a brilliant young lecturer, hire him.

Guest Post: The Evolving Law of Foreign Official Immunity–Mortazavi and Bakhshi, Prince Nasser, and “Samantar II”

by Chimene Keitner

[Chimène Keitner is Harry & Lillian Research Chair and Professor of Law at UC Hastings. She is on Twitter @KeitnerLaw.] 

I look forward to discussing developments in the international law of non-state actor immunity on a panel on “Responsibility and Immunity in a Time of Chaos” at International Law Weekend this Saturday morning with co-panelists Kristen Boon and August Reinisch, moderated by Larry Johnson. For those of you who can’t attend, we thought we’d offer a taste of our discussion here on Opinio Juris.

In recent years, my research has focused on questions relating to the personal responsibility and ratione materiae immunity of individuals who act on behalf of states. The International Court of Justice has thus far managed to avoid dealing with the subject of ratione materiae immunity. As I recounted on Opinio Juris earlier this year, a Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found in Jones v. United Kingdom that the grant of ratione materiae immunity for torture to Saudi officials by the U.K. State Immunity Act (SIA) did not interfere disproportionately with the applicants’ right of access to court.

Jurisprudence in other Commonwealth countries with state immunity acts that resemble the United Kingdom’s has largely tracked the House of Lords’s 2006 judgment in Jones v. Saudi Arabia. In that case, the House of Lords found that the SIA conferred immunity on foreign officials from civil proceedings for torture, even though its 1999 judgment in Pinochet (No. 3) established a lack of such immunity from criminal proceedings. As a matter of statutory interpretation, the distinction between criminal and civil proceedings finds some support in the explicit exclusion of criminal proceedings or prosecutions from the scope of the U.K., Canadian, and Australian state immunity acts. (For more on these cases, see here.) The Canadian Supreme Court’s October 10 judgment in Kazemi and Hashemi v. Islamic Republic of Iran reinforced this bifurcated approach by interpreting the Canadian SIA to provide immunity from civil proceedings to two named officials (Mortazavi and Bakhshi) who allegedly ordered, oversaw, and actively participated in the torture to death of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.

Given the exclusion of criminal proceedings from the scope of the SIA, claims to immunity ratione materiae from prosecution for torture in U.K. courts have followed the different path set out in Pinochet (No. 3). As Oliver Windridge related here at Opinio Juris, the way has been cleared for a criminal investigation into claims that Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the son of the King of Bahrain, was directly involved in the torture of three individuals in a prison in Bahrain. Although some reports indicated that the prince had “lost” his immunity, it would be more accurate to state that the U.K.’s Director of Public Prosecutions ultimately determined that the prince did not benefit from, and never had benefited from, ratione materiae immunity from criminal proceedings for torture. Oliver’s post also notes that, in January 2013, a Nepalese army officer was charged in the U.K. with intentionally inflicting severe pain or suffering as a public official on two individuals during the 2005 civil war in Nepal.

In the United States, the only prosecution for torture to date remains that of Chuckie Taylor, who was sentenced in 2009 to 97 years in prison for torture committed in Liberia. The Torture Victim Protection Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1350 note, explicitly creates a civil cause of action for torture or extrajudicial killing committed under color of foreign law. Unlike the state immunity acts at issue in the civil cases described above, the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) does not exclude criminal proceedings. The Supreme Court determined in Samantar v. Yousuf (2010) that the FSIA does not apply to suits against individual officials in their personal capacity that seek damages from the defendant’s “own pockets,” in which the state is not the “real party in interest.” In the absence of a statute, foreign official immunity in U.S. courts is governed by the common law. (For a guide to analyzing immunity claims post-Samantar, see here.)

Curt Bradley and Jack Goldsmith argued against taking a U.S.-style approach to personal capacity vs. official capacity suits in a short article published before Samantar was decided. Although I have taken issue with parts of their historical analysis here, their basic point that different policy considerations are in play in designing domestic immunity regimes and international immunity regimes remains sound. Curt has blogged about post-Samantar cases here, and John Bellinger has been chronicling these developments as well. On October 14, the Supreme Court asked for the Solicitor General’s views on whether to review the Fourth Circuit’s determination on remand that there is no ratione materiae immunity for torture because it is a jus cogens violation.

Much conceptual and historical analysis remains to be done as we await the Solicitor General’s brief and the Supreme Court’s decision about whether to tackle the issue of ratione materiae immunity under the “common law” in Samantar II or a future case. Just as the Court should not transplant domestic immunity doctrines wholesale into the foreign official immunity context, so too should it resist parroting decisions that interpret state immunity acts with fundamentally different structures and provisions. It is more important to resolve these issues properly than it is to resolve them quickly or all at once—especially since, in the U.S. context, the Court’s examination of common law immunity in civil cases could have potentially unintended consequences for criminal proceedings as well.

Guest Post: Back to Square One after Sixty Years? The Tory Attack on the European Human Rights System

by Başak Çalı

[Başak Çalı is Associate Professor of International Law at Koç University Law School, Turkey, and a member of the Executive Board of the European Society of International Law]

We, in the ‘from Reykjavik to Vladivostok’ Europe, have grown accustomed to being proud of the European Human Rights System in the last forty or so years. We teach courses on European Human Rights Law that distill over ten thousand European Court of Human Rights judgments. We start our lectures on European Human Rights Law by pointing out that Europe, despite all its flaws, has the most effective regional system. We note that the European Court of Human Rights has been cited by the US Supreme Court.  We celebrate how the effective rights doctrine has recognised and empowered Irish catholic women trying to divorce, Cypriot gay men wishing to walk safely on the streets, Kurdish mothers looking for their disappeared sons, Bulgarian rape victims, Azeri journalists, British children wrongly placed in care and more, so many more. We underline the importance of the guidance that the European Court of Human Rights has provided to domestic judges, prosecutors, law enforcement agencies and legislators on how to take into account human rights when doing their respective jobs. We also salute the fact that the European Human Rights System has brought those us of who live between Reykjavik and Vladivostok together in a recognition of our common humanity, its frailty and our desire for a common dialogue on human rights regardless of our jurisdictional differences. That is why a judge in Diyarbakır, Turkey has given some thought to Mr. McCann and the British military operation in Gibraltar in 1988. Why a judge in Scotland has asked herself what does the case of Salduz mean for her to respect fair trial rights.  We also spend long hours in classrooms, courtrooms and parliaments discussing whether the European Court of Human Rights got the ‘margin of appreciation’ right this time.

Now all that celebration and all the hard and painstakingly incremental gains of the European Human Rights System, a system based on solidarity to reach the common purpose of the promotion of human rights of all, is under serious threat. Unlike the debates that have ensued in the last ten years, the danger is not the Court’s famed gigantic case-load (as has been captured in the cliche of the ‘victim of its own success’) or the slow implementation of its judgments by some of the worst offenders. One political group in one country is out to shake the very foundations of the European Human Rights System.
(more…)

Further Thoughts: It is Indeed Legal for a U.S. Court Hold Argentina in Contempt

by Julian Ku

I am fascinated by the ongoing Argentina debt litigation saga (and not just because it looks more and more like a train wreck), but because it is forcing U.S. courts to burrow into even fuzzier nooks and crannies of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to figure out what exactly US litigants can do when suing an intransigent foreign sovereign like Argentina.  I promised I would revisit the question of whether the U.S. judge’s contempt order against Argentina on Monday was legal, and here is my further (although still somewhat brief) analysis.

1) It is legal and consistent with U.S. domestic law for a U.S. court to issue contempt sanctions against a foreign sovereign.  

The most recent authority for this proposition is the quite recent 2011 opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, F.G. Hemisphere Associates v. Congo.   In that case, the D.C. Circuit rejected the argument by Congo (and the U.S. Government) that contempt sanctions due to Congo’s refusal to comply with discovery orders would violate the FSIA.  Following the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Autotech Techs. v. Integral Research & Dev., 499 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir.2007), the Court held that nothing in the text or the legislative history of the FSIA suggested that there was any limitation on the inherent judicial power to issue contempt sanctions. It also rejected contrary precedent from the U.S. Court of Appeals from the Fifth Circuit in Af-Cap, Inc. v. Republic of Congo, 462 F.3d 417 (5th Cir. 2006).

I think the DC and Seventh Circuits are right that nothing in the text or the legislative history of the FSIA bars a judicial contempt order against a sovereign.

2. There is some authority for the proposition that judicial contempt orders against foreign sovereigns are not accepted under international law, but there is reason to question whether there is international consensus supporting this authority.

Argentina can, and did, rightly point to Article 24 of the Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and their Property as authority against the legality of contempt sanctions against sovereigns.

Article 24
Privileges and immunities during court proceedings
1. Any failure or refusal by a State to comply with an order of a court of
another State enjoining it to perform or refrain from performing a specific act
or to produce any document or disclose any other information for the purposes
of a proceeding shall entail no consequences other than those which may result
from such conduct in relation to the merits of the case. In particular, no fine or
penalty shall be imposed on the State by reason of such failure or refusal.

I think that the language of this provision seems to pretty clearly cover the situation in the Argentina debt case.  But I am less sure that Argentina is correct to call Article 24 of the Convention a rule of customary international law.

U.S. briefs citing Article 24 have been careful to call this rule an “international norm or practice” rather than a rule of international law.  There are good reasons to be circumspect on this point. After all, the Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities has NOT come into force, and has NOT even been signed by either Argentina or the United States, and has only been ratified by 14 other countries.  Moreover, the particular rule in Article 24 banning all court contempt-like orders is much broader than the domestic laws of states like the U.S. (see above) and even those agreed to by European states in the European Convention on State Immunity.  Article 17 of the European Convention is focused only on contempt orders for failure to produce documents, not all contempt orders for any act by the foreign sovereign.

So in conclusion, I am very confident that U.S. domestic law does NOT preclude a contempt order of any kind against a foreign sovereign.  I am somewhat confident that there is no clear consensus under international law that all contempt orders (even those unrelated to discovery) are prohibited, although I do think Argentina has a stronger case on this front.  However, in U.S. law, a rule of customary international law cannot override a federal statute, especially when the international acceptance of that rule remains uncertain.

As a practical matter, I do wonder if this whole contempt kerfuffle is just symbolic. The contempt order adds to Argentina’s obligations to pay, but it doesn’t really make it any easier for the creditors to collect since Argentina’s non-commercial assets in the U.S. remains immune from collection. While Argentina’s government may be outraged, this contempt order doesn’t really change the overall dynamic of this case, which remains a standoff that neither side is winning.

 

Guest Post: The International Law Case for Democracy in Hong Kong

by Alvin Y.H. Cheung

[Alvin Y.H. Cheung is a Visiting Scholar at the US-Asia Law Institute at NYU School of Law.]

After two years of increasingly acrimonious debate over Hong Kong’s electoral reforms for 2017, the city’s pro-democracy movement has finally attracted global concern.  A consistent theme of international responses has been that Hong Kong’s democratisation should occur in accordance with the Basic Law, the city’s quasi-constitution.  The White House’s official response to a petition supporting democracy in Hong Kong was that it supported universal suffrage in Hong Kong “in accordance with the Basic Law.”  Similarly, Richard Graham MP, who heads the All Party Parliamentary Group on China, expressed the hope that further consultations would ensure a satisfactory choice that remained “within China’s Basic Law” (a misnomer that uncomfortably emphasised where the veto power over Hong Kong’s electoral reforms lay).  The implication of these statements is that the debate over how Hong Kong should choose its own leader is purely a municipal law matter.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made that point even more forcefully when his spokesperson stated that the Hong Kong protests were “a domestic matter.”  These accounts, framed purely in domestic law terms, are misleading. The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong (Joint Declaration) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – properly interpreted – both require that the Hong Kong electorate have a genuine choice in its leader.

Chief Executive Elections in Hong Kong and the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) Decision of August 31, 2014 (2014 Decision)

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is currently chosen by a 1,200-strong Election Committee, the composition of which is carefully designed to favour pro-business and pro-Beijing interests.  The “race” in which Leung himself was selected, although more competitive than previous “elections,” was heavily influenced by the Beijing Government and its representatives.  Although Article 45 of the Basic Law provided that the “ultimate aim” was for Hong Kong to elect its Chief Executive by universal suffrage, the deadline for universal suffrage has been repeatedly delayed by the NPCSC, which retains the power to interpret the Basic Law and to make decisions about the necessity of electoral reform.  The 2014 Decision ostensibly laid down the framework for universal suffrage in 2017, after months of consultation by the Hong Kong Government.  Instead, it provided the flashpoint for the student protests that in turn triggered the Umbrella Revolution. Under the 2014 Decision:

1)      The NPCSC confirmed that the Chief Executive owed responsibilities both to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and to the Beijing Government;
2)      As a result, any Chief Executive would be required to “love the country and love Hong Kong” – a phrase that, in practice, means that pro-democracy politicians will be barred from candidacy;
3)      Only 2 or 3 candidates would be permitted to run;
4)      Candidates would be chosen by a 1,200-strong Nominating Committee; and
5)      Support from at least half of the nominators would be required for candidacy.

The upshot of the 2014 Decision, and its various restrictions on nomination, is to ensure that only persons who Beijing deems politically palatable can run.  Lawrence Lessig aptly described the framework of the 2014 Decision as “Tweedism updated.”

The Joint Declaration

On its face, Article 3(4) of the Joint Declaration permits Hong Kong’s Chief Executive to be appointed after either elections, or consultations.  It contains – as Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive CY Leung wrote in the Financial Times – no specific prescriptions regarding the election or consultation process.  However, such an interpretation ignores basic principles of treaty interpretation.  The requirements under Article 31(1) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) – to which both China and the UK are parties – govern the interpretation of the Joint Declaration, yet have been routinely ignored by the Hong Kong and Beijing Governments. I argue that the Article 31(1) factors point towards an interpretation of the Joint Declaration that, contrary to Beijing’s assertions, imposes substantive requirements on how Hong Kong’s Chief Executive can be elected.

First, any interpretation of “elections” or “consultation” that permits a purely formal process in which the Hong Kong electorate “elects” a candidate pre-ordained by the Nominating Committee strips such terms of any reasonable meaning.  Second, the Joint Declaration was intended to guarantee that Hong Kong enjoyed a “high degree of autonomy,” except in foreign affairs and defence.  Giving the Hong Kong public a genuine choice in electing its Chief Executive can only be consistent with that purpose, without necessarily undermining Chinese sovereignty.  Third, to the extent that the Basic Law is acknowledged by both China and the UK to be subsequent practice in applying the Joint Declaration, there is agreement that elections should be by “universal suffrage.”  Fourth – and most importantly – the Joint Declaration also declares, in Chapter XIII of Annex I, that the provisions of the ICCPR applicable in Hong Kong shall remain in force after 1997.

The Applicability of ICCPR Article 25(b)

Under ICCPR Article 25(b), citizens enjoy the right “[to] vote and be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage…” without unreasonable restrictions.  However, the applicability of Article 25(b) to Hong Kong has long been contentious.  When the UK acceded to the ICCPR on behalf of Hong Kong, it entered a reservation to Article 25(b).  Nonetheless, the Human Rights Committee has long taken the view that the reservation ceased to apply to elections for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council once an elected legislature was established.(Human Rights Comm., Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Comm (H.K.): U.K., U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/79/Add.57 (1995), ¶ 19.) The same reasoning would apply with equal force to Chief Executive elections; once the office of Chief Executive is filled through elections, such elections must comply with Article 25(b).  Curiously, the Committee’s Concluding Observations of 2013 in respect of Hong Kong appeared to accept that the reservation remained in force, without citing its previous Concluding Observations or explaining its departure from its previous position. (Human Rights Comm., Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Comm.: H.K., China, U.N. Doc. CCPR C/CHN-HKG/CO/3 (2013), ¶ 6.)

If one accepts that ICCPR Article 25(b) applies to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive elections, limits on the right to stand for election may not be subjected to unreasonable restrictions.  General Comment 25 adds that limits on the right to stand for election may only be based on “objective and reasonable criteria.”  The Human Rights Committee has consistently rejected political affiliation as an “objective and reasonable” criterion, (Chiiko Bwalya v Zambia, Commc’n No. 314/1988, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/48/D/314/1988 (1993); Lukyanchik v Belarus, Commc’n No. 1391/05, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/97/D/1392/2005; Sudalenko v Belarus, Commc’n No. 1354/05, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/100/D/1354/2005.) including in a series of cases regarding arbitrary denial of registration to electoral candidates. (Lukyanchik and Sudalenko)  Indeed, by Beijing’s own admission, the pre-selection of candidates for political pliancy is not a criterion that could be legally defined.

Counter-Argument: The Source of Authority for the Basic Law

Shigong Qiang of Peking University has argued that Hong Kong’s “high level of autonomy” flows solely from authority from the Central Government, and that the Basic Law itself derives its authority solely from the PRC Constitution. (Shigong Qiang, 國際人權公約在香港:被誤讀的國際條約’ [The ICCPR in Hong Kong: The Misinterpreted International Treaty] Mingpao (HK, 25 Aug 2014).)  Yet this view does not appear to be universally shared even among Mainland academics.  The late Xiao Weiyun, one of the Mainland’s pre-eminent authorities on the Basic Law, conceded that the obligation to enact the Basic Law flowed from the Joint Declaration. (Xiao Weiyun, One Country Two Systems: An Account of the Drafting of the Basic Law 13(2001).  On Xiao see Jimmy Cheung, Basic Law ‘Guardian’ Dies at 78, S. China Morning Post (H.K.), Jul. 16, 2004.)  Nor does the text of the Basic Law support Qiang’s argument; the Preamble to the Basic Law states that it was enacted “to ensure the implementation of the basic policies of the [PRC] regarding Hong Kong.”  The “basic policies” referred to could only be those set out in Article 3 of, and Annex I to, the Joint Declaration.

Implications for the Electoral Reform Debate

If the Joint Declaration and ICCPR demand genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, then China has not merely a domestic law obligation to democratise Hong Kong, but an international law obligation.  This in turn empowers the UK, and potentially other parties to the ICCPR, to ensure China fulfils its obligations.  Writing in the Financial Times, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor Lord Patten of Barnes sought to remind Westminster that the United Kingdom had not merely a political and moral obligation to monitor developments in Hong Kong, but a legal obligation.  In light of ongoing developments, there is a compelling legal case for Whitehall to speak up in Hong Kong’s defence. Yet there are few signs that the United Kingdom’s long-standing policy of neglect will change.  In the wake of the 2014 Decision, the Foreign Office stated merely that the 2014 Decision would “disappoint” Hong Kong’s democrats, without any reference to the Joint Declaration.  Although Prime Minister David Cameron has now stated that he is “deeply concerned” about events in Hong Kong, it remains to be seen whether this will translate into a change in Foreign Office policy.

The Invention of the Khorasan Group and Non-Imminent Imminence

by Kevin Jon Heller

I will be back blogging regularly soon, but I want to call readers’ attention to a phenomenal new article at the Intercept by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain about how the US government has cynically manipulated public fears of terrorism in order to justify its bombing campaign in Syria. Recall that Samantha Power — the UN Ambassador formerly known as a progressive — invoked the scary spectre of the Khorasan Group in her letter to the Security Council concerning the US’s supposed right to bomb terrorists in Syria in “self-defence.” As it turns out, not only is there literally no evidence that the Khorasan Group intends to launch an imminent attack on US interests — unless “imminent” is defined as “sometime before the Rapture” — there is also very little evidence that the Khorasan Group actually exists in a form that could threaten the US. Here is a snippet from the article on the latter point:

Even more remarkable, it turns out the very existence of an actual “Khorasan Group” was to some degree an invention of the American government. NBC’s Engel, the day after he reported on the U.S. Government’s claims about the group for Nightly News, seemed to have serious second thoughts about the group’s existence, tweeting “Syrian activists telling us they’ve never heard of Khorosan or its leader.”

Indeed, a NEXIS search for the group found almost no mentions of its name prior to the September 13 AP article based on anonymous officials. There was one oblique reference to it in a July 31 CNN op-ed by Peter Bergen. The other mention was an article in the LA Times from two weeks earlier about Pakistan which mentioned the group’s name as something quite different than how it’s being used now: as “the intelligence wing of the powerful Pakistani Taliban faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur.” Tim Shorrock noted that the name appears in a 2011 hacked Stratfor email published by WikiLeaks, referencing a Dawn article that depicts them as a Pakistan-based group which was fighting against and “expelled by” (not “led by”) Bahadur.

There are serious questions about whether the Khorasan Group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner. Aki Peritz, a CIA counterterrorism official until 2009, told Time: “I’d certainly never heard of this group while working at the agency,” while Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said: ”We used the term [Khorasan] inside the government, we don’t know where it came from…. All I know is that they don’t call themselves that.”

I don’t know for a fact that the Khorasan Group doesn’t exist. But it is profoundly troubling that the Obama administration has provided no evidence that it does — especially given that its case for the international legality of bombing Syria is based so heavily on the supposed threat the Khorasan Group poses to the “homeland.”

And let’s not forget that the Obama administration is doing everything it can to denude the concept of “self-defence” of all meaning. Here is the Intercept article on the “imminent” threat posed to the US by the maybe-existing Khorasan Group:

One senior American official on Wednesday described the Khorasan plotting as “aspirational” and said that there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works.

Literally within a matter of days, we went from “perhaps in its final stages of planning its attack” (CNN) to “plotting as ‘aspirational’” and “there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works” (NYT).

Late last week, Associated Press’ Ken Dilanian – the first to unveil the new Khorasan Product in mid-September – published a new story explaining that just days after bombing “Khorasan” targets in Syria, high-ranking U.S. officials seemingly backed off all their previous claims of an “imminent” threat from the group. Headlined “U.S. Officials Offer More Nuanced Take on Khorasan Threat,” it noted that “several U.S. officials told reporters this week that the group was in the final stages of planning an attack on the West, leaving the impression that such an attack was about to happen.” But now:

Senior U.S. officials offered a more nuanced picture Thursday of the threat they believe is posed by an al-Qaida cell in Syria targeted in military strikes this week, even as they defended the decision to attack the militants.

James Comey, the FBI director, and Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, each acknowledged that the U.S. did not have precise intelligence about where or when the cell, known as the Khorasan Group, would attempt to strike a Western target. . . .

Kirby, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said, “I don’t know that we can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months….We can have this debate about whether it was valid to hit them or not, or whether it was too soon or too late… We hit them. And I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes.”

Regarding claims that an attack was “imminent,” Comey said: “I don’t know exactly what that word means… ‘imminent’” — a rather consequential admission given that said imminence was used as the justification for launching military action in the first place.

According to the Obama administration, in short, the US is entitled to act in self-defence against “bad dudes” no matter when — or even if — those “bad dudes” might launch an armed attack against the US. This isn’t even the Bush administration’s “anticipatory self-defence.” This is, for lack of a better expression, “hypothetical self-defence.” Apparently, the US government believes it is entitled to use force against a non-state actor anywhere in the world as long as it can imagine a future state of affairs in which that actor would attack it.

The mind — and international law — reels.

Guest Post: What do Russian Lawyers Say about Crimea?

by Anton Moiseienko

[Anton Moiseienko received his LL.M. from the University of Cambridge and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Queen Mary, University of London. All translations from Russian in this piece are his own. He is a citizen of Ukraine.]

Few people with any background in international law would doubt that Russia’s annexation of Crimea raises serious questions of compliance with international law. This has certainly been the position of contributors to Opinio Juris, for instance of Kristin Hausler and Robert McCorquodale, Rhodri Williams, and Chris Borgen. Elsewhere, Anne Peters has written a thoughtful article about Crimea’s secession.

One would expect the annexation of Crimea to spark equally lively discussions among Russian experts in international law, as well as prompt them to voice their views before foreign audiences. Importantly, in accordance with Article 15(4) of the Russian Constitution both “universally recognized norms of international law and international treaties” prevail over domestic laws. Thus, the validity of Crimea’s absorption by Russia under international law ought to be of immediate practical concern to Russian lawyers.

However, so far Russian academics and practitioners have largely remained in the shade, at least on the international arena, while Russian state officials felt free to interpret international law up to the point of redesigning it. Yet – what do we know about Russian lawyers’ attitudes to the annexation of Crimea?

One of the rare English-language documents produced by Russian experts in international law is a June 2014 appeal to the ILA by the President of the Russian Association of International Law, Prof. Anatoliy Kapustin. Before that, in April 2014 the same Association held a conference on the international law aspects of Crimea’s integration into Russia together with the Russian Academy of Diplomacy (in Russian). This event, which brought together senior Russian academics and diplomats, reflects the very close connections between the international law profession and the state apparatus that exist in Russia. Taken together, Prof. Kapustin’s letter and the April 2014 conference seem to espouse the views of Russia’s international law elite on Crimea.

Two main issues occupied the minds of Russian lawyers. First, they mused over the deep “historical connections” between Crimea and Russia. Second, they condemned the “cruel lawlessness” and persecution of Russians by the “Kiev regime” (which fits uneasily with the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s observations on human rights abuse in Crimea and separatist-controlled areas). These two basic claims, strongly reminiscent of the official Russian rhetoric and never questioned, were then framed as various legal and quasi-legal arguments.

Interestingly, both Prof. Kapustin and the conference participants went beyond relying on Kosovo. For instance, Prof. Stanislav Chernichenko referred to the restoration of Russia’s “historic rights” rather than to Crimea’s self-determination (although he did not discard the latter either). Indeed, he noted that Russia’s reliance on Kosovo’s precedent was inconsistent with Russia’s own position on Kosovo. Instead, he drew attention to India’s annexation of Goa in 1961 and the USSR’s annexation of South Sakhalin in the aftermath of World War II. Prof. Kapustin went farther back in history and referred in his letter to Northern Schleswig’s 1920 plebiscites for reunion with Denmark.

The annexation of Crimea, however, defies comparison with either India’s decolonization or territorial reconfigurations brought about by the World War II, let alone the Schleswig plebiscites conducted some 25 years before the UN Charter. In recognition of that, Prof. Chernichenko and his colleagues fell back on the alleged transgressions of the “Kiev regime”. Whereas in other circumstances Russia could attempt to remedy the “historic injustice” of Crimea’s separation by negotiations with Kiev, they claim that the “reunion” with Russia was the only viable option in the circumstances.

Dr. Elena Konnova, a guest participant from Belarus, questioned whether either the 1954 transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine within the USSR or arrangements made after Ukraine’s independence in 1991 were incompatible with the jus cogens rule of self-determination. If yes, then in her opinion, international recognition of Ukraine’s borders could not remedy that defect. While a sensible attempt to rationalize her Russian colleagues’ sentiments, I wonder how far this argument would bring them. First, it is not obvious that self-determination of the Crimea’s “nation” (if at all existent) would require Russia and Ukraine to permit them to choose their new homeland upon the breakdown of the USSR, as opposed to granting Crimea autonomy within Ukraine. Second, one might think that allowing past violations of jus cogens to subvert modern borders would be destructive and would potentially nullify the restrictive approach of international law to remedial secession.

Some scholars attempted to assess the validity of the 2014 Crimea’s referendum under Ukrainian constitutional law. For example, Prof. Oleg Khlestov – an experienced diplomat who headed the Soviet delegation at the negotiations leading to the VCLT 1969 – suggested that the Constitution of Ukraine “was not in force” at the time of the referendum because of the “coup d’etat” in Kiev.

In his turn, Prof. Georgiy Velyaminov tried to “drop” from the Ukrainian Constitution Article 73 that only allows territorial changes to be approved by a statewide referendum: he thought it was inconsistent with the right to self-determination under international law and therefore invalid. Even if that inconsistency existed, such “rectification” of Ukraine’s Constitution is flawed. Ukraine is a dualist state and, pursuant to Article 9 of Ukraine’s Constitution, the Constitution prevails over any rules contained in international treaties that Ukraine may ratify.

With regard to international law, several participants of the April 2014 conference grappled with the issue of whether Crimea’s population is a “nation” for the purposes of the right to self-determination. In their view, the predominantly Russian population of the peninsula ought to qualify as a separate “nation”. As to the requirements for remedial secession, naturally they argued that no internal self-determination was possible for the residents of Crimea in “pro-fascist” Ukraine.

Apart from the more formal statements or events such as those described previously, some Russian lawyers chose to express their private opinions on Crimea in the Internet or in print. Grigoriy Vaypan (PhD Candidate at Moscow State University) wrote a piece for the Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law’s blog about the “highly doubtful” validity of Ukraine’s ousted ex-President’s invitation for Russia to invade Crimea before the referendum.

Yet other lawyers prefer Russian-language media and apparently address their concerns to domestic lay audience. Private practitioners Marat Davletbaev and Maria Isaeva regret (in Russian) the “archaic language of Russian diplomacy”:

“In Crimea’s case, Russia – regardless of whether it is right or wrong – communicates with the world in a hopelessly archaic language, as if it were unaware either of the criteria for establishing aggression, or of the serious tensions between the right to self-determination guaranteed by the UN Charter and territorial integrity, or of the rules on non-interference with internal affairs of states, or of the basic requirements for application of the R2P (responsibility to protect) doctrine, or of the definition of “annexation”.

This contrasts with the views of senior academics. Thus, Prof. Ivan Kotlyarov of the Academy of Internal Affairs is another proponent (in Russian) of the “imagine a fascist regime in Ukraine” approach to international law. He somewhat enigmatically argues that the right to self-determination is being denied to citizens of Ukraine (apparently by the government of Ukraine) and that a “genocide” is being perpetrated against the population of the Eastern Ukraine. Ria Novosti, a Russian news agency, quotes (in Russian) Prof. Tatyana Neshataeva of the Academy of Justice claiming that the right to self-determination trumps territorial integrity and, therefore, Crimea’s integration into Russia is lawful.

In conclusion, it would also be fair to note that any criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea largely remains a marginal idea in Russian legal media. For example, a well-known website Pravo.ru omits any references whatsoever to potential unlawfulness of the annexation when reporting legal developments in Crimea, e.g. introduction of Russian legislation and judicial reforms (both in Russian). As mentioned previously, this is particularly surprising in view of Article 15(4) of the Russian Constitution.

Does the Collective Self-Defense Justification Extend to Khorasan? If Not, Then Is There One?

by Julian Ku

I agree with Jens’ excellent post on the importance of the “unwilling or unable” standard to the US justification for legal strikes on non-state actors in Syria.  I agree this action may reveal state practice supporting (or rejecting) this legal justification.  I am curious whether the UK, France, or other states that may be participating in Syria strikes will embrace this theory. (I already know the Russians have roundly rejected this US justification). I also wonder whether this legal justification will weaken, as a policy matter, the ability of the US to effectively attack ISIS.

I do have one additional observation. Tacked on, almost as an afterthought, Ambassador Power’s letter notes that:

In addition, the United States has initiated military actions against al-Qaida elements in Syria known as the Khorasan Group to address terrorist threats that they pose to the United States and our partners and allies.”

The vague wording of the letter about Khorasan (threats to “the United States and our partners and allies”) as compared to the pretty specific language about ISIS’s attacks on Iraq  (“ to end the continuing attacks on Iraq, to protect Iraqi citizens, “) suggests that Khorasan is not currently engaged in armed attacks on Iraq.  This means that the U.S. is making a much broader international law claim than for its attacks on ISIS.  The U.S. is attacking Khorasan because, like Al Qaeda, it is a terrorist threat to the U.S. itself.  But no actual armed attacks have yet occurred (as far as I know).

It is therefore worth noting whether more  states object to the attacks on Khorasan than on ISIS, because the Khorasan attacks have a weaker international legal justification. My guess is that objecting states like Russia will not bother distinguishing between the two. But it will be interesting to see whether US allies will refuse to join strikes on Khorasan, even if they are willing to strike ISIS in Syria.

Will There Be a Scottish Precedent?

by Chris Borgen

Since Kosovo’s declaration of independence there has been talk about whether there is a “Kosovo precedent,” and, if so, just what does it mean. The International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion
captured the imaginations of national parties throughout Europe. For example, Aitor Estaban, a representative from Spain’s Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) said that “the main consequence is that Spain cannot keep saying that the international rules don’t allow for a split of the country for a new Basque independent country into the European Union. So I think that should be already over and that’s good news for us.” (See H. Jamar & M. K. Vigness, ‘Applying Kosovo: Looking to Russia, China, Spain, and Beyond After the International Court of Justice Opinion on Unilateral Declarations of Independence’, 11 German Law Journal (2010) 8, 913, 925.)

Will we now add a “Scotland precedent”  as well as  a “Kosovo precedent?”  Today’s referendum in Scotland has been described as a bellwether or a “canary in the coalmine” signaling the future of nationalism within the European Union. There are currently twenty to twenty-five “significant” separatist movements across Europe. (See, Bruno Coppieters, ‘Secessionist Conflicts in Europe’, in D. H. Doyle (ed.), Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements (2010), 237, 247.) Many writers seem to assume that as Scotland goes so does Catalonia, the Basque Countries, Padania, and any number of other parts of EU countries with their own national aspirations. But is this accurate? Would a “Yes” vote—or even just the fact that there is a vote—form some sort of “Scotland precedent?”

First, what do we mean by “precedent?” At times, commentators  use the word to mean, interchangeably, the strict legal sense of a legally binding decision and the looser political sense of a persuasive analogy that can be drawn from a similar case. What role may Scotland’s referendum have in regards to the nationalist movements elsewhere in the EU? Let us consider the number of legal and political factors at play in just one example: Catalonia.

At first blush, the situation in Catalonia may seem similar to that in Scotland. As a political entity, Catalonia has some similarities to Scotland (if slightly larger). As Bloomberg News explains:

Catalonia is a region in the northeast corner of the Iberian peninsula with about 7.5 million people compared with the 5.3 million who live in Scotland. Its 193 billion-euro economy is about the size of Finland’s and compares with the 150 billion-pound gross domestic product of Scotland.

Like Scotland, Catalonia has a distinct linguistic and national heritage. It has a special status within the Spanish state with greater autonomy and it has a population that has been seeking greater levels of independence, if not full separation and sovereignty. And the regional government of Catalonia has scheduled a referendum on independence for this coming November. For more on the history of Catalonia, see this.

Despite these similarities, most international lawyers could see quickly that a domestic referendum in the UK does not provide binding legal precedent for whether or not a domestic referendum in Spain would actually grant independence to Catalonia. Rather, the issue is one of political precedent: persuasive strength. In an argument supporting Catalonia’s referendum, Carles Boix and J.C. Major wrote in Foreign Affairs that, in their view:

International opinion tends to support this referendum, just as it has supported the one that will be held in Scotland this September or those that took place in Quebec a few years ago. Indeed, finding out where everyone stands would appear to be a necessary step to make an informed decision on how to proceed. And yet the Spanish government has not granted the Catalan authorities the power to conduct what would be a non-binding referendum — something that would be perfectly legal according to articles 92 and 150.2 of the Spanish constitution.

But even if one is to argue that Scotland’s referendum is persuasive authority, one first needs to consider whether the analogy is a good one. And, for that, we need to consider once again the legal and political situation. (more…)

Scottish Independence Insta-Symposium: “Devolution Max” and the Question of Referendum Questions

by Christopher K. Connolly

[Christopher K. Connolly is an Assistant United States Attorney, Southern District of New York.  This post is written solely in the author's personal capacity.  The views expressed in this post are the author's alone and cannot be attributed in any way to his employer or any branch of the U.S. Government.]

On September 7th, faced with new polls showing a surge in support for Scottish independence, the British government made a pledge to the people of Scotland: vote “No” in this Thursday’s referendum, thereby remaining within the United Kingdom, and more powers will be devolved to Scotland’s parliament.  According to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, if Scots reject independence, they will receive “[m]ore tax-raising powers, much greater fiscal autonomy . . . . More control over public expenditure, more control over welfare rates and a host of other changes.”

Osborne’s offer represents a new development in the run-up to the referendum–one that Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond quickly dismissed as a “panicky measure” brought on by the increased momentum of the pro-independence campaign.  But it’s hardly a new concept.  In essence, the British government is offering some form of “devolution max”–the term typically used to describe scenarios in which Scotland would obtain virtually complete internal autonomy (in particular, robust economic and fiscal powers) while remaining part of the United Kingdom for external purposes such as defense and foreign affairs.  The SNP recognized devolution max as an option for Scotland’s political future (albeit not the SNP’s preferred option) in a 2009 White Paper, and the party’s initial proposals for the upcoming referendum envisioned a ballot containing two questions, the first addressing independence and the second gauging support for devolution max.

But British prime minister David Cameron, confident in his government’s ability to win the referendum and wary of handing Salmond a “consolation prize” in the form of enhanced autonomy, rejected the idea of including two questions and instead insisted on an “up-or-down” vote on independence.  In the Edinburgh Agreement reached in October 2012, which laid the ground rules for the referendum process, the Scottish government agreed to a one-question referendum ballot in exchange for other concessions from Westminster.  Thus, when Scottish voters go to the polls on September 18th, they will be asked a single, straightforward question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?  Yes/No.”

Although the British government’s push for a single referendum question was prompted in large part by political considerations, it also comports with guidance concerning the phrasing of referendum questions provided by legal opinions and state practice.  In its 1975 Western Sahara advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) recognized the general principle that “the application of the right of self-determination requires a free and genuine expression of the will of the peoples concerned” (para. 55).  The Canadian Supreme Court expanded on this concept in its 1998 Quebec Secession Reference.  There, although the court found that Quebec did not possess a unilateral right to secede under either domestic or international law, it nonetheless concluded that “a clear majority vote in Quebec on a clear question in favour of secession would confer democratic legitimacy on the secession initiative which all of the other [Canadian provinces] would have to recognize” (para. 150).  In other words, the democratically expressed will of the people of Quebec to secede would oblige the rump Canadian state to engage with Quebec in negotiations concerning possible separation.  The court emphasized, however, that “[t]he referendum result, if it is to be taken as an expression of the democratic will, must be free of ambiguity both in terms of the question asked and in terms of the support it achieves” (para. 87).

The Canadian Supreme Court’s opinion was followed in 2000 by the Clarity Act, which gave teeth to the court’s view of the need for a clear and unambiguous referendum question.  Among other things, the Act obliges Canada to negotiate with Quebec over the terms of a possible separation only following a referendum that sets forth an unambiguous choice between either full separation or continued inclusion in the Canadian state.  Accordingly, the Act prohibits any “referendum question that envisages other possibilities in addition to the secession of the province from Canada, such as economic or political arrangements with Canada, that obscure a direct expression of the will of the population of that province on whether the province should cease to be part of Canada” (art. 1, para. 4(b)).

The Quebec Secession Reference and the Clarity Act must be understood against the backdrop of Quebec’s 1980 and 1995 referendums on independence.  The questions posed in those referendums were far from clear.  For example, the 1995 referendum question (the shorter of the two) read: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill Respecting the Future of Quebec, and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”  Moreover, the ultimate issue of independence was to a certain extent obscured by debates over “sovereignty-association,” a proposal often made by Quebecois nationalists under which Quebec, though nominally independent, would retain some form of political and economic partnership with the rest of Canada.  The Canadian government sought to ensure that any subsequent referendum would avoid these pitfalls.

Judged by these standards, the Scottish referendum question could not be more clear and straightforward.  Indeed, in language reminiscent of the ICJ and Canadian Supreme Court opinions, the Edinburgh Agreement asserts that the referendum will “deliver a fair test and a decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect.”  But there is room to question whether the simple, single question will best capture the political preferences of the Scottish electorate.  Polls have often shown that many, if not most, Scottish voters prefer neither the status quo nor outright independence–they would support devolution max if that were an option in the referendum.  The British government’s recent pledge to provide Scotland with greater autonomy appears to recognize this sentiment by attempting to turn a “No” vote into a vote for devolution max.  But will it be too little, too late for those who want Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom?  And given the question presented to them, which makes no mention of the possibility of further devolution, are Scottish voters being provided with a clear sense what voting “No” might entail?

Undoubtedly, referendum questions must be framed with clarity to ensure that voters understand the choice that is being presented to them.  But notwithstanding the lessons from Quebec, the Scottish situation raises the question of whether that choice should always be limited to either outright independence or continued inclusion in the state.  A clearly-worded second question concerning devolution max might have captured the wishes of many Scottish voters.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, “the increased autonomy envisioned by that proposal might have been sufficient to satisfy many Scottish nationalists.  By taking the option off the table and making the referendum an all-or-nothing affair, the British government is running the risk that many Scottish voters might instead opt for independence” (p. 102).  David Cameron’s single question, though admirably clear and unambiguous, has started to look like a political gamble.  It remains to be seen whether it will pay off.