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Guest Post: Law of the Sea Tribunal Adopts ‘Due Diligence’ Standard for Flag State Responsibility for IUU Fishing

by Craig H. Allen

[Craig H. Allen is the Judson Falknor Professor of Law/Professor of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington.]

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Tribunal) continued to develop the law of flag State responsibility in a 68-page advisory opinion issued on April 2, 2015 (Request for an advisory opinion submitted by the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC), ITLOS Case No. 21, Advisory Opinion of April 2, 2015). Five ITLOS judges wrote separate declarations or opinions.

A “Living” Law of the Sea Convention?

The April 2, 2015 advisory opinion was the first one issued by the full Tribunal. Four years earlier, the Tribunal’s Seabed Disputes Chamber had issued an advisory opinion, as it was expressly authorized to do under Article 191 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (Responsibilities and obligations of States sponsoring persons and entities with respect to activities in the Area [Request for Advisory Opinion submitted to the Seabed Disputes Chamber], ITLOS Case No. 17, Advisory Opinion of Feb. 1, 2011). In response to the SRFC request concerning IUU fishing, however, several States, including Australia, China, Ireland, Spain and the UK, objected that the Tribunal lacks jurisdiction to issue advisory opinions except in disputes involving the international seabed. Writing separately, Judge Lucky characterized the States’ jurisdictional objections as “cogent, clear and articulate, as well as considerably persuasive,” but he ultimately rejected them (Separate Opinion of Lucky, J.). In doing so, Judge Lucky opined that UNCLOS “is akin to (comparable with) a national constitution” and that, just as the “living constitution” doctrine advocates argue, UNCLOS “must ‘grow’ in accordance with the times.” (Id. ¶ 9). Oddly, in interpreting the Convention, Judge Lucky did not cite the relevant articles of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties until much later in his opinion.

The Opinion

Jurisdictional issues aside, this latest advisory opinion brings needed definition to the law of State Responsibility with respect to UNCLOS. The opinion was issued in response to a 2013 request by the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC) established by seven West African States). The SRFC submitted four questions, principally regarding the obligations and liability of flag States for IUU fishing by their vessels in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of another State. In all, 20 judges participated in the decision. They unanimously held that the Tribunal had jurisdiction to issue the advisory opinion, citing Article 138 of the Court’s own rules. At the same time, the Tribunal noted that since the Tribunal was established in 1996 this was the first time an advisory opinion had been issued by the full Tribunal.

In answering the questions presented, the Tribunal distinguished the flag State’s responsibility under UNCLOS from its liability. With respect to the latter question, the Tribunal declared that the liability of the flag State does not arise from a failure of vessels flying its flag to comply with the applicable laws and regulations, because “the violation of such laws and regulations by vessels is not per se attributable to the flag State” (¶ 146). Instead, the liability of the flag State arises from its failure to comply with its own “due diligence” obligations. Thus, the flag State will not be liable if it has taken “all necessary and appropriate measures to meet its ‘due diligence’ obligations” to ensure that vessels flying its flag do not conduct IUU fishing activities in the EEZ of the coastal States (¶ 148).

The due diligence standard adopted by the Tribunal can be traced to the arbitration panel’s decision in the CSS Alabama case, which involved Great Britain’s responsibility for damages done by the CSS Alabama, a Confederate States warship built in Great Britain, in violation of that State’s neutrality in the Civil War (Alabama claims of the United States of America against Great Britain, Award of Sept. 14, 1872, XXIX Reports of International Arbitration Awards 122, 129.) The standard was also adopted in the ITLOS Seabed Disputes Chamber’s 2011 advisory opinion (¶¶ 110-117), in which it cited the ICJ’s 2010 decision in the Pulp Mills on the Uruguay River case (2010 ICJ Rep. 14, 79, ¶ 197).

Importantly, in its opinion the Tribunal cited flag State responsibilities under Articles 58.3 (rights and duties of other states in the EEZ), 62.4 (utilization of living resources of the EEZ), 94 (duties of the flag State) and 192 (general obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment). In a separate opinion, Judge Paik elaborated on the flag States’ obligations under Article 94. Thus, the opinion’s examination of flag State responsibility and the due diligence standard is likely to find application beyond the context of IUU fishing in the EEZ.

John Bellinger’s Op-Ed on ISIS and the ICC (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

The op-ed, which appears in today’s New York Times, argues that the ICC is the most appropriate venue for prosecuting ISIS’s many international crimes. I have great respect for John, who is unique among former high-ranking US government officials in his willingness to defend the ICC, but the op-ed makes a number of arguments that deserve comment.

It certainly makes more sense for the court’s prosecutor to investigate the Islamic State than to investigate the United States or Britain for treatment of detainees or Israel for its handling of last year’s Gaza conflict, as some activists have called for.

There is no question that ISIS is responsible for horrific international crimes that deserve to be prosecuted. But does it “certainly make more sense” for the ICC to prosecute those crimes than British torture in Iraq, US torture in Afghanistan, and Israel’s vast array of crimes against Palestinian civilians in Gaza? That’s not self-evident. Readers know my skepticism toward the ICC investigating the situation in Palestine, but the expressive value of prosecuting UK or US military commanders and political leaders for torture would be incalculable — it would get the ICC out of Africa; it would affirm that torture, a crime that rarely involves a large numbers of victims, is unacceptable and deserving of prosecution; and — of course — it would demonstrate that no state, no matter how powerful, is immune from international criminal justice.

At a minimum, the Security Council should ask the court to investigate the numerous offenses committed by the Islamic State that fall within the court’s mandate.

[snip]

A Security Council request would be necessary because Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State is operating, are not parties to the Rome Statute (the treaty that created the court) and are not otherwise subject to the court’s jurisdiction.

A Security Council referral is not actually necessary, because the ICC’s jurisdiction is not simply territorial. The Court can also prosecute any international crime committed by a national of a state that has ratified the Rome Statute. Many ISIS leaders are nationals of ICC member-states — including Jihadi John, who is a UK national. So the ICC could prosecute those leaders tomorrow if it had them in custody. Indeed, Fatou Bensouda has already mentioned the possibility of such nationality-based prosecutions.

Moreover, a Security Council referral may be more trouble than it’s worth. John himself notes a major problem: if the territorial parameters of any such referral exposed members of the Syrian government to ICC jurisdiction, Russia and/or China would almost certainly veto the referral. And what if the referral exposed Syrian rebels to ICC jurisdiction? I can’t imagine the US, France, and the UK would be too keen about that — not least because it would provide the ICC with a backdoor to prosecuting their nationals for aiding and abetting rebel crimes.

The United States has reason to be concerned about inappropriate and politicized investigations of the United States and Israel.

I don’t see why, given that the ICC has not opened a formal investigation in Afghanistan despite having examined the situation for eight years and has only had jurisdiction over Israel’s crimes for a few months. Moreover, John never explains why any ICC investigation of the US or Israel would necessarily be “inappropriate and politicized,” given that both states have quite obviously committed crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction. Why should the ICC only prosecute the US’s enemies — never its friends, and certainly never the US itself? Americans and Israelis might like that idea, but I imagine few others would accept it.

[B]ut the International Criminal Court still has an important role to play in investigating and prosecuting acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — all of which have reportedly been committed by the Islamic State.

I’m not so sure, at least in the context of ISIS — and this is my basic issue with John’s op-ed. Does the ICC really need yet another situation to investigate, given its already overtaxed resources? And do we really want the Security Council to refer the ISIS situation, given that there is almost no chance it will finance the resulting investigation? (See, for example, the failed Syria resolution.) Moreover, why should the ICC prosecute ISIS leaders when states like the US, the UK, and Japan (and Germany, and France, and…) are just as capable of prosecuting those leaders themselves — if not more so? They have investigative and prosecutorial resources the ICC can only dream of. So why should the ICC do their work for them?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we need to stop assuming that the ICC is always the best venue for prosecuting international crimes. It’s not. It’s a weak Court with more failures than successes on its ledger. Even under ideal circumstances — unlikely to exist — it would never be able to prosecute more than a handful of ISIS leaders. And if past cases are any indication, there is no guarantee those prosecutions would lead to convictions. So if states really want to bring ISIS to justice, the solution is there for all to see.

They should do the job themselves.

NOTE: I am not implying that John invented the idea that the ICC should investigate ISIS crimes. As he notes in his op-ed, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has previously suggested the same thing. But that in no way changes my position — and I think it’s unfortunate that High Commissioners see the ICC as the first resort instead of the last, even in situations (such as ISIS) where, unlike states, the ICC has no ability to effectively investigate. The previous High Commissioner exhibited the same problematic tendency, calling on the Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC despite the fact that the Court would be powerless to investigate Syrian and rebel crimes as long as the conflict continues. Security Council referrals only make sense after a conflict has ended — and not even there, unless the Security Council is willing to give its referrals teeth by funding the subsequent investigation and punishing states for not cooperating with the ICC, which it has shown no interest whatsoever in doing. Do we really need more failed ICC investigations like the one in Darfur?

Guest Post: Indian Court embraces the Vienna Convention on Law of Treaties

by Sushma Nagaraj

[Sushma Nagaraj is an Advocate practicing commercial and constitutional law before the Bombay High Court, India. She assisted Mr. Kevic Setalvad, the Senior Advocate who represented AWAS Ireland Ltd. (the Petitioner before the Honorable Delhi High Court) with legal research on aviation law and public international law.]

Indian Courts have, for the most part been generous in applying International Law but recently, the Delhi High Court in AWAS Ireland v. Directorate General of Civil Aviation (W.P.(C) 671/2005, Judgment delivered on 19th March 2015, available here) marched a step ahead.

AWAS, which had leased aircrafts to Spice Jet, an Indian low cost carrier initiated writ proceedings in the Delhi High Court seeking de-registration of the leased aircrafts, upon termination of the lease agreements with Spice Jet for default in payment of lease rents. The High Court applying the Cape Town Convention on International Interest in Mobile Equipment, 2001 as also the Aircraft Protocol to the Cape Town Convention, to which India is a party, sanctioned de-registration of the aircrafts.

The Cape Town Convention and Aircraft Protocol have not been expressly, by legislation, adopted as a part of the Indian municipal law. All the same, the Supreme Court of India has, in plethora of cases including Aban Loyd Chiles Offshore v. UOI ((2008) 11 SCC 439; available here) consistently held that in the absence of municipal law, treaties can be looked into, if they are not in conflict with municipal law. In Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan ((1997) 6 SCC 241; available here) and National Legal Services Authority v. Union of India, ((2014) 5 SCC 438; available here), the Supreme Court of India applied international law even when then was no municipal law holding field in a certain area. In T.N.Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India ((2012) 4 SCC 362; available here), the Supreme Court laid down a short but categorical directive – that treaties not contrary to municipal law are deemed to be incorporated in the municipal law. This was sufficient ammunition for India to apply the Cape Town Convention and the Aircraft Protocol.

While this is noteworthy, there is something else that makes the High Court judgment distinctive. In AWAS, the High Court ventured further. The High Court applied the principles enshrined in the Vienna Convention of Law of Treaties, 1969. What makes AWAS significant is that India is neither a signatory nor has it ratified the Vienna Convention. The High Court applying the principles of pacta sunt servanda in Article 26 and the general rules of interpretation of a treaty in Article 31 of the Vienna Convention, observed that an international convention is required to be interpreted in good faith, in accordance with the ordinary meaning given to the terms of the treaty, in their context, and in the light of its stated object and purpose. The High Court also applied the principle in Article 27 of the Vienna Convention which casts an obligation on a State to not only remain bound by the terms of a treaty entered into by a State but also, to not cite internal law as a justification for failure to perform its obligation under a treaty.

The Court did not debate whether the principles of the Vienna Convention constituted customary international law. This was evitable since the Supreme Court of India had, in Ram Jethmalani v. Union of India ((2011) 8 SCC 1; available here) already recognized that the Vienna Convention codifies many principles of customary international law.

AWAS marks a milestone, not only for India but also for the international community since principles engraved in the Vienna Convention, which are widely perceived as customary international law, have not just been acknowledged, but embraced by the High Court. AWAS is, without doubt, a small yet a significant contribution in the evolution of international law.

Israel’s “Defenders” Show Their True Colors Regarding Academic Freedom

by Kevin Jon Heller

From April 17-19, the University of Southampton is scheduled to host a conference entitled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.” As the title indicates, the conference was always going to be controversial. (Full disclosure: I was originally scheduled to present at the conference, but pulled out a couple of weeks ago because I simply didn’t have time to prepare anything.) Indeed, the conference webpage contains the following statement by the organisers:

The conference “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility, and Exceptionalism” at the University of Southampton on April 17-19th will engage controversial questions concerning the manner of Israel’s foundation and its nature, including ongoing forced displacements of Palestinians and associated injustices. The conference will examine how international law could be deployed, expanded, even re-imagined, in order to achieve regional peace and reconciliation based on justice.  The conference is intended to broaden debates and legal arguments concerning historic Palestine and the nature, role, and potentialities of international law itself.

Participants will be a part of a multidisciplinary debate reflecting diverse perspectives, and thus genuine disagreements, on the central themes of the conference. Diligent efforts, including face-to-face meetings with leading intellectuals in Israel, were made to ensure the widest range of opinions possible. Those who chose to abstain, however, cannot derail the legitimate, if challenging, academic discussion the conference will inspire.

The conference organizers are grateful to the University of Southampton for ensuring academic freedom within the law and for taking steps to secure freedom of speech within the law. The conference organizers accept that the granting of permission for this event does not imply support or endorsement by the University of any of the opinions to be expressed at the conference.

The final paragraph is more than a little ironic — because earlier today the University of Southampton caved to pressure from self-appointed right-wing “defenders” of Israel and withdrew its permission for the conference. To be sure, the University did not have the integrity to admit the real reason why it was withdrawing permission. Instead, it fell back on that time-worn excuse, “security.” (Read: Israel’s right-wing “defenders” promised to disrupt the conference if the University didn’t cancel it.) The organizers’ statement in response makes clear just how pathetic that excuse really is:

A number of risks have been identified by the police but it is very clear from the Police’s report that they are more than capable of policing the conference and ensuring the safety of university staff, speakers, delegates, students and property. However, instead of accepting this at face value the University decided to focus on the risks identified by the Police and ignore their statement about their ability to police the event – we were told the Police will never say in writing they are not able to police an event, in other words the University had doubts about the Police’s ability to do their job of upholding the law! The university claims that the Police are not able or unwilling to become too involved because the University is ‘private property’, which we find astonishing. The University is a public space, it was established by a Royal Charter and it has public roles and duties including upholding freedom of speech and to that extent it should be able to resort to police assistance in order to curb security risks to enable it to fulfil its legal obligation to uphold freedom of speech. If this is not done, if commitment to safety is not undertaken by the police, freedom of speech becomes an idle worthless notion. At no point were we given an indication that the University has indeed allowed itself the time to seek viable police assistance to supplement its own resources. Additionally, and unconvincingly, the University claims that it is now too late to put proper security arrangements in place. We do not accept that in any way as there are still 18 days left before the conference.

It will be a great shame if the conference does not go ahead as planned, whether at Southampton or at another venue. But the University’s decision does have a silver lining: it makes clear the contempt that Israel’s right-wing “defenders” have for academic freedom. They love to invoke academic freedom in the context of academic BDS, where the freedom in question is that of Israeli academics. (Regular readers know that I oppose academic BDS, and I voted against it recently at SOAS.) But when academic freedom means permitting criticism of Israel — well, then censorship is just fine. Consider the following…

M. Cherif Bassiouni Weighs In on the Amanda Knox Extradition, and Gets It Wrong

by Julian Ku

I have been feeling a little guilty for blogging about the Amanda Knox case since it is more of a People Magazine topic than an Opinio Juris one.  But just today, I realized that even someone as respected in the international law field as M. Cherif Bassiouni has opined on her extraditability in this OUP blog post from last April.  So maybe it’s OK after all, especially since Bassiouni’s view that she is not extraditable is (in my view) flatly wrong.

Bassiouni, a giant in the field of international criminal law and the author of the leading treatise on the international law of extradition, argues that Amanda Knox is not extraditable to Italy because of the admittedly unusual Italian criminal procedure that seems to subject defendants to convictions, acquittals, and then conviction again in violation of the rule of ne bis in idem (double jeopardy).

As I have explained, no US court has held that the double jeopardy protection of the Fifth Amendment would prevent an extradition because no U.S. court has applied that Fifth Amendment protection to actions by a foreign government.  In other words, no U.S. has held that a U.S. citizen can invoke the Fifth Amendment against the prosecution of a foreign government.  It is possible a court might do so, but there has been no signs of that so far.

But what really bothers me is that Bassiouni makes the same mistake that many other (far lesser in stature) legal commentators have made when he suggests that Article VI of the US-Italy Extradition treaty imposes a double-jeopardy requirement on the Italian government.

The 1983 U.S.–Italy Extradition Treaty states in article VI that extradition is not available in cases where the requested person has been acquitted or convicted of the “same acts” (in the English text) and the “same facts” (in the Italian text).

With all due respect to Professor Bassiouni, this is not quite right. I point him and others to my first post on this subject and I re-do the discussion below.   Here is Article VI:

Non Bis in Idem

Extradition shall not be granted when the person sought has been convicted, acquitted or pardoned, or has served the sentence imposed, by the Requested Party for the same acts for which extradition is requested.

(Emphasis added.)

I don’t think it is possible to read this language as imposing a non bis in idem requirement on Italy, since Italy is not the “Requested Party” in the Amanda Knox case.  The only way Amanda Knox could invoke Article VI is if she has been “convicted, acquitted or pardoned,or has served the sentence imposed” by the United States, which is the “Requested Party.”  But Knox has not been charged or punished for this crime in the United States, so she can’t invoke Article VI.

As Bassiouni points out, the complexity of Italy’s criminal procedure could possibly violate the prohibition on non bis in idem contained in the European Convention on Human Rights.  I don’t know enough about Italy’s criminal procedure or the ECHR’s jurisprudence in this area to know if he is right, but I do know that this issue is not something that would be considered in the “extraditability” analysis by a U.S. court.  Knox could (and probably has) raised this argument in Italian courts, or directly before the ECHR. But it should not affect her extraditability.

Because of Bassiouni’s stature, his blogpost will be (and already has been) repeated by media reports for the proposition that Knox has a credible double-jeopardy defense to extradition.  But although they are right to cite Bassiouni as a leading authority on international extradition, he’s wrong on this one.

So How Do We Assess Proportionality? (A Response to Blank, Corn, and Jensen) (UPDATED)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Just Security published a post by Laurie Blank, Geoffrey Corn, and Eric Jensen yesterday criticizing two surveys that are interested in how laypeople think about IHL’s principle of proportionality. Much of what the authors say is absolutely correct, particularly about the need to recognize that assessing ex post the ex ante decision-making process of military commanders is fraught with difficulty and likely to both overemphasize actual civilian casualties and underemphasize anticipated military advantage. But the post is still problematic, particularly the following claims:

Second, the surveys exacerbate what is perhaps the most dangerous misperception and distortion of this vital regulatory principle: that you, or I, or anyone can accurately and meaningfully assess the proportionality of an attack after the fact and without full knowledge of the circumstances at the time of the attack. Proportionality necessitates a prospective analysis that cannot be assessed in hindsight by looking solely at the effects of an attack (or the hypothetical effects of a hypothetical attack). The language of the proportionality rule refers to “expected” civilian casualties and “anticipated” military advantage — the very choice of words shows that the analysis must be taken in a prospective manner from the viewpoint of the commander at the time of the attack. Credible compliance assessment therefore requires considering the situation through the lens of the decision-making commander, and then asking whether the attack judgment was reasonable under the circumstances.

[snip]

Ultimately, these surveys are based on a flawed assumption: that “public perception” is the ultimate touchstone for compliance with the proportionality rule; a touchstone that should be substituted for the expert, hard-earned judgment of military commanders who bear the moral, strategic, tactical and legal consequences of each and every decision they make in combat. On that basis alone, it is the surveys that are disproportionate.

I can’t speak to one of the surveys, because the authors don’t provide any information about it. But I am aware of (and have completed) the survey they do link to, which is conducted by Janina Dill, an excellent young Oxford lecturer who is the Associate Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. The authors caricature Dill’s survey when they claim that it is based on the “flawed assumption” that “public perception” is “the ultimate touchstone for compliance with the proportionality rule.” Dill does not suggest that the legality of a particular attack should be determined by public perception of whether it was proportionate; she is simply interested in how non-military people think about proportionality. Like the authors, I don’t believe Dill’s questions capture the complexity of the military commander’s task. But neither does Dill. That is not the point of the survey.

Dill, however, is more than capable of defending herself. I am more interested in the first paragraph quoted above, because the authors come perilously close therein to claiming that it is per se illegitimate for anyone — or at least individuals who are not soldiers themselves — to second-guess the targeting decisions of military commanders. I suppose they leave themselves a tiny escape from that position by implying (obliquely) that “you, or I, or anyone” could assess ex post a military commander’s ex ante proportionality calculation as long as we had “full knowledge of the circumstances at the time of the attack.” But the authors make no attempt whatsoever to explain how the decision-makers involved in any ex post “compliance assessment” could ever take into account everything the military commander knew about the circumstances of the attack — from “the enemy’s center of gravity and the relationship of the nominated target to that consideration” to “the exigencies of the tactical situation” to “the weaponeering process, including the choice of weapons to deploy and their known or anticipated blast radius or other consequences.” Some information about the objective circumstances of the attack may be available in written reports and through the testimony of the military commander’s superiors and subordinates. But those objective circumstances are only part of the story, because IHL proportionality requires (as the authors rightly note) assessing the reasonableness of the attack “through the lens” of the commander herself — what she actually knew about the objective circumstances of the attack. And that information will be located solely in the mind of the military commander. Perhaps some commanders are so honest and so mentally disciplined that they will provide a court-martial or international tribunal with an accurate assessment of what went through their mind before the attack. But most commanders faced with discipline or prosecution for a possibly disproportionate attack will either lie about their proportionality calculation or unconsciously rewrite that calculation after the fact to justify killing innocent civilians.

In most cases, therefore, the decision-makers involved in a compliance assessment will have no choice but to rely on circumstantial evidence — including, yes, an attack’s actual consequences — to infer what went through the mind of a military commander prior to launching an attack. Such inferences will always be, for all the reasons the authors note, complex, fraught with difficulty, and prone to error. But unless we are going to simply defer to “the expert, hard-earned judgment of military commanders who bear the moral, strategic, tactical and legal consequences of each and every decision they make in combat,” we have no choice but to ask people to draw them. I doubt that any of the authors think that uncritical deference is appropriate; more likely, they think that although compliance assessment is necessary, no civilian should ever be permitted to sit in judgment of a soldier. If so — or if they think that civilian assessment is possible in the right system — the authors need to do more than just complain about how difficult it is to be a military commander and dismiss as irrelevant how civilians think about fundamental principles of IHL. They need to tell us what a properly-designed system of compliance assessment would look like.

UPDATE: Janina Dill has posted her own response at Just Security. It’s excellent; interested readers should definitely check it out.

Responding to Rogier Bartels About Perfidy at Just Security

by Kevin Jon Heller

My friend Rogier Bartels published two excellent posts at Just Security over the past few days (here and here) in which he argues that it is inherently perfidious to launch an attack from a military object disguised as a civilian object. Just Security has just posted my lengthy response. Here is how I conclude the post:

At the risk of sounding like an armchair psychologist, I’d like to suggest an explanation for why an excellent scholar like Rogier adopts a theory of perfidy that, in my view, cannot be correct. The problem, I think, is the nature of the attack that gave rise to our lively debate: a bomb placed in a privately-owned car in the middle of a generally peaceful city. Such an attack simply doesn’t seem fair; of course a “combatant” — even a high-ranking member of Hezbollah — is entitled to feel safe walking by a car on “a quiet nighttime street in Damascus after dinner at a nearby restaurant,” as the Washington Post put it. Indeed, like Rogier, I am skeptical that IHL even applied to the bombing.

But just as hard cases make bad law, unusual situations generate problematic rules. Once we try to apply Rogier’s theory of perfidy to the “normal” combat situation, its plausibility falls apart. Although the same military/civilian distinctions apply, those distinctions take on a very different sheen during street-by-street, house-by-house fighting in a city virtually destroyed by armed conflict. You expect to be able to walk by a Mercedes in a Damascus suburb without being blown up, even if you are a soldier; but if you are a soldier in downtown Fallujah, the last thing you are going to do is walk casually past that burned out, overturned Mazda sitting in the middle of the city’s main road. Yet that Mazda is no less a civilian object than the Mercedes, and as long as IHL applies there is no legal difference between planting a bomb in the Mazda and planting a bomb in the Mercedes. Either both car bombs are perfidious or neither of them is. And it is very difficult to argue that planting a bomb in a burned-out, overturned Mazda in downtown Fallujah — or placing an ambush behind it, or using it for cover, or blending into it with camouflage, or placing a landmine near it — is an act of perfidy.

I share Rogier’s concern with the Israel/US operation that killed the Hezbollah leader, and I understand his unease — from a civilian protection standpoint — with many of the kinds of attacks I’ve discussed in this post. Any proposal to expand the definition of perfidy, however, must acknowledge the (ugly) reality of combat, particularly in urban areas. The general distinction between perfidy and ruses of war is a sensible one, even if we can — and should — debate precisely where the line between the two is drawn.

I hope readers will wander over to Just Security and read all three posts — as well as the original discussion that led to them.

The Security Council Workaround: How the Iran Deal Can Become Legally Binding Via a UN Security Council Resolution

by Julian Ku

Since the United States has made clear that its “deal” with Iran will NOT be a binding legal commitment under international law, one wonders what all the fuss over the Iran Letter from US Senators was about. As Duncan explains in his great post below, there is little doubt that the President can enter into a nonbinding “political commitment” and withdraw from it without violating international law.  Confusingly, though, Iran keeps talking as if there is going to be a binding international legal commitment.

The answer to this confusion appears to be that the US government plans to make a non-binding political commitment, and then take this commitment to the UN Security Council to get it “carved into marble” as a Security Council resolution that would be binding under international law.  Jack Goldsmith explains in detail at Lawfare how this might happen, and why this is constitutional (if also kind of sneaky).  The President gets to both avoid going to Congress AND get a binding legal obligation on Iran.

Of course, a future President could choose to withdraw or defy the UN Security Council resolution, but the legal and diplomatic costs would be much higher than withdrawing from a mere political commitment.  Congress could also, unquestionably, override any domestic legal effects of a UN Security Council Resolution by passing a statute refusing to lift sanctions on Iran, or stopping the President from doing so.  Diggs v. Shultz makes clear that a statute passed by Congress later in time than a Security Council resolution will have the force of law by operation of the last in time rule.  But the legal and diplomatic costs for doing so would also be higher than for a mere political commitment or even a bilateral executive agreement.

So the Administration has a plan to avoid Congress and get its deal sanctified by international law.  Pretty clever lawyering, although I (like Goldsmith) expect some serious political blowback from Congress.

Simone Gbagbo’s Domestic Conviction Illustrates the Futility of the “Same Conduct” Requirement

by Kevin Jon Heller

Another complementarity fight is brewing, this time between the ICC and Cote d’Ivoire concerning the fate of Simone Gbagbo. In 2012, the ICC issued a warrant for her arrest, claiming that there are reasonable grounds to believe she is responsible as an indirect co-perpetrator for the crimes against humanity of murder, rape, other forms of sexual violence, and persecution. Just yesterday, however, Gbagbo was convicted in an Ivorian court and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on very different charges:

A court in Ivory Coast has sentenced Simone Gbagbo, the wife of the former president Laurent Gbagbo, to 20 years in prison for her role in a 2011 post-election crisis in which around 3,000 people were killed, her lawyer said.

Simone Gbagbo, who is also wanted by the international criminal court, was tried alongside 82 other allies of her husband in a case that revived deep divisions in a nation still recovering from years of political turmoil and conflict.

Gen Bruno Dogbo Ble, who headed the elite republican guard, and the former navy chief Admiral Vagba Faussignaux were both jailed for 20 years, according to their lawyer, while others got shorter sentences. Michel Gbagbo, the former president’s son, was sentenced to five years.

Supporters of Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to acknowledge his defeat to Alassane Ouattara in elections in late 2010 sparked the brief civil war, claimed his wife’s trial was politically motivated.

“The jury members retained all the charges against her, including disturbing the peace, forming and organising armed gangs and undermining state security. It’s a shame,” said Simone Gbagbo’s lawyer, Rodrigue Dadje.

Cote d’Ivore will no doubt now file an admissibility challenge with the ICC, claiming that they do not have to surrender Gbagbo because  Art. 17(1)(c) of the Rome Statute provides that a case is inadmissible if “[t]he person concerned has already been tried for conduct which is the subject of the complaint, and a trial by the Court is not permitted under article 20, paragraph 3.” Art. 20(3) specifies that, as long as the trial is genuine, “[n]o person who has been tried by another court for conduct also proscribed under article 6, 7 or 8 shall be tried by the Court with respect to the same conduct.”

I do not know the precise conduct that underlies Gbagbo’s domestic conviction. But it seems highly likely that the “undermining state security” and “organizing criminal gangs” charges were not based on substantially the same conduct as the ICC’s crimes against humanity charges. If not, the case will still be admissible before the Court, because Art. 20(3) explicitly permits the ICC to prosecute conduct different than the conduct underlying a domestic conviction. That specific provision has never been litigated, but the judges are very unlikely to read Art. 20(3) more expansively. After all, in the context of cases still under investigation at the domestic level, the Appeals Chamber specifically held in the Kenya cases that the domestic investigation must focus on “substantially the same conduct” as the ICC’s investigation:

The defining elements of a concrete case before the Court are the individual and the alleged conduct. It follows that for such a case to be inadmissible under article 17(l)(a) of the Statute, the national investigation must cover the same individual and substantially the same conduct as alleged in the proceedings before the Court.

Here is my question: what would the ICC gain by insisting that Cote d’Ivoire surrender Gbagbo to the Court to face a second prosecution? After all, 20 years is hardly an insignificant sentence — five years longer than Lubanga’s, and eight years longer than Katanga’s. Should the ICC really waste precious (and overstretched) OTP resources to obtain another conviction of Gbagbo, even though — if the past sentencing practice by international tribunals is any guide — she is very unlikely to receive a longer sentence from the ICC than she has already received from Cote d’Ivoire?

My answer is simple: the ICC would gain nothing, so it shouldn’t. As I have argued at length in my essay “A Sentence-Based Theory of Complementarity,” the ICC simply cannot afford the kind of hyper-formalism that underlies both the “same conduct” requirement and Art. 20(3). In my view, the Court should defer to any national prosecution that results (or any national investigation is likely to result) in a sentence equal to or longer than the sentence the suspect could expect to receive at the ICC, even if the national prosecution is based on completely different conduct than the ICC’s investigation. The upcoming Gbagbo complementarity fight, I think, will likely illustrate why my theory of complementarity makes sense.

Finally, it’s worth noting that should the ICC agree with me, it does in fact have an out — Art. 89(4) of the Rome Statute, which provides as follows:

If the person sought is being proceeded against or is serving a sentence in the requested State for a crime different from that for which surrender to the Court is sought, the requested State, after making its decision to grant the request, shall consult with the Court.

Nothing in the Rome Statute seems to prohibit the Court from deciding, after such a consultation, to let the suspect serve his or her domestic sentence prior to — or even instead of — requiring the state to surrender the suspect to the Court. I hope the ICC will consider such a decision regarding Gbagbo. It has nothing to gain by forcing Cote d’Ivoire to turn her over.

Dealing with Iran: A Primer on the President’s Options for a Nuclear Agreement

by Duncan Hollis

Without weighing in on the merits of any deal with Iran on nuclear matters, I’ll express some frustration over the rhetoric used in the current firestorm between the White House, 47 Senators (plus Governors Perry and Jindal), Iran’s Foreign Minister, and the 4th Estate on what kind of deal the United States might conclude with Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany).  There seems to be a great deal of confusion and conflation of issues in terms of the legal logistics of concluding any deal.  Now, maybe some of that is willful — obfuscation in service of each side’s political goals.  But, on the chance that some of those weighing in are under-informed on the actual issues and options available, I thought I’d offer a (brief) primer on what the actual options are in this case and how those options may limit/shape U.S. behavior.

For starters, it’s critical to differentiate the question of how nation states can reach agreement from the question of how a domestic legal system authorizes a State to enter into agreements (let alone what effect it gives them).  As such, I think the conversation needs to split off the question of (1) what kind of international deal this will be; from asking (2) what authority does the United States have (or will it need) to conclude such a deal as a matter of U.S. law.  Let’s take each angle separately.

International Commitments

When it comes to nation States entering into an agreement (that is, a mutual commitment of shared expectations as to future behavior), there are actually three basic options States can choose: (a) a treaty; (b) a contract; or (c) a political commitment.

(a) a treaty:  The treaty is a (relatively) well understood vehicle that rests on international law for its authority and effects.  Article 2(a) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) defines a treaty as

an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation

There’s some nuance to this definition, which I’ve explained in the Defining Treaties chapter of my book.  But for our purposes, it suffices to note that the VCLT lays out who has authority to make a treaty (i.e., heads of state and government, foreign ministers and those with full powers) and how they can do so (i.e., by signature, ratification, accession, acceptance, approval or any other agreed means).  Once formed, a treaty is subject to the general (and fundamental) principle of pacta sunt servanda — treaties are “binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.” Domestic legal obligations are not recognized as a basis for breaching treaty commitments, with one exception.  Article 46 provides that

1. A State may not invoke the fact that its consent to be bound by a treaty has been expressed in violation of a provision of its internal law regarding competence to conclude treaties as invalidating its consent unless that violation was manifest and concerned a rule of its internal law of fundamental importance. 2. A violation is manifest if it would be objectively evident to any State conducting itself in the matter in accordance with normal practice and in good faith.

Article 46, however, has proven relatively limited in its availability to States as an exit option; the one time it got raised before the ICJ, the Court suggested that States are not obliged to keep track of other states’ legislative and constitutional regulations on treaty-making and that a violation could not be manifest “unless at least properly publicized.”   Given the varied ways the U.S. authorizes treaties (discussed in more detail below), it’s hard to imagine a later Administration being able to invoke Article 46.  Indeed, if U.S. foreign relations scholars can’t agree on the ground rules for when specific treaty-making procedures are required (or prohibited), I’m hard pressed to say other countries should be able to identify a manifest violation in a case where the Executive branch pursues one specific procedure over others.

(b) a contract:  Interstate commitments can also be contracts instead of treaties. Contracts, like treaties, are considered legally binding, but differ from them in that contracts rely on domestic law as the source of their “bindingness” instead of being governed by international law as treaties are. Still, governments from time to time will do deals (e.g., one State selling helicopters to another) where the agreement specifically indicates its terms are governed by, say, the “law of New York.” This doesn’t seem to be on the table with Iran though, so I’ll reserve to a latter date more detailed analysis of how contracts and treaties differ. 

(c) a political commitment:  The third — and final — option for agreements among States is a “political commitment.”  Some scholars prefer to call it “soft law,” but for reasons Josh Newcomer and I elaborated in our article on political commitments, I think that term is a bit of a misnomer. The basic idea is simple — states can make agreements where the basis of their commitment does not rest on law, but “political” (or perhaps “moral”) forces.  In a political commitment, the fact of the promise itself motivates compliance rather than importing the sanctity of law and its legitimacy to do so. Non-legally binding commitments have now been a feature of international relations for more than a century, and include some pretty high-profile agreements, including the Shanghai Communique, the Helsinki Accords, the recent US-China Deal on Climate Change, and the Comprehensive Joint Plan that started this whole set of negotiations with Iran.  Moreover, as Josh and my article details, these commitments exhibit a tremendous diversity in terms of the form they take, the substantive commitments they contain, the extent to which they establish or implicate institutions, not to mention their varied relationships to other legal and non-legal commitments.

Traditionally, political commitments are seen as distinct from treaties in terms of being (i) more flexible; (ii) less credible because exit options are easier; with (iii) greater opportunities for confidentiality; and (iv) fewer domestic legal hurdles to their formation.  The actual variation in political commitments suggests, however, that these differences may be over-stated — today’s practice suggests that there is some significant overlap in what political commitments and treaties do.  For example, it may have been true at one time that treaties were necessarily less flexible than political commitments, but with the advent of tacit amendment procedures, treaties have gained in flexibility, while some political commitments have become more highly structured and inflexible in terms of the precision or normativity of their contents or the institutional structure in which they operate.  The one area where political commitments appear to hold a distinct advantage (or disadvantage depending on your perspective) is with the relatively weak domestic law attention they receive.  As Josh and I concluded in our article — a point reiterated earlier today by Jack Goldsmith and Marty Lederman, states like the United States have imposed few (if any) legal restrictions on the Executive’s ability to enter into political commitments.

Domestic Authorities to Commit the United States Internationally

In Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution, the President has the “power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”  If one were to take up the issue de novo, you might think this text requires that all treaties the United States wishes to conclude under international law have to proceed to the Senate.  In practice, however, Senate Advice and Consent has become one of only four ways the United States may gain authority to enter into a treaty (in the international law sense of that term).  Add in the possibility that the Iran deal might be a political commitment, and there are actually five options for how U.S. law might authorize a deal with Iran: (i) Senate Advice and Consent; (ii) a Congressional-Executive agreement; (iii) via an existing Senate Advice and Consent treaty; (iv) a sole Executive Agreement; or (v) a political commitment.

(i) Senate Advice and Consent Treaty.  If the United States concludes a treaty (in the international law sense of the term) with Iran and the P5+1, President Obama could send that treaty to the Senate for advice and consent, and, assuming the Senate agreed (with or without reservations, understandings or declarations), the President would then clearly have constitutional authority to consent to the deal.  Senate advice and consent is much less used compared to the past (less than 10% of modern treaties go through the Senate), although it should be noted that almost all past arms control agreements have received Senate advice and consent.  Still, given the general stalemate that has pervaded the Senate’s role in treaty-making the last few years, this seems a complete non-starter as a path forward, particularly with 47 Senators on record against virtually any deal involving Iran.

(ii) Congressional-Executive Agreement:  The President could gain authority to conclude a treaty (again, in the international law sense of that term) with Iran and the P5+1 via Congress instead of the Senate alone.  A simply majority vote of both Houses could enact a bill that with the President’s signature would become federal law and thus create legal authority for the United States to conclude (and perform) an Iranian treaty.  As a practical matter, congressional consent can be ex ante or ex post, but again, domestic politics in this case countenances against this being a likely option (even though today the vast, vast majority of U.S. treaty commitments under international law rely on one or more statutory authorities for their formation).

(iii) via an Existing Senate Advice and Consent Treaty:  Article VI of the Constitution treats both statutes and treaties (i.e., those receiving Senate advice and consent) as the “supreme law of the land.” Thus, just as a statute could authorize President Obama to conclude an international agreement with Iran, so too could a pre-existing Senate advice and consent treaty.  So far, I’m not aware of any nominations for an existing U.S. treaty that could do this (but someone might want to carefully parse the 1955 Treaty of Amity and Peace with Iran if it’s still in force (it’s not listed in Treaties in Force)).   Or, this might be a way forward if, as Marty and Jack hint, the Executive branch concluded the deal with Iran as a political commitment, but then had it endorsed by the U.N. Security Council pursuant to its Chapter VII authorities.  In that case, legal authority to conclude the deal might reside in the U.N. Charter itself since the Senate long ago gave consent, subject to a U.S. veto, to Security Council measures to preserve international peace and security.  As such, I don’t think we can dismiss this option as much as it might seem inapplicable at first glance.

(iv) Sole Executive Agreement:  The President may rely on his own Constitutional powers (e.g., as commander in chief) to authorize a U.S. treaty commitment.  In practice, this is rarely done as the State Department will usually try to also locate authority in at least one federal statute (even something as bland as Congress’ authorization of State Department responsibility for foreign affairs).  That said, the Supreme Court has endorsed the President’s ability to conclude certain treaties as sole executive agreements, although often in the face of congressional acquiescence, not outright opposition.  So, one might imagine this option would generate some inter-branch litigation if the Republican-controlled Congress rejects reading the president’s powers to include whatever sort of commitments are contained in any agreement the United States concludes with Iran.  Still, if the deal is to be a treaty under international law, this seems the most likely basis for authorizing it under U.S. law.  As Fred Kaplan noted yesterday, and Secretary Kerry apparently suggested a few hours ago, all the attention on treaties may have been misplaced and an entirely different deal might be at work here, namely a political one.

(v) Political Commitment;  It’s possible that the White House is looking for a political commitment with Iran and the P5+1.  If so, then all the machinations about forming a treaty under international law, and, just as importantly, the relatively robust set of domestic approval options for treaty-making, are inapplicable.  Although Josh and I argued that functional similarities between treaties and political commitments should require a Congressional role in the formation of at least some political commitments, I concede that Marty and Jack are correct that at present it’s hard to say this is the law of the United States.  On the contrary, today, it still appears that political commitments by their very nature do not implicate any of the domestic legal, procedural hurdles associated with treaties and thus may be a path forward for the United States to do a deal with Iran without worrying about the views of either the Senate or Congress as a whole.

That said, if the United States is actually going to argue it is concluding a political commitment with Iran and not a treaty, I want to conclude with two important caveats on the international and domestic aspects of such a deal that I’ve not seen mentioned previously.

First, a political commitment must be a political commitment for all sides, not just one side.  There’s much ambiguity in the U.S. and Iranian statements surrounding some of the negotiations, and it’s possible to read some of yesterday’s press briefing to suggest a deal where the United States would have only a political commitment while Iran was legally bound to perform its promises (see, for example, the carefully worded “verifiable and enforceable commitments” language used). That, however, is not an available option in international law.  Either the agreement is a treaty for all parties or its a political commitment for all participants.  I am unaware of any case where the nature of the agreement varies for the parties to it (that is it was a treaty for one state and a political commitment for everyone else).  Certainly, there have been disputes in the past as to the status of a particular agreement, with the ICJ and international arbiters called upon to weigh in on whether the deal struck gave rise to international legal obligations or not.  And it’s also possible for a treaty to contain not just legally binding commitments but also political ones (see, e.g., Article 1 of the Algiers Accords).  But, a stand-alone political commitment is, by definition, mutually exclusive from the international legal commitment that defines a treaty.  As such, once an agreement contains at least one commitment intended to be governed by international law, it’s a treaty not a political commitment.  Indeed, unlike contracts, treaties do not require consideration.  Thus, a treaty can exist where only one side (e.g., Iran) makes all the promises to do (or not do) certain things. Taken together, this suggests that, unless the United States is making some new, novel move to unsettle the existing forms of international commitment, its suggestion that it is pursuing a political commitment with Iran should mean that none of the commitments will give rise to any international legal obligations in and of themselves (there may be separate estoppel arguments, but let’s save those for another post).

Second, turning to the U.S. domestic context, it may be true that the Constitution does not require any particular approval procedure for political commitments, but it is also true that the Senate retains significant political power to pressure the President to pursue a treaty over a political commitment or even to insist on having a treaty submitted for Senate advice and consent in lieu of simply relying on Executive Power.  For example, before it became the Senate-approved Moscow Treaty, President Bush had apparently considered the possibility of doing the deal with Russia as either a political commitment or a Sole Executive Agreement.  But the Senate objected; and in a bipartisan push succeeded in having the deal submitted for its advice and consent.  Thus, one could imagine that if the Senate (or I suppose Congress as a whole) wanted to deploy their political checks on Executive power (think appropriations or ambassadorial/cabinet approvals), the White House might have to recalculate whether and how it wants to proceed with Iran here.  Nor is this entirely a U.S. problem; reports suggest that when the United States was looking to craft a strategic framework with Iraq a few years back, the Iraqis ended up concluding that the deal had to be done as a treaty (in the international law sense) since their Parliament was insisting on approving it in lieu of going to more streamlined political commitment route.  Simply put, just because there may be no extant constitutional constraints on the President’s ability to conclude a political commitment with Iran does not mean that there won’t be domestic negotiations over whether and how the United States concludes any deal involving Iran and nuclear matters.

So . . . now that I have that all off my chest, I’ll get out of the way and let the various actors continue to negotiate and debate the merits of the appropriate way(s) forward here.  I just hope that folks will do so with more attention to what the existing international and domestic law has to say (or not say) on these questions.

 

Iran Responds to US Senators’ Letter, Shows Why Congress Should Be Involved in the First Place

by Julian Ku

I am totally swamped with various overlapping projects right now, so let me procrastinate anyway by noting that Iran took my suggestion and sent a response to the “open letter” sent them from 47 US Senators yesterday.  The letter actually shows why the President, and not the senators, is the one who is operating on the edge of constitutionality.

In the letter, Iran’s foreign minister suggested the senators were violating the US Constitution’s allocation of foreign policy conduct to the President.

[Foreign Minister] Zarif “expressed astonishment that some members of Congress find it appropriate to write leaders of another country against their own president,” a press release explained. “It seems that the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy.”

As I explained yesterday, I don’t think the letter is a  violation of the Constitution, although there is a closer question under the much-cited, never used Logan Act.

What I found more interesting is the Iranian FM’s suggestion that a future president who withdrew from or amended the agreement would violate international law. This statement illustrates why I think Congress should be included in this process in the first place.

[Zarif] warned that a change of administrations would not relieve the U.S. of its obligations under an international agreement reached under the previous administration. Any attempt to change the terms of that agreement, he added, would be a “blatant violation of international law.”

“The world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by U.S. domestic law,” Zarif explained. “The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.”

Zarif is no doubt right as a matter of international law (assuming there will be a binding agreement as opposed to a mere political commitment).  But think about it.  Why should a president be allowed to commit the US to binding obligations under international law that neither Congress nor a future President can withdraw from without violating international law?  Shouldn’t such a president be required to first get approval from Congress before committing the United States to this path? Isn’t that why there is a Treaty Clause in the first place? At the very least, doesn’t it make constitutional sense for Congress to have a right to weigh in?

So while lefty blogs and lefty senators are having a field day accusing the Republican senators of violating the law or exaggerating Jack Goldsmith’s pretty minor quibble with the letter’s use of the term ratification, they are ignoring the real constitutional question here.  The President seems ready to commit the United States to a pretty serious and important international obligation without seeking prior or subsequent approval from Congress.  And foreign countries are ready to denounce the United States if, say Congress, decides to pull out or refuses to carry out those obligations. Even if the President’s actions are good policy, it seems like a political and constitutional train wreck that could easily be avoided if the Administration simply agreed to send the Iran deal to Congress.

Way back in 2008, leading scholars like Oona Hathaway and Bruce Ackerman repeatedly denounced President Bush for considering executing a security agreement with Iraq without Congress. Where are the academic defenders of Congress’s foreign policy prerogatives now?

GOP Iran Letter Might Be Unconstitutional. Is It Also Criminal?

by Peter Spiro

I’ll one-up Julian’s post below on Tom Cotton’s letter to the leaders of Iran admonishing them that any agreement entered into today could be reversed by Obama’s successor. It appears unprecedented for a group of opposition members of Congress to engage in such a communication.

It may also be criminal. The 1799 Logan Act provides that:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

Most putative Logan Act violations violate the spirit and structural foundations of the Logan Act (John Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu supplying a recent example). This one seems to squarely satisfy its elements. We have:

  • a correspondence with a foreign government (whether direct or indirect, in the form of an “open letter”, matters not),
  • without the authority of the United States (it enjoys no imprimatur from the executive branch nor, for that matter, from Congress as an institution),
  • with the pretty clear intent “to influence the measures or conduct of” the government of Iran in relation to a controversy with the United States.

Some might debate the last prong, but what other motivation could the letter have than to persuade Iranian leaders to back off a deal for fear that it will hardly be worth the paper it’s written on?

Now I know as well as the next guy that there’s been no Logan Act prosecution in the modern era. I also understand that in the wake of globalization national legislators routinely interact with foreign government officials. Iran is probably sophisticated enough about US constitutional law to the point that the letter’s substance isn’t news to them. But an initiative like the Cotton letter seems to cross a line, and perhaps it should be slapped back. How will contested foreign policy initiatives ever get off the ground if whoever’s out of the White House can meddle so brazenly? We have clearly left the era in which politics stopped at the water’s edge.

UPDATE: Steve Vladeck has this post up at Lawfare arguing against the Logan Act’s viability in this context. I take the point on desuetude. A law that lies around unused for a protracted period at some point becomes not-law (think jaywalking). Steve also argues that as a legislator, Cotton may have been acting with the “authority of the United States.” I can’t agree on that point. If anything, Cotton’s status as a senator makes the offense a greater one, because it’s more likely to be taken seriously and do real damage to national foreign relations.

As for the First Amendment, there are certainly First Amendment implications here. The Cotton letter involves speech that would be fully protected in the ordinary domestic context. But the Constitution in general and the First Amendment in particular are seen through different lens when it comes to foreign relations.  Does that mean that the Logan Act would withstand a First Amendment defense? Not necessarily. But the answer is not so clear cut as it would otherwise seem.

None of this is to say that there will or even should be a Logan Act claims against Cotton and his collaborators, and the factors that Steve highlights plainly contribute to non-prosecution as a prudential matter. But the above-the-fold attention given to the Cotton letter shows that there is something out of the ordinary going on here. If he had said the same things on CNN no one would have paid any attention; it would have been business as usual. Not so as addressed to the Iranian leadership.