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First Strikes & NIAC: Thoughts on the Haque/Horowitz Debate

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have been following with great interest the debate at Just Security between Adil Haque and Jonathan Horowitz over whether the existence of a non-international conflict (NIAC) exists the moment a state launches a “first strike” at an organized armed group or whether hostilities of a certain intensity between the two are required. Adil takes the former position (see here, here, and here); Jonathan takes the latter one (see here and here).

Though Adil’s posts exhibit his typical brilliance, my sympathies lie with Jonathan. To begin with, as a matter of the lex lata, I don’t think the argument is even close: the Tadic test, which requires both organization on the part of the armed group and adequately intense hostilities, has overwhelming support from states. After all, the test is based squarely on Art. 1(2) of Additional Protocol II, ratified by 168 states, which provides that the “Protocol shall not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature, as not being armed conflicts.” And, of course, as the ICRC notes in its new commentary on the First Geneva Convention, the AP II standard is used by a number of more recent conventions that apply to all NIACs — Common Article 3 or AP II — such as the Rome Statute (1998), the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property (1999), and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (2001).

Adil, it is worth noting, has a different interpretation of AP II, one that does not require intensity:

In my view, if an organized armed group has the capacity to sustain military operations then any military operation by or against that group should be constrained by the law of armed conflict. The organization and capacity of the group is sufficient to distinguish military operations by or against the group from “internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature.”

This is a difficult position to defend. The text of Art. 1(2) of AP II clearly contemplates actual hostilities, not a single act by government forces. What could be a more “sporadic act of violence” than a single act that does not meet with a response from the targeted group and may never be repeated by the government? More importantly, despite some stray practice cited by Michael J. Adams and Ryan Goodman in this post, states have simply never interpreted the AP II standard to require only organization.

Even more problematic, though, is Adil’s argument that the “object and purpose” of IHL counsels against conditioning the application of IHL on adequately intense hostilities:

In my view, we should interpret both the substantive rules of IHL and the conditions for the application of IHL in light of the object and purpose of IHL. The primary object and purpose of IHL is to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations. Accordingly, IHL should apply to all such military operations. To postpone the application of IHL until a first strike triggers an armed response, or until military operations reach a high level of intensity, would be inconsistent with the object and purpose of IHL.

As regular readers know, whenever I see arguments based on the supposed “object and purpose” of a treaty, I reach for my pen. All too often, such arguments simply use object and purpose to justify interpreting a treaty in a manner that specifically contradicts the intention of the states that drafted and concluded it. And unfortunately I think that is what Adil does here. He defends applying IHL to first strikes by claiming that the “object and purpose” of IHL is “to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations” (emphasis mine). But that is misleading: the object and purpose of IHL is to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations in armed conflict. If there is no armed conflict, IHL has nothing to say about the danger of military operations — because IHL doesn’t apply. And as discussed above, states have always insisted that a first-strike military operation is not enough to create an armed conflict — IHL applies only once there are adequately intense hostilities between government forces and the organized armed group.

Adil is free, of course, to normatively argue that IHL should apply to first strikes in NIAC because doing so would better protect human beings. I would disagree, but the claim is coherent and deserving of discussion. What he can’t do is base that claim on the object and purpose of IHL, because that would be to use an object and purpose that only applies within armed conflict to justify changing the definition of armed conflict itself. The definition of when IHL applies cannot be determined by reference to what the goals of IHL are once it applies. That definition has to be sought outside of the IHL system — and again, it is clear that states do not want IHL to apply to first-strike military operations against organized armed groups.

There is, however, an even deeper problem with Adil’s argument that the need to protect human beings from military operations counsels a definition of NIAC that does not require adequately intense hostilities: if that is true, there is also no reason why the application of IHL should require armed groups to be organized. All of Adil’s arguments against the intensity requirement apply equally to the organization requirement. If we need to protect human beings from the dangers of first-strike military operations by states against organized armed groups, surely we also need to protect them from the dangers of first-strike military operations by states against unorganized armed groups. After all, Adil’s central argument is that the inherent danger of military operations means that IHL should apply to a first-strike regardless of whether that military operation leads to any kind of hostilities.

I see no convincing response to this criticism. It is tempting to argue that the organization requirement is important because a first-strike military operation against an organized armed group is much more likely to lead to actual hostilities than a first-strike military operation against an unorganized armed group. But Adil rejects the idea that hostilities are relevant to the application of IHL. He believes IHL should apply even if a first-strike military operation meets with no response whatsoever.

Another potential response would be to argue that first-strike military operations against organized armed groups pose greater dangers for innocent civilians than first-strike military operations against unorganized armed groups. But that would be a difference of degree, not of kind — and thus far from a convincing basis for applying IHL to the former and not the latter. I’m also not sure whether the claim is even empirically sound. It is at least equally plausible to assume that states are more willing to use military force against unorganized individuals whom they can assume will not fight back (or will not fight back effectively) than against an organized armed group with the capacity to respond to a first strike with military operations of its own.

Adil’s desire to protect human beings from the dangers of military operations is laudable, but his claim that IHL should apply to first strikes against organized armed groups cannot be sustained. Not only have states insisted that IHL applies only to hostilities that reach a certain level of intensity, the idea that protecting individuals from the danger of military operations requires eliminating the intensity requirement is underinclusive. Those dangers exist for all military operations, even those against unorganized armed groups. So the only consistent — if still objectionable — position is that IHL applies to any military operation launched by a state, regardless of its object. I’m curious whether Adil would be willing to take that position.

Clarifying the Alternative: International Criminal Justice Options for African Union Member States

by Oliver Windridge

[Oliver Windridge is a British lawyer specializing in international human rights and international criminal law. Oliver is founder of The ACtHPR Monitor, an independent blog and website dedicated to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, on twitter @acthpr_monitor. In June 2014 he was one of five non-African lawyers to be appointed to the Court’s inaugural list of Legal Aid Counsel (pro bono). The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or any other organization affiliated to the author.]

Following moves from Gambia, Burundi and South Africa in the past weeks to withdraw from the ICC, much thought is now being given, and keyboards worn down, by the international community as it considers what this news will mean for these countries individually, Africa more generally and of course the ICC.

I want to slightly side-step some of these issues though and address the seemingly confused narrative circulating on the African alternative to the ICC. This seems especially important given the South African Minister for Justice Michael Masutha’s first statement on South Africa’s withdrawal from the ICC which reportedly included the line “South Africa will work closely with the African Union and with other countries in Africa to strengthen continental bodies, such as the African Court on Human and People’s Rights, created to deal with such crimes and to prosecute the perpetrators, whilst at the same time continuing to participate and honour its commitments under international human rights instruments.”

Let’s be clear, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights does not and will not, barring an extraordinary turn of events, ever have the jurisdiction to try cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The African Court is a human rights court, similar in many ways to its European and Inter-American cousins. It has jurisdiction to consider alleged violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other international human rights instruments to which the member state in question has signed up to, but nothing in the African Court’s statute, Protocol or Rules gives the African Court the power to prosecute individuals for crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. To point to the African Court as an alternative to the ICC is like Germany or France withdrawing from the ICC and then pointing to the European Court of Human Rights to handle things from now on.

There is another possibility for AU member states though on the horizon and one that not only has the same jurisdiction as the ICC but actually one much greater; the African Court of Justice and Human Rights (ACJHR). At present however this court exists on paper only in the form of the Protocol on the Statue of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights and the subsequent 2014 Draft Protocol on Amendments to the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights. Read through this second Draft Protocol and there emerges details of a mega-court that would subsume the current African Court on Human and Peoples’ Right which would then exist as a “Human and Peoples’ Rights Section”, alongside a “General Affairs” section and an “International Criminal Law” section. The International Criminal Law section would have three chambers, a Pre-Trial Chamber, a Trial Chamber and an Appellate Chamber and have jurisdiction to try individuals on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Sound familiar?

There are however a number of differences between the ICC and the International Criminal Law Section of the ACJHR. To start with, in addition to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, the ACJHR would have jurisdiction over a further 11 crimes including corruption, mercenarism and the trafficking in persons and drugs, creating an ambitious roster of 14 crimes under its jurisdiction (Article 28A, Draft Protocol). Additionally, the International Criminal Law Section of the ACJHR would include immunity from prosecution for serving AU heads of state or government and other “senior state officials” whilst in office- a vague definition if there ever was one (Article 46A bis, Draft Protocol). But above concerns over immunity and jurisdiction exists the real kicker; to take the ACJHR off the page and into reality requires at least 15 AU member states to ratify the amended Protocol (Article 11, Draft Protocol). Currently however, not a single AU member state has ratified the Draft Protocol and its international criminal law section- not one. This complete lack of ratification goes some way to demonstrate the clear gap that exists between those advocating for withdrawal from the ICC ostensibly to allow the AU to handle matters, and those who have actually signed up to the AU’s alternative.

So as Gambians, Burundians, South Africans and the wider world starts to come to grips with what withdrawal from the ICC could mean, let’s be clear on the regional alternative – the African Court of Justice and Human Rights and where it currently exists- on paper only.

President Trump Could (and Might Actually) Unilaterally Recognize Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel

by Julian Ku

emblem_of_jerusalem-svgAs we all continue to digest the stunning election results from last week, I continue to focus on ways in which a President Trump could use his substantial powers over foreign affairs in unique and unprecedented ways.  Withdrawing from trade agreements could be a major theme of his administration.  Somewhat less noticed is the possibility that a President Trump fulfills his campaign promise to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

I don’t want to get into the merits of whether Jerusalem is in fact part of Israel under international law. I once wrote a whole legal memo on a topic related to Jerusalem as an intern at the U.S. State Department that is probably gathering dust somewhere, and the contents of which I’ve already largely forgotten.

For our purposes, what matters is that the U.S. Supreme Court recently confirmed in Zivotofsky v. Kerry that the U.S. Constitution grants the President the exclusive power to recognize foreign nations and governments.  This power includes, the Court held, the exclusive power to withhold recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  Congress cannot infringe on this power by requiring, for instance, that the President issue passports designating Jerusalem as part of Israel.  Hence, the exclusive recognition power extends to recognizing how far a foreign sovereign’s rule extend, such as whether or not Israel has sovereignty over Jerusalem.

The Court’s ruling in Zivotofsky is not exactly controversial.  But it seems uniquely relevant as it is entirely plausible that Donald Trump will actually carry out his campaign promise to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there.   Most U.S. Presidents pledge to do so during their campaigns, and then are advised by their State Department after taking office that to do so would undermine the Middle East peace process or something. This seems less likely if, as rumors suggest, famously pro-Israel former NY mayor Rudolph Giuliani is appointed Secretary of State).

It might also violate U.N. Resolution 242 and other UN resolutions.  Certainly, the Palestinian Authority is ready to raise all holy hell if Trump carries out his promise.  But the U.S. President is also authorized, under U.S. constitutional law, to violate or abrogate UN Security  Council resolutions, if 242 and other resolutions actually prohibited such recognition.

It is also worth noting the President’s recognition power could be applied elsewhere in the world’s many ongoing disputed conflicts.  President Trump could, for instance, unilaterally recognize Taiwan as an independent country (assuming Taiwan declared as such). Or he could recognize that Crimea is part of Russia.

Like the swift recognition of Jerusalem, I am not giving an opinion here on whether any of these policies are wise or prudent. I will hazard a guess, however, and say that of all of the recently elected US presidents, Trump is the most likely to go out on a limb and push the “recognition” button in unexpected ways.

Dualism is Overrated – As is Monism: A Response to Julian Ku

by Odile Ammann and Benedikt Pirker

[Odile Ammann is a PhD candidate at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland and a visiting researcher at the University of Oxford. Benedikt Pirker is a Senior Lecturer (Maître d’enseignement et de recherche) at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, where he teaches and does research in international law and EU law.]

In his Opinio Juris blogpost of November 3, Julian Ku contends that “dualism may save the United Kingdom from Brexit.” To make this claim, he starts by emphasizing an alleged correlation between dualism and a State’s propensity to “violat[e] international law obligations by failing to enforce those obligations (usually treaties) domestically.” However, according to Ku, the decision of the High Court of Justice of England in Wales in Miller v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union of November 3 tells us otherwise, namely that dualism “makes it harder [for a State] to withdraw from [its] international obligations.” Ku places an emphasis on the High Court’s statement that while the conduct of foreign affairs (and more specifically “the making and unmaking of treaties”) is a prerogative of the Crown, the Crown cannot change domestic law when making use of these powers. More specifically, the Crown, in using these powers, “cannot without the intervention of Parliament confer rights on individuals or deprive individuals of rights” (Miller, paragraphs 32 and 33; see also para. 89).

We argue that, contrary to Julian Ku’s assessment, dualism is overrated – as is monism, for that matter. In other terms, the domestic procedure that governs the State’s withdrawal from its international obligations does not hinge on whether a State is monist or dualist. It may be equally difficult (or easy) for dualist States to withdraw from (or to violate) their international obligations as for monist States.

Our response has three parts. First, we show that Miller is not a case about dualism. Instead, it addresses the question of the domestic procedure that applies when the State terminates an international agreement. Secondly, neither dualism nor monism encourage (or hamper) the State’s termination of its international obligations. In a third step, we draw an example to Switzerland to demonstrate that monism creates a number of challenges, too, as regards the termination of international agreements and, more generally, State compliance with international law. We also highlight the fact that the Swiss law on the termination of treaties is similar to the procedure identified by the High Court in Miller. In short, neither monism nor dualism encourage or discourage a State’s termination of its international obligations.

I. Miller v. Secretary of State is not a case about dualism

Some passages of the High Court’s decision in Miller could indeed suggest that the case is about dualism. Besides stressing that 1. the Crown cannot, when exercising her prerogative powers to make or unmake treaties, unilaterally change domestic law (para. 32), the High Court notes that 2. domestic courts do not have the power to interpret international law, since “treaties […] are not self-executing,” (para. 33) and 3. that domestic courts cannot examine the legality of the Crown’s exercise of her prerogative powers (para. 33).

Only the second point is a consequence of dualism, however. The issue at stake in Miller does not pertain to the relationship between domestic law and international law, of which monism/dualism is only one aspect besides the issue of rank and direct effect (three distinct issues that are often conflated in practice). Nor is the question one of international law (e.g. the question of the UK’s right under international law to withdraw from the EU), as the Court rightly clarifies (para. 55 f). Rather, and as Aurel Sari’s response to Julian Ku’s post already convincingly suggests, the High Court’s decision is mainly concerned about determining the appropriate domestic procedure to trigger art. 50 of the Treaty on European Union – a procedure that does not hinge on whether a given State is monist or dualist, but rather on the domestic separation of powers.

Ku’s post is pointing at a conjunction of two facts: first, due to dualism, the United Kingdom’s treaty obligations need to be implemented by a domestic statute in order to be valid in the domestic legal order; second, under UK constitutional law, this domestic statute then takes on a life of its own, as the Crown cannot alter it unilaterally. This second point, however, is not a logical consequence of dualism. Dualism per se does not make it more difficult for a State to alter its international obligations. In monist States, domestic law may create similar hurdles, as the Swiss example shows (below, III.). 

II. Neither monism nor dualism allow inferences as to the termination of international obligations under domestic law

As Ku notes, most of us have, at some point, read that dualism encourages violations of international law, while monism is conducive to compliance with international law. However, such phrases spark confusion instead of providing clarity, and they do so for a number of reasons.

To begin with, the notion of “compliance with international law” is indeterminate, especially given the absence of an international court with general jurisdiction that could clarify what States’ international obligations require in practice. Second, monism and dualism pertain to the conditions under which an international legal obligation takes effect in the domestic legal order, but have no bearing on whether State organs 1. actually apply international law (or, in dualist States, the version thereof transposed into domestic law), 2. interpret domestic law in conformity with international law, so as to avoid normative conflicts, and 3. grant international law direct effect. Courts in monist States may be reluctant to apply international law, they may emphasize rather than downplay or avoid conflicts between domestic and international law, and they may refuse to grant international law direct effect – and vice versa. In other terms, monism or dualism should not be taken to mean more than they actually do. Thirdly, the distinction between monism and dualism is not an on-off-switch: rather, it allows for a range of intermediary forms, and whether a State is monist or dualist can vary depending on the norm, source and substantive area of international law that is at stake. One example is what Melissa Waters calls “creeping monism,” i.e. the tendency of some courts in dualist States to rely on international human rights treaties although these treaties have not been incorporated into domestic law.

Importantly, the fact that a State is dualist or monist allows no inference as to the domestic procedure that applies to the termination of international agreements. As a matter of fact, a dualist State may have an analogous procedure to a monist one, as is the case of the United Kingdom and Switzerland (below).

III. A Brief Comparison with Swiss Monism

Neither dualism nor monism have a bearing on the procedure through which States can enter into international legal obligations and withdraw from them under domestic law. Switzerland provides an illustration of this. It also shows that monism does not necessarily go along with compliance with international law (taking into account the fact that the notion of compliance leaves room for indeterminacy, see above, II.). Switzerland is a monist State: contrary to the United Kingdom, international treaties do not require to be transposed into Swiss law to have effect in the Swiss legal order.

First, the Swiss case illustrates that monism does not ensure compliance with international law. Under Swiss law, constitutional amendments must only respect “peremptory norms of international law”, while they can conflict with non-peremptory norms. This risk has materialized through a number of popular votes that have triggered constitutional amendments, while conflicting with some of Switzerland’s international obligations. Moreover, due to the special system of judicial and constitutional review in place in Switzerland, federal laws that conflict with international law must in principle be applied by the courts (art. 190 of the Swiss Constitution). The Swiss Federal Tribunal accepts that domestic laws enacted with full legislative intent to deviate from international obligations take precedence over such obligations (so-called Schubert practice), although the Tribunal has later created some exceptions to this rule, e.g. in the case of domestic laws conflicting with obligations of international human rights law or under the Swiss-EU Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons.

Second, monist and dualist States may have (at least in some respects) analogous laws as regards the domestic procedure to enter into international agreements. In Switzerland, for instance, the federal government has the competence to enter into some international treaties, considered to be “of limited scope” (art. 7a para. 2 and 3 of the Federal Government and Administration Organization Act, FGAO), without an intervention of the federal parliament. In spite of the fact that Switzerland is monist, this competence has proven controversial in some instances. One example pertains to the so-called “UBS-Agreement” of August 19, 2009, initially concluded by the federal government based on its independent powers. Shortly after the Swiss Federal Administrative Court had found that the treaty would have required the approval of the federal parliament, the parliament, in a somewhat awkward pirouette, approved the treaty a posteriori.

Moreover, and notwithstanding the monism of the Swiss legal order, the issue of which authority has the power to terminate international agreements remains unclear (see e.g. Blum/Nägeli/Peters (BNP); Keller/Balazs). Some authors argue that treaties of limited scope can be terminated unilaterally by the Swiss government, while a flexible approach with parliamentary approval is advocated fort he case of „important“ treaties (BNP, S. 542 f.). Other authors consider that parliamentary approval is always required in the context of treaty termination (see the references in Keller/Balazs, footnote 107).

The possibility of terminating international agreements is often raised in the Swiss political debate (see e.g. BNP, p. 552 with further references). Already in 1988, Swiss parliamentarian Hans Danioth requested the federal government to consider withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, and even as Switzerland was celebrating its 40th anniversary of ECHR ratification, some members of the federal government and of the federal parliament were still advocating withdrawal, even if their views were isolated. Swiss voters will soon be required to express their opinion on a proposed constitutional amendment based on which existing international agreements that conflict with the Swiss Constitution must be renegotiated or terminated. On the other hand, the question as to whether a specific international agreement should be terminated is rarely explicitly put to vote, presumably due to its political sensitivity and, hence, of its slight chances of succeeding at the ballot box. The practice of some political parties to avoid the issue of termination, while triggering votes that may eventually require a renegotiation of international agreements, is criticized by some as a way of misleading voters (see e.g. BNP, p. 557).

The Swiss popular vote of February 9, 2014 “against mass immigration” shows that in practice, dualist States like the UK face similar challenges as monist States. The vote led to a constitutional amendment pursuant to which immigration must be subjected to quantitative restrictions – a regulation that flies in the face of the Swiss-EU Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons. While a “Switzerleave” is not up for discussion given that Switzerland is not an EU member, the federal government has three months left to renegotiate its Agreement on Free Movement with the EU – a situation that British negotiators may find eerily familiar.

To conclude, the power of dualism to act as a safeguard against Brexit (or, more generally, against States withdrawing from their international obligations) is overrated – as is monism. What is decisive in this regard are the mechanisms in domestic law to anticipate and address conflicts between domestic and international law. In this respect (and despite the obvious differences that exist between their respective legal orders and the international obligations they have taken on), Switzerland and the UK might well have things to learn from one another in the course of the next few months.

Trump and International Human Rights #1: The Man and the Government

by Peggy McGuinness

As I recover from the gut-punch delivered last Tuesday, I plan to get back to blogging – something I have put aside for other priorities in the past years. The times and the issues are urgent, and I am anxious to engage with our readers and colleagues around the world at what I see as an extremely fragile period for the U.S. and the globe.  Trump is not a normal president-elect, and we are not in normal times.  In that spirit I plan to resist attempts to normalize Trump. This will the first in an ongoing series on the Trump transition and US engagement with international human rights.

For over 40 years, the U.S. has maintained a bipartisan commitment to the promotion of human rights around the globe.  The depth and the breadth of that commitment has, to borrow a phrase from President Obama, zigged and zagged.  It has bent to presidential national security policies and priorities, and the scope of what is meant by “human rights” has been subject to ideological interpretation by particular administrations.  But a commitment to the broad international project of human rights has remained a constant and ingrained feature of U.S. foreign policy.  Will President-elect Trump – who campaigned on a deeply isolationist rhetoric that explicitly disclaimed an interest in the human rights practices of other states – maintain this commitment?  It will take some time to fully understand the implications of a Trump presidency on US human rights policy, but I want to start by discussing two dimensions to U.S. foreign policy engagement with international human rights:  presidential policy and the human rights bureaucracy.

Let’s be frank:  We have no idea what Trump’s “policy” on human rights – or much else for that matter – will be, since he campaigned on virtually no policies in the traditional sense.  So we start with Trump himself.  We know that he is a man who has acted and spoken as a bigot, sexist and misogynist.  He is a man who admires authoritarian and anti-democratic regimes.  He is a man who has – at least implicitly if not explicitly – emboldened racists and anti-Semites among his supporters, groups that are a very small but sadly resilient element of American politics.  And he has among his closest advisers leaders of the so-called alt-right movement that fuels vile conspiracy theories, including the racist “birtherism” movement against President Obama that Trump himself used as the platform that launched his political campaign.  He has never, as far as I am aware, in his long public life, expressed genuine empathy or concern for the suffering of others.  And the scope of his business interests, the details of which remain largely undisclosed, poise him to embody as president the kind of personal corruption and conflicts of interest that the U.S. usually makes the focus of its anti-corruption and good governance efforts. He has acted and spoken in ways that would subject him, quite properly, to criticism and condemnation by the U.S. government if he were a foreign leader.  Trump, the man, is no defender of human rights.  At best, Trump is an empty vessel, a self-absorbed “bullshit artist” (hat tip:  Fareed Zakaria). At worst, Trump’s contempt for democratic norms and institutions poses a serious danger to American democracy and his rhetoric and behavior will completely undermine the ability of the U.S. to speak with any authority – moral or otherwise —  on questions of human rights.

Given the range of possibilities here, my first question is whether Trump can be constrained, in the ways Michael Glennon argues all presidents are constrained(and in the way Deborah suggested earlier), by the institutions of the government he will lead?  Throughout the executive branch, at the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, Labor, Commerce and Justice, as well as the intelligence agencies and the national security staff at the White House, hundreds of lawyers, diplomats and other government officials monitor and report on the human rights practices of governments all over the world.  Hundreds more work on creating, funding and implementing projects designed to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law .  This federal “bureaucracy of international human rights” cannot be easily or swiftly dismantled.  The central human rights institutions and networks within the Executive Branch (the Bureau of Human Rights Democracy and Labor, for example) are creatures of statute and of congressional funding priorities.  And it is not clear the Republican House or Senate are interested in eliminating or restructuring of these.  Keep in mind that funding for democracy promotion and other rule of law programs was a favorite of the George W. Bush administration.

The Republican party platform suggests that one dimension of the US commitment to human rights may receive special attention: International Religious Freedom. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom – a favorite of the evangelical right — will continue to be funded, and the platform further states:

At a time when China has renewed its destruction of churches, Christian home-schooling parents are jailed in parts of Europe, and even Canada* threatens pastors for their preaching, a Republican administration will return the advocacy of religious liberty to a central place in its diplomacy, will quickly designate the systematic killing of religious and ethnic minorities a genocide, and will work with the leaders of other nations to condemn and combat genocidal acts.

(*I am not familiar with the anti-religion policies in Canada that are referenced here, but maybe a reader can help me out.)  This is a robust statement in favor of reinforcing the UDHR and ICCPR rights that are mentioned in the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the statute that created both USCIRF and the office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department. But it also includes some strong language regarding genocide that would trigger  U.S. obligations under the Genocide Convention.  The platform goes on to endorse continuing engagement on anti-human trafficking programs (and, presumably, continuing the annual trafficking report required by Congress).  As to the broader question of human rights diplomacy, the platform states:

The United States needs a radical rethinking of our human rights diplomacy. A Republican administration will adopt a “whole of government” approach to protect fundamental freedoms globally, one where pressing human rights and rule of law issues are integrated at every appropriate level of our bilateral relationships and strategic decisionmaking. Republican policy will reflect the fact that the health of the U.S. economy and environment, the safety of our food and drug supplies, the security of our investments and personal information in cyberspace, and the stability and security of the oceans will increasingly depend on allowing the free flow of news and information and developing an independent judiciary and civil society in countries with repressive governments such as China, Russia, and many nations in the Middle East and Africa. 

Supporting rule of law projects that promote the “free flow of news and information” and develop “an independent judiciary and civil society” is precisely what the human rights bureaucracy within the Executive has been doing for at least three decades under presidents of both parties.  But if the Republicans want to pitch this as a “radical rethinking,” that’s fine by me.  (They may even want to share their view on a free press with the President elect.)

Taken together, I think it unlikely that the Trump administration will dismantle the bureaucracy of human rights – at least not soon, and certainly not in areas that are important to the Republican Congress.  But unlike the national security functions whose purpose lies at the heart of immediate security and safety of the American people, the human rights bureaucracy can be deeply damaged by the tone and priorities set by the President and his key foreign policy appointees – State, Nat’l Security Adviser, DHS, and the UN Ambassador, among others.  And of course, more than ever, the actual human rights practices of the U.S. at home – issues of domestic rule of law, criminal justice, gender equality, LGBT rights – will either strengthen or weaken the ability of the U.S. to practice human rights diplomacy abroad.  Appointments at the Dept. of Justice and nominees for the bench will send the clearest signal on that front.

 

 

 

Homage to California? (More on What Calexit Teaches Us About Secessionist Movements)

by Chris Borgen

Law professors should not be political prognosticators.  That’s probably something on which we can all agree.  Nonetheless, here’s my prediction: despite the current buzz (see also, this), California will not secede from the United States. Sorry, Silicon Valley Hamiltons.  However, the “Yes California” movement, spurred on by a Trump presidential victory can be instructive on the law,  psychology, and incentives behind more robust secessionist movements around the world.

As Julian mentioned in a post earlier today, the “#Calexit”  movement is seeking a referendum on secession in 2019.  The  group’s website states:

“As the sixth largest economy in the world, California is more economically powerful than France and has a population larger than Poland. Point by point, California compares and competes with countries, not just the 49 other states.”

In our view, the United States of America represents so many things that conflict with Californian values, and our continued statehood means California will continue subsidizing the other states to our own detriment, and to the detriment of our children.

Although charity is part of our culture, when you consider that California’s infrastructure is falling apart, our public schools are ranked among the worst in the entire country, we have the highest number of homeless persons living without shelter and other basic necessities, poverty rates remain high, income inequality continues to expand, and we must often borrow money from the future to provide services for today, now is not the time for charity.

This statement, and much about the movement, is like a study in secessionist politics, albeit with a sun-kissed white wine and Jacuzzis twist.  OK, that Jacuzzi quip may be snarky, but I wanted to attach an image to this idea: the yearning for Calexit, such as it is, is an example of a wish for a “secession of the successful” (to use a term political geographers John O’Loughlin, Gerard Toal, and Rebecca Chamberlain-Creanga used to describe the attempted  Transnistrian secession from Moldova, actually). These types of separatist movements, in which the separating group wants to stop paying rents to the central government and/or keep resources within their own territory for themselves, are generally called “tax exits.”

The Transnistrian, Slovenian, and Croatian separations or or attempted secessions all had elements of tax exits. (See P. Collier & A. Hoeffler, ‘The Political Economy of Secession’, in H. Hannum & E. F. Babbitt (eds), Negotiating Self Determination (2006), 46 (concerning Slovenia and Croatia)). This is not even a solely a phenomenon of nation-building.  In the U.S., we have even had new towns made up of wealthy neighborhoods that separated themselves from existing municipalities over tax allocations.

Perhaps the best analogy, though, is Catalonia.  Relatively wealthy,  a large export economy, and the hub of creative industries in Spain, Catalonia even looks like parts of California (or vice versa). A common complaint is that wealth generated in Catalonia is redistributed by the national government to regions that are economically weak.

Now, here’s what the Calexiters argue:

Since 1987, California has been subsidizing the other states at a loss of tens and sometimes hundreds of billions of dollars in a single fiscal year. As a result, we are often forced to raise taxes and charge fees in California, and borrow money from the future to make up the difference. This is partly why California presently has some of the highest taxes in the country, and so much debt. Independence means that all of our taxes will be kept in California based on the priorities we set, and we will be able to do so while repaying our debts and phasing out the current state income tax.

You can’t state more clearly that a tax exit is a significant motivating factor for Calexit.

So, if a majority of Californians say “yes to California,” do they have a right to become their own country under domestic law or international law?

Julian answered the domestic law question in his post.

As for international law, the right to self-determination is described in Article 1 of both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights Covenant and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:

All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

However, while Catalans, for example, can make a credible argument that they are a distinct people with their own language and culture and a heritage as a significant nation in European history, Calexiters are mainly upset about the recent election and would like to hang on to more tax revenues.  Those are disputes over policy, but not claims of an independent national identity.

Regardless, since the birth of the United Nations, diplomats and jurists emphasized that a right of self-determination does not provide a remedy of secession outside of the context of decolonization. A broad right to secession would have clashed with a cornerstone of the UN, the territorial integrity of states. Outside of the context of decolonization, the right of self-determination for communities that are within already existing states is understood as a right to “internal” self-determination: the pursuit of political, cultural, linguistic, and other rights within the existing state (in this case, the U.S.).

However, secession is not in and of itself illegal under international law (although it may be linked to an act that is breach in international law, such as a military intervention by another state: think Russia invading Georgia to assist South Ossetia.)

While secession may be neither a right nor illegal under international law, secessionist acts are usually illegal under domestic laws.  Taken together, whether or not a secession is successful begins as a domestic political struggle, framed by the legal system of the pre-existing country and sometimes implicating international law due to intervention by other countries (or if the secession becomes a non-international armed conflict, but that’s another story).

All this sounds quite exotic in the context of some tech industry founders applying their credo of “disruption” to national politics. (I’m just waiting for the first Calexiter to say he or she aims to “break shit.”)  The short answer is that there is no right for California to secede under either domestic or international law.

However, the rhetoric of self-determination is enticing to would-be nation-builders and Calexiters make many of the same mistakes as other tax exit secessionists:

First, they assume there is a clear path to secession, when that is rarely the case.  Talk to the Catalans about this.  They have mustered hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in (more…)

Opinio Juris and the Trump Presidency

by Chris Borgen

A couple of weeks ago a group of Opinio Juris bloggers held a round-table discussion at St. John’s University Law School about the international law and policy issues facing the next American President. In front of a full room, we considered issues ranging from relations with China and Russia, to the future of national security policy, human rights, international trade agreements and the UN.  We fielded questions from the audience, went past our scheduled closing time, and still had not answered all the questions in the room. It was clear that there is a need and a desire for intelligent discussion on these and other issues of international law and U.S. policy. There were, and are, significant questions of law and policy before the American public.

Now we know who the next President will be. Sustained and informed commentary about international law and the United States’ role in the world has never been more relevant.  We founded Opinio Juris as a forum for engaged and intelligent discussion on a broad range of international legal issues.  We have fostered a dialogue with voices from varying political, legal, and national perspectives. Among the hundreds (if not thousands) of issues we have covered, we have had commentary by sitting Department of State Legal Advisers on Bush Administration policies in the War on Terror and also concerning the U.S. operation against Osama Bin Laden during  the Obama Administration, as well as expert observations from the negotiations in Paris leading to the climate change agreement (see, for example, 1 and 2), examinations of the development of international criminal law, analyses of the  work of international courts and tribunals, emerging technologies and international law, and conversations about U.S. policy on the conflict in Syria. For the last eleven years we have tried to reflect upon the breadth and depth of international law and policy.

As the U.S. begins its transition into what will be the Trump Administration, we will continue to provide commentary that is informed by expertise in international law and is engaged with the policy debates of our time. A brief scan of the list of initiatives Donald Trump listed in October as the priorities for his first 100 days in office is full of international legal implications. He stated that on his first day in office, among other things:

* FIRST, I will announce my intention to renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from the deal under Article 2205

* SECOND, I will announce our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership

* THIRD, I will direct my Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator

* FOURTH, I will direct the Secretary of Commerce and U.S. Trade Representative to identify all foreign trading abuses that unfairly impact American workers and direct them to use every tool under American and international law to end those abuses immediately…

* SEVENTH, cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs and use the money to fix America’s water and environmental infrastructure

Additionally, on the first day, I will take the following five actions to restore security and the constitutional rule of law:

* FIRST, cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama

* SECOND, begin the process of selecting a replacement for Justice Scalia from one of the 20 judges on my list, who will uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States

* THIRD, cancel all federal funding to Sanctuary Cities

* FOURTH, begin removing the more than 2 million criminal illegal immigrants from the country and cancel visas to foreign countries that won’t take them back

* FIFTH, suspend immigration from terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur. All vetting of people coming into our country will be considered extreme vetting.

This is only part of the list. For example, other statements from President-elect Trump or his surrogates have concerned whether the new administration would honor U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law, the future of NATO, and commitments to address climate change, to take three examples.  As the transition proceeds and President-elect Trump’s actual agenda takes shape, we will assess and address the international legal issues implicated by his proposals and stances. More generally, we will continue to thoughtfully consider the expansive international legal and policy issues facing the U.S. We hope to add to an informed public discourse.

We started this website as a forum for debate and discussion about international law and policy. Almost 10,000 posts later, this conversation has never been more important and we look forward to hearing what you have to say in the days and weeks to come.

How President Obama Gave President-elect Trump the Power to Undo the Iran Deal and Paris Agreement

by Julian Ku

As regular readers of this blog probably guessed, I did not support Donald Trump for President (I didn’t support Hillary Clinton either, but that’s another story). I did, however, take the possibility of his election seriously and published a couple of posts (see this one here) analyzing the legal issues raised by his campaign promises to withdraw from existing U.S. international agreements such as the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In general, I concluded in my prior posts that President-elect Trump has the clear constitutional authority to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Change Agreement without seeking the approval of Congress.  It is somewhat less clear, but it is certainly possible that a President-elect Trump has the constitutional authority to withdraw from trade agreements like NAFTA without Congress, but that is less certain.

It is important to keep in mind that the reason a President Trump can unilaterally withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Change Agreement is that President Obama chose to avoid submitting either agreement to Congress or the Senate for approval.  Indeed, President Obama’s lawyers went even farther to clarify that the Iran Nuclear Deal was a nonbinding political agreement and that the emissions targets in the Paris Climate Change Agreement were also legally nonbinding.

This important concession was made to avoid any need to submit these controversial agreements to approval by a (very) hostile Congress.  At the time, the legal sophistication and dexterity of the Obama team’s strategy was lauded, and I supported their legal position even though I disagreed with the policies embodied in the agreements.  But I warned that the cleverness of their legal positions came at a price: a future President could unilaterally undue both agreements without the approval of Congress and without even incurring US violations of those agreements since both are largely legally nonbinding.

Well, the day to pay the cost of this strategy is at hand.  Trump has won the presidency and there is no legal obstacle to his unilateral reversal of two of President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievements.  No filibuster will save them. And President Obama will have no one to blame but himself and his legal team for this fact.

The larger lesson from this saga is that legal rules and processes matter more than even we lawyers acknowledge.  A smart political achievement that cuts the corners on the law will come at a cost.  Past and future presidents should probably keep this in mind.

International Law and the U.S. Election: Trumpxit, Syria and State Marijuana Laws

by Julian Ku

Those of us here in the US are pretty obsessed with tomorrow’s U.S. presidential election (and from what I can tell, those of you outside the States are pretty interested as well). International law has not been a huge issue in the election, but I do think tomorrow’s result could have at least three big impacts on the international legal system.

Trumpxit

As I have noted in earlier posts, Republican nominee Donald Trump has been notable for pledging to renegotiate and possibly terminate numerous U.S. international agreements.  Most clearly, he has pledged to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Agreement. He has also pledged at various times to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, the US-Japan Defense Treaty, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As a legal matter, there is no doubt in my mind that a President Trump would have the legal power to terminate the Paris Agreement and the Iran Agreement on his first day in office without any authorization by Congress.  Both of those agreements were concluded as sole executive agreements, and most of the provisions are also legally nonbinding political agreements.

I also think that under existing US precedent, a President Trump could unilaterally terminate US participation in NATO and the US-Japan Defense Treaty.  As I noted earlier, the US Supreme Court in Goldwater v. Carter refused to block a similar presidential termination of the US-Republic of China (Taiwan) Defense treaty and although that case is not entirely clear, it seems likely that the president can do this on his own.

As I also noted, however, it is much less clear if the President can unilaterally withdraw from NAFTA and other trade agreements because those agreements have been codified by statute.  This would raise the “Brexit” scenario currently embroiling the UK.

In any event, I think “Trumpxit” is probably one of the biggest consequences of electing the GOP nominee because his powers in this area are largely unilateral and do not require Congress.

US Military Action in Syria

As Deborah has explained on this blog in recent weeks, the US is currently engaged in some sort of “armed conflict” in Syria that doesn’t seem to clearly fit into the Geneva Convention’s categories for either international or non-international armed conflicts.  On a domestic legal front, the US Congress has not specifically authorized the action in Syria as well, making its domestic legality questionable at the very least.

The next President will have to decide how to frame the Syria conflict under international and US constitutional law. My guess is that both Clinton and Trump would follow the Obama approach of treating the conflict as a non-international armed conflict against the Islamic State that is authorized by the 2001 congressional authorization for the use of force.  But this is something the next President will have to engage with seriously, since there continue to be serious doubts about the legality of US actions in Syria.

More US Violations of Drug Control Treaty

Five more US states have referenda tomorrow to legalize recreational marijuana.  If approved, this would mean nine US states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, and many more have legalized medical marijuana.

It seems clear that continued non-federal enforcement of marijuana prohibitions in these states would violate US obligations under drug control treaties.  There are at least three that arguably conflict with legalized marijuana: The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.  As this fine Brookings Institution report notes, the US is going to be in clear violation of these treaties soon and needs to renegotiate them to accommodate US state laws.  Presumably, this is on the agenda of the next President (low on the agenda, but on there somewhere).

Ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty

Most projections indicate the US Senate will remain deeply divided (maybe even 50/50) between Democrats and Republicans.  If so, I don’t think there is a high likelihood that proponents of US ratification of the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea will have enough votes to push it over the 67 vote threshold.  We may see another effort, however, if the Democrats unexpectedly pick up a strong majority of seats (say in the 53 plus range).  There continues to be strong support in the US Navy and in US energy circles for US ratification so it is still on the agenda.

o o o

I am sure I am missing a few issues. Readers should feel free to add in the comments any other international law issues that are likely to be affected by tomorrow’s results.

Addressing the Urban Future

by Chris Borgen

Urbanization is our present and it is our future. Between the recently completed UN Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, and Iraqi Special Operations entering Mosul, starting what may be a complex urban battle, we face constant reminders that  much of the world’s population now lives in cities. How we protect rights, foster development, interact with the environment, organize politically, and fight wars is increasingly an urban story.

Consider the bleak picture of megacities and the future of combat in this leaked Pentagon video (at the link and also embedded above). Some key take-aways from the video:

  • By 2030 60% of world’s population will be in cities. Most of the urban growth will be in the developing world.
  • Illicit networks will fill the gaps left by overextended and undercapitalized governments.
  • Growth will magnify the increasing economic separation between rich and poor, even thought they may be in close proximity. Uneven growth means that slums and shantytowns will rapidly expand alongside ever increasing levels of prosperity.
  • Moreover, religious and ethnic tensions will be a defining element of these urban environments
  • Megacities are complex systems where people and structures are compressed together in ways that defy both our understanding of city planning and military doctrines.
  • Living habitats will extend from the high-rise to the ground level cottage to subterranean labyrinths, each defined by its own social code and rule of law.
  • Social structures will also be stressed. Criminal networks will offer opportunity for the growing class of unemployed  and will be part of the nervous system of non-nation state, unaligned, individuals and organizations that live and work in the shadow of national rule.
  • There will be increasing complexity of human targeting as proportionally smaller number of adversaries mix with an increasingly large population of citizens.
  • The interactions of governmental failure, illicit economies,  economic growth and spreading poverty, informal networks, environmental degradation, and other factors leads to an environment of convergence hidden within the enormous scale and complexity of megacities, which become the source of adversaries and hybrid threats.
  • Classic military strategy counsels either (a) avoiding the cities or establishing a cordon to wait out the adversary  or (b) draining the swamp of non-combatants and then engaging the adversary in high-intensity conflict. But megacities are too large to isolate or cordon in their entirety.  The U.S. military will need to operate within the urban environment and current counterinsurgency  doctrine is  inadequate to address the sheer scale of megacities
  • “This is the world of our future. It is one we are not prepared to effectively operate within and it is unavoidable.”

According to FoxtrotAlpha, this video was produced for a course at the Joint Special Operations University on “Advanced Special Operations Combating Terrorism,” it is focused on urbanization from the perspective of military planning. A 2010 issue of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s journal was devoted to humanitarian law and conflict in built-up urban areas. The ICRC also had recommendations for the UN’s Habitat III conference that just ended.

The topics covered, though, are very much the province of law and lawyers, including the needs of the urban poor, the operations of criminal networks, environmental degradation and climate change, the law of armed conflict and targeting in built-up areas, informal rulemaking in communities (“order without law”), informal markets and economies,  and the role of non-state actors, to name only some of the topics that crop up. While this video is (understandably) focused on the implications on combat operations, what I also see is the need for sustained  engagement in the protection of human rights, the distribution of public goods, the fostering of inter-communal dispute resolution, and the spurring of bottom-up economic development in megacities.

The video emphasizes that the future is urban. But, as the writer William Gibson has said, “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

 

How Dualism May Save the United Kingdom from Brexit

by Julian Ku

Early in my international law education here in the U.S, I learned that dualism was an unfortunate concept that led to the U.S. violating international law obligations by failing to enforce those obligations (usually treaties) domestically.  But today’s blockbuster decision from a UK court in Miller v. Secretary of State on Brexit should remind us that dualism can also work to protect international law. How?  Well, if a country has many international obligations but is now seeking to withdraw from those obligations, dualism makes it harder to withdraw from those obligations.

In Miller,  the court noted that although the UK Prime Minister usually has the unilateral authority to enter into and withdraw from treaties, that power cannot be used in anyway that would affect or change domestic UK law. Quoting an earlier decision, the High Court today noted that under the UK constitution, the Crown (through her ministers) has the sole and unreviewable power to make treaties. No Parliamentary assent or approval is needed. However,

[T]he Royal Prerogative, whilst it embraces the making of treaties, does not extend to altering the law or conferring rights upon individuals or depriving individuals of rights which they enjoy in domestic law without the intervention of Parliament.  Treaties, as it is sometimes expressed, are not self-executing.  Quite simply, a treaty is not part of English law unless and until it has been incorporated into law by legislation. 

(Citing J.H. Rayner (Mincing Lane) Ltd. v Department of Trade and Industry [1990] 2 AC 418).

This basic principle seems to me crucial to the UK court’s holding today that the Crown (through her ministers) does not have the power to give notice under Article 50.  Although the Crown would ordinarily have this power, the fact that triggering Article 50 would alter the domestic law of the UK makes this a question for Parliament.

In the US system, the President holds similar powers as the Crown and has similarly exercised unilateral powers to withdraw from treaties.  But because treaties in the US have a vaguely monist character — they are self-executing and they have been approved by the Senate — it is harder to argue that the President cannot terminate treaties even if that termination would affect domestic US law. Why?  Because if the treaty was “monist” and self-executing when made, then it is less troubling to unmake that treaty without going back to Congress.  Unlike the UK, treaties are the supreme law of the land and directly preempt state law and earlier in time federal statutes.  The kind of argument wielded by the Court in Miller just wouldn’t have any purchase here.

In any event, I don’t want to stretch this argument too far.  The US may be facing its own Brexit moment soon if a President Trump makes good on his threat to withdraw the US from NAFTA.  And if that happens (god forbid), expect pro-NAFTA folks to raise the case for congressional approval of any termination.  But all in all, I think the dualist nature of the UK system aided the cause of the anti-Brexiteers in this case, which is a somewhat surprising result if you grew up learning that dualism was one of the great obstacles to a stronger international legal system.

A Quick Reply to Stephen Rapp About the US and the ICC

by Kevin Jon Heller

The inimitable David Bosco dropped quite the bombshell yesterday at FP.com: The Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC intends to open a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan — a situation that includes, as the OTP discussed in its most recent preliminary-examination report, US torture of detainees between 2003 and 2005. I’ll have more to say about the possibility of an investigation in the coming days, when I’m a bit less harried. But I wanted to briefly respond to something Stephen Rapp, the former US War Crimes Ambassador, recently said about that torture — a comment that David reprints in a post today. Rapp contrasted US torture in Afghanistan with the kinds of crimes international criminal justice normally addresses:

[T]he alleged crimes committed during US enhanced interrogations do not reach anything like the scale of these other violations. The Durham review was looking into 101 cases of alleged abuse, including those of two detainees who died in custody. A broader inquiry could increase those number, but even with the widest scope, the numbers of victims pale in comparison to those in the situations that have come before international courts and tribunals.

As is often the case when people discuss crimes potentially within the ICC’s jurisdiction, Rapp’s comment elides the critical difference between situational gravity and case gravity. If the OTP was considering opening an investigation only into US torture in Afghanistan (not “enhanced interrogation”), Rapp would have a point — the situational gravity would almost certainly be insufficient to justify a formal investigation. Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara is a good point of comparison: however unjustifiable Israel’s actions, the numbers simply weren’t large enough to investigate. (And I say that as perhaps the earliest opponent of a quantitative approach to situational gravity.)

But that is not what Bosco says the OTP will do. According to Bosco, and consistent with its previous statements, the OTP will be opening a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan generally — not only crimes committed not by US forces, but also crimes committed by the Taliban, by Afghan government forces, and by other members of the coalition. At most, therefore, US torture will be one case within the overall situation in Afghanistan. That’s critical, because it means that the scale of US torture should be compared to the scale of crimes at issue in other individual cases the OTP has pursued, not to the scale of crimes in other situations as a whole. And there is no question that the OTP has pursued similarly limited cases. To take only the most striking example, Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi was charged with and convicted of purely victimless crimes — destroying cultural property. If the Al Mahdi case was grave enough for the OTP, surely US torture in Afghanistan would be.

To be clear, I do not expect the OTP to bring charges against an American anytime soon. But if no such case materialises despite the OTP opening a formal investigation into Afghanistan, it won’t be because US torture there is insufficiently grave enough to prosecute.

NOTE: I am using Rapp’s comment to make a point, not to criticise him. I have great respect for Rapp’s commitment to international criminal justice, and I like him very much as a person.