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International Courts and Dispute Resolution

More on Why the U.S. Is Not Violating the Outer Space Treaty By Allowing Asteroid Mining

by Julian Ku

I’ve received some very good (though pretty much all critical) comments to my original post defending the consistency of the recently enacted U.S. Space Act with the Outer Space Treaty. I will concede that my reading of the statute and treaty is not exactly a cut and dried simple legal issue. But I think too much of the reporting on the Space Act has made it seem like it is a clear violation the other way.  (See here, here, and here.)

One thing that few of these articles note is that the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology did study the question of the Outer Space Treaty when it reported out this legislation.  They reasonably concluded that allowing private companies to exploit celestial bodies is not a “national appropriation” within the meaning of the Outer Space Treaty.  Indeed, this has long been a position of the United States. For instance, the House Committee noted that in 1980, the U.S. State Department’s Legal Adviser explained that

`The United States has long taken the position that Article 1 of that treaty [Outer Space Treaty] . . . recognizes the right of exploitation. We were and are aware, however, that this view is not shared by all States or commentators, some of whom take the position that the nonappropriation provisions in Article [II] of the 1967 Treaty preclude exploitation of celestial natural resources and the reduction to private property.”

It is also worth noting that State Practice seems to lean in favor of allowing the use of materials from outer space. Again, from the Committee’s discussion:

State practice is consistent with finding that exploration and use of outer space includes the right to remove, take possession, and use in-situ natural resources from celestial bodies. The United States, Russia, and Japan have all removed, taken possession, and used in-situ natural resources. These activities have never been protested by a State party to the treaty or judged in a court of law to be in violation of the Outer Space Treaty.

Indeed, some moon rocks taken by the Russian government have actually already been sold to private parties at Sotheby’s auctions in recent years.

Finally, the Committee cites Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty as recognizing that non-governmental entities can carry on activities in outer space, as long states bear international responsibility for those private activities.

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.

I will again note that this reading of the Outer Space Treaty is hardly slam-dunk, but I think it is a quite reasonable one that is at least as persuasive as the interpretation offered by the critics.  I think it is worth noting that State practice leans in favor of the U.S. here, which is not decisive, of course, but it is helpful nonetheless.  I also don’t think the U.S. ever would have committed itself to a flat out ban on commercial exploitation of outer space when it signed the Outer Space Treaty.

In any event, we will see how things spin out. As I noted, it is possible we will one day need an “Authority’ like that created for the international seabed, but not just yet.

McAuliffe on the ICC and “Creeping Cosmopolitanism”

by Kevin Jon Heller

As I was researching a new essay on complementarity, I stumbled across a fantastic article in the Chinese Journal of International Law by Paidrag McAuliffe, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Liverpool School of Law. Here is the abstract of the article, which is entitled “From Watchdog to Workhorse: Explaining the Emergence of the ICC’s Burden-sharing Policy as an Example of Creeping Cosmopolitanism”:

Though it was initially presumed that the primary role of the International Criminal Court (ICC) would be a residual one of monitoring and ensuring the fulfilment by the State of its obligations under the Rome Statute, it has over time moved towards a more activist “burden-sharing” role. Here, the Office of the Prosecutor initiates prosecutions of the leaders who bear the most responsibility for the most egregious crimes and encourages national prosecutions for the lower-ranking perpetrators. Since at least 2006, the Prosecutor has committed to a formal policy of inviting and welcoming voluntary referrals as a first step in triggering the jurisdiction of the Court. The judges on the Court have approved these referrals, while the broader academic and activist communities welcomed this more vertical relationship with national jurisdictions and, significantly, have provided the intellectual justifications for it. Burden-sharing, a concept unmentioned at the Rome Conference establishing the ICC, is presented as an unproblematic, natural and organic emanation from the Statute. This article argues that this development was not in fact inevitable or mandated by the Rome Statute. It was chosen, and in justifying this choice, familiar modes of cosmopolitan-constitutionalist treaty interpretation fundamentally premised on the field’s virtue and indispensability have operated to enable a Court established as a residual watchdog to become a workhorse in individual situations by assuming the preponderance of responsibility for combating impunity.

I found myself repeatedly nodding my head in agreement while I read the article, particularly when it discussed how judges, prosecutors, scholars, and activists have relied on ambiguities in treaty interpretation to push a particular activist agenda at the ICC. The article reminds me of the critical ICL scholarship by two of my favourite scholars, Fred Megret and Darryl Robinson — both of whom the article cites quite often.

The article is a must read for anyone interested in the ICC and ICL scholarship more generally. You can find it here.

When Is a “Plain Meaning” Not Plain?

by Kevin Jon Heller

In my post on biological and chemical weapons yesterday, I rejected the idea that Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) “squarely appl[ies]” (Ralf Trapp) or “plainly applies” (Alex Whiting) to chemical and biological weapons by arguing that the drafters of the Rome Statute intended Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii), the war crime of “[e]mploying asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases,” to have precisely the kind of “special meaning” that Art. 31(4) of the VCLT requires us to take into account when interpreting that provision.

After the post went up, Alex and I had a heated but typically friendly exchange on Twitter concerning “plain meaning” treaty interpretation. Interested readers can start with this tweet. Our debate did not focus on the applicability of Art. 31(4) of the VCLT. Instead, we argued about whether simply reading the text of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) makes it plain that it criminalises chemical and biological weapons. Alex thinks it’s evident that it does; not surprisingly, I disagree.

The problem with the debate is both obvious and timeless: if two people disagree about the correct interpretation of a text, how do they determine whose interpretation is correct? Alex rightly rightly pointed out that we should not reject a particular “plain meaning” simply because one person disagrees with it; any such standard would deny the possibility of plain meaning altogether. (Which, to be clear, I’d be happy to do on other grounds, because I follow the neo-pragmatic approach to interpretation associated with Stanley Fish. See, for example, this fantastic essay.)

But if one person’s disagreement cannot render a “plain meaning” not plain, how many people is enough? Five? 10? 100? At some point disagreement over the meaning of a text has to negate the possibility of any particular interpretation being considered “plain.” Alex and I went around and around on this, and he finally advocated what is essentially a procedural solution to the problem: the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) is whatever the ICC’s judges ultimately say it is.

As a descriptive matter, Alex is absolutely correct. But unless we believe the ICC’s judges are legally infalliable — and I certainly don’t! — we have to accept the possibility that they could be wrong about the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii). So we are right back where we started: trying to determine how much disagreement over the interpretation of a text has to exist before we conclude the text has no plain meaning.

I have no easy answer. But I would still maintain that it strains credulity to believe that the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) indicates that it criminalises chemical and biological weapons. To see why, we don’t even have to return (as I think we should) to the drafting history of Art. 8. It is sufficient to note that a significant number of states still believe that Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) does not criminalise chemical or biological weapons. How do we know that? Because 14 states formally proposed amending Art. 8 to criminalise those weapons at the ICC’s Review Conference in 2010: Argentina, Belgium, Bolivia, Burundi, Cambodia, Cyprus, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Mexico, Romania, Samoa and Slovenia. Here, in relevant part, are the provisions the 14 states wanted to add to Art. 8(2)(b):

xxvii) Using the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment and means of delivery as defined by and in violation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, London, Moscow and Washington, 10 April 1972.

xxviii) Using chemical weapons or engaging in any military preparations to use chemical weapons as defined by and in violation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction, Paris, 13 January 1992.

These proposed amendments make no sense if the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) already criminalises chemical and biological weapons. So how can that interpretation be considered the “plain meaning,” given that at least 11% of the States Parties to the Rome Statute do not understand Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) in the supposedly plain manner? Surely such disagreement indicates that there is no “plain meaning” of the war crime.

Does that mean the 14 states are right? Of course not. Perhaps Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) really does criminalise chemical and biological weapons. All I’m saying is that we cannot reach that conclusion by looking to Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii)’s “plain meaning.” The meaning of the war crime is at best ambiguous or obscure.

But that, of course, is a critical realisation. Because it means that we have to look to the drafting history of the Rome Statute to determine the correct interpretation of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) even if we accept a plain-meaning approach to treaty interpretation. (Which we should not.) Here is Art. 32 of the VCLT:

Recourse may be had to supplementary means of interpretation, including the preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion, in order to confirm the meaning resulting from the application of article 31, or to determine the meaning when the interpretation according to article 31:

(a) Leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure.

Even though my understanding of the VCLT accords with Julian Davis Mortenson’s, I am willing to entertain the idea that the meaning of some provisions of the Rome Statute is so plain that we have no practical need to examine their drafting history. Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii), however, is not such a provision. Given the widespread disagreement among states concerning whether the war crime criminalises chemical and biological weapons, the best interpretation of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) is that it has no plain meaning.

Can You Be Pro-Free Trade and Anti-Investor State Dispute Settlement?

by Julian Ku

Simon Lester of and the Cato Institute offered a very interesting pro-free trade argument against the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in trade agreements like the TransPacific Partnership or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.  I disagree and we discussed and debated the issue today in a lively conversation hosted by Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Investment.

The Rome Statute Does Not Criminalise Chemical and Biological Weapons

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the past week, two posts at Just Security have argued that the ICC can prosecute the use of chemical and biological weapons as a war crime, even though they — unlike other types of weapons — are not mentioned in Article 8 of the Rome Statute. The first post was written by Ralf Trapp, who argued as follows:

Furthermore, there are the provisions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Even though it does not use the terminology of the CWC (“chemical weapons”), there is no doubt that the terms “employing poison or poisoned weapons” and “employing asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquid, materials or devices” found in the list of war crimes under the statute’s Article 8 would squarely apply to the use of chlorine or mustard gas as a weapon of war. Any such use would consequently come under the jurisdiction of the ICC.

Trapp does not even acknowledge any other interpretation of Article 8. By contrast, the second post, written by Alex Whiting, admits that a different interpretation is possible. But Whiting nevertheless sides with Trapp, citing an earlier post by Dapo Akande at EJIL: Talk!:

The Rome Statute originally included a direct ban on chemical and biological weapons, but it was dropped at the same time as a ban on weapons causing unnecessary suffering was narrowed to apply only to those weapons listed in an annex (which does not exist because the States Parties never adopted one). This narrowing was done to avoid having the broader provision apply to nuclear weapons. The direct chemical and biological weapons prohibition was then dropped, apparently because some negotiators thought that there should be parity in approach to nuclear weapons (possessed by wealthy nations) and chemical and biological weapons (the more likely option for poorer countries). The claim that that the Statute therefore does not cover chemical and biological weapons was reinforced by Belgium’s efforts at the ICC Review Conference in Kampala in 2010 to amend the Statute to include a ban on chemical and biological weapons, indicating that there was an understanding among at least some States Parties that the Statute as written did not already do so.

But Akande persuasively argues (reinforcing what Trapp intuits) that the language in the Statute prohibiting poisonous and asphyxiating gases and analogous liquids, materials, and devices plainly applies on its own terms to most — if not all — chemical and biological weapons. Since the treaty text is clearly written, there is no need to consider the history of its drafting, per the Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties. In this case, the difficulty with relying on the negotiation history in the first instance is that it is highly indeterminate: Assessing what 120 countries “intended” when they adopted the Rome Statute is nearly impossible, and therefore the plain language of the treaty should govern when it is clear, as it is here.

I disagree with Trapp and Whiting. I won’t rehash the arguments I made in response to Dapo’s post; interested readers can see our exchange in the EJIL: Talk! comments section. But I do want to flag three critical problems with the argument advanced by Trapp and Whiting: one factual, one theoretical, and one political.

The factual problem is that this is simply not a situation in which the drafting history is “highly indeterminate.” Few drafting disputes are as well known as the dispute over the criminalisation of nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and biological weapons. And as Whiting’s own account makes clear, we know with absolute certainty that not enough states favoured criminalising the use of chemical and biological weapons — because the proposal to criminalise them failed. The reason why states opposed criminalising their use is irrelevant; I’m quite sure that some may have wanted to reserve the right to use them, while others were happy to criminalise their use but did not want to alienate the nuclear states. All that matters is that it is undisputed states tried and failed to criminalise the use of chemical and biological weapons.

It does not matter, then, whether “[a]ssessing what 120 countries ‘intended’ when they adopted the Rome Statute is nearly impossible.” What matters is whether we know how 120 states understood Art. 8 of the Rome Statute. And we do…

Why China Will Ignore the UNCLOS Tribunal Judgment, and (Probably) Get Away With It

by Julian Ku

U.S. commentary has largely celebrated the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal’s award finding it has jurisdiction to consider the merits on many of the Philippines’ South China Sea related claims against China.   Perhaps the most positive note is found in Jill Goldenziel’s essay at the Diplomat entitled, “International Law Is the Real Threat to China in the South China Sea.”

But just by getting this far, the case already has important implications for the use of international courts to manage and resolve international conflicts. International law has become a weapon of the weak. Countries that cannot afford or have no chance of winning military conflicts have increasingly turned to courts to resolve territorial, economic, and human rights claims. Other countries are closely watching the Philippines as they consider similar options for asserting their own rights in the South China Sea and beyond. Vietnam, in particular, is considering filing a similar lawsuit. At the very least, the case may force China to engage in talks with its neighbors to resolve competing claims to the South China Sea. By doing so, China can save face and claim to resolve the disputes on its own terms. If law can bring China to its knees, cases involving the South China Sea will have ripple effects far beyond its shores.

For my own part, I am much more skeptical about the benefits of an arbitral award for the Philippines. As I argued last year, there is little reason to think China will suffer serious reputational consequences for defying the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal’s award on jurisdiction or on the merits. Why?

Because other cases involving “weak” nations using international courts against “strong” nations shows that “strong” nations suffer few consequences and rarely change behavior significantly. The most similar case to Philippines v. China is probably the 1986 ICJ judgment in Nicaragua v. United States. That case (also brought by the Philippines’ current lawyer Paul Reichler) resulted in the U.S. withdrawing from the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ, not showing up for the merits argument, and ignoring the ICJ’s final judgment on the merits in that case. While the U.S. suffered some negative votes in the General Assembly and had to veto several Security Council resolutions, it is hard to argue that the U.S. “complied” with the ICJ judgment as a result of the reputational costs it suffered by walking away. The U.S. never paid the compensation the ICJ held that it owed, and it stopped mining Nicaraguan harbors only years later.

Russia has also recently demonstrated the ability of a “Strong” state to ignore an international court ruling. After detaining a Dutch-flagged Greenpeace vessel and its crew in 2013, Russia faced a provisional measures proceeding in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. That tribunal ordered Russia to “promptly release” the vessel upon the posting of a bond and to release the crew as well.   Russia did not show up for the argument in court, and simply ignored the ITLOS order as well as a subsequent UNCLOS arbitral award.

Perhaps the Philippines will win some sort of leverage over China down the road by using a favorable award as a bargaining chip with China. But in the short-term, the Philippines has enraged China and has also led China to denounce (for the first time) the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal itself. It would not be impossible to imagine China announcing a withdrawal from UNCLOS (just to avoid the dispute settlement provisions) and simply adhering to UNCLOS as customary international law. That result will not be great for China, but I have a hard time seeing how it helps the Philippines either.

My Talk on the ICC’s Investigation into the Situation in Georgia

by Kevin Jon Heller


I’m in the middle of a week-long trip to Georgia, where I’m giving nine lectures in five days to the military and university students. (Thanks, Anna Dolidze, Deputy Minister of Defence and friend-of-OJ!) I’m talking about perfidy a couple of times, but most of the lectures — not surprisingly — are about the OTP’s request to open a formal investigation into the situation in Georgia. I’ve greatly enjoyed the lectures I’ve given so far, at Free University Tbilisi and at the Ministry of Defence. The questions have been uniformly intelligent and challenging. Today I’m heading to Gori to give lectures at the National Defence Academy.

In any case, a reader emailed me and asked whether I could send her the notes of my talk and the accompanying PowerPoint slides. I was happy to oblige, and I thought I might upload both to Opinio Juris, in case anyone else would like to see them. The notes are here, and the accompanying PowerPoint slides are here.

Breaking: UNCLOS Tribunal Rules Against China, Unanimously Finds It Has Jurisdiction Over Philippines South China Sea Claims

by Julian Ku

It’s been a rough week for China’s South China Seas policy. In addition to facing a US Freedom of Navigation operation near one of its artificial islands, the arbitration tribunal formed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has decided that it has jurisdiction to proceed to the merits on the Philippines’ legal challenge to certain Chinese activities in the South China Sea.

I will blog more about this later, but for now it is worth noting that the tribunal unanimously ruled that it can proceed to the merits on seven out of 15 of the Philippines’ claims, and that it reserves the question of jurisdiction on seven other claims as being so interwoven with the merits that it cannot be resolved without first considering the merits.

I will note that the tribunal reserved the question of jurisdiction over the Philippines’ biggest and most flashy claim: the argument that China’s Nine Dash Line “historic rights” claim is inconsistent with UNCLOS. It held that:

The Philippines’ Submission No. 1 does, however, require the Tribunal to consider the effect of any historic rights claimed by China to maritime entitlements in the South China Sea and the interaction of such rights with the provisions of the Convention. This is a dispute concerning the interpretation and application of the Convention. The Tribunal’s jurisdiction to consider this question, however, would be dependent on the nature of any such historic rights and whether they are covered by the exclusion from jurisdiction over “historic bays or titles” in Article 298. The nature and validity of any historic rights claimed by China is a merits determination. The possible jurisdictional objections with respect to the dispute underlying Submission No. 1 therefore do not possess an exclusively preliminary character. Accordingly, the Tribunal reserves a decision on its jurisdiction with respect to the Philippines’ Submission No. 1 for consideration in conjunction with the merits of the Philippines’ claims.

On the other hand, the Tribunal did find that the question of whether the Scarborough Shoal is a “rock” or an “island” is clearly within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, irrespective of the merits. It did so because it held that there are no overlapping sovereignty or sea boundary claims that might impact the determination.

Overall, it should never be surprising when an arbitral tribunal finds that it has jurisdiction to hear a case. The Tribunal did throw China a bone by noting that it is still possible that seven of the Philippines’ claims (including the Nine Dash Line challenge) could be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction at the merits stage.

But by reserving the question of jurisdiction, and guaranteeing it will rule on the merits for several other claims, the Tribunal shoves the ball back onto China’s court.  Will China continue to claim it is not bound by the Tribunal for lack of jurisdiction, when the Tribunal has now found it has jurisdiction?  China would more clearly be in violation of UNCLOS now than it was before, because UNCLOS Article 288(4) makes it clear that “[i]n the event of a dispute as to whether a court or tribunal has jurisdiction, the matter shall be settled by decision of that court or tribunal.”  My guess is China will pretend that Article 288 doesn’t exist and continue to refuse to participate.  The interesting question is whether China will pay any serious price (in reputational terms) if it does so.

Chase Madar on the Weaponisation of Human Rights

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, the inestimable Chase Madar gave a fascinating talk at SOAS entitled “The Weaponisation of Human Rights.” More than 100 people showed up, and I was privileged — along with Heidi Matthews, a British Academy postdoc at SOAS — to respond to Chase’s comments. Here is Chase’s description of the talk:

Human rights, once a rallying cry to free prisoners of conscience and curb government abuses, is now increasingly deployed as a case for war, from Yugoslavia to Iraq, from Libya to Afghanistan. Human rights lawyers in and out of government are weighing in on how wars should be fought: in the United States, the phrase “human rights-based approach to drones” passes without much comment in the legal academy and mainstream media. As the grandees of the human rights movement enter high office throughout North America and Western Europe, what is the effect of this legal doctrine on warfare–and vice versa?Will this blossoming relationship bring about more humanity in warfare? Or is human rights being conscripted into ever more militarized foreign policy?

SOAS has now made the video of the event available on YouTube; you can watch it below:



The video contains Chase’s talk, along with my response and Heidi’s response. We apologize for the middle section, where the lighting is bad; I don’t know why that happened. But the audio is excellent throughout.

Please watch!

France Fails to Adopt “Unwilling or Unable” in Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last month, Ashley Deeks claimed that France appeared “to be prepared to invoke the ‘unwilling or unable’ concept in the Syria context.” France did indeed attacks ISIS targets in Syria. And it reported those strikes to the Secretary-General of the UN, claiming self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter as a rationale for violating Syria’s sovereignty. But then something funny happened on the way to the Forum: France did not invoke the “unwilling or unable” theory. Here is its Art. 51 letter:


Looks like the “broad consensus” in favour of “unwilling or unable” now stands at three states — the US, UK, and Australia — not four.

Hat-Tip: Thierry Randretsa, author of the blog Dommages civils.

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

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why It’s Counterproductive to Discuss an MH17 Tribunal

by Kevin Jon Heller

States whose nationals died in the attack on MH17 were understandably upset when Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have created an ad hoc tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the attack. Their idea to create a treaty-based court, however, is simply not helpful:

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, will meet with her counterparts from Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine on Tuesday during the annual United Nations general assembly meeting.

One of the proposals is for a tribunal similar to that established to prosecute Libyan suspects over the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland.

Nations that lost some of the 298 passengers and crew in the MalaysiaAirlines disaster over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 are also looking at launching separate prosecutions.

A report by the Dutch led-investigation team, set to be published on 13 October, is understood to include evidence the plane was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from separatist territory in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has denied any involvement but in July used its veto power at the UN to block a resolution that would have formed a tribunal to bring the perpetrators to justice.

There is no question the victim states could create a tribunal via treaty — they would simply be delegating their passive-personality jurisdiction to the tribunal. The ICC is based on similar pooling of jurisdiction.

But what would creating such a tribunal accomplish? A treaty-based tribunal might have some ability to investigate the attack, given that MH17 was flying over non-Crimea Ukraine when it was shot down. But how would it get its hands on potential defendants? Pro-Russian separatists are almost certainly responsible for the attack, which means that the suspects are likely to be either in Russia-annexed Crimea or in Russia proper. Either way, the tribunal would have to convince Russia to surrender potential defendants to it — and Russia would have no legal obligation to do so as a non-signatory to the treaty creating the tribunal. That’s the primary difference between a treaty-based tribunal and a tribunal created by the Security Council: the latter could at least impose a cooperation obligation on Russia and sanction it for non-compliance. The tribunal being contemplated by the victim states could do no more than say “pretty please.” And we know how that request would turn out.

There is also, of course, that little issue of the ICC. Earlier this month, Ukraine filed a second Art. 12(3) declaration with the Court, this one giving the Court jurisdiction over all crimes committed on Ukrainian territory since 20 February 2014 — which includes the attack on MH17. So why create an ad hoc tribunal that would simply compete with the ICC? To be sure, the Court would also have a difficult time obtaining potential defendants, given that Russia has not ratified the Rome Statute. But it seems reasonable to assume, ceteris paribus, that an international court with 124 members is more likely to achieve results than a multinational court with five members. Moreover, there would be something more than a little unseemly about Australia, Belgium, and the Netherlands creating a treaty-based tribunal to investigate the MH17 attack. After all, unlike Russia, those states have ratified the Rome Statute.

The problem, in short, is not that the international community lacks an institution capable of prosecuting those responsible for the attack on MH17. The problem is that the international community has almost no chance of getting its hands on potential defendants. So until they can figure out how to get Russia to voluntarily assist with an investigation, victim states such as Australia and the Netherlands would be better off remaining silent about the possibility of a treaty-based tribunal. Discussing one will simply raise the hopes of those who lost loved ones in the attack — hopes that will almost certainly never be realised.