Archive of posts for category
International Courts and Dispute Resolution

Final Thoughts on the Bar Human Rights Committee’s Letter

by Kevin Jon Heller

Kirsty Brimelow QC, the chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) — and a colleague of mine at Doughty Street Chambers — has responded to my position on the 2009 Declaration, as recounted by Joshua Rozenberg in this Guardian article. Here is the relevant paragraph:

Neither Rozenberg’s opinion piece nor academic he relies upon, Kevin Heller, cite the text of the 2012 decision in support of their positions. This is hardly surprising given that the decision does not in fact “formally reject” the 2009 declaration.

Although I stand behind my claim that the OTP “formally rejected” the 2009 Declaration in its 2012 decision, Kirsty correctly points out that I did not cite the text of the decision. So I think it’s useful to summarise the text and quote it where appropriate:

[1] The 2009 Declaration purported to accept the Court’s jurisdiction over the situation in Palestine on an ad hoc basis, retroactive to 1 July 2002 (para. 1).

[2] Per Art. 15 of the Rome Statute, the OTP initiated a preliminary examination “in order to determine whether there was a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation” (para. 2).

[3] The OTP stated that the first step in that inquiry was to determine whether it had jurisdiction over the events in Palestine. In that regard, it noted that “only when such criteria are established will the Office proceed to analyse information on alleged crimes as well as other conditions for the exercise of jurisdiction” (para. 3)

[4] The OTP pointed out that only a “State” can accept the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis under Art. 12(1) of the Rome Statute (para. 4), which meant that the key issue with regard to the Declaration was whether Palestine qualified as a State (para. 5).

[5] The OTP concluded that it did not have the authority to decide whether, as a matter of law, Palestine was a State; that responsibility was “for the relevant bodies at the United Nations or the Assembly of States Parties” (para. 6).

[6] The OTP acknowledged that numerous states had acknowledged Palestine’s statehood and that Palestine had applied for membership as a State in the UN, but insisted that although the UN application was relevant, “this process has no direct link with the declaration lodged by Palestine” (para. 7).

[7] The OTP said it “could in the future consider allegations of crimes committed in Palestine” if the statehood issue was “eventually” resolved by the UN or ASP (para. 8).

Although the decision is not the picture of clarity, I still think it qualifies as a “formal rejection” of the 2009 Declaration. The Declaration formally requested the OTP accept jurisdiction and investigate the situation in Palestine. The OTP opened a preliminary examination, as required by the Rome Statute, but then ended that examination at the first step, concluding that it did not have jurisdiction over the events in question because Palestine could not establish that it was a State. That’s a rejection, even if the OTP — to use a common-law phrase — dismissed the Declaration without prejudice.

My guess is that paragraph 8 is the crux of the disagreement between the BHRC experts and me. They are reading it as a statement that the OTP would essentially hold onto the Declaration until the UN or ASP clarified Palestine’s status as a state, at which point it could then advance the preliminary examination. It’s possible — but I think the OTP would have said as much if that’s what paragraph 8 meant. I read the paragraph as making clear the OTP was rejecting the Declaration without prejudice to a later ad hoc declaration — a reading, not incidentally, that seems to square with Fatou Bensouda’s recent statement that the OTP won’t act without a new Declaration or Palestine’s ratification of the Rome Statute.

I also want to make clear that I disagree with Rozenberg’s statement that the BHRC “is at best naive, and at worst misleading, for suggesting [the] legal situation is beyond doubt.” I don’t think there is anything naive or misleading about the letter, even though I disagree with it. These are very difficult issues, over which reasonable people can disagree. And there is, of course, nothing wrong with advocates advocating.

Finally, I want to sincerely apologise to the BHRC for revealing that I had been asked to sign the letter. Although I waited for the letter to appear publicly before commenting on it, I should not have mentioned that I had been approached.

Emerging Voices: Extraordinary Reparations, Legitimacy, and the Inter-American Court

by David Attanasio

[David L. Attanasio is a professor of law at the Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogotá, Colombia, and Doctoral candidate in philosophy at U.C.L.A.]

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights—the highest authority dedicated to enforcing international human rights law in the Inter-American system—has received deep praise for its influential and innovative reparations decisions (.pdf). Nonetheless, its more innovative reparations measures suffer from a serious problem of legitimacy, in that they do not seem to respond to the human rights violations that the Court identifies. Specifically, in the vast majority of its reparations decisions since 2001, the Court has ordered what I call extraordinary reparations, measures such as human rights training, changes to law and policy, improvements in the justice system, and provision of education, water, food, or public services (preceding links to .pdfs). These typically are in addition to compensation payments and other measures explicitly designed to eliminate the violation’s consequences. Although the Court has not adequately defended its practice of ordering extraordinary reparations, several potential bases of legitimacy may justify its principal decisions. Some extraordinary reparations are disguised orders to cease violations, others seek to repair damage to communities, and some aim to repair victim trust in the state.

Despite the importance of its innovations, the Inter-American Court has not explained why it may order extraordinary reparations, particularly when it has already ordered measures supposedly sufficient to eliminate the effects of past human rights violations. For example, following a forced disappearance (.pdf), the Court ordered monetary compensation for the victim’s family supposedly equivalent to the harm suffered, but went on to order, among other measures, a literacy program for the victim’s mother. The American Convention on Human Rights empowers the Court to order reparations only for identified human rights violations, not to order any measure it thinks might make for a better state or for a more human rights-friendly social environment. It is not an international legislature. However, extraordinary reparations, which often appear aimed at changing the victim’s circumstances, apparently lack any “causal nexus” (.pdf) with a past human rights violation. As states have complained (.pdf), they do not seem to address the violation’s effects, as other reparative measures such as restitution or compensation are supposedly sufficient for that objective. The Court lacks explicit principles in its jurisprudence sufficient to clarify when and why extraordinary reparations might be legitimate.

(more…)

Here Comes That Frivolous Argentina ICJ Claim! Oh, And They Have No Jurisdiction Either!

by Julian Ku

As I noted last week, Argentina has been making threats to take the US government to the International Court of Justice over the results of US litigation over their 2002 sovereign debt default.  And so today, Argentina has made good on its threat by filing an application to the ICJ contending that “that the United States of America has committed violations of Argentine sovereignty and immunities and other related violations as a result of judicial decisions adopted by US tribunals concerning the restructuring of the Argentine public debt.”

As the ICJ’s press release notes, Argentina is seeking to found jurisdiction upon the U.S. deciding to grant consent to the case. But the U.S. has no obligation to give such consent, nor does it have any incentive to do so. Nor does Argentina (I suspect) really expect the U.S. to grant consent.  This is almost certainly a way to show its people and the world that it has a grievance, without actually ever having to test that grievance in a judicial proceeding.

And the fact that this lawsuit has no chance of getting to a court is probably a good strategy for Argentina. The actual specific claims are not yet available, but I have a hard time imagining they are anything but frivolous.  The only claim I am aware of that was raised by a commenter to my post last week is that Judge Griesa exceeded his jurisdiction by ordering third-party banks not to pay out moneys on bonds issued under foreign law.  This is an interesting argument, and even if it were plausible, I don’t understand why Argentina has not raised that argument directly to the U.S. courts. And this would still not impact the bonds issued under New York law.

Bottom line: there is no chance that Argentina gets the U.S. to accept jurisdiction before the ICJ. Expect more grandstanding from the Argentine government as it tries to use the ICJ as an international public relations platform.

My Podcast on Palestine and the ICC — and an Additional Thought

by Kevin Jon Heller

I had the pleasure of doing a podcast yesterday with Mark Leon Goldberg, purveyor of the essential UN Dispatch website, on the possibility of Palestine ratifying the Rome Statute or accepting the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis. It’s about 20 minutes long, and you can find it here (or on iTunes).

I do want to mention another aspect of Palestine’s decision — one I hadn’t thought about until I read this excellent article in the Guardian by Joshua Rozenberg. (And it’s not just excellent because he quotes me.) As I discuss in the podcast, Palestine has two roads to a potential ICC investigation of Operation Protective Edge: (1) accept the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis retroactive to 29 November 2012, the date of UNGA Res. 69/17; or (2) ratify the Rome Statute and then file an ad hoc declaration retroactive to 29 November 2012. Although both roads would give the ICC jurisdiction over the situation in Gaza, there is actually a critical procedural difference between them — assuming that the OTP wanted to investigate (which I still think is extremely unlikely). If Palestine simply accepts the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis, the OTP’s decision to investigate would be considered proprio motu — and that decision would be subject to review by the Pre-Trial Chamber. (See, in that regard, the Cote d’Ivoire situation.) By contrast, if Palestine ratified the Rome Statute and then filed an ad hoc declaration, the OTP’s decision to investigate would be based on the referral of a State Party — and would not be subject to Pre-Trial Chamber review.

We’ll see what happens…

“A Song of Good and Evil” and Telling International Law’s Story to a Broader Audience

by Chris Borgen

Philippe Sands is well-known as a scholar and as a practicing attorney. Now let’s add spoken word artist:

October 1946, Nuremberg.

Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands narrates an original piece that offers new insights into the lives of three men at the heart of the trial, with the music that crossed the courtroom to connect prosecutor and defendant.

A personal exploration of the origins of modern justice and the fate of individuals and groups, in images, words and music.

Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Aragon, Mizraki and Leonard Cohen, performed by acclaimed bass-baritone Laurent Naouri and renowned jazz pianist Guillaume de Chassy.

The piece is called “A Song of Good and Evil” and it will have its premiere in London on November 29th.

Engaging and educating as broad a public as possible about international law is no easy feat. For example, there have been depictions of international law and international legal themes in film, in television, and in fiction.  While at times the authors of such works may want to say something about international law or international institutions, such works have varying degrees of accuracy and educational value.  More often than not, “international law” or “the World Court” or “the UN” are just plot devices with very little consideration as to how any of these things actually work (or even what they are).  And I don’t know of many (actually, any other) international lawyers actively writing and performing theater pieces with legal themes.  (If there are, please let me know!)

Every work of art that depicts international law and international institutions affects the perception of some segment of the public about international law. Some of these books and films are produced in ignorance and stoke paranoia or the worst form of cynicism.  However, because so many of the stories of international law are profoundly human stories, they can also be the stuff of great art. Or the stuff of entertainment that also enlightens.

So, break a leg Philippe Sands! (And please have a performance in New York.)

Hat tip: John Louth for having mentioned this event.

Three Thoughts on the OTP’s Rejection of Jurisdiction over the Situation in Palestine

by Kevin Jon Heller

The ICC Office of the Prosecutor has just released the following statement:

Palestine is not a State Party to the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the ICC; neither has the Court received any official document from Palestine indicating acceptance of ICC jurisdiction or requesting the Prosecutor to open an investigation into any alleged crimes following the November 2012 United Nations General Assembly Resolution (67/19), which accorded non-member observer State status to Palestine.

The ICC has no jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on the territory of Palestine.

I have three thoughts on the statement. First, the OTP clearly believes that the 2009 Declaration by the Palestinian Authority is void. If Palestine wants the OTP to investigate, it will have to either ratify the Rome Statute or file a new declaration accepting the Court’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis.

Second, it seems equally clear that the OTP will not accept a Palestinian declaration accepting jurisdiction over events prior to before 29 November 2012, when the UNGA adopted Res. 67/19. The statement strongly implies — if it doesn’t quite say it explicitly — that Palestine’s statehood, at least for the ICC’s purposes, began on that date. Any other conclusion is difficult to reconcile with the statement’s emphasis on Res. 67/19; the fatal flaw of the 2009 Declaration seems to be that it was made before the UNGA upgraded Palestine’s status.

Third, the statement’s reference to “the territory of Palestine” raises the possibility that the OTP will not accept an ad hoc declaration that is limited to Gaza — even one that properly focuses, as the 2009 Declaration did, on crimes committed by both parties to the conflict. To be sure, the reference may just reflect casual or sloppy drafting; indeed, I see no reason why Palestine could not self-refer only the Gaza situation, given previous situations the OTP has accepted (Northern Uganda, Ituri, Darfur, etc.) But it’s a point to ponder going forward.

Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales Asks OTP to Investigate Gaza (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

The request is supported by a number of leading QCs and professors in Britain. (Full disclosure: three of the signatories are barrister members and one is an academic member of Doughty Street Chambers, with which I’m associated.) Here is the Bar Human Rights Committee’s summary:

Public international law and criminal law Q.C.s and Professors based in Britain join with the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales to urge the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to initiate a preliminary investigation into crimes being committed in the Gaza Strip.

In response to the extreme gravity of the situation in the Gaza Strip, including spiralling civilian deaths and large scale destruction of homes, hospitals and schools, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, supported by leading Q.Cs and Professors, has submitted a formal request, calling upon the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to initiate an investigation, pursuant to Article 15 of the Rome Statute.

The letter of request was submitted to the ICC on 3rd August 2014. It asserts that the 2009 Declaration, submitted by the Government of Palestine pursuant to Article 12(3) of the Rome Statute, provides the prosecutor with the necessary jurisdictional basis on which to act.

Kirsty Brimelow Q.C., Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee, stated: “The initiation of an investigation would send a clear and unequivocal message to those involved in the commission of these crimes that the accountability and justice called for by the United Nations on the part of victims are not hollow watchwords. It would bring about an end to the impunity which has prevailed in the region to date, fuelling ever increasingly brutal cycles of violence. The international community cannot continue to act simply as witness to such bloodshed and extreme civilian suffering.”

I declined to sign the request, despite my profound respect and admiration for the signatories. Although I have no doubt that serious international crimes have been committed by both Israel and Hamas in Gaza, I find the request problematic. Moreno-Ocampo formally rejected the Palestinian Authority’s 2009 Declaration on behalf of the OTP, and the UNGA did not give Res. 67/19 — which upgraded Palestine to non-member-state status — retroactive effect. In my view, therefore, the 2009 declaration is effectively (and perhaps even legally) void. That conclusion is supported by Fatou Bensouda’s public statement that “the ball is now in the court of Palestine”, “Palestine has to come back,” and “we are waiting for them.”

The bottom line for me is that Palestine needs to submit a new declaration accepting the ICC’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis. (Assuming the Palestinian Authority has the authority to do so — about which see my previous post.) That declaration should refer the situation in Gaza, not simply Israel’s crimes, as the 2009 Declaration properly did. (The primary reason I do not believe the complaint filed by the Palestinian Authority’s Justice Minister can be considered an ad hoc declaration is that it singles out Israel for investigation.) The declaration should also clearly specify the temporal parameters of the jurisdiction Palestine is giving to the ICC. Any attempt to accept the Court’s jurisdiction retroactive to 1 July 2002, when the Rome Statute entered into force, is likely to fail, because I seriously doubt that the OTP wants to determine when Palestine became a state. The most plausible date for retroactive jurisdiction would be 29 November 2012, when the UNGA adopted Res. 67/19. (Like many others, I believe Palestine qualified as a state long before that. But I wouldn’t be the one deciding whether to investigate.)

In short, and again with the greatest respect to the signatories of the present request, I do not think it is wise to pursue what seems to me to be a procedural shortcut to ICC jurisdiction over the situation in Gaza. If the ICC is to become involved in the most heavily politicised conflict in recent history — and I think the likelihood the OTP would act on even a proper request is essentially zero — there should be no doubt whatsoever about either Palestine’s desire for an investigation or the ICC’s jurisdictional competence. If we’ve learned anything about the conflict in Gaza, it’s the importance of always crossing the legal “t’s” and dotting the legal “i’s.”

UPDATE: Multiple sources are reporting on Twitter that the ICC has announced it has no jurisdiction over the situation in Gaza. (See here, for example.) That would seem to put beyond doubt that any attempt to rely on the 2009 Declaration will fail.

Can the PA Ratify the Rome Statute? (A Response to Eugene)

by Kevin Jon Heller

As Eugene notes in today’s guest post, the Palestinian Authority (PA) appears to have decided to ratify the Rome Statute. I’ll believe it when I see it: the PA has threatened to ratify before, only to back down at the last moment. But could it? Most observers have assumed it could, but Eugene disagrees. I think his bottom line may well be right, as I will explain at the end of this post. But I have problems with other aspects of it.

To begin with, let’s dispense with Eugene’s claim that Abbas’s lack of control has an upside for him, because it “prevents him from being held responsible for the war crimes there. If he does control the territory, and has allowed it to be a rocket launching base for years, he would be in trouble.” Abbas has neither de jure nor de facto effective control over the members of the groups (especially Hamas) that are responsible for the rocket attacks on Israel. Nor does it seem likely that he would be part of the military chain of command in a Fatah-Hamas unity government. So whatever the state of Palestine’s responsibility for the rocket attacks might be, it is extraordinarily unlikely that Abbas would ever be held individually criminally responsible for them — now or in the future.

I also think that Eugene is overreading the OTP’s rejection of Mohammed Morsi’s attempt to accept the ICC’s jurisdiction. In particular, I think he is eliding the difference between two different concepts of “effective control”: for purposes of determining the government of a state, and for purposes of determining whether part or all of a state’s territory is belligerently occupied. Here is the relevant paragraph of the ICC press release concerning the decision:

In accordance with the legal test of “effective control,” the entity which is in fact in control of a State’s territory, enjoys the habitual obedience of the bulk of the population, and has a reasonable expectancy of permanence, is recognized as the government of that State under international law. Application of that test, on both the date that the purported declaration was signed and the date it was submitted, lead to the conclusion that Dr Morsi was no longer the governmental authority with the legal capacity to incur new international legal obligations on behalf of the State of Egypt. The information available indicates that, at all material times, the applicants did not exercise effective control over any part of Egyptian territory, including on the date the declaration was signed. Nor would it be consistent with the “effective control” test to have one putative authority exercising effective control over the territory of a State, and the other competing authority retaining international treaty-making capacity.

As the paragraph indicates, the OTP relied on effective control to determine which of two rival domestic Egyptian entities represented the government of Egypt. In that context, the OTP quite rightly decided that “the entity which is in fact in control of a State’s territory, enjoys the habitual obedience of the bulk of the population, and has a reasonable expectancy of permanence, is recognized as the government of that State under international law.” Morsi lost under that test, because his claimed failed all three conditions.

That concept of effective control has little to do with the concept of effective control in the law of occupation. Effective control in the latter context determines whether the law of occupation applies; it does not determine who the sovereign is in the occupied state. On the contrary, one state’s effective control over the territory of another state does not transfer sovereignty from the government of the occupied state to the occupying state; the government in the occupied state remains the occupied state’s government, even if it loses some of its powers of governance for the duration of the (ostensibly temporary) occupation.

I see no reason, therefore, why Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and possible occupation of Gaza would have any impact on the OTP’s decision to accept or reject the Palestinian Authority’s ratification of the Rome Statute. Even if the state of Palestine is completely occupied by Israel — which Israel obviously rejects — the government of Palestine is still the government of Palestine. Indeed, the only way that wouldn’t be true is if the state of Palestine suffered debellatio, understood as the complete destruction of a state’s sovereignty through conquest. If that were the case, then Israel would be the government of Palestine and would be entitled (exclusively) to make decisions on its behalf. That was the situation after World War II: because of the debellatio of the German state, the Allies, via the Control Council, exercised supreme legislative authority in Germany as a condominium. But that is hardly the case in Palestine, as both sides agree. (And in any case, the concept of debellatio may well have fallen into desuetude.)

All that said, I agree with Eugene’s claim that the Palestinian Authority may not qualify as the government of Palestine — at least without the inclusion of Hamas. According to Eugene, “Hamas came to power in a coup against Abbas’s government, and since the ‘statehood’ of Palestine, the latter has never exercise ‘effective control’ over the area. Indeed, the Hamas authorities in Gaza, such as Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, dispute Abbas’s standing as president.” That’s an inaccurate description of the situation: Hamas was democratically elected by Palestinians in 2006, but was prevented from governing by Fatah until it seized control of Gaza in the 2007 civil war. Hamas’s election, however, only strengthens Eugene’s point, because it indicates that the Palestinian Authority may well have a Morsi problem if it attempts to ratify the Rome Statute without Hamas’s consent. The Palestinian Authority fails all of the elements of the OTP’s “effective control” test in the context of rival governments: it does not control all of the state of Palestine, it does not enjoy the “habitual obedience of the bulk of the population,” and it does not have “a reasonable expectancy of permanence.”

Nor, for that matter, does Hamas — for similar reasons. So it may well be that only a unity government between Fatah and Hamas, such as the one that Israel desperately tried to undermine prior to its invasion of Gaza, is competent to ratify the Rome Statute. Whether the Palestinians will still be able to form such a unity government remains to be seen.

Guest Post: Effective Control and Accepting ICC Jurisdiction

by Eugene Kontorovich

[Eugene Kontorovich is a Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law.]

New reports say the Palestinian leadership has decided to seek to join the International Criminal Court as a member state. The PA has been threatening such action fairly constantly for several years, and it remains to be seen whether they mean it this time.

A recent and little-noticed development at the ICC suggests the Palestinian Authority may have a harder time getting the Court to accept its accession than many previously thought. A few months ago, in a situation quite analogous to the Palestinians’, the Court rejected an attempted accession.

Recall that the ICC rejected a 2009 Palestinian attempt to invoke its jurisdiction by saying that it lacked the competence to determine if Palestine was a “state” under international law. A main motive for the last year’s General Assembly’s vote to treat Palestine as a non-member state was to bolster its case for ICC membership. The idea was that the OTP would look only to the formal, “political” action of the General Assembly, rather the the objective factors of whether Palestine satisfies the criteria of statehood, such as whether they control their own territory.

Whether that is true or not, recent developments show that even if the OTP accepts that Palestine is a state – ignoring objective tests – it would conclude that the PA cannot accept jurisdiction on behalf of that state, certainly not for Gaza. (more…)

Emerging Voices: Sexual Violence As War Crime: Controversial Issues in the International Criminal Court

by Rosemary Grey

[Rosemary Grey is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales.]

The case of The Prosecutor v Bosco Ntaganda, which is currently before the International Criminal Court (ICC), is the latest of several cases in the ICC and Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) to address the issue of sexual violence against female child soldiers by members of their own group.

The accused, Ntaganda, is the alleged former commander of the Union des Patriotes Congolais-Forces Patriotiques pour la libération du Congo (UPC-FPLC), an armed group which in 2002 and 2003 was involved in the non-international armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

On 9 June 2014, Pre-Trial Chamber II confirmed the charges against Ntaganda, including charges for the rape and sexual slavery of female child soldiers in the UPC–FPCL by their commanders and fellow soldiers, which the ICC Prosecutor characterized as war crimes under Article 8(2)(e)(vi) of the Rome Statute. This was the first time that Article 8(2)(e)(vi) had been used to prosecute sex crimes committed against child soldiers by members of the same armed group.

I recently discussed the Pre-Trial Chamber’s decision on Beyond The Hague; here I will focus on the parties’ interpretation of Article 8(2)(e)(vi), and highlight some important gender issues raised by this case.
(more…)

Yukos Shareholder Wins $50 Billion Arbitration Award Against Russia (Yes, that’s Billion With a “B”)

by Julian Ku

Some lawyers at Shearmen & Sterling are no doubt celebrating what may be the largest single arbitration award in history (text of award here). Their client, a shareholder of the expropriated Russian oil company Yukos, has won a $50 billion award against Russia in an investor-state arbitration (seated at the Permanent Court of Arbitration) under the Energy Charter Treaty.   Michael Goldhaber at the American Lawyer has the first and fullest coverage of this historic award.

There are lots of legal battles ahead. Enforcement is going to be challenging, as it always is against sovereign states. And the award has some very interesting observations on legal issues such as the “unclean hands” doctrine under international law.  But for now, this is quite a victory for the plaintiffs to savor and it is already taking a toll on Russia’s stock market.  (And it is a rough few months for the folks over at Cleary Gottlieb, who are also representing Argentina in its unsuccessful battle with its holdout bondholders).

Why “Lawfare” Won’t Deter China in the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

Harry J. Kazianis, the managing editor of The National Interest, has a smart post discussing the risk that the U.S. is taking if it tries to take more aggressive action to counter China in the South China Sea.  Essentially, he argues the U.S. has no effective strategy to counter China’s “non-kinetic” strategy to subtly alter the status quo by using non-military assets to expand control and influence in the region.  I agreed with Kazianis all the way until he offered his own solution:

There only seems one solution to the various territorial disputes in the region—specifically, what some are calling “lawfare.” All of the various claimants that have disputes with China in the South China Sea should appeal collectively to any and all international bodies that could possibly hear their claims. Only together can they hope to get Beijing to halt its aggressive actions.

He goes on to cite the Philippines claim against China in the UN Law of the Sea arbitration system as a possible model for other nations.

“Lawfare” or international law litigation is not going to be an effective counter to China here for at least two reasons (one legal, one policy-based):

  • 1) China has opted out of any “compulsory” system of international dispute resolution that would rule on its territorial claims in the South China Sea (or anywhere, for that matter).  This “opt-out” is perfectly legal and may very well prevent the Philippines from even making their full case to the UNCLOS arbitration tribunal.  There are no other legal institutions that have jurisdiction.  So the only way “lawfare” can work here is if China consents to arbitration. But if Kazianis is right that this is a strategy by China’s neighbors to block its expansion, then why would China ever agree to arbitration?
  • 2) Even if compulsory jurisdiction were somehow found in one of these international bodies, there is very little chance that China would feel compelled to comply with any negative ruling.  This is not a China-specific problem, but rather a problem almost every country faces when considering arbitration over territorial disputes.  The effectiveness of tribunals in these contexts is highly limited since they depend for enforcement on the individual state-parties.  This is why voluntary arbitration tends to work better than compulsory arbitration in these kinds of territorial disputes.  The U.S. and Canada, for example, have managed to settle (most of) their often contentious land and maritime borders through a combination of non-arbitral commissions, and then special bilateral arbitrations.  In the famous “Gulf of Maine” case, the U.S. Senate actually approved a special treaty with Canada to send a maritime dispute to a special chamber of the ICJ.  Although clunky, this model is far more likely to succeed in getting state compliance.

So while I agree with Kanianis and other commentators that China needs to be deterred from its current strategy in the South China Sea, I am fairly confident the use of “lawfare” will not be a way to accomplish this goal.