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International Courts and Dispute Resolution

Analysing the US Invocation of Self-Defence Re: Abu Khattallah

by Kevin Jon Heller

Most of the discussion about Abu Khattallah’s capture in Libya has focused on the operation’s basis — or lack thereof — in domestic US law. Less attention has been paid to whether international law permitted the US to use force on Libyan soil. As Marty Lederman recently noted at Just Security, Abu Khattallah’s capture can potentially be justified on two different grounds: (1) Libya consented to the capture operation; or (2) the capture operation represented a legitimate act of self-defence under the UN Charter. The first justification does not appear open to the US; the available evidence indicates that the operation was conducted without Libya’s consent. So it’s not surprising that the US has claimed — in a letter submitted to the UN by Samantha Power on June 17 — that Article 51 permitted the operation:

The investigation also determined that [Abu Khattallah] continued to plan further armed attacks against U.S. persons. The measures we have taken to capture Abu Khattallah in Libya were therefore necessary to prevent such armed attacks, and were taken in accordance with the United States’ inherent right of self-defense. We are therefore reporting these measures to the Security Council in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

Power’s letter obscures far more than it reveals. In fact, the US’s invocation of self-defence raises four very difficult questions:

  • Can a non-state actor launch an “armed attack” that triggers the right of self-defence?
  • If so, must that armed attack be attributable in some fashion to the state whose territory is the object of “self-defensive” force?
  • Do all uses of armed force qualify as an “armed attack” for purposes of Article 51?
  • Does the right of self-defence permit force to be used anticipatorily?

In this post, I want to put aside the first two questions. I have no doubt that a non-state actor can launch an armed attack within the meaning of Article 51, and my views on the “unwilling or unable” test are well-known. It’s worth spending some time, though, on the third and fourth questions.

The third question is interesting because it’s not clear that all uses of force qualify as “armed attacks” for purposes of Article 51. The UN Charter itself distinguishes between the “use of force” (Art. 2(4)) and “armed attack” (Art. 51), and the ICJ has suggested in both Nicaragua and Oil Platforms that at least some uses of force may be so de minimis that they do not entitle the victim state to use force in self-defence. (As opposed to taking other countermeasures.) On the other hand, customary international law seems to indicate that the threshold of force for an armed attack is extremely low. Here is Tom Ruys’ conclusion in his magisterial book “Armed Attack” and Article 51 of the UN Charter (p. 155):

In the end, customary practice suggests that, subject to the necessity and proportionality criteria, even small-scale bombings, artillery, naval or aerial attacks qualify as ‘armed attacks’ activating Article 51 UN Charter, as long as they result in, or are capable of resulting in destruction of property or loss of lives. By contrast, the firing of a single missile into some uninhabited wasteland as a mere display of force, in contravention of Article 2(4) UN Charter, would arguably not reach the gravity threshold.

In sum, the following general conclusions can be made: (1) the travaux of the Definition of Aggression suggest that a minimal gravity is indeed required and seem to rule out the aforementioned Option 3; (2) ‘concrete’ customary evidence nonetheless makes clear that the gravity threshold should not be set too high and that even small-scale attacks involving the use of (possibly) lethal force may trigger Article 51.

If Ruys is right — and he has examined state practice and opinio juris far more carefully than any other scholar writing on the use of force — the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi almost certainly was, in fact, an “armed attack” for purposes of Art. 51.

What, then, about the fourth question? Here is where the US claim of self-defence regarding the Abu Khattallah operation becomes problematic. The US clearly cannot use the original Benghazi armed attack to justify the operation — although a state’s response to an armed attack may not have to be immediate, the prohibition on armed force in Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter would be meaningless if a state could “pocket” an armed attack and respond to it with armed force much later — nearly two years later, in the case of Benghazi. Indeed, Power seems to acknowledge as much when she emphasises that Abu Khattallah was planning further armed attacks. Does that planning mean the capture operation was a legitimate act of self-defence by the US?

Answering that question, of course, requires us to address the temporal limits of self-defence under Art. 51. Three basic positions on that issue are possible:

  • Self-defence permits the use of force only in response to an armed attack; force cannot be used pre-emptively or preventively (“responsive self-defence”)
  • Self-defence permits the use of force to pre-empt an imminent armed attack but not to prevent a temporally more remote armed attack (“pre-emptive self-defence”)
  • Self-defence permits the use of force to prevent even a temporally remote armed attack (“preventive self-defence”)

Unfortunately, because of the US’s typical lack of transparency concerning its use of force, Power’s letter says nothing about the time-frame of the armed attacks Abu Khattallah was supposedly planning. (Nor does it provide any evidence of that planning, but that’s another question.) The time-frame doesn’t matter, however, if responsive self-defence is the correct position — as noted, the capture operation cannot be justified as a response to the original Benghazi attack.

Most readers — at least those in the West — will no doubt be inclined to reject responsive self-defence as too narrow, even though it is the only position consistent with the text of Article 51, which permits self-defence “if an armed attack occurs.” Surely customary international law does not require a state to wait until an armed attack has already taken place to defend itself, no matter what the UN Charter says.

This issue is much more difficult issue than it may appear. Those interested should read the relevant section of Ruys’ book; I’ll just quote his bottom line (pp. 341-42):

In light of the available evidence, it can be concluded that there has indeed been a shift in States’ opinio iuris insofar as support for pre-emptive self-defence, fairly rare and muted prior to 2001, has become more widespread and explicit in recent years. At the same time, it seems a bridge too far to claim that there exists today widespread acceptance of the legality of self-defence against so-called “imminent” threats. Such assertion tends to forego the opposition of a considerable group of mainly Latin-American, north-African and Asian States. In the present author’s view, it would therefore be more appropriate to argue that the crack in opinio iuris among States has widened, without, however, identifying one approach or the other as the majority view. The implication is that, taking account of the Charter “baseline” and the absence of a concrete precedent in State practice which convincingly demonstrates the international community’s support for some form of anticipatory self-defence, it is impossible to identify de lege lata a general right of pre- emptive – and a fortiori preventive – self-defence.

Ruys’ reference to the UN Charter’s “baseline” is important, because Art. 51’s adoption of responsive self-defence indicates that states who support a more relaxed concept of self-defence, such as the US, have the obligation to find sufficient state practice and opinio juris to establish a broader rule. And such state practice and opinio juris is simply lacking — unless, as is too often the case with custom, we simply ignore the views of the Global South.

Even if responsive self-defence is too narrow, however, that does not mean the Abu Khattallah operation was a legitimate act of self-defence. If the US had evidence that Abu Khattallah was about to launch another armed attack, it is reasonable to assume Powers would have said so in her letter. That she failed to do so thus seems to indicate — though is clearly not dispositive — that the US did not believe another armed attack was imminent when it launched the capture operation. Power’s letter may well indicate, therefore, that the US is promoting the broadest understanding of self-defence possible — preventive self-defence instead of pre-emptive self-defence. If so, as Ruys notes (pp. 336-38), the US is on shaky ground indeed:

[T]here can be no doubt that even among States adhering to the “counter-restrictionist” view, support for self-defence against non-imminent threats is virtually non-existent. Apart from the fact that the sponsors of Operation “Iraqi Freedom” avoided this justification, it may be observed that many States, such as Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Uganda, Singapore or Liechtenstein, which professed support for anticipatory self-defence after 2002, nonetheless placed great weight on the imminence requirement. Germany, for instance, expressly denounced an erosion of the Charter framework and State practice via the notion of “preventive self-defence.” Likewise, the French politique de defense unequivocally “rejects… the notion of preventive self-defence.”

What is more, even the “traditional” adherents of the counter-restrictionist interpretation of Article 51 generally appear to uphold the imminence requirement. Despite bold statements by its Prime Minister on the need to adapt the UN Charter, Australia’s response to “In Larger Freedom” was rather cautious: it simply “[supported] reaffirmation by the Secretary-General that Article 51 of the Charter adequately covers the inherent right to self-defence against actual and imminent attack.” Israel called for an explicit recognition in the World Summit Outcome that States may use force in self-defence “in the event of both actual and imminent attacks.” As far as the British position is concerned, Attorney- General Lord Goldsmith in 2004 declared before the House of Lords that: “It is… the Government’s view that international law permits the use of force in self-defence against an imminent attack but does not authorize the use of force to mount a pre-emptive strike against a threat that is more remote.”…

[W]e may therefore conclude that the trend in State practice has been broadly similar to that in legal doctrine: support for anticipatory self-defence has increased, but has by and large restricted this concept to imminent threats.

Again, in the absence of additional information, we cannot categorically reject the US’s insistence that the Abu Khattallah operation was a legitimate act of self-defence. But there is considerable reason to be skeptical. Indeed, the US’s lack of transparency concerning its understanding of Art. 51 of the UN Charter may well indicate it has adopted a position that even its closest allies formally disavow.

Bensouda Accuses UNAMID of Covering Up Sudanese Crimes

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m not sure how I missed this, but these are very strong — and atypically blunt — allegations by Fatou Bensouda:

The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Fatou Bensouda urged the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to investigate reports that the UN peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID) deliberately contributed in covering up crimes in the restive region.

In reference to US-based Foreign Policy (FP) magazine reports, Bensouda asked the council to authorize a “thorough, independent and public inquiry” probe into allegations that UNAMID being subject to “manipulation” through acts committed “with the intentional effect of covering up crimes committed against civilians and peacekeepers”.

FP obtained confidential internal UN memos from UNAMID ex-spokesperson Aicha ElBasri that asserts how the UN peacekeeping force suppressed negative information on violations that occurred in Darfur by Sudanese government and other parties.

The ICC prosecutor said that the responsibility for the “cover-up” may lie “with a handful of individuals” but warned that it undermines the credibility of the peacekeeping mission.

Africa Review adds some additional detail to ElBasri’s disturbing allegations:

Last April, former Unamid spokeswoman Aicha Elbasri, revealed that the unit had misinformed the UN by withholding important details about Darfur.

Unamid has observed the government forces indiscriminately bombing entire villages, targeting civilian and military targets alike. However, these observations are never publically reported in the regular updates by the UN Secretary General to the UNSC,” Ms Elbasri claimed.

She reported that the UN peacekeeping mission did not tell the world that the Khartoum government failed to disarm the Janjaweed militias; that it, conversely, reintegrated them into paramilitary forces under new names, and let them continue committing their widespread, systematic attacks directed against the civilian population in Darfur.

The UNAMID situation obviously requires a UN investigation, so it’s encouraging to see that Bensouda request was quickly supported by both Australia and Rwanda. The UK’s statement, however, is disappointingly tentative, suggesting that the Secretariat — and not the Security Council — should investigate. Given the seriousness of the allegations, that’s simply not good enough.

Andreas Lowenfeld: A Life Illuminating the Path

by Chris Borgen


photo: NYU Law School

I am sad to mark the passing of one of the giants of international law, and one of my teachers, Professor Andreas Lowenfeld of NYU Law School. His career was exemplary; Andy operated at the highest levels of practice and academia. In an era when so many scholars and practitioners become hyper-focused on one or two specific areas, Andy not only had incredible depth and precision, but also brought the panoramic view and sweeping vision of an earlier generation of international lawyers. Though perhaps best known for his work in international litigation and arbitration, that description does not capture his career. Consider this excerpt from his New York Times obituary:

Professor Lowenfeld was a towering figure in the fields of public international law, trade and economic law, private international law, and international arbitration. He served on the NYU Law faculty for 47 years, influencing generations of lawyers, and continued to teach International Litigation and Arbitration and International Monetary System among other courses until as recently as Spring 2013. Professor Lowenfeld wrote more than 18 books and authoritative legal treatises and over 115 law review articles and argued before the United States Supreme Court, the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, and the International Court of Justice in the Hague. He made landmark contributions to legal scholarship and practice on issues as varied as extraterritorial jurisdiction, international arbitration, international monetary transactions, trans-border child abduction, international monetary law, investor-state dispute settlement, economic sanctions, enforcement of foreign judgments, aviation law, sovereign immunity, international trade, and civil procedure. His most recent work was a comprehensive treatise on International Economic Law. An avid supporter of the interaction between academics and practitioners, he was frequently an arbitrator in international disputes, public and private. He served as a Reporter on two major projects of the American Law Institute and was a lecturer twice at the Hague Academy, first in 1979 and later in 1994. In the 1994 lectures, he proposed criteria for a global community free of strict legal rules and based instead upon what he termed “reasonableness, not certainty.” One of the hallmarks of his work was his commitment to eliminating what he viewed as an unnecessary divide between public and private international law. In 2007, he was awarded the Manley O. Hudson Medal of the American Society of International Law for his lifelong achievements in the field of international law.

(Read the rest of the obituary here. See also this tribute from 2009.)

And that doesn’t even cover his years in the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations where:

[h]e provided strategic counsel to those presidents during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; the so-called “Chicken War,” in which the U.S. and the European Common Market sparred over poultry tariffs; and the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic.

Andy Lowenfeld’s scholarship and his career argued against the “unnecessary divide of public and private international law,” setting the stage (along with Philip Jessup) for the current focus on  complex regulation, transnational law, and dispute resolution. He taught us how public and private international law interact in an interconnected system and, by his example, he showed us how diverse aspects of the international legal profession could be integrated into a coherent career.

I have the great fortune of having been one of Andy’s students. My second year at NYU, I took the general course in international law, which was then team-taught by Andy Lowenfeld and Theodor Meron. Learning international law from “Ted and Andy” as we affectionately referred to them (behind their backs, that is) was everything you would expect from such lawyers: a lively dialogue interweaving law, history, politics, and economics.  I was also Andy’ s student in what was perhaps his signature course, his International Litigation and Arbitration seminar. Here he paired each JD student with a foreign LL.M. to brief and argue an issue in a case, before a bench made up of 3 of our classmates. It was a wonderful bit of experiential learning that has stayed with me and taught me as much about how to be a good teacher as to how to be a good litigator.

In the years since I graduated from law school, Andy Lowenfeld remained generous with his time and wise counsel. I may have become a professor, but he never stopped being my teacher.

But perhaps my favorite memory of Andy was from when I was the Director of Research and Outreach at the ASIL. Andy was a panelist on an international arbitration panel we organized for a Fifth Circuit judicial conference in San Antonio. After the panel, he told me we should go visit the Alamo. So, one hot summer afternoon we toured the Alamo together; I will always remember his enthusiasm in examining the exhibits, especially anything having to do with the deeds, land grants, and international agreements concerning the disposition of territory. He interspersed our conversation about the history of the U.S.-Mexico border with reminiscences from the State Department, career advice, some thoughts on scholarly projects I was considering, and anecdotes from his incredible career. At one point there was a boy, who was maybe seven years old, standing near us and holding a large faux-parchment facsimile of a document, probably recently acquired from the gift shop.  Andy started questioning the boy about the topic of the text on his souvenir, whether or not the reproduction was accurate, and so on. (The boy stared, then shrugged; Andy walked on.) It made me smile watching Andy attempting a Socratic dialogue with a first grader. Even while walking around the Alamo, Andy Lowenfeld was first and foremost an educator and a mentor.

I want to close with a few of Andy’s own words, taken from his magisterial International Economic Law (Oxford, 2d. ed 2008). In the preface, he argues against the skeptics and describes (with perhaps a wink to Louis Henkin) a realistic appreciation of international economic law:

This book is not founded on a claim that all states and all economic enterprises behave at all times according to all the rules, nor that the rules are clear and universally agreed at all levels. But one would not say that there is no criminal law because crimes continue to be committed and are not always punished, or that there is no family law because marriages break up, husbands beat their wives, and children are abused. In fact international conventions, collaborative arrangements, roughly uniform national laws, and customary laws apply to much of the international economy; while there is no global sheriff, and the system of remedies does not reach as far as the system of rules, there are a surprising number of consequences of deviant behavior, and a growing number of fora for resolving disputes among states and between states and private participants in the international economy.

Almost 1,000 pages later, the closing passage puts more than his treatise into perspective: :

It is evident that this book has made more use of narrative and illustration, and less of flat normative statements than might have been expected from a treatise. This approach reflects my belief that the answers cannot be understood without the question, and that abstract statements cannot be comprehended without awareness of the underlying facts and continuing controversies.

This is not to deny the normative character of international economic law. But international economic law—like all law but perhaps more so—is a process. Any attempt to define the law as of a given moment cannot help but distort. The process continues, and the hope is that this book has illuminated the path.

[Emphasis added.]

It has. And so has Andreas Lowenfeld’s life.



The Battle of the South China Sea Editorials

by Julian Ku

The conflict between China and Vietnam over a Chinese oil rig has (thankfully) calmed down a little bit, with fewer reports of rammings and water cannon fights in the South China Sea.  But the war of press release and government-sponsored editorials has heated up and all of them are wielding international law as a weapon of authority and legitimacy.

Vietnam’s government has been flooding the Internet with various articles, interviews, and statements accusing China of violating international law by moving an oil rig into waters Vietnam claims as its own.  See here, here, and here.  In general, these are pretty effective, although I do think Vietnamese scholars lose a bit of credibility when they insist that China has “no legal grounds” for its actions. Meanwhile, the Philippines has continued its steady drumbeat of legal articles, including this fascinating essay by Philippines Supreme Court Judge Antonio Carpio.

China has struck back with several English-language articles of its own from Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.  These have been much less effective or credible, and not just because China has a weaker (although not indefensible) legal position.  Here’s a doozy from the opening paragraph of a recent Xinhua offering:

China’s repeated rejection of Manila’ s plea for arbitration in the dispute in the South China Sea is by no means defiance of the tribunal in The Hague. On the contrary, it shows China’s respect for international law.

I understand what they are trying to say, but this argument just sounds bad.  China has no legal obligation to participate in the UNCLOS arbitration, but its non-participation is hardly a sign of respect for international law when that arbitral tribunal has the power to determine its own jurisdiction.

This Xinhua essay on the Vietnam dispute is much better.  Most importantly, it relies on China’s territorial claim to the Xisha (Paracel) Islands as the basis for China’s right to place the oil rig.  It does not claim any rights here flow from the so-called “Nine Dash Line” that often gets all the press and is undoubtedly the weakest part of their legal argument.  It focuses on the threats to the safety of Chinese sailors and workers, and Vietnam’s legal obligations under the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.  

Of course, international law is not China’s strongest suit here. But it is interesting to see how China is using international law to support its actions.  Moreover, all China has to do is muddy the waters by establishing that international law does not plainly compel any particular outcome (as Vietnam and the Philippines seem to argue).  If the international legal arguments are fought to a draw, China is in a good position to win the overall game.

How Does a Hybrid Tribunal for Iraq and Afghanistan Sound?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Colum Lynch reports today at that the United States is pushing for the creation of a hybrid international criminal tribunal for Syria by… the UN General Assembly:

[P]eople familiar with the matter say that the United States is already engaged in informal discussions with foreign governments over a plan to seek a mandate from the U.N. General Assembly to establish such a court, which would be comprised of Syrian, regional, and international judges, lawyers, and prosecutors. The two likeliest homes for the tribunal are Jordan and Turkey, these people said.

The plan currently under consideration is for the U.N. General Assembly to adopt a resolution inviting one of Syria’s neighbors, probably Jordan or Turkey, to work with the U.N. Secretary General to establish a so-called hybrid court, comprised of local, international, and Syrian prosecutors and judges. The court would be funded by voluntary contributions from governments that support the effort.

Lynch notes that a hybrid tribunal for Syria would be a first for the UNGA, because — unlike the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia — it would need to be created without the consent of the territorial state. (Syria would obviously never consent to such a court.)

In a recent post, Derek Jinks questions whether the UNGA has the authority to create a hybrid tribunal without Syria’s consent. I find his analysis compelling. But here is what I want to know: does the US really want to lead the charge for such a nonconsensual hybrid tribunal? After all, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: if the US endorses the UNGA creating a nonconsensual hybrid tribunal for Syria, it will hardly be able to complain if the UNGA later creates, say — just spitballing here — a nonconsensual hybrid tribunal to deal with crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Either states need to consent to international criminal tribunals or they don’t. So does the US really want to give its blessing to what is an obvious attempt to circumvent P-5’s stranglehold over the Security Council?

Inquiring minds want to know…

Game On, Again? Vietnam Planning to File Legal Action Against China Over South China Sea Dispute

by Julian Ku

There have been lots of reports out in the last 24 hours saying that the Government of Vietnam is planning to take legal action against China for its movement of an oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea.  Indeed, the Philippines Government has stated that Vietnam has consulted it about its ongoing arbitration case against China and the two nations issued a joint statement of solidarity opposing China’s actions in the South China Sea.

What would the Vietnam legal action look like? The most likely action would be to seek arbitration under Annex VII of UNCLOS, just as the Philippines has done.  Of course, China would have the same defense and likely the same reaction to any Vietnam claim: that China’s Article 298 declaration excluding disputes over matters involving “sea boundary delimitations”or “involving historic bays or titles….” would exclude jurisdiction.  Moreover, China might further argue that Article 298 also allows it exclude “disputes concerning military activities, including military activities by government vessels and aircraft engaged in non-commercial service, and disputes concerning law enforcement activities in regard to the exercise of sovereign rights or jurisdiction….”

At first glance, I can’t see how Vietnam’s claim would be any better or worse than that of the Philippines with respect to jurisdiction.  Vietnam has the same objection to China’s Nine Dash Line, and Vietnam similarly argues certain South China Sea features claimed by China are not “islands” for purposes of UNCLOS entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone.  So I think we will see a rerun of the Philippines arbitration.  Vietnam will constitute a tribunal, China will not participate, and away it goes.

Some other reports out of Vietnam suggest it will file a claim with the International Court of Justice, if only to show their good faith, even though the ICJ has no jurisdiction over China.  I don’t think this is a great strategy, but maybe it will be a useful diplomatic showcase.

Finally, there are reports Vietnam will allow its state-owned oil company to file an action against China’s state-owned oil company in Vietnamese courts.  This actually seems like an interesting idea, since once the Vietnamese company won the judgment, it could in theory try to enforce it against the assets of the Chinese company overseas.  It is not a slam-dunk, but it certainly could be a plausible claim.

I am doubtful that  an additional arbitration will lead to China backing down.  Certainly, the Philippines arbitration has not caused China to moderate its behavior toward the Philippines.   The extra added pressure of  a Vietnam arbitration is not huge, and my guess is that China will continue to simply ignore the arbitrations, reputational costs be damned.  I am not saying that it is bad strategy for Vietnam to try the arbitration route, but Vietnam should be realistic about the veryreal costs, and limited benefits of this strategy.

Ukraine Parliament to Amend Constitution Re: the Rome Statute

by Kevin Jon Heller

As I’ve noted before, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court has held that the Ukraine cannot ratify the Rome Statute because — in the words of the ICRC — “the administration of justice is the exclusive competence of the courts and… judicial functions cannot be delegated to other bodies or officials.” According to the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (on twitter), the Rada is now considering a bill that would amend Ukraine’s constitution to make ratification possible. The text of the bill is in Ukrainian; if anyone out there would like to provide a translation (the bill is short), I’d be most appreciative:

вноситься народним депутатом України
Ю. Б. Дерев’янком
та іншими народними депутатами України

Про внесення змін до статті 124 Конституції України

Верховна Рада України постановляє:

1. Доповнити статтю 124 Конституції України (Відомості Верховної Ради України, 1996 р., № 30, ст. 141) частиною шостою такого змісту:

“Україна може визнати юрисдикцію Міжнародного кримінального суду на умовах, передбачених Римським статутом Міжнародного кримінального суду.”

2. Цей Закон набирає чинності з дня, наступного за днем його опублікування.

Голова Верховної Ради  О. ТУРЧИНОВ

I’m intrigued by the fact that Ukraine’s parliament believes it has to amend the constitution in order to ratify the Rome Statute, but is free to accept the ICC’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis. The decision of the Constitutional Court prohibits any delegation of Ukraine’s jurisdiction to an international tribunal — which would seem to include ad hoc delegations as well as permanent delegations. But I’m obviously not an expert on Ukrainian law!

The Security Council Won’t Even Go Dutch with the ICC on Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

There are many reasons to be skeptical of the Security Council referring the situation in Syria to the ICC, not the least of which is that an ICC investigation is unlikely to accomplish anything given the ongoing conflict. (One that Assad is almost certainly going to win.) But just in case that’s not enough, take a gander at this provision in the draft referral:

[The Security Council] recognizes that none of the expenses incurred in connection with the referral, including expenses related to investigations or prosecutions in connection with that referral, shall be borne by the United Nations and that such costs shall be borne by the parties to the Rome Statute and those States that wish to contribute voluntarily and encourages States to make such contributions.

In other words, the UN just wants to refer the situation; it doesn’t want to pay for the ICC’s investigation. So much for Art. 115 of the Rome Statute, which provides that “[t]he expenses of the Court and the Assembly of States Parties… shall be provided by the following sources… Funds provided by the United Nations, subject to the approval of the General Assembly, in particular in relation to the expenses incurred due to referrals by the Security Council”…

I have previously urged the Prosecutor to refuse to open an investigation into the situation in Syria unless the Security Council is willing to fund it. The draft referral makes clear that the Security Council has no intention of doing so. In the unlikely event that the referral ever passes, I hope the Prosecutor will consider my suggestion.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court Says ICJ Rulings Are Not Self-Executing; Medellin v. Texas in Bogota?

by Julian Ku

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Medellin v. Texas that rulings of the International Court of Justice are not “self-executing” under U.S. law.  For this reason, the Supreme Court refused to require Texas to stop executions that the ICJ had held in violation of U.S. treaty obligations.  It looks like Colombia’s Constitutional Court has followed that same approach with respect to Colombia’s Constitution:

Colombia’s constitutional court ruled on Friday that applying a decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that granted Nicaragua a disputed area of Caribbean waters could not take effect without a treaty between the countries.

The court’s verdict upholds the position taken by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who said the Hague-based ICJ’s decision was not applicable according to Colombia’s constitution without such a treaty, ratified by the Andean nation’s congress.

Colombia’s government has been pretty consistent in its public statements. It does not dispute the legal obligation represented by the ICJ’s ruling, but it does not believe the ruling can override domestic Colombian constitutional law either.  This court decision appears to endorse this dualist approach.   Of course, I have not read the ruling (anyone have a link?) and even if I had the ruling, I can’t read Spanish (anyone have a link and a translation?).  So I might be overstating things here. But it is worth looking into.

Alter Book Symposium: Reply by Karen Alter

by Karen J. Alter

[Karen J Alter is Professor of Political Science and Law at Northwestern University and co-direcor at iCourts Center of Excellence at the Copenhagen University Faculty of Law.]

Thanks so much to Tonya Putnam, Roger Alford, and Jacob Katz Cogan for their thoughtful commentaries.  I appreciate their kind words, and their comments reflect one of my hopes for this book; that it will be a springboard for researching new and important questions about international courts and international law.

I want to respond while echoing some of the questions they raise.

My starting point for The New Terrain of International Law was the following question:  If the ‘problem’ of international law is its lack of enforceability, then how does making the law enforceable affect the influence of international law?

I cut into this very big question by focusing on a new set of institutions that were designed to address the enforceability gap in international law.  The comments in this symposium push upon a number of choices I made as I then tried to make the project tractable.

My first choice was to focus on the universe of permanent international courts, co-opting the definition of an IC created by the Project on International Courts and Tribunals (PICT). Alford’s commentary openly worries that others will follow me in focusing on PICT courts.

I share this concern, which is why I discuss the limits of relying on PICT’s definition (p.70-77). For me, the most arbitrary part of the definition is its focus on permanent ICs. I decided to nonetheless catalogue permanent ICs because sticking to a plausible definition ensured that I was examining like institutions.

Another related question I sometimes get is why I include ICs that exist but have no cases. This is where the benefits of PICT’s definition arise.  We can see from my universe that permanence is neither necessary nor sufficient for IC effectiveness, and we can start to examine why like institutions have varied impact.  This is a topic that Laurence Helfer and I have pursued through our in depth research on the Andean Court and on Africa’s ICs.

I am already moving beyond PICT’s definition, as should we all. The New Terrain of International Law demonstrates the arbitrariness of focusing on permanent ICs by including as case-studies non-permanent bodies. The NAFTA case study, for example, discusses how the “permanent” WTO system proved no more able than the NAFTA system to address complaints about illegal US countervailing duties. The Chapter 5 discussion of the ICJ’s role in the Bahrain-Qatar dispute, and the same court’s ineffectiveness in resolving US-Iranian disputes, shows again that being a permanent IC, with preappointed judges and the jurisdiction to issue binding rulings, still does not necessarily improve IC effectiveness.

Another step in moving beyond PICT’s definition is that Chapter 1 of the new Oxford Handbook on International Adjudication, which I co-authored with the author of PICT’s definition, Cesare Romano, excludes permanence from the definition of “adjudicatory bodies.”

A second choice was to use structured case studies as the mode of investigating how the existence of an IC contributes (or not) to changes in state behavior in the direction indicated by the law.  Nico Krisch addresses indirectly my case-study choice in his reply on EJIL:Talk! (more…)

Marshall Islands Sues to Enforce Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty; UK May Be Dragged Into ICJ

by Julian Ku

This lawsuit is mostly just grandstanding by a very small nation with the help of a savvy (but sloppy) US law firm.  But there is one possibly meaningful outcome.  It could result in an ICJ proceeding involving the United Kingdom.

The tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands is taking on the United States and the world’s eight other nuclear-armed nations with an unprecedented lawsuit demanding that they meet their obligations toward disarmament and accusing them of “flagrant violations” of international law.

The island group that was used for dozens of U.S. nuclear tests after World War II was filing suit Thursday against each of the nine countries in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. It also was filing a federal lawsuit against the United States in San Francisco, naming President Barack Obama, the departments and secretaries of defense and energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Reviewing the complaint and the ICJ applications, I conclude these cases are (mostly) going nowhere.

As for the U.S. complaint, the Marshall Islands is suing both the United States itself, and its President, and various military and civilian departments.  As an initial matter, there should be grave doubts about whether the NPT is self-executing. It is hard to imagine that it is.  And there are some grave doubts as to whether the U.S. has waived its sovereign immunity for this kind of claim in its own courts. And there are a variety of other problems: standing? political question? justiciability? that will no doubt make themselves felt here.

With respect to the ICJ applications, none of the target countries have accepted ICJ compulsory jurisdiction except the UK.  Indeed, the ICJ application against China mistakenly refers to it as the “Republic of China”, which is the name of the government in Taiwan, not China. I think Taiwan would be thrilled to be sued here, since they are not even allowed to join the ICJ or the U.N.  The China they want is the “People’s Republic”.

Putting both Chinas aside, the key here is that the UK has accepted compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ, so this might require the UK to litigate this.  This seems like the one aspect of this case that might come to a real judicial outcome.

So if we get to the merits, I am deeply dubious.   What exactly is the “obligation to negotiate in good faith”? How can you ever tell if it has been violated?  The affidavit by Prof. Weston of the University of Iowa gives some content to this idea, but I don’t find it very persuasive.  

My basic thought is that this case is going nowhere, but will get some attention of the UK is forced to show up at the Hague and argue the merits.  Only then will we get to see if Prof. Weston’s idea tested by the ICJ.

Alter Book Symposium: Comment by Jacob Katz Cogan

by Jacob Katz Cogan

[Jacob Katz Cogan is the Judge Joseph P. Kinneary Professor of Law at the University of Cincinatti College of Law]

At the beginning of the fourth chapter of her new book The New Terrain of International Law: Courts, Politics, Rights, Karen Alter asks: “why [are] there . . . more international courts today than at any point in history”? (112). It is an interesting and important question. Seeking to “provide[] a partial explanation for the trends” in the proliferation during the past twenty-five years of the “new-style international courts” (which she documents in the preceding chapter), Professor Alter reviews “World History and the Evolving International Judiciary” (112). She argues, in short, that “at the end of World War II governments were able to reject proposals for compulsory international judicial oversight of their behavior” (112). Even so, “[c]hanges in legal practice in the United States and Europe during and after the Cold War meant that foreign legal and quasi-legal bodies increasingly adjudicated allegations of economic and human rights violations abroad” (112). Thus, “[g]iven the choice of European and American judicial review or international judicial review, many governments preferred [the latter] especially because international initiatives . . . created added incentives for governments to show progress toward democracy and human rights protection by embracing binding rules and international legal oversight” (113).

To make this argument, Professor Alter begins by dividing up the past hundred-plus years into three “critical junctures”: the Hague Peace Conferences, the end of World War II, and the end of the Cold War. She focuses in particular on the last two periods, taking each in turn. Her review of those eras recalls global as well as regional initiatives – the latter divided into (Western) Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia and the Middle East – recounting the successful, if uneven and oftentimes halting, establishment of international courts. Her story does not only turn on critical junctures, though. She recognizes that “between international legislative moments [i.e., the establishment of courts], lawyers and judges are adjudicating cases within the legal frameworks they have, and international secretariats are working with judges, advocates, and governments to adjust existing systems so as to address known problems” (117).

Based on this “whirlwind historical account” (159), Professor Alter “extracts . . . five general political factors that make governments more willing to consent to international judicial oversight” (154). First, she posits that “a distrust in government is the key impetus behind the political support of international judicial oversight” (154). In this regard, “[g]overnments only sign on [to courts] . . . once their legitimating suggestions of other options ring too hollow [to their populations] to be convincing” (154). Resort to courts, thus, is a function of “disenchantment with domestic checks and balances” (154-55). Second, “global initiatives have aided the implantation of international law in domestic legal systems, and thus facilitated the spread of embedded approach to international law enforcement” (155). Those initiatives – including the Washington Consensus, Convention Against Torture, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the UN’s Millennium Development Goals – have pushed states to reform their domestic systems. Third, “the overlapping nature of national, regional, and international jurisdiction propels advancements at each level” (155). Thus, failures or successes in one part of the international system have repercussions elsewhere. Fourth, the “legal and political dynamics interact to produce institutional change between conjunctural moments” (156). Fifth, “the United States (and Europe) facilitate the spread of international law and international adjudication when leaders articulate, accept, and respond to legalist arguments” (157). Though Professor Alter seeks to draw out these factors and establish connections between “political forces” / “global forces” and the establishment of regional and global tribunals, she recognizes at the very conclusion of her discussion that “international judicial systems evolve slowly over time, propelled by conjunctural events and shifting legal practice” (160).

Like many social scientists, Professor Alter’s “history” is a search for principles or factors that explain why and when certain phenomena occur. (more…)