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International Law in U.S. Courts

U.S. Appeals Court Holds that “Domestic Takings” Can Violate International Law

by Julian Ku

As I continue to avoid grading my exams, I ran across this interesting recent case (Helmerich & Payne v. Venezuela) from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit which considered whether Venezuela’s expropriation of a Venezuelan subsidiary of a U.S. corporation is a “taking in violation of international law” under Section 1605(a)(3) of the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Helmerich & Payne, a U.S. based company, alleges that the government of Venezuela expropriated its Venezuelan subsidiary and sued Venezuela in U.S. court.  Ven

Helmerich & Payne, a U.S. based company, alleges that the government of Venezuela expropriated its Venezuelan subsidiary and sued Venezuela in U.S. court.  Venezuela argued that it is immune under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because, among other reasons, its expropriation fo the subsidiary is not a “taking in violation of international law” for the purposes of the FSIA.  The FSIA does contain an exception for such claims in the so-called “Hickenlooper Amendment” to the FSIA enacted in the wake of the well-known Sabbatino case from the early 1960s.

What I find fascinating is the Court’s rejection of Venezuela’s argument that as a “domestic takings”, its expropriation of a Venezuelan company cannot violate international law, even if (as in this case) the sole shareholder of that Venezuelan company was a U.S. national and that there is plenty of evidence of anti-U.S. animus motivating the expropriation.      This is indeed a difficult question, and I am struck that the D.C. Circuit held that such a taking “could” violate international law but it relied solely on other U.S. court precedents (the 1962 Second Circuit decision in Sabbatino) and Section 712 of the Restatement of U.S. Foreign Relations Law.  This is pretty thin precedent, as the dissenting judge in this case points out.  I am not ordinarily one to yell for citation of international and foreign sources, but given the clear language of the FSIA (a “taking in violation of international law”), it is odd that no international or foreign sources were consulted.

In any event, I am curious whether any of our readers could help out by pointing to other precedents on the question of “domestic takings” under international law.  I have a feeling the DC Circuit reached the right conclusion here, but I am troubled by the lack of authority for its holding.

 

Does Investor-State Arbitration “Weaken[] the Rule of Law”? Judith Resnik and Larry Tribe Seem to Think So

by Julian Ku

I have not been surprised by the swelling opposition in the U.S. (mostly from the progressive left) against proposed trade agreements with Pacific and European nations (TPP and TTIP).  But I am mildly surprised by the way in which TPP and TTIP opponents have zeroed in on the inclusion of investor-state arbitration mechanisms as a rallying point for their opposition.  Not only has former Harvard lawprof (and now U.S. Senator) Elizabeth Warren come out against the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement (or ISDS), but yesterday, Yale law prof Judith Resnik and Harvard lawprof Lawrence Tribe, along with Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and a few others released a letter outlining their concerns with (really, their opposition to)  ISDS.  This letter is much more sophisticated and persuasive than an earlier lawprof letter Roger criticized here.  Indeed, its critique is far broader and echoes “sovereigntist” critiques that many on the political right have often applied to international tribunals.  Here is one snippet of their argument.

ISDS weakens the rule of law by removing the procedural protections of the legal system and using a system of adjudication with limited accountability and review. It is antithetical to the fair, public, and effective legal system that all Americans expect and deserve.

The letter valorizes U.S. courts and Article III judges, as well as the importance of democracy, and contrasts those institutions and values with the secretive ISDS process.  The main complaint, which is quite true, is that ISDS gives foreign investors a “separate legal system” to which others, including US citizens and corporations, cannot access. ISDS is not subject to any serious review by either courts or other arbitral tribunals.

None of the statements in the letter are inaccurate or incorrect. But they do leave out the basic assumption and rationale behind ISDS provisions. Foreign investors are presumed to be more likely to face disadvantages in a foreign legal system, which is why they are presumed to need “extra” protections from ISDS.  I think the rationale for ISDS is weaker for trade agreements between the US and Europe or the US and other developed industrialized countries.  But it is still probably true that there is a greater risk of discrimination against foreigners from a local legal system than against local companies.

I am not convinced of the necessity of ISDS in these trade agreements, but I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to include them either. I do recognize that these systems of dispute settlement do create non-trivial tensions with the domestic legal systems of member countries. In other contexts (law of the sea, ICJ/death penalty, etc), raising concerns about these tensions has been associated with the political right. So it is interesting to see progressives borrow sovereigntist arguments in their campaign against ISDS.

 

Why We Should Listen to President Obama Rather than Candidate Obama on Unilateral Presidential War Powers

by Julian Ku

I had the pleasure of participating on a panel a couple of weeks ago on Presidential War Powers, in light of the recent proposal to authorize the use of force against ISIS.  The panel was hosted by the New York City Bar Association and chaired by Prof.Jonathan Hafetz of Seton Hall. It included Prof. Ryan Goodman of NYU and Prof. (Lt. Col.) Walter Narramore of West Point.  C-Span aired it last night and the video can be found here.

To give you a sense of my talk (which starts at 36:00), here is a brief summary.

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama stated that he believed the President cannot constitutionally use military force absent congressional authorization except in response to an imminent attack or threat.  But since he has taken office, the President has abandoned this view, most notably in a legal memo from his Justice Department justifying military intervention into Libya.   In my view, this shift provides strong evidence that the strict congressionalist view of presidential war powers is untenable.   I concede that there may be other limits on unilateral presidential use of force (e.g. congressional prohibitions, long-term interventions amounting to a “war”, etc.) but we should no longer take seriously the strict congressionalist position articulated by Candidate Obama in 2008.  

 

Elisa Massimino Defends Harold Koh (And So Do I)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Massimino is the head of Human Rights First, one of the leading human-rights organisations in the US. Here is a snippet from her editorial today in the Washington Post, with which I almost completely agree:

As a close observer of the U.S. government’s national security policy, I know it is better for Koh’s involvement.

That’s not to say that I agreed with all the positions he took and defended. Two years ago at our annual human rights summit, Koh gave a speech defending the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes. He made the best case anyone could, but it left a lot to be desired. Throughout his tenure at State, we called on the administration to ensure that its targeted killing program was consistent with the laws of war. We’re still not satisfied that it is.

But on a range of issues — military commissions, treaties, Guantanamo Bay, detention, and transparency on drones — Koh forged progress behind the scenes. This wasn’t the kind of work that made headlines, but it strengthened respect for human rights and reduced suffering. If that makes Koh a sellout, we need more of them.

I hope that the students who signed the anti-Koh petition — who by doing so have demonstrated a concern for human rights — will spend their lives trying to advance them. They would, I’m confident, find such work fulfilling. But they will discover that victories are seldom, if ever, absolute, and that we in the movement simply can’t afford to mistake allies for enemies.

In a better world, the views of knowledgeable (and progressive) national-security experts like Massimino would carry some weight with Koh’s critics. I’d also like to think I have at least some credibility regarding the situation — after all, it was my blog post arguing that the killing of al-Aulaqi was murder under US criminal law that seemingly led the OLC to greatly expand its notorious memo justifying the attack, and I wrote the first substantial (and deeply critical) legal analysis of signature strikes. Moreover, although I don’t think having a been a student or colleague of Koh’s disqualifies someone from defending him, I have no such ties — although I have always admired Koh’s scholarship, I had never even met him until about a year ago, when he gave a lecture at Melbourne (which I disagreed with!) about his time at State.

Alas, many of Koh’s most vociferous critics — though certainly not all — have little interest in reasoned debate. My posts defending Koh are “laughable” and nothing more than “the academic equivalent of the ‘I’m not a racist, but….’ argument” — because it apparently makes no difference how critical you are of the US government’s drone program; if you defend Koh, you’re just an apologist for the program. I have taken “a careerist and opportunity [sic] approach when it suits” me — even though I am a professor in the UK and shudder in horror at the thought of ever having a position in the US government (or any government, for that matter). I am a “hitman” for Koh and an agent “in the market of favors (rather than ideas)” — this part of a bizarre ad hominem attack (with bonus points for working in the word “Zionist”) on Koh for alleged venality. I’m “bullying” the students by defending Koh on the blog instead of letting their accusations of murder go unchallenged. And I’m “elitist’ and “insular” because I believe students have no right to demand “standards” from their professors — a claim based on precisely nothing other than my disagreement with the petition. This is the kind of rhetoric that people use when they have nothing substantive to argue.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with students, faculty, or anyone else criticising Koh. I’ve done that myself. I also fully support the First Amendment right of students, faculty, and anyone else to circulate a petition calling for NYU to rescind its offer to Koh to teach human rights at the law school. But it is not “bullying” for those who respect Koh to respond to irresponsible claims that he is a murderer and war criminal. Nor is it an “attack on the students” to meet their speech with counter-speech. Indeed, if Koh’s critics are “drowned out” by the response to their petition — by the fact that more than 750 people of every political persuasion imaginable believe that the petitioners are, in Massimino’s words, “mistaking allies for enemies” — perhaps the problem isn’t the response.

Perhaps the problem is that the petition’s claims are wrong.

Favorite Treaty Reservation, Ever!

by Julian Ku

The NYTimes has a piece today on how Idaho’s refusal to implement the Hague Child Support Treaty is causing problems for the U.S. and for Idaho as a whole.  I hope to have more to say about this treaty later. For now, in looking at the treaty, I wanted to point readers to one of the more amusing U.S. treaty reservations I’ve ever run across.  In giving its advice and consent, the U.S. Senate made two reservations, one of which follows:

(2) In accordance with Articles 44 and 62 of the Convention, the United States of America makes a reservation that it objects to the use of the French language in communications between the Central Authority of any other Contracting State and the Central Authority of the United States of America.

The treaty actually allows a country to “object” to the use of either French or English and there is no doubt a serious purpose for allowing this kind of objection.  But there is something great about an official objection “to the use of the French language”.  Indeed, I am glad to see that the U.S. was not the only country to object to French for communications under this treaty.  It is joined by the Czech Republic, the Republic of Estonia, the Hellenic Republic, the Republic of Cyprus, the Republic of Latvia, the Republic of Lithuania, Hungary, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Republic of Poland, the Republic of Slovenia, the Slovak Republic, the Kingdom of Sweden and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in this objection.

As a long-suffering student of the language, I’ve often wanted to “object” to the use of French. I am glad the U.S. Senate (and all those other countries in Europe) share my Francais-phobia.

Am I Missing Something or Does the New Trade Promotion Authority Bill Violate the U.S. Constitution?

by Julian Ku

I am slammed with a couple of projects right now, but I can’t help throwing this question out to the legal blogosphere.  Does the new “Bipartisan Trade Priorities and Accountability Act” recently introduced by leading U.S. Senators violate the U.S. Constitution’s bicameralism and presentment requirements as stated by the U.S. Supreme Court in INS v. Chadha?

The BTPAA seems crucial as the U.S. enters the final stages of its negotiations over the “Trans Pacific Partnership” (TPP) with Asia and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe because it allows the President to submit his negotiated trade agreements for a “fast-track” up and down vote that Congress cannot amend.

Because of congressional opposition, the new trade promotion bill has a provision that looks a lot like a “legislative veto” that allows a resolution passed by a majority vote by one House of Congress to withdraw the “fast-track” authority.   Here seems to be the key language.

(A) IN GENERAL.—The trade authorities procedures shall not apply to any implementing bill submitted with respect to a trade agreement or trade agreements entered into under section 3(b) if during the 60-day period beginning on the date that one House of Congress agrees to a procedural disapproval resolution for lack of notice or consultations with respect to such trade agreement or agreements, the other House separately agrees to a procedural disapproval resolution with respect to such trade agreement or agreements.

(B) PROCEDURAL DISAPPROVAL RESOLUTION.—(i) For purposes of this paragraph, the term ‘‘procedural disapproval resolution’’ means a resolution of either House of Congress, the sole matter after the resolving clause of which is as follows: ‘‘That the President has failed or refused to notify or consult in accordance with the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 on negotiations with respect to ____ and, therefore, the trade authorities procedures under that Act shall not apply to any implementing bill submitted with respect to such trade agreement or agreements.’’, with the blank space being filled with a description of the trade agreement or agreements with respect to which the President is considered to have failed or refused to notify or consult.

Am I missing something? Even if (as the provision seems to say), a resolution of both houses is needed to withdraw fast track authority, the joint resolution doesn’t satisfy the presentment (to the President) requirement in the Constitution that the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld in cases like INS v. Chadha and Clinton v. City of New York.  Unless the President has an opportunity to veto the “procedural disapproval resolution,” I doubt this law is constitutional.  I think the only saving grace is that the resolutions  withdrawing fast track can only be invoked if the President fails to notify or consult rather than on the merits.  But I am still very doubtful this difference matters. I haven’t carefully examined all of the legislation’s provisions, but this does strike me as an issue worth discussing.  Comments welcome!

The States Continue to Exist in Foreign Affairs: Implementing Treaties

by Julian Ku

Among my many hobby-horses is a  fascination with the role of the individual American states in the interpretation and implementation of international law within the U.S.  In past work, for instance, I have argued that states can individually implement treaties via guidance from Uniform Laws. I had a few examples of this phenomenon in my article, and I think it will be an increasingly common way for the U.S. to carry out its treaty obligations for those matters that are handled by state governments under American law.

So I was glad to run across this article about controversy over a bill in Idaho to conform to the 2008 Amendments to the Uniform Intercountry Child Support Act. The controversy stems from the fact that the 2008 Amendments require states to recognize and enforce child support orders from countries that are members of the Hague Convention on Child Support and that lawmakers in Idaho are concerned that states applying Sharia law might have their orders enforced by Idaho courts.  Putting this controversy aside for a moment, it is worth noting that states ultimately have a choice whether or not carry out U.S. obligations under the treaty, even though the U.S. has obligations under international law.  The federal government has decided to encourage states to carry out the treaty obligations via the spending clause by tying federal funds to adopting the 2008 amendments.  But states like Idaho can choose to not take the funds, and essentially refuse to comply with the treaty.

So it is worth noting, and perhaps celebrating, this continuing trend of relying on states to carry out US treaty obligations.  I think this trend is likely to continue.

Guest Post: Is the Alien Tort Statute Headed Back to the Supreme Court?

by William S. Dodge

[William S. Dodge is The Honorable Roger J. Traynor Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. From August 2011 to July 2012, he served as Counselor on International Law to the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State, where he worked on the amicus briefs filed by the United States in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the State Department or of the United States.]

In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., the U.S. Supreme Court held that the cause of action for human rights suits under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) did not reach claims against a foreign corporation if all the relevant conduct occurred abroad. Lower courts have struggled with how to apply Kiobel to cases involving American corporations and conduct in the United States. On Friday, the second anniversary of the Kiobel decision, the Justices are scheduled to discuss the petition for review in Cardona v. Chiquita Brands International, Inc., a case that would allow them to provide further guidance in such cases.

Kiobel was something of an outlier—a class action against a foreign parent corporation (Royal Dutch Shell) based entirely on its foreign subsidiary’s activities in a foreign country (Nigeria), in which the foreign parent’s home countries (the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) objected that their own courts were more appropriate forums for the plaintiffs’ claims. The Supreme Court held that the principles underlying the presumption against extraterritoriality limit the causes of action that may be brought under the ATS, but it did not close the door to corporate suits entirely. In a cryptic final paragraph, Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

On these facts, all the relevant conduct took place outside the United States. And even where the claims touch and concern the territory of the United States, they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application. Corporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices. If Congress were to determine otherwise, a statute more specific than the ATS would be required.

But what if some of the relevant conduct took place inside the United States? The Court majority plainly did not adopt the position of Justice Alito’s concurring opinion that the international law violation itself must occur in the United States. And what if the corporate defendant were not just “present” in the United States (as foreign corporations are considered to be for jurisdictional purposes) but actually had U.S. nationality?

Justice Breyer (whose concurring opinion was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) thought the ATS cause of action should cover claims against U.S. nationals and claims based on conduct in the United States. Justice Kennedy, who provided the crucial fifth vote for the majority opinion, did not tip his hand, but he emphasized in his own concurring opinion that the decision “leave[s] open a number of significant questions regarding the reach and interpretation of the Alien Tort Statute.”

Lower courts are divided over how to answer these questions. The Second Circuit has been the most restrictive. It has held that the U.S. nationality of the defendant is simply irrelevant and that the alleged conduct in the United States must itself constitute a violation of the law of nations (although significantly the Second Circuit recognizes that the law of nations violation in the United States could consist of aiding and abetting a human right violation abroad). See Mastafa v. Chevron Corp., 770 F.3d 170, 187-89 (2d Cir. 2014). The Second Circuit also continues to hold that suits against corporations cannot be brought under the ATS at all because the law of nations does not recognize corporate liability. See Chowdury v. World Bangladesh Holding Ltd, 746 F.3d 42, 49 n.6 (2d Cir. 2013).

Other circuits have concluded that the U.S. nationality of a corporation is relevant in recognizing a cause of action under the ATS but not sufficient by itself. See Doe v. Drummond Co., 2015 WL 1323122, at *14 (11th Cir. Mar. 25, 2015); Mujica v. Airscan Inc., 771 F.3d 580, 594 (9th Cir. 2014); Al-Shimari v. CACI Premier Technology, Inc., 758 F.3d 516, 527 (4th Cir. 2014). None have held, like the Second Circuit, that the international law violation itself must occur in the United States. And one has expressly reaffirmed its prior holding—again, contrary to the Second Circuit—that corporations may be sued under the ATS. See Doe v. Nestle USA, Inc., 766 F.3d 1013, 1022 (9th Cir. 2014); see also Doe v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 654 F.3d 11, 40-57 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (recognizing corporate liability); Flomo v. Firestone Natural Rubber Co., 643 F.3d 1013, 1017-21 (7th Cir. 2011) (same).

The petition the Justices are planning to discuss on Friday has facts at the other end of the spectrum from Kiobel. The defendant corporations are both U.S. companies. They allegedly approved payments from their offices in the United States to the terrorist organization Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) and facilitated shipments of weapons and ammunition with the purpose of aiding and abetting extrajudicial killings to suppress labor activism and local competition. Although the case is before the Supreme Court on a motion to dismiss, there is no dispute that the alleged payments occurred. In a criminal prosecution brought by the United States, Chiquita pleaded guilty to making illegal payments to the AUC. A divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit concluded in Cardona that all the relevant conduct occurred abroad, but without bothering to explain why the conduct alleged to have occurred in the United States was not relevant.

The facts alleged in Cardona certainly seem sufficient to recognize a cause of action under the criteria set forth in Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion. Four Justices joined that opinion, and it takes only four votes to grant cert. If those Justices think the facts in Cardona are sufficiently egregious to persuade Justice Kennedy that an ATS cause of action against U.S. corporations should exist in at least some circumstances, they could well vote to hear the case.

Guest Post: Maldonado v. Holder and the US’ “Understanding” of Its Convention Against Torture Obligations

by Gabor Rona

[Gabor Rona is a Visiting Professor of Law and Director, Law and Armed Conflict Project at Cardozo Law School.]

The 9th Circuit issued a revised Opinion on March 27th in Maldonado v. Holder, a case about non-refoulement (the obligation not to expel, return or extradite someone to a country where they would be in danger of being tortured) and deferral of removal under the UN Convention Against Torture. The En Banc panel said that the lower court erred in placing the burden on the petitioner to show that he could not relocate within Mexico in order to mitigate the risk that he would be subjected to torture. The Court also overruled several precedents that placed excessive burdens on petitioners seeking protection from torture abroad, saying they were incompatible with federal regulations designed to implement the non-refoulement obligation. This decision is a big deal in the realm of immigration law. Petitioner’s lawyer was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle: “(The ruling) puts us in compliance with our international obligations and protects tortured people.”

Well, not exactly, counselor. It depends on what you mean by “obligations.”

The result is commendable, as far as it goes, but a US “understanding” upon ratification of the Convention Against Torture considers the non-refoulement obligation to be triggered only if torture is more likely than not. In other words, if the petitioner can only show a 49% chance that he will be tortured, he loses. The Convention is not nearly so demanding. It prohibits refoulement “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” (Emphasis added). The Convention certainly doesn’t require proof that torture, or even the danger of torture, is more likely than not.

The US “understanding” is actually a “reservation” that significantly varies from the text of the Convention. One might say it tends to defeat the object and purpose of the treaty, and thus, is unacceptable. If so, the US is still some distance from compliance with its international obligation to protect people from torture.

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

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They should do the job themselves.

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

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

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

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

Responding to Rogier Bartels About Perfidy at Just Security

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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