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International Law in U.S. Courts

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.

The Security Council Workaround: How the Iran Deal Can Become Legally Binding Via a UN Security Council Resolution

by Julian Ku

Since the United States has made clear that its “deal” with Iran will NOT be a binding legal commitment under international law, one wonders what all the fuss over the Iran Letter from US Senators was about. As Duncan explains in his great post below, there is little doubt that the President can enter into a nonbinding “political commitment” and withdraw from it without violating international law.  Confusingly, though, Iran keeps talking as if there is going to be a binding international legal commitment.

The answer to this confusion appears to be that the US government plans to make a non-binding political commitment, and then take this commitment to the UN Security Council to get it “carved into marble” as a Security Council resolution that would be binding under international law.  Jack Goldsmith explains in detail at Lawfare how this might happen, and why this is constitutional (if also kind of sneaky).  The President gets to both avoid going to Congress AND get a binding legal obligation on Iran.

Of course, a future President could choose to withdraw or defy the UN Security Council resolution, but the legal and diplomatic costs would be much higher than withdrawing from a mere political commitment.  Congress could also, unquestionably, override any domestic legal effects of a UN Security Council Resolution by passing a statute refusing to lift sanctions on Iran, or stopping the President from doing so.  Diggs v. Shultz makes clear that a statute passed by Congress later in time than a Security Council resolution will have the force of law by operation of the last in time rule.  But the legal and diplomatic costs for doing so would also be higher than for a mere political commitment or even a bilateral executive agreement.

So the Administration has a plan to avoid Congress and get its deal sanctified by international law.  Pretty clever lawyering, although I (like Goldsmith) expect some serious political blowback from Congress.

Dealing with Iran: A Primer on the President’s Options for a Nuclear Agreement

by Duncan Hollis

Without weighing in on the merits of any deal with Iran on nuclear matters, I’ll express some frustration over the rhetoric used in the current firestorm between the White House, 47 Senators (plus Governors Perry and Jindal), Iran’s Foreign Minister, and the 4th Estate on what kind of deal the United States might conclude with Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany).  There seems to be a great deal of confusion and conflation of issues in terms of the legal logistics of concluding any deal.  Now, maybe some of that is willful — obfuscation in service of each side’s political goals.  But, on the chance that some of those weighing in are under-informed on the actual issues and options available, I thought I’d offer a (brief) primer on what the actual options are in this case and how those options may limit/shape U.S. behavior.

For starters, it’s critical to differentiate the question of how nation states can reach agreement from the question of how a domestic legal system authorizes a State to enter into agreements (let alone what effect it gives them).  As such, I think the conversation needs to split off the question of (1) what kind of international deal this will be; from asking (2) what authority does the United States have (or will it need) to conclude such a deal as a matter of U.S. law.  Let’s take each angle separately.

International Commitments

When it comes to nation States entering into an agreement (that is, a mutual commitment of shared expectations as to future behavior), there are actually three basic options States can choose: (a) a treaty; (b) a contract; or (c) a political commitment.

(a) a treaty:  The treaty is a (relatively) well understood vehicle that rests on international law for its authority and effects.  Article 2(a) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) defines a treaty as

an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation

There’s some nuance to this definition, which I’ve explained in the Defining Treaties chapter of my book.  But for our purposes, it suffices to note that the VCLT lays out who has authority to make a treaty (i.e., heads of state and government, foreign ministers and those with full powers) and how they can do so (i.e., by signature, ratification, accession, acceptance, approval or any other agreed means).  Once formed, a treaty is subject to the general (and fundamental) principle of pacta sunt servanda — treaties are “binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.” Domestic legal obligations are not recognized as a basis for breaching treaty commitments, with one exception.  Article 46 provides that

1. A State may not invoke the fact that its consent to be bound by a treaty has been expressed in violation of a provision of its internal law regarding competence to conclude treaties as invalidating its consent unless that violation was manifest and concerned a rule of its internal law of fundamental importance. 2. A violation is manifest if it would be objectively evident to any State conducting itself in the matter in accordance with normal practice and in good faith.

Article 46, however, has proven relatively limited in its availability to States as an exit option; the one time it got raised before the ICJ, the Court suggested that States are not obliged to keep track of other states’ legislative and constitutional regulations on treaty-making and that a violation could not be manifest “unless at least properly publicized.”   Given the varied ways the U.S. authorizes treaties (discussed in more detail below), it’s hard to imagine a later Administration being able to invoke Article 46.  Indeed, if U.S. foreign relations scholars can’t agree on the ground rules for when specific treaty-making procedures are required (or prohibited), I’m hard pressed to say other countries should be able to identify a manifest violation in a case where the Executive branch pursues one specific procedure over others.

(b) a contract:  Interstate commitments can also be contracts instead of treaties. Contracts, like treaties, are considered legally binding, but differ from them in that contracts rely on domestic law as the source of their “bindingness” instead of being governed by international law as treaties are. Still, governments from time to time will do deals (e.g., one State selling helicopters to another) where the agreement specifically indicates its terms are governed by, say, the “law of New York.” This doesn’t seem to be on the table with Iran though, so I’ll reserve to a latter date more detailed analysis of how contracts and treaties differ. 

(c) a political commitment:  The third — and final — option for agreements among States is a “political commitment.”  Some scholars prefer to call it “soft law,” but for reasons Josh Newcomer and I elaborated in our article on political commitments, I think that term is a bit of a misnomer. The basic idea is simple — states can make agreements where the basis of their commitment does not rest on law, but “political” (or perhaps “moral”) forces.  In a political commitment, the fact of the promise itself motivates compliance rather than importing the sanctity of law and its legitimacy to do so. Non-legally binding commitments have now been a feature of international relations for more than a century, and include some pretty high-profile agreements, including the Shanghai Communique, the Helsinki Accords, the recent US-China Deal on Climate Change, and the Comprehensive Joint Plan that started this whole set of negotiations with Iran.  Moreover, as Josh and my article details, these commitments exhibit a tremendous diversity in terms of the form they take, the substantive commitments they contain, the extent to which they establish or implicate institutions, not to mention their varied relationships to other legal and non-legal commitments.

Traditionally, political commitments are seen as distinct from treaties in terms of being (i) more flexible; (ii) less credible because exit options are easier; with (iii) greater opportunities for confidentiality; and (iv) fewer domestic legal hurdles to their formation.  The actual variation in political commitments suggests, however, that these differences may be over-stated — today’s practice suggests that there is some significant overlap in what political commitments and treaties do.  For example, it may have been true at one time that treaties were necessarily less flexible than political commitments, but with the advent of tacit amendment procedures, treaties have gained in flexibility, while some political commitments have become more highly structured and inflexible in terms of the precision or normativity of their contents or the institutional structure in which they operate.  The one area where political commitments appear to hold a distinct advantage (or disadvantage depending on your perspective) is with the relatively weak domestic law attention they receive.  As Josh and I concluded in our article — a point reiterated earlier today by Jack Goldsmith and Marty Lederman, states like the United States have imposed few (if any) legal restrictions on the Executive’s ability to enter into political commitments.

Domestic Authorities to Commit the United States Internationally

In Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution, the President has the “power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”  If one were to take up the issue de novo, you might think this text requires that all treaties the United States wishes to conclude under international law have to proceed to the Senate.  In practice, however, Senate Advice and Consent has become one of only four ways the United States may gain authority to enter into a treaty (in the international law sense of that term).  Add in the possibility that the Iran deal might be a political commitment, and there are actually five options for how U.S. law might authorize a deal with Iran: (i) Senate Advice and Consent; (ii) a Congressional-Executive agreement; (iii) via an existing Senate Advice and Consent treaty; (iv) a sole Executive Agreement; or (v) a political commitment.

(i) Senate Advice and Consent Treaty.  If the United States concludes a treaty (in the international law sense of the term) with Iran and the P5+1, President Obama could send that treaty to the Senate for advice and consent, and, assuming the Senate agreed (with or without reservations, understandings or declarations), the President would then clearly have constitutional authority to consent to the deal.  Senate advice and consent is much less used compared to the past (less than 10% of modern treaties go through the Senate), although it should be noted that almost all past arms control agreements have received Senate advice and consent.  Still, given the general stalemate that has pervaded the Senate’s role in treaty-making the last few years, this seems a complete non-starter as a path forward, particularly with 47 Senators on record against virtually any deal involving Iran.

(ii) Congressional-Executive Agreement:  The President could gain authority to conclude a treaty (again, in the international law sense of that term) with Iran and the P5+1 via Congress instead of the Senate alone.  A simply majority vote of both Houses could enact a bill that with the President’s signature would become federal law and thus create legal authority for the United States to conclude (and perform) an Iranian treaty.  As a practical matter, congressional consent can be ex ante or ex post, but again, domestic politics in this case countenances against this being a likely option (even though today the vast, vast majority of U.S. treaty commitments under international law rely on one or more statutory authorities for their formation).

(iii) via an Existing Senate Advice and Consent Treaty:  Article VI of the Constitution treats both statutes and treaties (i.e., those receiving Senate advice and consent) as the “supreme law of the land.” Thus, just as a statute could authorize President Obama to conclude an international agreement with Iran, so too could a pre-existing Senate advice and consent treaty.  So far, I’m not aware of any nominations for an existing U.S. treaty that could do this (but someone might want to carefully parse the 1955 Treaty of Amity and Peace with Iran if it’s still in force (it’s not listed in Treaties in Force)).   Or, this might be a way forward if, as Marty and Jack hint, the Executive branch concluded the deal with Iran as a political commitment, but then had it endorsed by the U.N. Security Council pursuant to its Chapter VII authorities.  In that case, legal authority to conclude the deal might reside in the U.N. Charter itself since the Senate long ago gave consent, subject to a U.S. veto, to Security Council measures to preserve international peace and security.  As such, I don’t think we can dismiss this option as much as it might seem inapplicable at first glance.

(iv) Sole Executive Agreement:  The President may rely on his own Constitutional powers (e.g., as commander in chief) to authorize a U.S. treaty commitment.  In practice, this is rarely done as the State Department will usually try to also locate authority in at least one federal statute (even something as bland as Congress’ authorization of State Department responsibility for foreign affairs).  That said, the Supreme Court has endorsed the President’s ability to conclude certain treaties as sole executive agreements, although often in the face of congressional acquiescence, not outright opposition.  So, one might imagine this option would generate some inter-branch litigation if the Republican-controlled Congress rejects reading the president’s powers to include whatever sort of commitments are contained in any agreement the United States concludes with Iran.  Still, if the deal is to be a treaty under international law, this seems the most likely basis for authorizing it under U.S. law.  As Fred Kaplan noted yesterday, and Secretary Kerry apparently suggested a few hours ago, all the attention on treaties may have been misplaced and an entirely different deal might be at work here, namely a political one.

(v) Political Commitment;  It’s possible that the White House is looking for a political commitment with Iran and the P5+1.  If so, then all the machinations about forming a treaty under international law, and, just as importantly, the relatively robust set of domestic approval options for treaty-making, are inapplicable.  Although Josh and I argued that functional similarities between treaties and political commitments should require a Congressional role in the formation of at least some political commitments, I concede that Marty and Jack are correct that at present it’s hard to say this is the law of the United States.  On the contrary, today, it still appears that political commitments by their very nature do not implicate any of the domestic legal, procedural hurdles associated with treaties and thus may be a path forward for the United States to do a deal with Iran without worrying about the views of either the Senate or Congress as a whole.

That said, if the United States is actually going to argue it is concluding a political commitment with Iran and not a treaty, I want to conclude with two important caveats on the international and domestic aspects of such a deal that I’ve not seen mentioned previously.

First, a political commitment must be a political commitment for all sides, not just one side.  There’s much ambiguity in the U.S. and Iranian statements surrounding some of the negotiations, and it’s possible to read some of yesterday’s press briefing to suggest a deal where the United States would have only a political commitment while Iran was legally bound to perform its promises (see, for example, the carefully worded “verifiable and enforceable commitments” language used). That, however, is not an available option in international law.  Either the agreement is a treaty for all parties or its a political commitment for all participants.  I am unaware of any case where the nature of the agreement varies for the parties to it (that is it was a treaty for one state and a political commitment for everyone else).  Certainly, there have been disputes in the past as to the status of a particular agreement, with the ICJ and international arbiters called upon to weigh in on whether the deal struck gave rise to international legal obligations or not.  And it’s also possible for a treaty to contain not just legally binding commitments but also political ones (see, e.g., Article 1 of the Algiers Accords).  But, a stand-alone political commitment is, by definition, mutually exclusive from the international legal commitment that defines a treaty.  As such, once an agreement contains at least one commitment intended to be governed by international law, it’s a treaty not a political commitment.  Indeed, unlike contracts, treaties do not require consideration.  Thus, a treaty can exist where only one side (e.g., Iran) makes all the promises to do (or not do) certain things. Taken together, this suggests that, unless the United States is making some new, novel move to unsettle the existing forms of international commitment, its suggestion that it is pursuing a political commitment with Iran should mean that none of the commitments will give rise to any international legal obligations in and of themselves (there may be separate estoppel arguments, but let’s save those for another post).

Second, turning to the U.S. domestic context, it may be true that the Constitution does not require any particular approval procedure for political commitments, but it is also true that the Senate retains significant political power to pressure the President to pursue a treaty over a political commitment or even to insist on having a treaty submitted for Senate advice and consent in lieu of simply relying on Executive Power.  For example, before it became the Senate-approved Moscow Treaty, President Bush had apparently considered the possibility of doing the deal with Russia as either a political commitment or a Sole Executive Agreement.  But the Senate objected; and in a bipartisan push succeeded in having the deal submitted for its advice and consent.  Thus, one could imagine that if the Senate (or I suppose Congress as a whole) wanted to deploy their political checks on Executive power (think appropriations or ambassadorial/cabinet approvals), the White House might have to recalculate whether and how it wants to proceed with Iran here.  Nor is this entirely a U.S. problem; reports suggest that when the United States was looking to craft a strategic framework with Iraq a few years back, the Iraqis ended up concluding that the deal had to be done as a treaty (in the international law sense) since their Parliament was insisting on approving it in lieu of going to more streamlined political commitment route.  Simply put, just because there may be no extant constitutional constraints on the President’s ability to conclude a political commitment with Iran does not mean that there won’t be domestic negotiations over whether and how the United States concludes any deal involving Iran and nuclear matters.

So . . . now that I have that all off my chest, I’ll get out of the way and let the various actors continue to negotiate and debate the merits of the appropriate way(s) forward here.  I just hope that folks will do so with more attention to what the existing international and domestic law has to say (or not say) on these questions.

 

Mea Culpa Regarding Israel’s Attacks on Hezbollah in 2006

by Kevin Jon Heller

In a number of posts (see, for example, here and here), I have claimed that the League of Arab States (LAS) formally rejected the “unwilling or unable” test in the context of Israel’s 2006 attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thanks to comments by Ori and Tom Ruys on the most recent post, I now realize I have been guilty of the same kind of methodological sloppiness that characterizes most scholarly work in defence of the test. If you read the statement by the LAS — you can find it here — there is no way to determine whether the it denounced Israel’s attack because it rejected the “unwilling or unable” test or — and this actually seems more likely — because it simply rejected Israel’s claim that it was acting in self-defence. (I disagree with Ori that the statement can be read as an indictment of Israel solely for using disproportionate force in self-defence.) And if we cannot determine the precise reason why LAS rejected Israel’s self-defence claim, that rejection obviously cannot provide opinio juris against the “unwilling or unable” test.

That said, loathe though I am to disagree with Tom, I don’t see the international response to Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon as supporting the “unwilling or unable” test. Most obviously, Israel claimed that Hezbollah’s actions were attributable to Lebanon — it did not invoke the test at all. Moreover, no state specifically invoked “unwilling or unable” during the Security Council debate over Israel’s actions — some expressed concern over Lebanon’s failure to exercise effective control over the entirety its territory, but a number of those states attributed that failure to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, not to Hezbollah’s actions. So I agree with Olivier Corten that “these standpoints are highly ambiguous and so it seems a very difficult business to deduce from them any opinio juris.”

My thanks to Ori and Tom for weighing in — and to Ori for providing links to the relevant documents. Apologies to readers for being so sloppy. I just hope my lack of care will not distract from my basic point, which is that scholars who claim that the “unwilling or unable” test represents customary international law have failed to identify (anywhere near) sufficient significant state practice or opinio juris in defense of their position.

Iran Responds to US Senators’ Letter, Shows Why Congress Should Be Involved in the First Place

by Julian Ku

I am totally swamped with various overlapping projects right now, so let me procrastinate anyway by noting that Iran took my suggestion and sent a response to the “open letter” sent them from 47 US Senators yesterday.  The letter actually shows why the President, and not the senators, is the one who is operating on the edge of constitutionality.

In the letter, Iran’s foreign minister suggested the senators were violating the US Constitution’s allocation of foreign policy conduct to the President.

[Foreign Minister] Zarif “expressed astonishment that some members of Congress find it appropriate to write leaders of another country against their own president,” a press release explained. “It seems that the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy.”

As I explained yesterday, I don’t think the letter is a  violation of the Constitution, although there is a closer question under the much-cited, never used Logan Act.

What I found more interesting is the Iranian FM’s suggestion that a future president who withdrew from or amended the agreement would violate international law. This statement illustrates why I think Congress should be included in this process in the first place.

[Zarif] warned that a change of administrations would not relieve the U.S. of its obligations under an international agreement reached under the previous administration. Any attempt to change the terms of that agreement, he added, would be a “blatant violation of international law.”

“The world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by U.S. domestic law,” Zarif explained. “The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.”

Zarif is no doubt right as a matter of international law (assuming there will be a binding agreement as opposed to a mere political commitment).  But think about it.  Why should a president be allowed to commit the US to binding obligations under international law that neither Congress nor a future President can withdraw from without violating international law?  Shouldn’t such a president be required to first get approval from Congress before committing the United States to this path? Isn’t that why there is a Treaty Clause in the first place? At the very least, doesn’t it make constitutional sense for Congress to have a right to weigh in?

So while lefty blogs and lefty senators are having a field day accusing the Republican senators of violating the law or exaggerating Jack Goldsmith’s pretty minor quibble with the letter’s use of the term ratification, they are ignoring the real constitutional question here.  The President seems ready to commit the United States to a pretty serious and important international obligation without seeking prior or subsequent approval from Congress.  And foreign countries are ready to denounce the United States if, say Congress, decides to pull out or refuses to carry out those obligations. Even if the President’s actions are good policy, it seems like a political and constitutional train wreck that could easily be avoided if the Administration simply agreed to send the Iran deal to Congress.

Way back in 2008, leading scholars like Oona Hathaway and Bruce Ackerman repeatedly denounced President Bush for considering executing a security agreement with Iraq without Congress. Where are the academic defenders of Congress’s foreign policy prerogatives now?