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International Law in U.S. Courts

Yes, the Rule of Law Must Remain Central to the Debate on Trumpism

by Ian Seiderman

[Ian Seiderman is the Legal and Policy Director, International Commission of Jurists]

Andrew O’Hehir, an ordinarily astute analyst of US political skullduggery, adopts a contrarian posture when it comes to Trump, Trumpism and the rule of law. He thinks that all the brouhaha about trampling on cherished rule of law traditions misses the point. What’s so precious anyway, he suggests, about mutable law written by corrupt, unprincipled or ideologically charged politicians? Writing in Salon recently, O’Hehir characterizes the rule of law as “a poorly defined principle”:

It seems ludicrous to claim that anyone, of any party or any ideology, actually sees the law as a neutral or abstract force rather than a naked instrument of power.

Nothing has traditionally been more central to Americans’ quasi-religious understanding of their democracy than the importance of the rule of law, which can be broadly defined as the notion that laws should govern people rather than the other way around. (Spoiler alert: There’s an enormous paradox baked into that from the beginning, since it’s always people with power who make the laws in the first place.) That was essentially the basis for the constitutional separation of powers laid out by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which was meant to ensure that the law itself would remain independent of those who enacted it, enforced it or interpreted it.

O’Hehir goes on to point out the obvious: that certain long discredited tenets like the absolute sacrosanctity of property rights and the natural order of slavery were once grounded in principles of law in the United States. He adds that it is in fact the contested political terrain of liberal democracies with their market economies that “produce [a] vision of the law as a neutral, independent and almost mystical force that stands outside the control of any person or any party.”

For those of us who consider the rule of law to be a near-universal principle that can operate comfortably within a broad – though hardly infinite – range of political and economic arrangements, O’Hehir’s arguments do not sit well. He is hardly the first commentator to assume that the “rule of law” is tantamount to “rule by law”: indeed there are advocates of this “thin” notion of the rule of law, epitomized by the writings of 19th century British jurist A.V. Dicey and the “Singapore model”. But this line of thinking ignores the now more dominant conception of the rule of law as not simply a value neutral construct addressed to forms and procedures, but a norm-laden overarching governance framework. (In fairness to O’Hehir, his point is ultimately that the rule of law is an elusive concept, not that it must mean rule by laws imposed by the powerful.)

While the normative concept of the rule of law has long antecedents, a watershed moment for its entrenchment in international law discourse was the Nuremberg and other legislation that emerged during the Third Reich. Thus the Justice Case (United States v- Alstoetter) before Military Tribunal III, the defendants that included judges, prosecutors and officials of the German Ministry of Justice could be held responsible for a criminal enterprise by the very fact that they enacted or enforced legal statutes and decrees, such as the Night and Fog decree. Respecting those perverse laws necessarily meant not respecting the rule of law.

The organization which I serve, the International Commission of Jurists, devoted the first 15 years of its existence during the 1950s and 60s, to defining what we then called the “dynamic” conception of the rule of law. The idea was that the rule of law is not an abstract notion, but necessarily tied to other legal and normative content, especially human rights principles. Rule of law was a broad organizing concept under which a range of correlatives principles could be grouped. And to O’Hehir’s point, those normative principles are quite apart from the underlying subject matter of particular statutory legislation or administrative rules at issue. This view has over time gained widespread international currency, promoted by leading judges, like the late Lord Tom Bingham, endorsed at the political level and serving the basis for major work from UN agencies such as UNDP and OHCHR.

A definitive enumeration of rule of law principles may have so far eluded universally accepted codification, but building on the historic work of the ICJ there have at least been attempts at enumeration. One example, where most of the elements are more or less uncontroversial, has the imprimatur of the States of the UN Rights Council. Its Resolution on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, adopted in 2012, highlights, among many other elements, the principles of the separation of powers; legality; equal protection before courts and under the law; non-discrimination; accountability, including criminal accountability for human rights and IHL violations; the independence and impartiality of the judiciary; the subordination of the military to civilian authorities; access to justice; gender equality; and the right to effective remedies for rights violations.

Whether adherence to rule of law in this kind of progressive framing is by itself sufficient to address the myriad transgressions by Trump and his acolytes, is questionable, but it is certainly part of the equation. For instance, the idea that a State’s prosecution services must be functionally independent of the political arms of the executive is a well entrenched rule of law principle which Trump and his subordinates have certainly run over rough shod, especially in respect of the FBI and Special Counsel investigations on “collusion” and obstruction of justice. The fact that some administered laws could themselves theoretically run afoul of the rule of law or constitute poor policy is a critical but distinct issue that should not blind one to the indispensability of the rule of law itself.

One Step Forward for International Criminal Law; One Step Backwards for Jurisdiction

by Jennifer Trahan

[Jennifer Trahan is Associate Professor, The Center for Global Affairs, NYU-SPS and Chair of the International Criminal Court Committee of the American Branch of the International Law Association]

On Thursday, December 14, 2017, the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties (ASP) took the historic and significant decision, by consensus, to activate, effective July 17, 2018, the ICC’s jurisdiction over its 4th crime, the crime of aggression. (The Kampala crime of aggression amendment had been “adopted” in 2010 at the Kampala Review Conference, but there was a delay mechanism such that jurisdiction did not yet “activate”, but first required 30 States Parties to ratify the amendment (35 now have), and one more decision by the ASP to activate.)

The decision made by the ASP was a step forward for international criminal law, a step forward for completing the Rome Statute as envisioned in 1998 (which already included jurisdiction over 4 crimes), a step forward for carrying on the legacy of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, and a step forward in trying to create more deterrence behind UN Charter article 2(4). But, it was a step backwards in how to read the Court’s jurisdiction over the crime.

While many had hoped that at the ASP, it could be agreed to simply “activate” jurisdiction by consensus (for instance, simply reflected in a sentence in a resolution), already over the past year it appeared that would not be the case. As many readers will know, there have been two different readings of what was accomplished in Kampala.

The differences in reading pertained to which States Parties would be covered by the ICC’s crime of aggression jurisdiction after activation in the situation of State Party referral or proprio motu initiation of investigation (Rome Statute article 15 bis). (Activation also triggers the possibility of UN Security Council referrals covering the crime of aggression (article 15 ter); non-States Parties were completely exempted from the crime’s jurisdictional reach already during the Kampala negotiations (art. 15 bis, para. 5).)

One reading (let us call it the Liechtenstein/Swiss/majority reading) was that after the activation decision, for purposes of State Party referrals and proprio motu initiation, ALL States Parties could be subject to crime of aggression jurisdiction, absent their lodging an “opt out” declaration, but only also if either the aggressor or victim State Party had also actively ratified the crime of aggression amendment. The other reading (let us call it the UK/French reading), was that no State Party could be covered by the crime of aggression after activation unless it had also actively ratified the amendment. (This reading results in an extremely restrictive jurisdictional regime, because, frankly, ratifying States Parties such as Liechtenstein and Botswana are not invading each other.)

After a year of a “facilitation” process, led by Austria, to try to resolve this issue, negotiations opened during the ASP. What I am calling the Liechtenstein/Swiss/majority group proposed various draft texts that could have helped bridge the gap between the two readings, with Brazil and Austria also proposing helpful suggestions. Yet, the UK/France (at times joined by Norway, Japan, Colombia, Australia, Canada and Denmark) insisted on their view simply prevailing, and, in the end, the UK and France never moved from that position. (This narrative reflects my understanding of negotiations gleaned from discussions with representatives of States Parties, as, unfortunately, members of civil society were excluded from the “closed door” negotiations.)

The desire to achieve consensus activation (meaning any State Party could block consensus) provided any single State Party (or two States Parties, as was the case here) with enormous leverage. A vote would require 2/3rd of States Parties voting for it, and a few delegations did not stay to the close of the ASP (so the full 123 States Parties were not present towards the end of the conference). Additionally, a vote suggests a divided commitment that States Parties did not appear to want, and how the vote would turn out seemed uncertain as well.

In the end, States Parties had (for many of them) the very difficult decision to make—whether to activate the crime in an historic and important decision, if it meant accepting the extremely restrictive reading of jurisdiction given by the French/UK group. (This is quite ironic because it means that the 4 states that had conducted the Nuremberg prosecutions are either now caved out of crime of aggression jurisdiction (the US and Russia as non-States Parties) or can easily do so by not ratifying the amendment (the UK and France).) On the other hand, a decision not to accept the UK/French reading meant that the negotiations would conclude with no agreement, and no clear commitment when, where or whether to resume negotiations, and no certainty that any resumed negotiation would conclude any differently in the future.

This author believes States Parties made the right decision. It was not what many of them had wanted and thought they had negotiated in Kampala. Yet, international law often moves forward in imperfect ways (the war crimes amendment also adopted at this ASP dropped a key war crime along the way). And, really, in the end of the day, all States Parties agreed that the crime of aggression is a consensual regime—and it was only how to achieve that (basically an “opt in” or “opt out” approach).

It was a large concession, which now means, at present when the crime of aggression activates on July 17, 2018 (the activation date selected in the activating resolution, ICC-ASP/16/L.10*), it will have extremely limited jurisdictional reach. The good news is the ICC will hardly be overwhelmed with cases (for those who worried about this)—it could even take years before there is a case of aggression within its jurisdiction. The bad news of course if that if one hoped the activation of the crime could have some deterrent impact in trying to prevent aggressive uses of force, including war, that deterrent impact is now lessened. (Deterrent impact is more likely now to be created through the possibility of U.N. Security Council referral—which could cover States Parties (whether or not they ratify) and non-States Parties). In terms of increasing the jurisdictional reach for purposes of non-Security Council referrals, it is now up to the ICC, civil society and States Parties to press for additional crime of aggression ratifications.

The Opt-Out Camp Possibly Folds — Clearing Way for Aggression?

by Kevin Jon Heller

A new document is being circulated at the Assembly of States Parties entitled “Draft Resolution: Activation of the jurisdiction of the Court over the crime of aggression.” Operative Provision 1(b) seems to indicate that the opt-out camp, led by Liechtenstein, has conceded the jurisdictional point to the opt-in camp, led by Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Here is the text of OP1(b):

(b)    The Assembly unanimously confirms that, in accordance with the Rome Statute, in case of a State referral or proprio motu investigation the Court shall not exercise its jurisdiction in respect of the crime of aggression when committed by nationals or on the territory of the States Parties referred to in subparagraph (a), unless they ratify or accept the amendments regarding the crime of aggression.

The provision makes clear that the Court will have no jurisdiction over any act of aggression involving a state party that does not ratify or accept the aggression amendments — thus placing states parties in the same position as non-state parties.

There is, however, one twist. To take advantage of OP1(b), a state will have to make its agreement with the opt-in camp known by no later than 31 December 2018, when the Court’s jurisdiction will begin. That’s the result of reading OP1(b) in conjunction with OP1(a). Here is the text of the latter provision:

(a)      The Assembly acknowledges the positions expressed by States Parties, individually or collectively, as reflected in the Report on the facilitation or upon adoption of this resolution to be reflected in the Official Records of this session of the Assembly or communicated in writing to the President of the Assembly by 31 December 2018 that, for whatever reason, including based on paragraph 5 of article 121 of the Rome Statute, they do not accept the Court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the crime of aggression unless they ratify or accept the amendments regarding the crime of aggression,

I can’t see why the Draft Resolution would not satisfy the opt-in states. So if the opt-out camp supports the resolution, it should ensure that the aggression amendments are adopted by consensus later today.

NOTE: As I read the Draft Resolution, states that join the Court after 31 December 2018 would have to opt-out of aggression jurisdiction, because OP1 would not apply to them. That’s an interesting twist/compromise!

The Puzzling US Submission to the Assembly of States Parties

by Kevin Jon Heller

The US submission to the ASP has finally appeared. It is not very long — about 1.5 pages — but manages to pack in a good number of false claims and bizarre interpretations of the Rome Statute.

In terms of falsity, the US repeats its longstanding claim that the Court has no jurisdiction over the nationals of non-state parties, even when those nationals are responsible for an international crime committed on the territory of a state party (p. 1):

As an initial matter, and as we have consistently emphasized, the United States is not a party to the Rome Statute and has not consented to any assertion of ICC jurisdiction, nor has the Security Council taken action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to establish jurisdiction over U.S. personnel. It is a fundamental principle of international law that a treaty is binding only on its parties and that it does not create obligations for non-parties without their consent. The Rome Statute cannot be interpreted as disposing of rights of the United States as a non-Party without U.S. consent.

This is wrong, for reasons Dapo Akande has patiently explained. It’s also completely hypocritical, because the US had no objection to the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) prosecuting Charles Taylor, a Liberian national, even though the SCSL was created by an international agreement — between the UN and Sierra Leone — to which Liberia was not a party. Indeed, the current US submission emphasises that it was “one of the most vocal supporters for the creation of tribunals to try those most responsible for atrocities committed in Rwanda and Sierra Leone.”

The most bizarre argument in the submission has to do with the principle of complementarity (p. 1):

Additionally, we are concerned about any ICC determination — as required by the Rome Statute’s core principle of complementarity — on, for example, the genuineness of U.S. legal proceedings without United States consent. The principle of complementarity fundamentally limits the ICC’s exercise of jurisdiction to those cases in which a State is genuinely unwilling or unable to comply with its duties, such as those under the Geneva Conventions, to investigate and prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Just as we have not consented to jurisdiction over our personnel, we have not consented to the ICC’s evaluation of our own accountability efforts.

This is literally nonsense. The ICC would only formally assess complementarity in the context of a specific prosecution of an American national — and would only do so (practically, if not because of a legal limitation) if the US decided to challenge the admissibility of a case. So the US would have to “consent” to the Court examining the genuineness of American proceedings if it wanted to head off a prosecution. Beyond that, consent has nothing to do with complementarity.

I will avoid making snarky comments about the US’s claim (p. 2) that it “has undertaken numerous, vigorous efforts to determine whether its personnel have violated the law and, where there have been violations, has taken appropriate actions to hold its personnel accountable.” But I can’t let the following claim (p. 2) go unremarked:

Indeed, we note the irony that in seeking permission to investigate the actions of U.S. personnel, the Prosecutor appears to have relied heavily upon information from investigations that the United States Government itself decided to make public. We question whether pursuing this investigation will make other countries less willing or able to engage in similar examinations of their own actions and to be transparent about the results.

This is, well… ironic. The OTP’s request to open an investigation into Afghanistan notes multiple times (see para. 27 for an example) that the US refused to cooperate with the preliminary examination. And the request relies very heavily on the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program” — which the White House and CIA tried desperately to keep from ever seeing the light of day.

All that said, I am delighted by the following statement in the US submission (p. 1; emphasis mine):

The principle of complementarity fundamentally limits the ICC’s exercise of jurisdiction to those cases in which a State is genuinely unwilling or unable to comply with its duties, such as those under the Geneva Conventions, to investigate and prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

The US has now formally acknowledged that it has a duty under international law “to investigate and prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity”! That is a bold and progressive claim, especially with regard to crimes against humanity, for which there is no treaty that demands either investigation or prosecution. I imagine that position will come as something of a surprise to the parts of the US government that were not involved in drafting the submission…

The US’s ASP submission: wrong, bizarre, but surprisingly — and probably inadvertently — progressive.

It’s High Time for the US to Conduct Complementarity As To Crimes in Afghanistan

by Jennifer Trahan

[Jennifer Trahan is an Associate Clinical Professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.]

The ICC Prosecutor announced last week that she was requesting the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber to authorize the Afghanistan Preliminary Examination moving into the Investigation stage. This would take the ICC’s Afghanistan investigation one step closer to resulting in actual cases.

We have known for quite a while that the Prosecutor was examining the situation in Afghanistan, and her past reports and press releases indicate she has been examining war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Taliban, Afghan government forces, and US nationals—US armed forces and CIA.

As Kevin Jon Heller notes, it will be interesting to see the US reaction to this news, yet it should hardly come as a surprise. As he also notes, the Prosecutor has been under pressure to expand her docket beyond the African continent. The US does not have anyone in the post of US War Crimes Ambassador (or head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice), so it is unclear who would lead any US response.

The US has of course one very simple way that it could react to this news, and that is to endorse the rule of law, and itself conduct any investigations into torture or ill-treatment at the hands of US nationals, be they armed forces, CIA, or contractors of either.

Under the principle of complementarity (Rome Statute art. 17), any state can avoid an ICC case proceeding by conducting a good faith investigation and/or prosecution into the same conduct. It has been high time for the US to do this, but the Prosecutor’s announcement illustrates the urgency of the US finally taking this seriously.

As a US national and a supporter of the ICC, I don’t really want to see the US locked in a showdown against the ICC. Yet, past experience (the misnamed American Servicemember Protection Act, bilateral immunity agreements, legislation allowing US forces in invade The Hague to liberate Americans in ICC custody) suggests such a confrontation is quite possible. Such an approach would not well serve either the ICC or the US, as it would amount to mere bully-tactics by the US against an institution, supported by all the US’s key allies, that is committed to ensuring rule of law for the worst crimes of concern to the international community.

Both the ICC and the US have the same interest in adhering to the rule of law, and there is a simple rule-of-law-abiding solution here: the US must undertake to do complementarity. The UK, faced with the possibility of the ICC proceeding against UK nationals for abuses committed in Iraq has been working hard to conduct complementarity; the US should do the same.

Alex Whiting raises the possibility that US conduct might not satisfy the ICC’s fairly high “gravity threshold”; yet, if the Prosecutor also includes certain “black sites” run by the CIA that were located in Rome Statute States Parties, such as Poland, Romania and Lithuania (as her announcement suggests), it is also possible that the gravity threshold will be met.  (Her announcement stated, in addition to crimes in Afghanistan, her request for authorization would include “war crimes closely linked to the situation in Afghanistan allegedly committed since 1 July 2002 on the territory of other States Parties to the Rome Statute.”)

We should not lose sight of the fact that the ICC is not aiming this investigation solely towards US nationals, and to the extent the ICC can prosecute the much more extensive crimes committed by the Taliban or other armed groups in Afghanistan, these would be welcome developments. Afghanistan has been plagued by decades of crimes, with those pertaining to US nationals constituting just one subset of what is at issue.

Meanwhile, the US should expeditiously fill the post of US War Crimes Ambassador (head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice), with the office’s initial focus being to finally conduct complementarity to ensure that justice for crimes in Afghanistan is done, and that to the extent US nationals are implicated in wrongdoing, that it is addressed within the US legal system. The US has credible and effective military and civilian investigative capacity and court systems which can and should be utilized.

Initial Thoughts on the ICC’s Decision to Investigate Afghanistan

by Kevin Jon Heller

Very significant news out of the ICC today: after a decade-long preliminary examination, the OTP has finally decided to ask the Pre-Trial Chamber to authorize a formal investigation into the situation in Afghanistan. Here is a snippet from Fatou Bensouda’s announcement:

For decades, the people of Afghanistan have endured the scourge of armed conflict.  Following a meticulous preliminary examination of the situation, I have come to the conclusion that all legal criteria required under the Rome Statute to commence an investigation have been met.  In due course, I will file my request for judicial authorisation to open an investigation, submitting that there is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in connection with the armed conflict in Afghanistan.  It will be for the Judges of the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber, constituted by the Presidency, to decide whether I have satisfied them that the Statute’s legal criteria to authorise opening an investigation are fulfilled.

Given the limited temporal scope of the Court’s jurisdiction, my request for judicial authorisation will focus solely upon war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed since 1 May 2003 on the territory of Afghanistan as well as war crimes closely linked to the situation in Afghanistan allegedly committed since 1 July 2002 on the territory of other States Parties to the Rome Statute.  The Court has no jurisdiction respecting crimes alleged to have been committed before those cut-off dates.

Assuming the PTC grants the OTP’s request — which is basically a foregone conclusion — Afghanistan will become (following Georgia) the second ICC investigation outside of Africa.

It will be very interesting to see how the US reacts to the announcement. The OTP made it clear in its 2016 preliminary-examination report that it intends to investigate crimes committed by the US military and the CIA:

211. The information available provides a reasonable basis to believe that, in the course of interrogating these detainees, and in conduct supporting those interrogations, members of the US armed forces and the US Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) resorted to techniques amounting to the commission of the war crimes of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape. These acts are punishable under articles 8(2)(c)(i) and (ii) and 8(2)(e)(vi) of the Statute. Specifically:

  • Members of US armed forces appear to have subjected at least 61 detained persons to torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity on the territory of Afghanistan between 1 May 2003 and 31 December 2014. The majority of the abuses are alleged to have occurred in 2003-2004.
  • Members of the CIA appear to have subjected at least 27 detained persons to torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity and/or rape on the territory of Afghanistan and other States Parties to the Statute (namely Poland, Romania and Lithuania) between December 2002 and March 2008. The majority of the abuses are alleged to have occurred in 2003-2004.

212. These alleged crimes were not the abuses of a few isolated individuals. Rather, they appear to have been committed as part of approved interrogation techniques in an attempt to extract ‘actionable intelligence’ from detainees. According to information available, the resort to such interrogation techniques was ultimately put to an end by the authorities concerned, hence the limited time-period during which the crimes allegedly occurred.

213. The Office considers that there is a reasonable basis to believe these alleged crimes were committed in furtherance of a policy or policies aimed at eliciting information through the use of interrogation techniques involving cruel or violent methods which would support US objectives in the conflict in Afghanistan. Likewise, there is a reasonable basis to believe that all the crimes identified herein have a nexus to the Afghanistan conflict.

If the US formally challenges the investigation — a big if, because it would probably see doing so as an acknowledgment of the investigation’s legitimacy — it will no doubt rely on Mike Newton’s argument in the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law that the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Afghanistan and the United States precludes the ICC from exercising jurisdiction over American soldiers. (The SOFA presumably doesn’t apply to CIA operatives, who are not part of the US armed forces.) Oversimplifying a bit, Mike argues that Afghanistan has no jurisdiction that it can delegate to the ICC, because the SOFA provides that the US retains exclusive jurisdiction over crimes committed by American soldiers. I disagree with the argument, for reasons ably laid out by Roger O’Keefe and Carsten Stahn. But it is a serious argument that deserves serious consideration.

Like Dov Jacobs, I am also intrigued by the OTP’s stated intention to investigate crimes committed by the CIA in Romania, Lithuania, and Poland. There is no jurisdictional problem, because those states are all members of the ICC and the the SOFA that applies to NATO states is based on shared jurisdiction, not exclusive jurisdiction. And I don’t think anything in the Rome Statute prohibits the OTP from defining a situation to include territory of multiple states. But we have definitely never seen a situation like this before.

I doubt that we will see the ICC issue arrest warrants for an American soldier or CIA operative anytime soon. My guess is that the OTP will begin with crimes committed by the Taliban, which will be much easier to investigate and prosecute than American crimes. (If only because Donald Trump might be crazy enough to actually invade The Hague if the Court ever got its hands on an American.) But this is still a momentous — if long overdue — day for the ICC. Opening an investigation that could lead to Americans being prosecuted, even if only in theory, is a remarkable act of bravery for a Court that has proven largely impotent with regard to crimes committed by government officials.

Kudos to Fatou Bensouda and the OTP.

New Essay: Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have just posted on SSRN a draft of a (very) long article entitled “Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom.” It represents my first real foray into both “classic” public international law and postcolonial critique. Here is the abstract:

Although the US has consistently relied on the ICJ’s doctrine of specially-affected states to claim that it and other powerful states in the Global North play a privileged role in the formation of customary international law, the doctrine itself has been almost completely ignored both by legal scholars and by the ICJ itself. This article attempts to fill that lacuna. In particular, by focusing on debates in a variety of areas of international law – with particular emphasis on the jus ad bellum and jus in bello – it addresses two questions: (1) what makes a state “specially affected”? and (2) what exactly is the importance of a state qualifying as “specially affected” for custom formation? The article concludes not only that the US approach to the doctrine of specially-affected states is fatally flawed, but also that a more theoretically coherent understanding of the doctrine would give states in the Global South power over the development of custom that the US and other Global North states would never find acceptable.

You can download the article here. As always, comments most welcome!

If President Trump Ends the Iran Deal, Can He Trigger the Security Council Snapback?

by Jean Galbraith

[Jean Galbraith is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School]

President Trump has reportedly made a decision about whether or not to end the Iran deal – although he won’t yet say what he’s decided.  The Iran deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is a political commitment rather than an agreement that is binding as a matter of international law.  President Trump can thus abandon the Iran deal without violating international law, although there will be plenty of other repercussions from such a step.

But abandonment will nonetheless raise at least one interesting legal question.  If the United States ends the Iran deal, can it thereby trigger the re-imposition of Security Council sanctions against Iran?

First, a bit of background (discussed more here).  Prior to the JCPOA, the Security Council had imposed various sanctions against Iran – sanctions which all countries were legally obligated to enact.  The core bargain in the Iran deal involved the lifting of sanctions, including these Security Council sanctions, in exchange for Iran’s commitments not to develop nuclear weapons and its acceptance of a monitoring regime.  But what would happen if Iran failed to honor its commitments?  In that case, would there be the votes on the Security Council to re-impose sanctions or instead might Russia or China veto such a resolution?  In order to address this concern, negotiators included innovative provisions in the JCPOA and in Security Council Resolution 2231, which was passed in July of 2015 to help implement the JCPOA.  These provisions have been referred to as the “snapback” provisions, and I have called them “trigger termination” provisions.

Summarizing a bit, Resolution 2231 provided that the pre-existing Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran are terminated, but they can be reinstated at any time during the next 10 years by any single P5 country (including the United States) or by Germany, under certain conditions.  Specifically, the country seeking reinstatement must notify the Security Council “of an issue that [it] believes constitutes significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPOA.”  If the Security Council does not pass any resolutions on this issue in the 30 days following notification, then the prior resolutions imposing sanctions are automatically reinstated.  These resolutions would not apply retroactively to contracts signed prior to their reinstatement.

If President Trump simply ends the Iran deal without trying to trigger the snapback provision, then he can only re-impose U.S. sanctions.  (He could try to persuade other countries to re-impose sanctions, but his ability to do that in practice will likely be fairly low.)  But what if instead of or in addition to announcing an “end” to the deal, President Trump states that Iran is not complying with the deal and attempts to trigger the snapback provision?  Will this be effective as a matter of law, even if President Trump’s claim of Iranian non-compliance looks like a pretext?

In a comment I wrote in the October 2015 issue of the American Journal of International Law (draft version here), I addressed the issue of a pretextual snapback.  I wrote as follows:

Resolution 2231’s trigger termination has some protections against arbitrar[y use], but not very strong ones.  The activator can be a single state – any one of the P5 [including the United States], Germany, or theoretically Iran.  The standard is that this state must ‘believe’ that there is ‘significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPOA.’  While ‘significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPOA’ is a reasonably clear criterion, the fact that the activator is only required to ‘believe’ this nonperformance to have occurred makes the standard a fairly flexible one.  But although flexible, it is not a grant of total discretion.  It must require a good faith belief in significant nonperformance, for otherwise it would be meaningless.  Indeed, if such a good faith belief is demonstrably absent, other states would have grounds for considering that the trigger termination has not been properly activated.  In that case, they could presumably treat Resolution 2231 as continuing in force and thereby have a legal basis for declining to reinstitute the prior sanctions.

If President Trump tries to trigger the snapback provision now, other countries will have reasonable grounds for disputing the legal effectiveness of such a trigger.  Of course, if the United States walks away from the Iran deal and re-imposes its own sanctions, Iran may then cease its implementation of the deal and ramp up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.  After that point, the United States will have good faith grounds to believe in Iran’s significant non-performance – but if Iranian non-compliance is clearly due to U.S. non-compliance, states might raise other arguments for doubting the legal ability of the United States to trigger the snapback.

In closing, my thanks to the editors of the Opinio Juris blog for letting me contribute this guest post.

The Drafters Knew Best: Corporate Liability and the Alien Tort Statute

by Heather Cohen

[Heather Cohen is a Legal & Policy Associate with the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), which harnesses the collective power of progressive organizations to push governments to create and enforce rules over corporations that promote human rights and reduce inequality.]

Can corporations be held accountable in the United States for violations of international law? This question is back before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) this fall. On October 11, 2017, SCOTUS will hear oral arguments in Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC on the question of whether corporations can be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). In the case, the plaintiffs, victims of terrorism in Israel, allege that Arab Bank knowingly and willfully used its U.S. branch to provide financial services to the terrorist organizations that harmed them and their family members.

On August 21, Arab Bank filed its respondent brief in the proceedings, arguing that corporations should not be held liable for violations of international law under the ATS. This argument is inconsistent with the intent of the drafters of the Constitution who enacted the law, as well as with the legal interpretation that has followed.

An analysis of the language and historical context of the ATS demonstrates that the drafters of the Constitution intended for the ATS to be applied broadly to both individuals and legal persons, such as corporations. By placing no categorical limits on who can be sued under the legislation, it is clear that corporations can and should be held liable for violations of international law under the ATS.

The Enactment of the ATS and its Application to Legal Persons

The ATS was passed by the First Congress in 1789 to demonstrate the commitment of the new country to upholding the “law of nations,” thereby granting the United States legitimacy on the world stage. Its enactment was spurred by two incidents of offences against foreign ambassadors, but the law would also provide merchants plagued by piracy with a legal avenue to obtain remedy for the harm and losses suffered.

In passing the ATS, the First Congress chose not to limit who can be sued under the legislation:

The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.

By choosing not to exclude any particular class of defendant, the ATS places no limitation on who can be sued. This is made even more clear by the contrasting restriction on who can sue, i.e. only “aliens.”

Historical context suggests that the First Congress intended the law to hold both legal persons as well as natural ones accountable. Courts have held legal persons liable for their abuses as far back as the 1600s. A number of piracy cases provide a clear example of this. For instance, in 1666, Thomas Skinner sued the East India Company for “robbing him of a ship and goods of great value.” The U.K. House of Lords ruled in favor of Mr. Skinner and held that the company owed him compensation. Even where piracy was not committed by corporations, courts have imputed corporate form to the ships themselves. Similarly, early American courts held that ships, as entities, could be ordered to pay damages for piracy. They reasoned that it made financial sense to direct judgment against a captured ship, which had substantial value, while pirates were unlikely to pay the compensation ordered.

These piracy cases demonstrate that courts during the era of the drafters of the Constitution were not only familiar with the concept of liability for legal persons, but that they regularly imposed it for violations of international law. In light of this familiarity, the fact that the First Congress did not limit the language of the ATS suggests that it intended for legal persons, such as corporations, to be sued under the statute.

A Modern Interpretation of the ATS

This interpretation has been supported by courts in subsequent decisions. For example, the D.C. Court of Appeals, in Doe VIII v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 654 F.3d 11, 48 (D.C. Cir. 2011), vacated on other grounds, 527 F. App’x 7 (D.C. Cir. 2013) held that “[t]he notion that corporations could be held liable for their torts… would NOT have been surprising to the First Congress that enacted the ATS” [emphasis added]. For decades, corporations have been sued under the ATS “without any indication that the issue [of their liability] was in controversy, whether in ruling that ATS cases could proceed or that they could not on other grounds.

Since its passage in 1789, the ATS has remained the law of the United States for more than two hundred years, without ever being limited, narrowed, or amended by Congress. In contrast, Congress has made it abundantly clear when it does mean to exclude a particular class of defendants, namely corporations, from liability. For instance, the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) explicitly excludes suits against corporations. While one can argue that failure to amend the ATS does not necessarily mean acceptance, one cannot negate the fact that both times that the issue of corporate liability under the ATS has come before SCOTUS, the U.S. Government has argued in favor of it. The Government has made it clear that it supports the original words and meaning of the ATS.

Arab Bank’s Interpretation of the ATS

Faced with this evidence of the intent of the drafters of the Constitution, all Arab Bank can do is endeavor to chip away at little pieces of it by attempting to undermine the piracy cases raised by the petitioners and their amici. In Arab Bank’s brief, it attacks the British case by claiming that the East India Company functioned more like a sovereign than a corporation, and that the case was ultimately vacated by King Charles II.

While it is beyond the scope of this blog to offer an analysis of the differences between the East India Company and the modern day corporation, the broad power and scope of today’s multinational corporations suggest that these differences may be much smaller than they initially appear. For example, one often cited variance is the power the East India Company had to “operate its own courts and establish its own law.” However, modern corporations likewise operate their own courts through grievance mechanisms, such as that offered by Barrick Gold in response to sexual violence at its mine in Papua New Guinea. In any event, what is relevant is that “the East India Company was on any number of occasions judged by English courts to be a legal person subject to both English common and civil law.

Also problematic with Arab Bank’s critique of the British case is the weight that it places on the intervention of the monarchy, namely, the decision by King Charles II to vacate the case. This decision is simply emblematic of the politics and the central role the Monarch played at the time. Using this political dynamic to criticize the case is unpersuasive.

To undermine the American piracy cases, Arab Bank argues that a ship is not a corporation and that holding a ship liable for the acts committed by the people operating it is not equivalent to accepting the concept of corporate liability. However, this argument is purely a matter of semantics and ignores the very basic concept of corporate liability, which is to hold a legal entity liable for the acts of individuals operating within it. This is exactly what the court did when imposing liability on the ships in these piracy cases.

Conclusion

If SCOTUS rules that corporations cannot be held liable under the ATS, it will be overturning hundreds of years of legal tradition, as well as undermining the chosen words and understanding of the drafters of the Constitution. Such a ruling would similarly undercut the legal interpretation adopted by numerous courts and policymakers following the First Congress. Furthermore, Arab Bank’s arguments are not convincing and fail to undermine the evidence that the ATS was intended to apply to both legal and non-legal persons.

Will SCOTUS respect the wishes of the drafters of the Constitution by holding Arab Bank liable for providing financial services to terrorist organizations? Those of us who believe in the underlying principles of this Nation certainly hope so.

Symposium: Aeyal Gross’s “The Writing on the Wall”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Over the next three days we will be featuring an online discussion of my SOAS colleague and TAU law professor Aeyal Gross‘s new book for Cambridge University Press, The Writing on the Wall: Rethinking the International Law of Occupation (CUP, 2017). The book develops ideas that Aeyal discussed on Opinio Juris — in a symposium on the functional approach to occupation — more than five years ago. So it’s fitting that we discuss his book on the blog now!

We are delighted to welcome a number of commenters, including Eliav Lieblich (TAU), Valentina Azarova (Koç) (who also contributed to the earlier symposium), Diana Buttu (IMEU), and Eugene Kontorovich (Northwestern). Aeyal will respond to the comments at the end of the symposium.

We look forward to the conversation!

Emailing Does Not Pass the Kiobel Test: US Court Dismisses ATS Case Against Anti-Gay Pastor

by Julian Ku

Distracted by #ComeyDay and other international crises, I missed this recent U.S. federal court decision in Sexual Minorities of Uganda v. Livelydismissing an Alien Tort Statute lawsuit on Kiobel extra-territoriality grounds.  While using unusually critical language to denounce U.S. pastor-defendant Scott Lively’s involvement in Uganda’s anti-homosexual laws and actions, the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts held:

…Defendant’s status as an American citizen and his physical presence in the United States is clearly not enough under controlling authority to support ATS extraterritorial jurisdiction. The sporadic trail of emails sent by Defendant to Uganda does not add enough to the record to demonstrate that Plaintiff’s claims “touch and concern the territory of the United States . . with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.” Kiobel, 133 S. Ct. at 1669.

What is notable about this case is that the same court and judge refused to dismiss this case on Kiobel grounds back in 2013 with largely the same allegations. The main difference with the result in 2017 seems to be that discovery revealed that Lively, the U.S. pastor, did not provide any

financial backing to the detestable campaign in Uganda, he directed no physical violence, he hired no employees, and he provided no supplies or other material support. His most significant efforts on behalf of the campaign occurred within Uganda: itself, when he appeared at conferences, meetings, and media events.

On these facts, this seems like the right result.  Kiobel requires something more than communications from the United States to “displace the presumption against extraterritoriality.” But caselaw continues to be a little muddy and I fully expect this to be appealed.

 

Actually, President Trump CAN Unilaterally Withdraw the U.S. From NATO

by Julian Ku

The estimable professor-pundit Daniel Drezner has a typically smart blogpost on President Trump’s refusal to affirm the U.S. commitment to Article 5’s collective defense provision of the North Atlantic Treaty.  I don’t have a problem with his views here, but I can’t help jumping in to correct this paragraph from his post:

So why is this such a big deal of a story? The United States is a member of NATO, which means that Article 5 is legally binding whether Trump says so out loud or not. Unlike NAFTA or the Paris climate treaty, I’ve been assured by smart lawyer types that Trump cannot unilaterally withdraw.

[Emphasis added].

Actually, as a matter of U.S. constitutional law, Drezner and his smart lawyer friends have things kind of backwards here, at least with respect to NAFTA and NATO. The broad consensus view is that the President has the unilateral authority to terminate a treaty pursuant to that treaty’s termination provisions or consistent with international law.  This means that as long as the President follows Article 13 of the North Atlantic Treaty — which requires the U.S. provide one year’s notice before termination — President Trump can terminate US membership in NATO without first getting consent from the Senate or the Congress as a whole.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on this question definitively, but it strongly hinted that the President has this power in its seminal 1979 Goldwater v. Carter decision refusing to require senatorial consent before President Carter’s termination of the U.S.-Republic of China (Taiwan) Mutual Defense Treaty.  The American Law Institute’s newly approved section on Treaties in the forthcoming Restatement (Fourth) on U.S. Foreign Relations Law explicitly endorses the President’s unilateral treaty termination power, and this was not even a change from the earlier Third Restatement.

Terminating NAFTA is the more complex problem, as John Yoo and I have argued here.  Although the President also has the power to terminate NAFTA’s international agreement status, he has to separately nullify the domestic legal effect of NAFTA. Some of that might be done via executive action, but it is our view that he will need another statute to completely eliminate all domestic legal effects of NAFTA.

It is also worth noting that the President’s unilateral termination power calls into question those who criticized President Obama for failing to submit the Paris Agreement to the Senate on the theory that this would have somehow insulated Paris from a unilateral President Trump termination.  In fact, President Trump could have terminated the Paris Agreement unilaterally, whether or not it was approved by the Senate.

None of this is meant to encourage or endorse any of President Trump’s actual or threatened treaty terminations.  But as a matter of U.S. constitutional law, there is no reason to doubt he can take the U.S. out of NATO, Paris, and many other international agreements.