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International Law in U.S. Courts

An Important Absence in the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017

by Kevin Jon Heller

On Monday, my friend Beth van Schaack posted an excellent analysis at Just Security of the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017, a bipartisan Senate bill “[t]o require a report on, and to authorize technical assistance for, accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Syria.” Beth summarises the most important aspects of the bill; in this post I want to focus on Section 7, which authorises US technical assistance to certain non-US accountability mechanisms. The most important paragraph in Section 7 is this one (emphasis mine):

(a) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary of State (acting through appropriate officials and offices, which may include the Office of Global Criminal Justice), after consultation with the Department of Justice and other appropriate Federal agencies, is authorized to provide appropriate assistance to support entities that, with respect to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, all forces fighting on its behalf, and violent extremist groups in Syria beginning in March 2011—

(1) identify suspected perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; (2) collect, document, and protect evidence of crimes and preserve the chain of custody for such evidence; (3) conduct criminal investigations; (4) build Syria’s investigative and judicial capacities and support prosecutions in the domestic courts of Syria, provided that President Bashar al Assad is no longer in power; (5) support investigations by third-party states, as appropriate; or (6) protect witnesses that may be helpful to prosecutions or other transitional justice mechanisms.

There a very interesting — and potentially very important — absence in Section 7(a). As the bolded text indicates, the paragraph only authorises the US to provide technical assistance to entities that are investigating international crimes committed by pro-Assad forces and “violent extremist groups.” Note what is missing from that construction: Syrian rebel groups. The bill does not permit the US to support any entity investigating war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of genocide committed by rebels.

Lest anyone think I am reading Section 7(a) too narrowly, consider the wording of Section 3(1), which summarises acts that the US “strongly condemns” (emphasis mine):

(A) the ongoing violence, use of chemical weapons, targeting of civilian populations with barrel, incendiary, and cluster bombs and SCUD missiles, and systematic gross human rights violations carried out by the Government of Syria and pro-government forces under the direction of President Bashar al-Assad; and (B) all abuses committed by violent extremist groups and other combatants involved in the civil war in Syria.

It is difficult to see who “other combatants involved in the civil war in Syria” might be if they are not rebels. Indeed, Section 5(a), which requires the Secretary of State to submit a report on international crimes to Congress, explicitly distinguishes between “violent extremist groups” and rebel groups (emphasis mine):

(b) ELEMENTS.—The reports required under subsection (a) shall include— (1) a description of alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated during the civil war in Syria, including— (A) incidents that may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide committed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and all forces fighting on its behalf; (B) incidents that may constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide committed by violent extremist groups, anti-government forces, and any other combatants in the conflict.

In light of Section 5(a), it is clear that Section 7(a) does not authorise the US to support an entity that is investigating international crimes committed by rebels.

That said, the bill is unclear in one important respect: whether the US can support an entity that investigates international crimes committed by both pro-Assad forces and rebel groups. On a literal reading of Section 7(a), the answer would seem to be no. But the sponsors of the bill might disagree. Journalists?

I agree with Beth that the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017 is an important step forward for accountability in Syria. Unfortunately, it also reflects the US’s tendency to take international crimes committed by rebel groups much less seriously than those committed by Assad’s forces and by ISIS.

Almost Everyone Agrees that the U.S. Strikes Against Syria are Illegal, Except for Most Governments

by Julian Ku

The blogosphere is now so fast that we can get an enormous sampling of expert opinion in a very short time. So within 24 hours of President Trump’s military strikes on Syria, we have already heard from former Bush State Department Legal Advisor John Bellinger, former Obama State Department Legal Advisors Harold Koh and Brian Egan, former DOJ officials and law profs Jack Goldsmith and Ryan Goodman, as well as numerous law profs and other experts including our very own Deborah Pearlstein and Edward Swaine. The bottom line: Almost everyone (except for Harold Koh) thinks the strikes violate the U.N. Charter and many think it also violates the U.S. Constitution.

Most of what I have to say I said in 2012-13 on this issue, but I am struck by one group of important actors who seem relatively untroubled by the “illegality” of the U.S. strikes under the UN Charter: states.  With the notable exception of the Russian government, very few states have come out to criticize the U.S. strikes as a violation of international law. No one is saying it is illegal, but it is striking how few are willing to say it is illegal.  I’ve gathered a few statements and links below.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

Q: Does China consider the missile strike on the Syrian airbase to be within the scope of international law? Or do you think it violates existing rules about intervention in other country’s sovereign territory?

A: The Chinese side has always stood for a political settlement of the Syrian issue. Under the current circumstances, we hope all parties can keep calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalating the tension.

The latest developments in Syria highlight once again the urgency of resolving the Syrian issue through political means. We call on all parties not to walk away from the process of political settlement.


France and Germany (President and Chancellor):

The joint statement by Mr Hollande and the German chancellor Angela Merkel said that “President Assad alone carries responsibility for these developments” with his “repeated use of chemical weapons and his crimes against his own people.”

United Kingdom Defence Minister:

The UK says it “fully supports” the US missile strike in Syria and has urged Russia to put more pressure on the Assad regime to end the civil war.

The US targeted an air base it says was responsible for a chemical attack which killed dozens of civilians.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the UK was not asked to take part but backed the “wholly appropriate” strike.

European Union, President of European Council:

“US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria.

Turkey, Deputy Foreign Minister:

TURKEY: NATO ally Turkey, which is a key player in the Syria conflict and has endured choppy relations with Washington recently, welcomed the strikes as “positive.” The deputy foreign minister added: “We believe that the Assad regime must be punished completely in the international arena.”

Turkey called for a no-fly zone in Syria in the wake of the US strike.

Japan, Prime Minister

JAPAN: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan “supports the US government’s resolve that it will never tolerate the spread and use of chemical weapons.”

This survey is not comprehensive and some large players, like India, have yet to weigh in.  But it seems only Russia and Iran have condemned the strikes vigorously.  The general support for the attacks in Europe, the Middle East, along withChina’s acquiescence, seems to show that many states are not very troubled by the violation of Article 2(4) most scholars think has occurred here.  Is this because it is a one-off attack? Or does it suggest Article 2(4) has very little pull with many foreign governments these days?

On the domestic US law front, FiveThirtyEight has counted 69 senators have already issued statements supporting the Syria Strikes and while there are critics on constitutional grounds, it doesn’t seem like close to a majority in Congress.

Of course, none of this means that the experts are wrong on the law. But it is at least worth noting the limited impact of the law so far on governmental actors, as the debate on the legality of the Syria Strikes continues.

Initial Takes on Syria: International-Domestic Synergies

by Edward Swaine

There are lots of initial takes on the legality of the Syria strike.  (I see, just now, a great compendium of short takes at Just Security.)  Some ask for a legal justification, and other experts are holding (for a bit) until one is proffered.  As the posts below by Deborah Pearlstein and Julian Ku helpfully indicate, one thing to watch for is assumed or disputed equivalencies between the positions of the United States as it contemplated these questions in 2013 and as it now confronts them. Other unfolding differences, naturally, include the reactions of other states and of the U.S. Congress.

In addition, watch for explicit or implicit claims about the relationship between international law and U.S. domestic law.  International lawyers are free to ignore the latter.  Thus, for example, Marko Milanovic (via EJIL:Talk!) concludes that the strike was “clearly illegal” under international law, but ventures no particular position on U.S. law.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with the rest of the analysis, focusing on this one question is entirely proper, since a violation of international use of force principles does not depend on whether domestic law is satisfied (and it would be very bad if it did).  Maybe, but only maybe, constitutional lawyers can reciprocate by ignoring international law.  For example, Jack Goldsmith (via Lawfare) largely does, though in his case it could be because he confines himself to looking at the issue of constitutionality through the lens of the Office of Legal Counsel’s 2011 Libya opinion, which did not even use the term “international law” at all.  (It did define promoting the credibility and effectiveness of Security Council resolutions as part of the “national interest” inquiry, but that related only indirectly and partially to international law.)  However, as indicated below, and unlike the international law perspective, this runs the risk of offering an incomplete analysis even as to the domestic law perspective.

For those opining about both international law and U.S. domestic law, the ground is treacherous. The safer course, usually, is simply to assume for purposes of discussion that the legal constraints are independent and potentially sufficient.  Thus, for example, John Bellinger (via Lawfare) states that legality under U.S. law is dependent on the scope of Article II, and that as a matter of international law, the United States was lacking “clear authority.”  In contrast, however, Marty Lederman (via Just Security) concludes that the United States is “probably” violating international law, and “therefore” violating U.S. law.  Both have expertise and views that go far beyond these posts.  But one thing that stands out is how they hedge on legality, relative at least to non-U.S. views.  I don’t think that’s due to nationality.  It also reflects complicating assumptions about the right analytical approach entailed by grappling with the two questions, as might too a more recent post by Harold Koh (via Just Security).


Symposium on the Nuremberg Trials

by Kevin Jon Heller

The Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Review has just published a special issue on the Nuremberg trials. It contains many excellent contributions, including articles by Hilary Earl, David Fraser, Greg Gordon, and Jonathan Bush. I have also contributed a short chapter, entitled “Taking a Consenting Part: The Lost Mode of Participation,” which discusses a mode of participation developed by the NMTs and then promptly forgotten — for better or for worse — by international criminal law.

All of the articles in the special issue are free to download here.

GOP Wants the US to Leave the United Nations

by Kevin Jon Heller

Finally, a Republican bill we can all get behind! The American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017:

A bill was introduced to the House of Representatives in early January that, among other things, calls for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations. Sponsored by Senator Mike Rogers, the American Sovereignty Restoration Act (aka H.R. 193) had been previously introduced by the Alabama senator to no avail back in 2015 (then H.R. 1205), when he cited reasons ranging from spending waste to enabling an intercontinental “dictators’ club,” which sounds like a manuscript Ann M. Martin decided to leave in her desk drawer.

I believe in sovereignty — and in restoring it when it is lost. So I support the bill. And no more UN membership, of course, means no more permanent veto for the US. So no more holding peacekeeping missions hostage whenever the international community doesn’t let the US play by its own rules. No more US propping up its own preferred dictators while criticising the preferred dictators of others. No more US protecting Israel from the consequences of its actions. Sounds pretty good!

Does anyone know how to introduce similar bills in the Duma and the NPC? I hear Russia and China are suffering a sovereignty deficit, as well.

A Brief Rejoinder to Haque on the ICRC’s Interpretation of NIAC

by Kevin Jon Heller

My thanks to Adil Haque for his response to my post. Adil and I rarely disagree in any profound way about IHL, so it’s enjoyable to spar with him about whether a first-strike by government forces against an organized armed group automatically creates a NIAC — thus triggering IHL — or whether a certain intensity of hostilities between the two is required.

I will have more to say about Adil’s response soon, but I wanted to quickly address one particular implication in his post: namely, that the ICRC’s Commentary on AP II supports his claim that a single military operation by government forces or by an organized armed group is sufficient to trigger a NIAC because it is more than a “sporadic act of violence.” Here is what he writes:

In my view, a military operation by State armed forces that meets with no armed response and may never be repeated is not a “sporadic act of violence” within the meaning of APII 1(2). On this point, I follow the ICRC Commentrary to APII, which negatively defines “isolated and sporadic acts of violence, as opposed to military operations carried out by armed forces or armed groups.” APII 1(2) describes disturbances and tensions created by disorganized or unarmed groups, criminal gangs, and individuals. APII 1(2) does not describe “acts of violence against the adversary in offence or defence” (that is, attacks as defined by API).

With the exception of ambiguous quotes like the one above, there is little support in the ICRC’s Commentary on AP II or in any of the ICRC’s commentaries for Adil’s position. The ICRC clearly believes that any kind of NIAC — AP II or Common Article 3 — requires adequately intense hostilities.

Let’s start with the AP II Commentary Adil cites. The Commentary opens its discussion of AP II by emphasizing (p. 1343) that CA3 and AP II have the same structure — and that neither applies in the absence of sufficiently intense hostilities (emphasis mine):

The content and scope of all of these articles will be analysed in the respective comments on them. Before doing this it seems useful to have a closer look at the basic pattern of Part I, which reveals the similarity of the ideas which inspired Protocol II and common Article 3. To understand the scope of the Protocol one should indeed always bear in mind the fact that this instrument supplements and develops common Article 3; it is an extension of it, and is based on the same structure.l Their common characteristics find expression, explicitly or implicitly, in Part I. These can be summarized as follows…

The threshold where Protocol II becomes applicable is determined by the criteria expressed in Article 1 (Material field of application), which means that it is intended to apply only to conflicts of a certain degree of intensity.

Later, the Commentary discusses (p. 1355) what AP II means by “internal disturbances,” taking the position that such disturbances include situations in which military operations by government forces — even against an organized armed group — do not lead to sufficiently intense hostilities (emphasis mine):

[T]he ICRC gave the following description of internal disturbances during the first session of the Conference of Government Experts in 1971:

“This involves situations in which there is no non-international armed conflict as such, but there exists a confrontation within the country, which is characterized by a certain seriousness or duration and which involves acts of violence. These latter can assume various forms, all the way from the spontaneous generation of acts of revolt to the struggle between more or less organized groups and the authorities in power. In these situations, which do not necessarily degenerate into open struggle, the authorities in power call upon extensive police forces, or even armed forces, to restore internal order. The high number of victims has made necessary the application of a minimum of humanitarian rules.”


In short, as stated above, there are internal disturbances, without being an armed conflict, when the State uses armed force to maintain order; there are internal tensions, without being internal disturbances, when force is used as a preventive measure to maintain respect for law and order.

Finally the Commentaries specifically point out (p. 1356) that such “internal disturbances” do not create a NIAC and do not trigger IHL:

Internal disturbances and tensions are not at present within the field of application of international humanitarian law; the ICRC has carried out activities in this field on an ad hoc basis. However, this does not mean that there is no international legal protection applicable to such situations, as they are covered by universal and regional human rights instruments. 31 It is not within the scope of this commentary, however, to go into that subject.

The ICRC’s position on CA3 and AP II NIACs — as requiring hostilities of a certain intensity, and thus as not being triggered by “first strikes” — is an old one. Here is what Pictet said (p. 49) in the ICRC’s 1952 Commentary on the First Geneva Convention (emphasis mine):

[I]t was suggested that the term “conflict” should be defined or, which would come to the same thing, that a certain number of conditions for the application of the Convention should be enumerated. The idea was finally abandoned — wisely, we think. Nevertheless, these different conditions, although in no way obligatory, constitute convenient criteria, and we therefore think it well to give a list of those contained in the various amendments discussed; they are as follows:

(1) That the Party in revolt against the de jure Government possesses an organized military force, an authority responsible for its acts, acting within a determinate territory and having the means of respecting and ensuring respect for the Convention.

(2) That the legal Government is obliged to have recourse to the regular military forces against insurgents organized as military and in possession of a part of the national territory.

This statement only implicitly endorsed an intensity requirement, so Pictet clarified that the was talking about actual hostilities between government forces and an organized armed group in the ICRC’s 1960 Commentary on the Third Geneva Convention (p. 37):

Speaking generally, it must be recognized that the conflicts referred to in Article 3 are armed conflicts, with armed forces on either side engaged in hostilities –conflicts, in short, which are in many respects similar to an international war, but take place within the confines of a single country.

And just in case that statement remained ambiguous (“both” would have been more precise than “either”), the ICRC clarified in its 2016 Commentary on the First Geneva Convention that of the various indicia of NIAC that Pictet discusses, intensity is one of the two most important ones (emphasis mine):

387  A situation of violence that crosses the threshold of an ‘armed conflict not of an international character’ is a situation in which organized Parties confront one another with violence of a certain degree of intensity. It is a determination made based on the facts.

421  Over time, of the criteria enumerated in the Pictet Commentaries, two are now widely acknowledged as being the most relevant in assessing the existence of a non-international armed conflict: that the violence needs to have reached a certain intensity and that it must be between at least two organized Parties/armed groups. The existence of a non-international armed conflict thus needs to be assessed according to these specific criteria.

422  The wording of common Article 3 gives some rudimentary guidance on its threshold of application: what is required is an ‘armed’ ‘conflict’ not of an international character, in which ‘Part[ies] to the conflict’ are involved. This indicates that for common Article 3 to apply, a situation of violence must have reached a certain level of intensity, characterized by recourse to arms by non-State armed groups that are capable of being Parties to an armed conflict.

According to the ICRC, in short, all NIACs require adequately intense hostilities. The difference between a CA3 NIAC and an AP II NIAC is one of degree rather than kind.

The ICRC Commentaries are only as good as the analysis they contain, so Adil is obviously free to defend an interpretation of Art. 1 of AP II and of Common Article 3 that reads the intensity requirement out of NIAC. In doing so, however, he is clearly breaking with the ICRC.

First Strikes & NIAC: Thoughts on the Haque/Horowitz Debate

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have been following with great interest the debate at Just Security between Adil Haque and Jonathan Horowitz over whether the existence of a non-international conflict (NIAC) exists the moment a state launches a “first strike” at an organized armed group or whether hostilities of a certain intensity between the two are required. Adil takes the former position (see here, here, and here); Jonathan takes the latter one (see here and here).

Though Adil’s posts exhibit his typical brilliance, my sympathies lie with Jonathan. To begin with, as a matter of the lex lata, I don’t think the argument is even close: the Tadic test, which requires both organization on the part of the armed group and adequately intense hostilities, has overwhelming support from states. After all, the test is based squarely on Art. 1(2) of Additional Protocol II, ratified by 168 states, which provides that the “Protocol shall not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature, as not being armed conflicts.” And, of course, as the ICRC notes in its new commentary on the First Geneva Convention, the AP II standard is used by a number of more recent conventions that apply to all NIACs — Common Article 3 or AP II — such as the Rome Statute (1998), the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property (1999), and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (2001).

Adil, it is worth noting, has a different interpretation of AP II, one that does not require intensity:

In my view, if an organized armed group has the capacity to sustain military operations then any military operation by or against that group should be constrained by the law of armed conflict. The organization and capacity of the group is sufficient to distinguish military operations by or against the group from “internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature.”

This is a difficult position to defend. The text of Art. 1(2) of AP II clearly contemplates actual hostilities, not a single act by government forces. What could be a more “sporadic act of violence” than a single act that does not meet with a response from the targeted group and may never be repeated by the government? More importantly, despite some stray practice cited by Michael J. Adams and Ryan Goodman in this post, states have simply never interpreted the AP II standard to require only organization.

Even more problematic, though, is Adil’s argument that the “object and purpose” of IHL counsels against conditioning the application of IHL on adequately intense hostilities:

In my view, we should interpret both the substantive rules of IHL and the conditions for the application of IHL in light of the object and purpose of IHL. The primary object and purpose of IHL is to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations. Accordingly, IHL should apply to all such military operations. To postpone the application of IHL until a first strike triggers an armed response, or until military operations reach a high level of intensity, would be inconsistent with the object and purpose of IHL.

As regular readers know, whenever I see arguments based on the supposed “object and purpose” of a treaty, I reach for my pen. All too often, such arguments simply use object and purpose to justify interpreting a treaty in a manner that specifically contradicts the intention of the states that drafted and concluded it. And unfortunately I think that is what Adil does here. He defends applying IHL to first strikes by claiming that the “object and purpose” of IHL is “to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations” (emphasis mine). But that is misleading: the object and purpose of IHL is to protect human beings against dangers arising from military operations in armed conflict. If there is no armed conflict, IHL has nothing to say about the danger of military operations — because IHL doesn’t apply. And as discussed above, states have always insisted that a first-strike military operation is not enough to create an armed conflict — IHL applies only once there are adequately intense hostilities between government forces and the organized armed group.

Adil is free, of course, to normatively argue that IHL should apply to first strikes in NIAC because doing so would better protect human beings. I would disagree, but the claim is coherent and deserving of discussion. What he can’t do is base that claim on the object and purpose of IHL, because that would be to use an object and purpose that only applies within armed conflict to justify changing the definition of armed conflict itself. The definition of when IHL applies cannot be determined by reference to what the goals of IHL are once it applies. That definition has to be sought outside of the IHL system — and again, it is clear that states do not want IHL to apply to first-strike military operations against organized armed groups.

There is, however, an even deeper problem with Adil’s argument that the need to protect human beings from military operations counsels a definition of NIAC that does not require adequately intense hostilities: if that is true, there is also no reason why the application of IHL should require armed groups to be organized. All of Adil’s arguments against the intensity requirement apply equally to the organization requirement. If we need to protect human beings from the dangers of first-strike military operations by states against organized armed groups, surely we also need to protect them from the dangers of first-strike military operations by states against unorganized armed groups. After all, Adil’s central argument is that the inherent danger of military operations means that IHL should apply to a first-strike regardless of whether that military operation leads to any kind of hostilities.

I see no convincing response to this criticism. It is tempting to argue that the organization requirement is important because a first-strike military operation against an organized armed group is much more likely to lead to actual hostilities than a first-strike military operation against an unorganized armed group. But Adil rejects the idea that hostilities are relevant to the application of IHL. He believes IHL should apply even if a first-strike military operation meets with no response whatsoever.

Another potential response would be to argue that first-strike military operations against organized armed groups pose greater dangers for innocent civilians than first-strike military operations against unorganized armed groups. But that would be a difference of degree, not of kind — and thus far from a convincing basis for applying IHL to the former and not the latter. I’m also not sure whether the claim is even empirically sound. It is at least equally plausible to assume that states are more willing to use military force against unorganized individuals whom they can assume will not fight back (or will not fight back effectively) than against an organized armed group with the capacity to respond to a first strike with military operations of its own.

Adil’s desire to protect human beings from the dangers of military operations is laudable, but his claim that IHL should apply to first strikes against organized armed groups cannot be sustained. Not only have states insisted that IHL applies only to hostilities that reach a certain level of intensity, the idea that protecting individuals from the danger of military operations requires eliminating the intensity requirement is underinclusive. Those dangers exist for all military operations, even those against unorganized armed groups. So the only consistent — if still objectionable — position is that IHL applies to any military operation launched by a state, regardless of its object. I’m curious whether Adil would be willing to take that position.

President Trump Could (and Might Actually) Unilaterally Recognize Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel

by Julian Ku

emblem_of_jerusalem-svgAs we all continue to digest the stunning election results from last week, I continue to focus on ways in which a President Trump could use his substantial powers over foreign affairs in unique and unprecedented ways.  Withdrawing from trade agreements could be a major theme of his administration.  Somewhat less noticed is the possibility that a President Trump fulfills his campaign promise to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

I don’t want to get into the merits of whether Jerusalem is in fact part of Israel under international law. I once wrote a whole legal memo on a topic related to Jerusalem as an intern at the U.S. State Department that is probably gathering dust somewhere, and the contents of which I’ve already largely forgotten.

For our purposes, what matters is that the U.S. Supreme Court recently confirmed in Zivotofsky v. Kerry that the U.S. Constitution grants the President the exclusive power to recognize foreign nations and governments.  This power includes, the Court held, the exclusive power to withhold recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  Congress cannot infringe on this power by requiring, for instance, that the President issue passports designating Jerusalem as part of Israel.  Hence, the exclusive recognition power extends to recognizing how far a foreign sovereign’s rule extend, such as whether or not Israel has sovereignty over Jerusalem.

The Court’s ruling in Zivotofsky is not exactly controversial.  But it seems uniquely relevant as it is entirely plausible that Donald Trump will actually carry out his campaign promise to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there.   Most U.S. Presidents pledge to do so during their campaigns, and then are advised by their State Department after taking office that to do so would undermine the Middle East peace process or something. This seems less likely if, as rumors suggest, famously pro-Israel former NY mayor Rudolph Giuliani is appointed Secretary of State).

It might also violate U.N. Resolution 242 and other UN resolutions.  Certainly, the Palestinian Authority is ready to raise all holy hell if Trump carries out his promise.  But the U.S. President is also authorized, under U.S. constitutional law, to violate or abrogate UN Security  Council resolutions, if 242 and other resolutions actually prohibited such recognition.

It is also worth noting the President’s recognition power could be applied elsewhere in the world’s many ongoing disputed conflicts.  President Trump could, for instance, unilaterally recognize Taiwan as an independent country (assuming Taiwan declared as such). Or he could recognize that Crimea is part of Russia.

Like the swift recognition of Jerusalem, I am not giving an opinion here on whether any of these policies are wise or prudent. I will hazard a guess, however, and say that of all of the recently elected US presidents, Trump is the most likely to go out on a limb and push the “recognition” button in unexpected ways.

Would Secession by California and Oregon Be Legal?

by Julian Ku

imgresFollowing Donald Trump’s stunning election victory, ballot measures are already being proposed in California and Oregon to secede from the United States.  Ordinarily, one can just chuckle at these measures as the actions of a radical fringe, but it would be hard to overestimate the depth of anger and opposition to a President Trump in states like California, where he lost by probably 20 percentage points.  If such a measure got on the ballot, we might see a serious campaign akin to Scotland’s 2014 referendum on staying in the United Kingdom.

But it seems settled under US constitutional law that unilateral secession from the United States is unconstitutional.  In the 1869 case Texas v. White, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled:

When Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation. The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration or revocation, except through revolution or through consent of the States.

Some might argue, however, that a unilateral secession by California is authorized by the international law right of self-determination.  This is a much more difficult point to analyze, but I think that neither California nor Oregon would qualify to exercise this murky international law right, at least with respect to seceding.  The Canada Supreme Court’s decision in the Quebec case is probably most on point here.

A state whose government represents the whole of the people or peoples resident within its territory, on a basis of equality and without discrimination, and respects the principles of self-determination in its own internal arrangements, is entitled to the protection under international law of its territorial integrity.

In other words, international law guarantees to every state its “territorial integrity” and it can’t be overridden by “self determination” unless serious freedoms or discrimination against residents in the seceding region are being infringed.  Moreover, this right has generally only been exercised by states under colonization or foreign occupation.  The right might also exist if the state is facing the threat of egregious human rights violations (e.g. Kosovo), but the right in even that circumstance is controversial globally.

But I will admit I am not an expert on the international law of self-determination. If anyone has a good argument for why California or Oregon qualifies to exercise this right under international law, please feel free to share in the comments.

So I am going to go out on a limb here to say that a referendum to secede California or Oregon from the United States is both unconstitutional and unauthorized by international law.  Still, just getting such a measure on the ballot would be significant because they would force the U.S. government to take a position on the legality of such measures. This could affect US government positions on foreign self-determination movements in places like Hong Kong, for instance.

We live in interesting (and dangerous) times.

How President Obama Gave President-elect Trump the Power to Undo the Iran Deal and Paris Agreement

by Julian Ku

As regular readers of this blog probably guessed, I did not support Donald Trump for President (I didn’t support Hillary Clinton either, but that’s another story). I did, however, take the possibility of his election seriously and published a couple of posts (see this one here) analyzing the legal issues raised by his campaign promises to withdraw from existing U.S. international agreements such as the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In general, I concluded in my prior posts that President-elect Trump has the clear constitutional authority to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Change Agreement without seeking the approval of Congress.  It is somewhat less clear, but it is certainly possible that a President-elect Trump has the constitutional authority to withdraw from trade agreements like NAFTA without Congress, but that is less certain.

It is important to keep in mind that the reason a President Trump can unilaterally withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Change Agreement is that President Obama chose to avoid submitting either agreement to Congress or the Senate for approval.  Indeed, President Obama’s lawyers went even farther to clarify that the Iran Nuclear Deal was a nonbinding political agreement and that the emissions targets in the Paris Climate Change Agreement were also legally nonbinding.

This important concession was made to avoid any need to submit these controversial agreements to approval by a (very) hostile Congress.  At the time, the legal sophistication and dexterity of the Obama team’s strategy was lauded, and I supported their legal position even though I disagreed with the policies embodied in the agreements.  But I warned that the cleverness of their legal positions came at a price: a future President could unilaterally undue both agreements without the approval of Congress and without even incurring US violations of those agreements since both are largely legally nonbinding.

Well, the day to pay the cost of this strategy is at hand.  Trump has won the presidency and there is no legal obstacle to his unilateral reversal of two of President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievements.  No filibuster will save them. And President Obama will have no one to blame but himself and his legal team for this fact.

The larger lesson from this saga is that legal rules and processes matter more than even we lawyers acknowledge.  A smart political achievement that cuts the corners on the law will come at a cost.  Past and future presidents should probably keep this in mind.

International Law and the U.S. Election: Trumpxit, Syria and State Marijuana Laws

by Julian Ku

Those of us here in the US are pretty obsessed with tomorrow’s U.S. presidential election (and from what I can tell, those of you outside the States are pretty interested as well). International law has not been a huge issue in the election, but I do think tomorrow’s result could have at least three big impacts on the international legal system.


As I have noted in earlier posts, Republican nominee Donald Trump has been notable for pledging to renegotiate and possibly terminate numerous U.S. international agreements.  Most clearly, he has pledged to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Iran Nuclear Agreement. He has also pledged at various times to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, the US-Japan Defense Treaty, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

As a legal matter, there is no doubt in my mind that a President Trump would have the legal power to terminate the Paris Agreement and the Iran Agreement on his first day in office without any authorization by Congress.  Both of those agreements were concluded as sole executive agreements, and most of the provisions are also legally nonbinding political agreements.

I also think that under existing US precedent, a President Trump could unilaterally terminate US participation in NATO and the US-Japan Defense Treaty.  As I noted earlier, the US Supreme Court in Goldwater v. Carter refused to block a similar presidential termination of the US-Republic of China (Taiwan) Defense treaty and although that case is not entirely clear, it seems likely that the president can do this on his own.

As I also noted, however, it is much less clear if the President can unilaterally withdraw from NAFTA and other trade agreements because those agreements have been codified by statute.  This would raise the “Brexit” scenario currently embroiling the UK.

In any event, I think “Trumpxit” is probably one of the biggest consequences of electing the GOP nominee because his powers in this area are largely unilateral and do not require Congress.

US Military Action in Syria

As Deborah has explained on this blog in recent weeks, the US is currently engaged in some sort of “armed conflict” in Syria that doesn’t seem to clearly fit into the Geneva Convention’s categories for either international or non-international armed conflicts.  On a domestic legal front, the US Congress has not specifically authorized the action in Syria as well, making its domestic legality questionable at the very least.

The next President will have to decide how to frame the Syria conflict under international and US constitutional law. My guess is that both Clinton and Trump would follow the Obama approach of treating the conflict as a non-international armed conflict against the Islamic State that is authorized by the 2001 congressional authorization for the use of force.  But this is something the next President will have to engage with seriously, since there continue to be serious doubts about the legality of US actions in Syria.

More US Violations of Drug Control Treaty

Five more US states have referenda tomorrow to legalize recreational marijuana.  If approved, this would mean nine US states plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, and many more have legalized medical marijuana.

It seems clear that continued non-federal enforcement of marijuana prohibitions in these states would violate US obligations under drug control treaties.  There are at least three that arguably conflict with legalized marijuana: The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.  As this fine Brookings Institution report notes, the US is going to be in clear violation of these treaties soon and needs to renegotiate them to accommodate US state laws.  Presumably, this is on the agenda of the next President (low on the agenda, but on there somewhere).

Ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty

Most projections indicate the US Senate will remain deeply divided (maybe even 50/50) between Democrats and Republicans.  If so, I don’t think there is a high likelihood that proponents of US ratification of the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea will have enough votes to push it over the 67 vote threshold.  We may see another effort, however, if the Democrats unexpectedly pick up a strong majority of seats (say in the 53 plus range).  There continues to be strong support in the US Navy and in US energy circles for US ratification so it is still on the agenda.

o o o

I am sure I am missing a few issues. Readers should feel free to add in the comments any other international law issues that are likely to be affected by tomorrow’s results.

How Dualism May Save the United Kingdom from Brexit

by Julian Ku

Early in my international law education here in the U.S, I learned that dualism was an unfortunate concept that led to the U.S. violating international law obligations by failing to enforce those obligations (usually treaties) domestically.  But today’s blockbuster decision from a UK court in Miller v. Secretary of State on Brexit should remind us that dualism can also work to protect international law. How?  Well, if a country has many international obligations but is now seeking to withdraw from those obligations, dualism makes it harder to withdraw from those obligations.

In Miller,  the court noted that although the UK Prime Minister usually has the unilateral authority to enter into and withdraw from treaties, that power cannot be used in anyway that would affect or change domestic UK law. Quoting an earlier decision, the High Court today noted that under the UK constitution, the Crown (through her ministers) has the sole and unreviewable power to make treaties. No Parliamentary assent or approval is needed. However,

[T]he Royal Prerogative, whilst it embraces the making of treaties, does not extend to altering the law or conferring rights upon individuals or depriving individuals of rights which they enjoy in domestic law without the intervention of Parliament.  Treaties, as it is sometimes expressed, are not self-executing.  Quite simply, a treaty is not part of English law unless and until it has been incorporated into law by legislation. 

(Citing J.H. Rayner (Mincing Lane) Ltd. v Department of Trade and Industry [1990] 2 AC 418).

This basic principle seems to me crucial to the UK court’s holding today that the Crown (through her ministers) does not have the power to give notice under Article 50.  Although the Crown would ordinarily have this power, the fact that triggering Article 50 would alter the domestic law of the UK makes this a question for Parliament.

In the US system, the President holds similar powers as the Crown and has similarly exercised unilateral powers to withdraw from treaties.  But because treaties in the US have a vaguely monist character — they are self-executing and they have been approved by the Senate — it is harder to argue that the President cannot terminate treaties even if that termination would affect domestic US law. Why?  Because if the treaty was “monist” and self-executing when made, then it is less troubling to unmake that treaty without going back to Congress.  Unlike the UK, treaties are the supreme law of the land and directly preempt state law and earlier in time federal statutes.  The kind of argument wielded by the Court in Miller just wouldn’t have any purchase here.

In any event, I don’t want to stretch this argument too far.  The US may be facing its own Brexit moment soon if a President Trump makes good on his threat to withdraw the US from NAFTA.  And if that happens (god forbid), expect pro-NAFTA folks to raise the case for congressional approval of any termination.  But all in all, I think the dualist nature of the UK system aided the cause of the anti-Brexiteers in this case, which is a somewhat surprising result if you grew up learning that dualism was one of the great obstacles to a stronger international legal system.