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International Law in U.S. Courts

Preparing for Trumpxit: Could a President Trump Withdraw the U.S. from International Treaties and Agreements?

by Julian Ku

As we face the first U.S. presidential debate tonight (on my home campus of Hofstra University!),  the possibility of a President Trump seems more and more real.  Although U.S. election analysts all make Hillary Clinton the favorite, most of them continue to give Trump a very realistic chance of winning on November 8.  I am not a Trump supporter, but I think it would be irresponsible not to think seriously about the legal policy consequences of his election to the presidency.  In particular, candidate Trump has promised or threatened to withdraw the U.S. from numerous international treaties and agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization, NATO, the U.S.- Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and the Iran Nuclear Deal (I am sure I am missing a few more).  Unlike our friends in Britain who weren’t really planning for Brexit, I think those of us here in the U.S. should start planning, before it happens, for “Trumpxit.”

As an initial matter, we should consider to what extent a President Trump could unilaterally withdraw the U.S. from international treaties and agreements.  I notice that most commentary, including this scary piece by Eric Posner in the NYT from this past spring, assume the President has this unilateral power. But I do not think this issue is not entirely settled as a matter of U.S. constitutional law.

In the 1979 decision Goldwater v. Carter, the U.S. Supreme Court dodged the question of whether a President could unilaterally terminate the U.S.-Republic of China (Taiwan) mutual defense treaty without consulting or getting the approval of the U.S. Senate by invoking the political question doctrine and (in a concurrence) the judicial ripeness doctrine.  No U.S. court has, as far as I am aware, reached the merits of this question.  I think scholars are somewhat divided, and historical practice is mixed.

President George W. Bush did set a precedent in favor of presidentialism, however, by withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 without getting the approval of the Senate and President Carter did likewise in the 1979 Taiwan defense treaty.    It seems likely that the president does have unilateral authority to withdraw the U.S. from treaties which specify terms for withdrawal and which don’t require further alterations or changes to domestic U.S. law.

Defense Treaties/Military Alliances

This suggests that a President Trump could terminate NATO and the US-Japan Defense Treaty pursuant to those treaties’ withdrawal provisions.  Interestingly, the NATO Treaty Article 13 specifies that “Any Party” can terminate their membership with one year’s notice.  That notice must be sent to the U.S. Government. So I guess a President Trump could give himself a one year’s notice?

Because the issue has not been settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, another Goldwater v. Carter type lawsuit could be brought.  It seems less likely that such a case would be dismissed on political question grounds given recent Supreme Court jurisprudence, but I think the smart money would be on a President Trump prevailing on the merits on a challenge to a presidential NATO or US-Japan Defense Treaty termination.

Nonbinding/Sole Executive Agreements

On the other end of the spectrum, I think there is no legal problem with a President Trump  unilaterally withdrawing from the Paris Agreement or the  JCPOA (aka the Iran Nuclear Deal).  As I have argued in the past (here and here), both agreements are likely to be “nonbinding” political agreements, and can be terminated at the new President’s sole discretion.   This would be true, even if the agreements were treated as binding international agreements, since both agreements have withdrawal provisions.  Since the Senate or Congress never approved either agreement, there is no need to ask them for approval to terminate it either.

Trade Agreements 

The hardest question here has to do with trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO.  Most commentary, including this paper by Gary Hufbauer, have assumed a President Trump could unilaterally terminate all trade agreements (see some dissenting views from Rob Howse here).  Unlike the Paris agreement or the JCPOA, these are unquestionably binding agreements that are approved by Congress.  But unlike a traditional arms control treaty like NATO, withdrawing from NAFTA or the WTO could require some meaningful changes to U.S. domestic law.  Moreover, unlike a traditional treaty, the President engages in trade agreement negotiations under the “trade promotion” authority enacted by Congress prior to the conclusion of any trade agreement.  In other words, the President could be understood to be negotiating pursuant to a delegated congressional power as opposed to under his inherent constitutional powers.

For instance, in the most recent version of the “fast track” enacted by Congress to allow President Obama to finalize the TPP, Section 103(b) states:

“[w]henever the President determines that one or more existing duties or other import restrictions of any foreign country or the United States are unduly burdening and restricting the foreign trade of the United States and that the purposes, policies, priorities, and objectives of this title will be promoted thereby, the President

(A) may enter into trade agreements with foreign countries before— (i) July 1, 2018…

(Emphasis added).  This language means that there is at least a colorable argument in favor of requiring a President Trump to seek congressional approval before withdrawing from a trade agreement like NAFTA or the WTO.  To be sure, both trade agreements have specific withdrawal provisions similar to those found in the NATO treaty. But the fact that the president is acting pursuant to his congressional authorized “trade promotion authority” suggests that Congress did not necessarily delegate the power of termination to the President alone.

Moreover, the implementing legislation for some trade agreements further suggests Congress has reserved some residual “termination” power.  In Section 125 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, for instance, Congress may terminate U.S. participation in the WTO with a joint resolution of both Houses.  This does not necessarily mean the U.S. is automatically out, but since the President can’t (under the terms of the law) join the WTO until Congress approves, presumably withdrawing that approval terminates U.S. participation.  It is all somewhat uncertain, but again, I think there is colorable argument that a President Trump could not unilaterally withdraw the U.S. from the WTO,  NAFTA and other trade agreements.


None of this may matter, of course, if we get a President Clinton instead.  But as the possibility of a President Trump gets closer to reality, we need to start thinking about the legal authority he would have to fulfill his campaign promises, and the limits (if any) on that authority,


New Essay: What Is an International Crime? (A Revisionist History)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have posted the essay on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The question “what is an international crime?” has two aspects. First, it asks us to identify which acts qualify as international crimes. Second, and more fundamentally, it asks us to identify what is distinctive about an international crime – what makes an international crime different from a transnational crime or an ordinary domestic crime.

Considerable disagreement exists concerning the first issue, particularly with regard to whether torture and terrorism should be considered international crimes. But nearly all states, international tribunals, and ICL scholars take the same position concerning the second issue: an act qualifies as an international crime if – and only if – that act is universally criminal under international law. The international-law aspect of the definition distinguishes an international crime from a domestic crime: although some acts that qualify as domestic crimes are universally criminal – murder, for example – their universality derives not from international law, but from the fact that every state in the world has independently decided to criminalize them. The universality aspect of the definition, in turn, distinguishes an international crime from a transnational crime: although a transnational crime such as drug trafficking involves an act that international law deems criminal through a suppression convention, international law does not deem the prohibited act universally criminal, because a suppression convention does not bind states that decline to ratify it.

This definition of an international crime, however, leads to an obvious question: how exactly does an act become universally criminal under international law? Two very different answers are possible – and the goal of this article is to adjudicate between them. The first answer, what I call the “direct criminalization thesis” (DCT), is that certain acts are universally criminal because they are directly criminalized by international law itself, regardless of whether states criminalize them. Nearly every modern ICL scholar takes this position, as does the ILC.

The second answer, what I call the “national criminalization thesis” (NCT), rejects the idea that international law bypasses domestic law by directly criminalizing particular acts. According to the NCT, certain acts are universally criminal under international law – and thus qualify as true international crimes – because international law obligates every state in the world to criminalize and prosecute them. No modern ICL scholar has taken this approach, although intimations of it date back to Grotius.

Which thesis is correct? This article argues that it depends on whether we adopt a naturalist or positivist approach to international law. Although every international criminal tribunal has insisted that international crimes are positivist, not naturalist, phenomena, no extant theory of positivism – not even so-called “instant custom” – is capable of justifying the idea that certain acts are directly criminalized by international law. On the contrary: if we take positivism seriously, the NCT provides the only coherent explanation of how international law can deem certain acts to be universally criminal. Maintaining fidelity to the DCT, therefore, requires rejecting positivism in favour of naturalism – with all of naturalism’s inherent limitations.

I have given a number of talks on this topic over the past couple of years, and my positivist critique of direct criminalisation has always proved controversial. The argument in the essay has evolved substantially, but I doubt it will be any more popular. I still continue to be surprised that, with the exception of a somewhat skeptical Roger O’Keefe, no scholar and no court has ever attempted to provide a comprehensive defence of the idea that certain acts (international crimes) are directly criminalised by international law. The idea is simply taken for granted based on a single statement in the IMT judgment and on the work of the International Law Commission. Indeed, as I try to show, direct criminalisation seems to be little more than an article of faith — a naturalist artifact that has proven very useful for the ICL project, which is predicated on the superiority of international law over domestic law. Indeed, my suspicion, merely noted in the essay, is that ICL is inherently naturalist, at least in the form that has the kind of sovereignty-limiting muscle its acolytes believe it should have.

The essay is very long — 30,000 words, nearly 400 footnotes. I’ve submitted it for consideration by AJIL, but I am sure I will revise it substantially before it is ultimately published there or somewhere else. So comments and criticisms are, as always, most welcome.

President Obama Calls out the Senate on Treaties

by Duncan Hollis

Earlier today, President Obama took time out during his commencement address at the Air Force Academy to make a pointed plea for the value of treaty-making.  Here’s the relevant excerpt from his remarks:

By the way, one of the most effective ways to lead and work with others is through treaties that advance our interests.  Lately, there’s been a mindset in Congress that just about any international treaty is somehow a violation of American sovereignty, and so the Senate almost never approves treaties anymore.  They voted down a treaty to protect disabled Americans, including our veterans, while Senator and World War II veteran Bob Dole was sitting right there in the Senate chambers in a wheelchair.

We don’t always realize it, but treaties help make a lot of things in our lives possible that we take for granted — from international phone calls to mail.  Those are good things.  Those are not a threat to our sovereignty.  I think we can all agree on that.

But also from NATO to treaties controlling nuclear weapons, treaties help keep us safe.  So if we’re truly concerned about China’s actions in the South China Sea, for example, the Senate should help strengthen our case by approving the Law of the Sea Convention — as our military leaders have urged.  And by the way, these treaties are not a new thing.  The power to make treaties is written into our Constitution.  Our Founding Fathers ratified lots of treaties.  So it’s time for the Senate to do its job and help us advance American leadership, rather than undermine it.  (Applause.)

Three paragraphs is not much to fully articulate U.S. interests in treaty-making (let alone give a balanced overview of the arguments over UNCLOS).  Thus, I think the more noteworthy thing here is the fact that the remarks are coming from the President himself.  It’s one thing to call out the Senate on a specific treaty like the Disabilities Convention, but this slap is more systemic. President Obama has not had a good record when it comes to making treaties through the Article II Advice and Consent process.  With the exception of the new START treaty, the Senate has refused to act on most treaties, including certain types of treaties (e.g., tax treaties, fish treaties) that in prior Administrations were entirely uncontroversial.  Thus, we might see this speech as a late shift in strategy, where the White House is moving off treaty-specific pro’s and con’s to reconstruct this issue in constitutional terms.  I’m not too sanguine that the move will be any more successful at getting votes on pending treaties, but the Senate’s response (if any) will bear watching.

What do others think?  Is there anything I’m missing here?

[UPDATE: An astute reader points out that I was incorrect to cite fish treaties as an example of Senate hostility to treaty-making.  In fact, all four treaties that have received Senate advice and consent since 2012 involved fish; in other words, fish treaties are the only treaties that have gotten through in the last four years.  Tax treaties and treaties on scientific cooperation and conservation, which in the past were, like fish treaties, non-controversial, are better examples of the ongoing hostility to treaty-making]

Stay in Your Lane! When Political Scientists Become Bad International Lawyers

by Julian Ku

Next month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, a leading journal of highbrow foreign policy in the U.S., features an important article on the United States as “The Once and Future Superpower” (subscription).  Based on their forthcoming book, professors Steven Brooks and William Wohlforth of Dartmouth College argue that China is not going to displace the United States as the world’s leading superpower in the near or even mid-range future.

As an article analyzing global power politics, it seems fairly (although not completely) persuasive.  But I was struck by how the otherwise carefully argued piece descends into complete gibberish when it tries to explain how “international law” can be a tool for the United States to constrain and manage China’s activities in the South China Sea.

And if Beijing tried to extract economic gains from contested regions [in the South China Sea], Washington could facilitate a process along the lines of the proportional punishment strategy it helped make part of the World Trade Organization: let the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague, determine the gains of China’s illegal actions, place a temporary tariff on Chinese exports to collect exactly that much revenue while the sovereignty claims are being adjudicated, and then distribute them once the matter is settled before the International Court of Justice.


In this one sentence, the authors propose that an arbitral tribunal convened under UNCLOS issue an award granting money damages to the Philippines. This is somewhat unlikely, but it is theoretically possible.  But who exactly is going to place a “temporary tariff on Chinese exports”?  The United States? A country that is not party to the dispute between China and the Philippines? And why exactly wouldn’t this cause a trade war with China and why wouldn’t it violate the WTO Agreement? And when exactly did the International Court of Justice get involved given that China has not consented to that court’s compulsory jurisdiction?  

Not only is this not a plausible mechanism for sanctions against China (the world’s second largest economy), but it is not a plausible mechanism for sanctions against almost any country in the world.  It has never been done before outside of the trade context, where every country specifically agreed to the trade sanction system in advance! 

The authors’ casual, offhand explanation of how “international law” is an asset that can be used for pursuing policy goals irrespective of existing legal institutional frameworks and legal principles is something I’ve noticed before in political science literature.  The “law” argument is not a bad one in principle, but it requires a deeper understanding of law as an independent analytical field than political scientists are willing to give it credit for.

As it stands now, this otherwise interesting article loses credibility with policymakers because the authors didn’t bother to try to understand how law and legal institutions are organized.  Maybe they should just skip over the legal stuff, and stay in their own lanes.  Or maybe they could find a reader up there in New Hampshire with a J.D. (I’m always available!).

Justice Scalia’s Rule of Law Efforts

by Duncan Hollis

Scalia photo

Justice Scalia’s passing comes as a shock and is generating tributes across ideological lines. Indeed, whether you agreed with his opinions or not (and I was not a fan of his thinking on cases like Sosa or Bond), Justice Scalia’s opinions deserved to be read.  Lines like “never-say-never jurisprudence” and “oh-so-close-to-relevant cases” are some of my personal favorites.  Readers should feel free to add their own in the comment section.

In the meantime, I wanted to pay tribute to a side of Justice Scalia that has garnered relatively little attention — his dedication to promoting the rule of law.  For the last sixteen years, Temple Law has run a rule of law program in Beijing hosted at Tsinghua University’s School of Law.  We offer an LLM to classes of 50 Chinese judges, prosecutors and lawyers, in an effort to acquaint them with the U.S. legal system and the rule of law more generally.  As part of the program, the Chinese students visit Philadelphia for the summer, which includes a day trip to D.C.  And nearly every year the highlight of that D.C. trip was an hour long private audience with Justice Scalia.  Justice Scalia would speak for a few minutes but most of the time was devoted to answering student questions. We conducted the sessions off the record, so I do not feel comfortable opining on who said what, but I always came away impressed by the honesty, vigor and intellectual quality of the exchange. I was universally impressed with Justice Scalia’s wit and candor.  He offered the students a true model of free speech in the U.S. legal tradition.  I don’t know if Temple’s China program was the only time he did this, or if this effort was one of many to expand the rule of law.  But I can say it was a highly effective one.  And so, as the nation mourns the passing of one of its most opinionated justices, I wanted to offer my own small tribute of appreciation to a man who, for whatever else he believed, was committed to the idea of democracy and the values of liberty and equality on which it stood.

Dear Fox News South Carolina: Shariah Law is Not “Also Known As International Law”

by Julian Ku

So local TV news in the U.S. is hardly the most sophisticated part of the U.S. media.  Still, I was taken aback by this passage from a news report from WACH Fox Channel 57  in South Carolina.

COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) – A measure that would ban the use of Sharia Law in South Carolina court rooms is working its way through the State House.

Sharia Law, also known as International Law, is closely tied to Islam. It covers an entire way of life, but one rule under Sharia Law is if someone is caught stealing, they would have their hand cut off as punishment.

(Emphasis added).  You can also watch the video version of the report.

It is worth noting that most state laws banning “international law” have been invalidated under the U.S. Constitution free exercise of religion clause because federal courts have held that the ban on “international law” is really aimed at “sharia” law.  This report confirms that this is indeed the case in South Carolina, and that some state legislators may not even know the difference between sharia law and international law.

One other note for our non-U.S. readers:  South Carolina is the third U.S. state to hold primary elections in our presidential race.  Its voters have a pretty big role in deciding who will be the nominees.  Just noting this fact, without comment.


Doe v. Nestle: Corporate ATS Cases Just Keep Lingering

by Julian Ku

The Supreme Court this week let stand a U.S.Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision reinstating an Alien Tort Statute lawsuit alleging corporate complicity in the use of child slave labor in various African countries from which they purchased cocoa products.

The high court left in place a December 2014 ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that refused to dismiss a lawsuit against Nestle, Archer-Daniels-Midland Co and Cargill Inc filed by former victims of child slavery.

The plaintiffs, who were originally from Mali, contend the companies aided and abetted human rights violations through their active involvement in purchasing cocoa from Ivory Coast. While aware of the child slavery problem, the companies offered financial and technical assistance to local farmers in a bid to guarantee the cheapest source of cocoa, the plaintiffs said.

The arguments in favor of, and against, Supreme Court review are amply discussed by John Bellinger here.  In essence, the corporate defendants argued that the Ninth Circuit had misapplied the Supreme Court’s 2013 landmark ATS decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell.  That decision had imposed a “touch and concern” extraterritoriality case before permitting such an ATS lawsuit in U.S. courts.  The defendants also argued that the Supreme Court should clarify the intent standards required for determining corporate aiding and abetting liability, and that there is a split between circuits over whether corporations can be held liable for violations under the ATS.

I am not sure about whether this case was “cert-worthy”.  The Kiobel issue seems mostly about whether the plaintiffs should be allowed to amend their complaint. There is a question of how Morrison interacts with the Kiobel standard, but the split with other circuits isn’t quite as developed as it could be.  I think the corporate liability issue is a circuit split, but where the Second Circuit stands on that issue is still a little up in the air.  I do think the Ninth Circuit is mistaken on the intent standard, but again, I am not sure how broad that standard is yet.

But it is certainly true that by letting this Ninth Circuit decision stand, the Supreme Court is passing up an opportunity to shut down corporate ATS litigation in a more definitive way than it did in Kiobel.  So corporate ATS cases are mostly dead, but not quite.

Gaza Flotilla Activists’ Lawsuit Against Israel Will Probably Fail for Lack of U.S. Jurisdiction (Updated)

by Julian Ku

[Please see the update below] Three U.S. citizens, and one Belgian national, have filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. against the State of Israel alleging various injuries and damages suffered during an Israeli commando raid on their U.S.-registered ship.  The plaintiffs were activists who were sailing their vessel in support of the Palestinians on the Gaza Strip suffering under what the plaintiffs allege is an Israeli blockade. I don’t have a copy of the complaint, but according to this Washington Post report, there are a couple of pretty big legal obstacles for the plaintiffs to overcome.

“The attack on the high seas was unjustified and illegal under international law,” lawyer Steven M. Schneebaum of Washington wrote in a 21-page complaint, which alleged that the military operations injured more than 150 protesters and included torture, cruel or degrading treatment, arbitrary arrest and assault.

The first problem for the plaintiffs will be overcoming the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which bars U.S. courts from hearing cases against foreign sovereigns like Israel unless certain exceptions apply.  I can’t tell exactly from the report which exception the plaintiffs are trying to invoke, but the allegations of “torture, cruel and degrading treatment” etc. suggests the complaint is trying to allege such an egregious violation of international law that any defense of immunity will be deemed to have been “waived” by Israel.   I am highly doubtful that this argument will succeed, and indeed, I am fairly sure it is foreclosed by precedents in the D.C. Circuit (and elsewhere).

It is possible that the plaintiffs will seek to get jurisdiction under the “state-sponsored terrorism” exception in 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(a)(1).  This might seem to apply, if we accept the plaintiffs’ claims as true, except that Israel would also have be designated by the U.S. government as a “state sponsor” of terrorism in order for the exception to apply.   Israel, needless to say, has not been so designated by the U.S. government, so this exception doesn’t work for the plaintiffs either.

It also appears the plaintiffs may have a statute of limitations problem as well, but I am not sure.  Also, was that ship U.S.-registered? If so, which tort law would apply? Or is it a claim under international law?

So I am pretty doubtful that this lawsuit will survive a motion by Israel to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction.   Indeed, I wonder at its even being filed, given the jurisdictional problems it faces.  But perhaps I am missing something, and if so, feel free to let me know in the comments.

[Update: Jordan Paust and Ted Folkman point out in the comments that the plaintiffs are probably invoking either the “international agreements” exception in the FSIA or the “noncommercial tort” exception in 28 USC § 1605(a)(5), which allows an exception to immunity for claims “in which money damages are sought against a foreign state for personal injury or death, or damage to or loss of property, occurring in the United States and caused by the tortious act or omission of that foreign state…”

These are a much more plausible claims, and they depends (as Ted points out) on the idea that the raid on the US-flagged vessel means that the alleged tort occurred “in the United States.”   The leading decision is Argentine Republic v. Amerada Hess, which involved an Argentine missile strike on a Liberian-flagged ship owned by U.S. interests. That case held though that the “high seas” is not “in the United States” for purposes of the FSIA.  The only variation on this point I can see is that that the attack occurred on a U.S.-flagged vessel, as opposed to the “high seas.” I doubt this will fly, but I suppose it is worth a shot if I were the plaintiffs.]  

China Launches Op-Ed Rebuttal to Philippines’ Arbitration Case

by Julian Ku

The UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal formed to consider the dispute between the Philippines and China gave China until January 1 to file a response to the arguments made by the Philippines at its most recent merits hearing.  China had not showed up at any of the hearings, nor has it submitted any official written arguments to the Tribunal.   I don’t know if China will file any submissions (don’t hold your breath), but its state-run flagship The People’s Daily has launched an op-ed fusillade this week attacking the Philippines. Perhaps, this is China’s response to the arguments made at the arbitral hearing.

The first editorial, “Grandstanding Cannot Cover Up Illegal Moves”, is focused on vilifying the Philippines’ for bringing this arbitration, and the remarks of its foreign minister Albert F. del Rosario. The criticism is mostly non-legal, accusing Mr. del Rosario of bad faith, speaking untruths, and being an all-around bad guy.  But the oped does contain the germ of a legal argument justifying China’s defiance of the UNCLOS tribunal:

State sovereignty is a core principle in contemporary international law. No force is above a sovereign state. No country, organization or individual could expect China to stand by and allow its interests to be harmed. Here is a piece of advice for people like Mr. del Rosario: Don’t misread the situation. The Chinese government and people are adamant about safeguarding China’s rights and interests in the South China Sea. All calculating moves against that would end up in failure.

The second editorial, China’s Sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands Brooks No Denial, offers more of a legal and factual argument.  Interestingly, the editorial relies heavily on the legal force of the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the 1945 Potsdam Declaration as the basis for China’s South China Sea claims over the disputed Spratly/Nansha Islands.  The theory here is that the Spratly/Nansha islands belonged to China, and that Japan forcibly occupied them during WWII.  Cairo and Potsdam required Japan to return all “stolen” territories, ergo, the South China Sea islands go back to China.

The Philippines (apparently) argued at the merits hearing that the Nansha Islands were “terra nullius” and were not included in the “stolen” territories that Japan had to return to China.  Moreover, the Philippines argued that the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations were not legally binding.

China responds with a factual claim (China has always had sovereignty over the islands) as well as legal claim (the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations are legally binding). This latter argument is not precisely accurate, although it is true that Japan promised to comply with Potsdam in its surrender.  But none of this changes the fact that neither Cairo nor Potsdam say anything about the Spratlys/Nansha specifically, and seem a weak legal basis for China’s claims to those islands.

In any event, the editorial is largely rhetorical rather than legal. It concludes by rallying the Chinese people against mysterious international forces threatening their sovereignty:

[T]he determination of the Chinese people to safeguard its territorial integrity is as firm as a rock. Only the Chinese people have the final say when it comes to China’s territory. Any attempt to negate China’s sovereignty, rights and interests through a so-called “arbitration award” will be nothing but wishful thinking, just like flowers in a mirror and reflection of the moon in water. By going back on its own words and confusing the concepts for the purpose of territorial expansion, the Philippines will only end up bringing disgrace on itself.

Gotta love the metaphors, although I doubt very much the Arbitral Tribunal will be in any way moved by them.

State Department Confirms that Senators Rubio and Cotton were Right, Professors Ackerman and Golove were Wrong

by Julian Ku

I can’t resist one final post to complete an earlier discussion between myself and professors Bruce Ackerman and David Golove on the legal status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.  As several others in the blogosphere have noted, the U.S. State Department has confirmed, in a letter to Congress, the following:

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document. The JPCOA reflects political commitments between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China) and the European Union. As you know, the United States has a long-standing practice of addressing sensitive problems in negotiations that culminate in political commitments.

(Thanks to Michael Ramsey at the Originalism Blog and Matthew Weybrecht at Lawfare for noting and posting this letter).

This letter confirms that, contra the argument advanced by Professors Ackerman and Golove in the Atlantic and on this blog, the JCPOA is NOT a congressional-executive agreement authorized by Congress when it passed the Iran Review Act last spring.  Rather, the entire JCPOA is a “political commitment.”

As Professor Ramsey correctly notes, this means that Senator Marco Rubio was quite right in saying that, if elected President, he could withdraw the JCPOA without violating U.S. or international law.  It also means that Senator Tom Cotton was quite right, as a practical matter, in his famous open letter saying that the next US president could withdraw the agreement.  And it means (less importantly in the grand scheme of things but important for me), that I was right in saying that the JCPOA is not a congressional-executive agreement.

The larger issue is this: If the President is going to go around making political commitments, that’s fine.  But he should be clear that this is what he is doing so that smart people like Professors Ackerman and Golove don’t get confused into thinking he is making a binding agreement..  As Dan Bodansky explains, the U.S. is going to make the Paris Agreement a political commitment (at least with regards to emissions reductions).  As I’ve been arguing here and elsewhere, the U.S. should be clear about what it is doing in Paris, and what it is not.

More on Why the U.S. Is Not Violating the Outer Space Treaty By Allowing Asteroid Mining

by Julian Ku

I’ve received some very good (though pretty much all critical) comments to my original post defending the consistency of the recently enacted U.S. Space Act with the Outer Space Treaty. I will concede that my reading of the statute and treaty is not exactly a cut and dried simple legal issue. But I think too much of the reporting on the Space Act has made it seem like it is a clear violation the other way.  (See here, here, and here.)

One thing that few of these articles note is that the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology did study the question of the Outer Space Treaty when it reported out this legislation.  They reasonably concluded that allowing private companies to exploit celestial bodies is not a “national appropriation” within the meaning of the Outer Space Treaty.  Indeed, this has long been a position of the United States. For instance, the House Committee noted that in 1980, the U.S. State Department’s Legal Adviser explained that

`The United States has long taken the position that Article 1 of that treaty [Outer Space Treaty] . . . recognizes the right of exploitation. We were and are aware, however, that this view is not shared by all States or commentators, some of whom take the position that the nonappropriation provisions in Article [II] of the 1967 Treaty preclude exploitation of celestial natural resources and the reduction to private property.”

It is also worth noting that State Practice seems to lean in favor of allowing the use of materials from outer space. Again, from the Committee’s discussion:

State practice is consistent with finding that exploration and use of outer space includes the right to remove, take possession, and use in-situ natural resources from celestial bodies. The United States, Russia, and Japan have all removed, taken possession, and used in-situ natural resources. These activities have never been protested by a State party to the treaty or judged in a court of law to be in violation of the Outer Space Treaty.

Indeed, some moon rocks taken by the Russian government have actually already been sold to private parties at Sotheby’s auctions in recent years.

Finally, the Committee cites Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty as recognizing that non-governmental entities can carry on activities in outer space, as long states bear international responsibility for those private activities.

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.

I will again note that this reading of the Outer Space Treaty is hardly slam-dunk, but I think it is a quite reasonable one that is at least as persuasive as the interpretation offered by the critics.  I think it is worth noting that State practice leans in favor of the U.S. here, which is not decisive, of course, but it is helpful nonetheless.  I also don’t think the U.S. ever would have committed itself to a flat out ban on commercial exploitation of outer space when it signed the Outer Space Treaty.

In any event, we will see how things spin out. As I noted, it is possible we will one day need an “Authority’ like that created for the international seabed, but not just yet.

A Treaty or Not a Treaty? My Senate Testimony About the Paris Climate Change Agreement

by Julian Ku

I had the honor and pleasure of testifying today before the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.  The topic of the hearing was “Examining International Climate Negotiations” and the upcoming conference in Paris. My own contribution argued that an agreement with legally binding emissions reduction obligations should be submitted to the Senate as a treaty rather than as a sole executive agreement.  I further argued that the Senate should require to the State Department to clarify which parts of a climate change agreement are legally binding, and which ones are merely non-binding political commitments.

You can watch the oral testimony and the questions below on C-SPAN (my testimony starts around the 11’40” mark. Almost all of the testimony has to do with the substantive merits of such an agreement (about which I express no opinion), as opposed to the legal aspects. So I will go ahead and declare victory for my argument by default.