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International Law in U.S. Courts

No, the Attack on the USS Cole Did Not Take Place in Armed Conflict

by Kevin Jon Heller

I argued more than three years ago that the US decision to prosecute Abd al-Rahim Abdul al-Nashiri in a military commission was illegitimate, because the attack on the USS Cole did not take place during an armed conflict. (I also pointed out that al-Nashiri was systematically tortured, including through the use of mock executions and waterboarding.) Peter Margulies takes a whack at the contrary position today at Lawfare, and the results aren’t pretty. Here, for example, is what he says about the Tadic test:

Under international law, the existence of a noninternational armed conflict depends on the intensity and duration of violence and the existence of an organized armed group (OAG) responsible for the violence. The OAG criterion is readily met: “core” Al Qaeda ordered the Cole attack and used it as a basis for recruiting more terrorists. The geographic distance between Yemen and Afghanistan is irrelevant given the centrality of Al Qaeda’s planning, which placed Osama bin Laden and Al-Nashiri in the same OAG.

The duration and hostility factors also break against Al-Nashiri. In the MCA, Congress gave military commissions jurisdiction over acts committed before September 11, recognizing that Al Qaeda’s military efforts against the US predated that event. The conduct of the US prior to the Cole bombing buttresses Congress’s finding. In August, 1998, President Clinton responded to the Al Qaeda-planned East African Embassy bombings, which killed over 250 persons, with a wave of Cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan. That sounds pretty intense to me, although the intensity seems lost on Al-Nashiri’s advocates.

Margulies gets the NIAC test right, and he is even likely right that al-Nashiri was part of “core” al-Qaeda at the time of the attack on the USS Cole. But his discussion of the duration and intensity factors is deeply flawed. To begin with, as I have pointed out before (numerous times), the existence of a NIAC is a purely objective question, one determined by the facts on the ground, irrespective of the subjective perception of the parties to the hostilities. The MCA’s jurisdictional provisions are thus irrelevant to whether the US was involved in a NIAC with core al-Qaeda when the USS Cole was attacked.

More importantly, it is clear that no such NIAC existed at the time of the attack…

Colombia’s Constitutional Court Says ICJ Rulings Are Not Self-Executing; Medellin v. Texas in Bogota?

by Julian Ku

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Medellin v. Texas that rulings of the International Court of Justice are not “self-executing” under U.S. law.  For this reason, the Supreme Court refused to require Texas to stop executions that the ICJ had held in violation of U.S. treaty obligations.  It looks like Colombia’s Constitutional Court has followed that same approach with respect to Colombia’s Constitution:

Colombia’s constitutional court ruled on Friday that applying a decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that granted Nicaragua a disputed area of Caribbean waters could not take effect without a treaty between the countries.

The court’s verdict upholds the position taken by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who said the Hague-based ICJ’s decision was not applicable according to Colombia’s constitution without such a treaty, ratified by the Andean nation’s congress.

Colombia’s government has been pretty consistent in its public statements. It does not dispute the legal obligation represented by the ICJ’s ruling, but it does not believe the ruling can override domestic Colombian constitutional law either.  This court decision appears to endorse this dualist approach.   Of course, I have not read the ruling (anyone have a link?) and even if I had the ruling, I can’t read Spanish (anyone have a link and a translation?).  So I might be overstating things here. But it is worth looking into.

Florida Narrows Foreign Law Ban to Foreign Family Law

by Julian Ku

Florida’s legislature has just passed a bill that is an interesting variation on the wave of other foreign law bans that have been enacted in U.S. states.  Florida’s new law would ban the use of foreign law in Florida state courts if that law “contravenes the strong public policy” of Florida or if the “law is unjust or unreasonable.”  It also limits the use of foreign law in choice of law provisions in contracts or forum selection clauses under the same “strong public policy” standard.

In fact, Florida’s law is much narrower than it appears.  Apparently drafted with the help of the International Law Section of Florida’s Bar, the law only applies to matters “arising out of or relating to Chapters 61 and 88″ of Florida’s statutory laws. And these turn out to be related to marriage, divorce, child custody, and child support.  So we are really down to prenuptial agreements and child custody agreements, for the most part.

Critics of these bills have called them pointless and possibly xenophobic as well. I am more on the “pointless” end of the spectrum, since I agree these laws do very little, although this bill is at least narrowly targeted at what the supporters of the bill are actually worried about: US courts enforcing agreements or requirements in family law matters based on foreign legal principles, especially Islamic law.  This same issue is actually causing a minor uproar in the UK.  Maybe they need a Florida bill there too?

In any event, I think this bill is pretty harmless, and it is actually narrowly targeted at what the supporters are worried about: “sharia law” in US courts.  It is certainly better than the previous version, which would have swept far more broadly. And I don’t think there should be any constitutional problems with this provision.

Marshall Islands Sues to Enforce Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty; UK May Be Dragged Into ICJ

by Julian Ku

This lawsuit is mostly just grandstanding by a very small nation with the help of a savvy (but sloppy) US law firm.  But there is one possibly meaningful outcome.  It could result in an ICJ proceeding involving the United Kingdom.

The tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands is taking on the United States and the world’s eight other nuclear-armed nations with an unprecedented lawsuit demanding that they meet their obligations toward disarmament and accusing them of “flagrant violations” of international law.

The island group that was used for dozens of U.S. nuclear tests after World War II was filing suit Thursday against each of the nine countries in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. It also was filing a federal lawsuit against the United States in San Francisco, naming President Barack Obama, the departments and secretaries of defense and energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Reviewing the complaint and the ICJ applications, I conclude these cases are (mostly) going nowhere.

As for the U.S. complaint, the Marshall Islands is suing both the United States itself, and its President, and various military and civilian departments.  As an initial matter, there should be grave doubts about whether the NPT is self-executing. It is hard to imagine that it is.  And there are some grave doubts as to whether the U.S. has waived its sovereign immunity for this kind of claim in its own courts. And there are a variety of other problems: standing? political question? justiciability? that will no doubt make themselves felt here.

With respect to the ICJ applications, none of the target countries have accepted ICJ compulsory jurisdiction except the UK.  Indeed, the ICJ application against China mistakenly refers to it as the “Republic of China”, which is the name of the government in Taiwan, not China. I think Taiwan would be thrilled to be sued here, since they are not even allowed to join the ICJ or the U.N.  The China they want is the “People’s Republic”.

Putting both Chinas aside, the key here is that the UK has accepted compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ, so this might require the UK to litigate this.  This seems like the one aspect of this case that might come to a real judicial outcome.

So if we get to the merits, I am deeply dubious.   What exactly is the “obligation to negotiate in good faith”? How can you ever tell if it has been violated?  The affidavit by Prof. Weston of the University of Iowa gives some content to this idea, but I don’t find it very persuasive.  

My basic thought is that this case is going nowhere, but will get some attention of the UK is forced to show up at the Hague and argue the merits.  Only then will we get to see if Prof. Weston’s idea tested by the ICJ.

Guest Post: Argentina v. NML Capital – Does the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act Mean More Than It Says?

by Michael Ramsey

[Michael D. Ramsey is the Hugh and Hazel Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego Law School. Professor Ramsey previously prepared an analysis of this case for the Judicial Education Project, for which he was compensated.]

The Supreme Court considered on Monday whether a U.S. court can order disclosure of Argentina’s worldwide assets.  Perhaps surprisingly, the answer should be yes.

The underlying facts of Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital are straightforward.  Argentina issued bonds, which were bought by private investors including NML, and then defaulted.  In the bond contracts, Argentina waived its sovereign immunity and consented to jurisdiction in New York.  After the default, NML sued Argentina in New York, as the bond contracts contemplated.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) says that foreign governments can be sued in the U.S. only in circumstances listed in the statute.  One of those circumstances is when the sovereign waives its immunity by contract.  So there’s no question that NML could sue Argentina.

The question, rather, is what NML could do once it won (as it did) and Argentina still refused to pay (as it did).  The FSIA also says that creditors cannot execute on (seize) foreign sovereign assets in the United States to satisfy a judgment unless the assets are being used in a commercial capacity.  NML asked the trial court to order two New York banks that handle Argentina’s finances to disclose what they knew about Argentina’s assets (commercial or otherwise).  Argentina, supported by the U.S. executive branch, claims this violates the “spirit” of the FSIA.

It doesn’t.  The FSIA (Section 1609) specifically protects non-commercial sovereign assets only against “arrest attachment and execution.”  It does not say assets are immune from disclosure.  There’s a good reason it doesn’t: to figure out which assets are used for commercial purposes, and thus subject to execution, first one needs to know what assets exist.  It obviously won’t do to have Argentina – or Argentina’s bankers – make an unreviewable judgment as to which assets are commercial and not disclose the others.  And in other respects, the FSIA (Section 1606) says, a non-immune sovereign shall (subject to exceptions not relevant here) “be liable in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances.”

Thus, as a number of Justices appeared to recognize at oral argument, the key law isn’t the FSIA but Rule 69 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which govern ordinary litigation in federal court.  Rule 69 allows a federal court to order discovery in support of execution, which is what the trial judge did here.  The rule doesn’t have any limits on the type of property or the geographic limits – rather, its leaves the matter to the discretion of the court.  In private litigation, courts acting under Rule 69 routinely require disclosure of assets outside the jurisdiction or arguably not subject to execution.

At oral argument, some Justices seemed troubled that Argentina (or other sovereigns) might have to disclose the location of sensitive diplomatic or military assets.  It’s a fair concern, but no reason to make the FSIA say something it clearly does not.  First, district courts are adept at balancing all sorts of competing interests that arise in discovery disputes and in allowing only discovery appropriate under the circumstances; Rule 69 gives them plenty of discretion to do so.  Second, the only disclosures the trial court required here are of financial transactions (and the order isn’t even directed to Argentina, but rather to third-party banks); no one is asking Argentina to disclose the location of, for example, specific military assets.  And third, presumably disclosures could be made confidentially to the court as needed for particular assets.

Moreover, NML claims that Argentina has shown its willingness to abuse institutions like the Bank of International Settlements to shield its assets from creditor judgments.  That’s what NML’s attorney Ted Olson was speaking of when he said at one point during Monday’s proceeding that Argentina could slap an air-force label on a commercial airplane in order to shield that asset.  He wasn’t talking about NML attaching non-executable assets, he was simply pointing out the danger of creating loopholes in the discovery process that would allow Argentina to deny discovery on assets that creditors would be entitled to.

This goes to the heart of why NML has a need for the disclosures.  Argentina has openly refused to pay the judgment against it.  NML is entitled to execute on Argentina’s commercial assets in the United States, and may be able to execute on some non-commercial assets elsewhere (in jurisdictions that lack the U.S.’s commercial limit).  To do so, it needs to know what assets exist, and it cannot rely on Argentina’s self-reporting of which assets are commercial.

Ultimately the rule of law, especially in international transactions, depends on courts holding parties to their promises and providing a way to enforce judgments.  If Argentina didn’t want to be subject to U.S. court enforcement, then it should not have waived its immunity and consented to jurisdiction (but, of course, then it would have had much more difficulty selling its bonds).  Argentina could still avoid unwanted disclosures by doing what it is supposed to do anyway: pay the entirely valid judgment against it.

The rule of law also depends on courts reading statutes to mean what they say, and not more than they say.  Argentina is asking the Court to find an immunity in the FSIA that simply isn’t there.  Argentina’s protection instead comes from Rule 69 – but it’s a protection that rests largely with the lower court, which knows the case better and is better able to balance competing equities on an on-going basis than the Supreme Court.  It may be helpful for the Court to ask district courts to use careful discretion in managing disclosure requests directed at a foreign sovereign under Rule 69. For instance, the Justices could recommend that district court judges ask the sovereign to create a privilege log (or a similar mechanism) for those assets, such as military property, that are extra-sensitive. This would balance the interests of the sovereign and the creditors. But creating a blanket protection against disclosure of assets under the FSIA is contrary to both the statute and the needs of the international rule of law.

The Case That Won’t Die: U.S. Court Revives South Africa Apartheid Alien Tort Statute Lawsuit

by Julian Ku

So maybe the use of the Alien Tort Statute against corporations for overseas activities isn’t fully dead. Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has revived In re South Africa Apartheid Litigation, a twelve-year-old litigation that just won’t die. A copy of the opinion can be found here.

Most of the opinion deals with whether a corporation may be sued under the Alien Tort Statute, an issue most thought was settled within the Second Circuit (the federal appeals circuit that includes New York). As a lower court within that circuit, the district court should have been bound to follow that court’s 2010 opinion Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell, which held that corporations cannot be sued under the ATS.  The lower court judge, Shira Scheindlin, decided that since the Supreme Court had ended up dismissing the Kiobel plaintiffs on other grounds (e.g. extraterritoriality), the Court had sub silentio reversed the original Kiobel decision’s ruling on corporate liability.  That is quite a stretch, and appears based almost solely on the Supreme Court’s reference to “mere corporate presence” as being insufficient to overcome the statutory presumption against extraterritoriality.  This language, and the Supreme Court’s decision not to otherwise mention the corporate liability issue, was enough for Judge Scheindlin to revisit the corporate liability issue.  I don’t really buy this sub silentio interpretation of Kiobel, but to give credit where credit is due, this argument was previewed in our Kiobel insta-symposium by Jordan Wells, a third year law student.  Let’s just say Judge Scheindlin really went out of her way to re-open this question.  

My views on the corporate liability issue haven’t changed since I published my full length attack on it back in 2010.  In my view, the Supreme Court’s decision in Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, finding that the Torture Victim Protection Act does not allow torture claims against corporate defendants, provides an unappreciated boost to the policy rationale for limiting these kinds of lawsuits to natural persons.  But other circuits, and apparently Judge Scheindlin, refuse to agree with me (I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true).

Putting aside the corporate liability issue, it is perhaps more surprising that Judge Scheindlin did not simply dismiss all of the defendants on Kiobel extraterritoriality grounds.  The Second Circuit appeals panel in this case held that all of the defendants (U.S. and foreign) should be dismissed because all of the alleged relevant conduct occurred in South Africa.  The U.S. corporate defendants (Ford and IBM) did not overcome the Kiobel presumption because the complaints only allege vicarious liability as parent corporations to their South African subsidiaries.   Yet Judge Scheindlin only dismissed the foreign defendants and will allow the plaintiffs to re-file their complaints against the US defendants to overcome the new Kiobel extraterritoriality presumption.  This means that she is willing to explore in greater detail the Kiobel requirement that plaintiffs’ claims “touch and concern” the territory of the U.S. with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritoriality.  Will knowledge by the US parent of the subsidiaries’ activities in South Africa be enough? Will receiving profits from the subsidiaries be enough? I assume that is the best the plaintiffs will be able to plead is knowledge by the U.S. parent.

I assume this is going back to the appeals panel in this case, and we should expect some rather testy reactions. Judge Jose Cabranes (the author of the appeals court panel decision) and Judge Scheindlin have recently tangled over a local NY case against aggressive police tactics resulting in the controversial removal of Judge Scheindlin from that case (Judge Cabranes was one of three judges involved in that removal order).  This latest Scheindlin order seems a double-insult at Judge Cabranes.  It “reverses” his earlier Kiobel decision on corporate liability (from a lower court no less!), and then it ignores his subsequent opinion holding that all defendants should be dismissed via a motion for judgment on the pleadings.   A little tension brewing at 40 Foley Square, perhaps?

There Is No General “Security Exception” in the UNHQ Agreement Act

by Kevin Jon Heller

I fully concur with Julian’s recent post about the United Nations Headquarters Agreement. There is no question that the US decision to deny Aboutalebi a visa violates the Agreement itself. But I’ve seen suggestions, most notably by my friend John Bellinger, that the US is not violating domestic US law because the 1947 United Nations Headquarters Agreement Act (scroll down) contains a “security exception” to the visa requirement. Here is what John said, according to Bloomberg:

President Barack Obama has authority to deny a visa to Iran’s newest choice as envoy to the UN, yet doing so would open up risks for U.S. foreign policy.

The decision in the case of Hamid Aboutalebi, who was part of the group that took over the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, is being made at a delicate point in U.S.-led negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Under the United Nations Headquarters Agreement Act approved by Congress in 1947, the president has authority to deny visas to individuals deemed to pose a security threat to the U.S., said John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser who is now partner at Arnold and Porter LLP in Washington.

If Obama decides a person is a threat “then we’re not required to give that person a visa, and that would be consistent with our obligations under the headquarters agreement,” Bellinger said. “Whether that’s good policy or not that would be up to others to decide.”

“The short answer is, it’s complicated,” he said.

I disagree. With respect to John, nothing in the Headquarters Agreement Act permits the US to deny a visa to anyone it considers a “security threat.” The relevant provision is section 6, which Julian did not quote in full in his post (emphasis mine):

Nothing in the agreement shall be construed as in any way diminishing, abridging, or weakening the right of the United States to safeguard its own security and completely to control the entrance of aliens into any territory of the United States other than the headquarters district and its immediate vicinity, as to be defined and fixed in a supplementary agreement between the Government of the United States and the United Nations in pursuance of section 13 (3) (e) of the agreement, and such areas as it is reasonably necessary to traverse in transit between the same and foreign countries. Moreover, nothing in section 14 of the agreement with respect to facilitating entrance into the United States by persons who wish to visit the headquarters district and do not enjoy the right of entry provided in section 11 of the agreement shall be construed to amend or suspend in any way the immigration laws of the United States or to commit the United States in any way to effect any amendment or suspension of such laws.

Section 6 contains two separate provisions. Provision 1 permits the US to prohibit individuals who have a right of entry under the Headquarters Agreement but are considered a security threat from traveling anywhere other than other than “the [UN] headquarters district and its immediate vicinity.” Provision 2 then permits the US to deny entry completely to anyone who does not have a right of entry under the Headquarters Agreement. Section 6 thus does not permit the US to deny entry completely to someone who has a right of entry.

I think this is the only plausible reading of section 6. To find a general “security exception,” we have to read “safeguard its own security” (1) in isolation from the rest of the sentence in which it is placed (in which case we must still infer that the US is entitled to deny entry completely to individuals who are security threats, because Provision 1 does not specify any remedy other than limitation to the UN area), and (2) in isolation from Provision 2, which does explicitly permit denying entry completely but limits that remedy to individuals who do not have a right of entry under the Headquarters Agreement. Moreover, as Julian notes, it is extremely unlikely the UN would have accepted a general security exception if that had been Congress’s intent, because such an exception would have effectively rendered section 11 of the Headquarters Agreement moot.

Thanks to Tyler Cullis for calling the “security exception” problem to my attention.

Can the U.S. Legally Deny Iran’s New U.N. Ambassador a Visa to New York? Nope.

by Julian Ku

According to Reuters, the U.S. is thinking hard about denying a visa to Iran’s new U.N. Ambassador, thus preventing him from taking up his post in New York. The new ambassador, Hamid Abutalebi, apparently participated in the Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran back in 1979. Although nothing is official yet, it looks like the U.S. is going to invoke its “security exception” to the U.N. Headquarters Agreement to deny Abutalebi a visa.   As in the case involving President Bashir of Sudan, denying a visa to Iran’s ambassador would almost certainly violate the Headquarters Agreement.  Let’s take a look at Section 11:

The federal, state or local authorities of the United States shall not impose any impediments to transit to or from the headquarters district of (1) representatives of Members or officials of the United Nations…

Iran’s ambassador is clearly covered by this language. The only U.S. argument flows from the “security” exception attached to the Headquarters Agreement upon its approval by the U.S. Congress.

Nothing in the agreement shall be construed as in any way diminishing, abridging, or weakening the right of the United States to safeguard its own security and completely to control the entrance of aliens into any territory of the United States….

As a matter of international law, I do not think the United Nations ever officially accepted this amendment to the original Headquarters Agreement, and certainly it has never accepted the rather broad U.S. interpretation of this provision.  A deal was struck in the past to allow the U.S. to give very limited visas that kept visitors within 15 miles of UN Headquarters.

In any event, the U.N. has battled with the U.S. several times in the past over the use of this clause to deny visas to the PLO, or even to close down PLO observer missions at the U.N.  The U.N. even sought arbitration (as provided by the Headquarters Agreement) as well as an advisory opinion from the ICJ when the US went after the PLO back in the late 1980s.

Does this mean the U.S. cannot deny the visa? I think under domestic U.S. law, there is certainly a plausible basis for denial given Abutalebi’s past connections and U.S. practice in this area.  But the U.N. would be well within its rights to claim a violation of the Headquarters Agreement and to demand an arbitration that it would have a good chance of winning.   I don’t get why the U.S. wants to pick this fight at this time. I’d prefer it hang tough on its demand that Iran eliminate its nuclear weapons program rather than deny a visa over actions taken by a guy 35 years ago.  But it looks like we are going to have this fight, so stay tuned.

Should the U.S. Use “Lawfare” Against Russia?

by Julian Ku

Back in 2007, Messrs David Rivkin and Lee Casey’s Wall Street Journal op-ed helped popularize the term “lawfare” among U.S. conservatives, who have used the term to decry legal tactics that challenged US policy in the war on terrorism.   As they defined it then:

The term “lawfare” describes the growing use of international law claims, usually factually or legally meritless, as a tool of war. The goal is to gain a moral advantage over your enemy in the court of world opinion, and potentially a legal advantage in national and international tribunals.

So it is somewhat surprising that the duo, both very influential commentators among U.S. conservatives, is advocating a lawfareish approach to combatting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its threats against Ukraine. Here is some of their advice in today’s WSJ.

As a start, the Obama administration should seek a U.N. General Assembly resolution requesting the International Court of Justice’s opinion on the legality of the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The U.S. and its allies should also challenge the legality of Russia’s actions in every conceivable legal venue, whether domestic or international.

Nongovernmental organizations, which cast themselves as guardians of the international order, have a role to play in condemning and challenging in courts of law and in public opinion Russia’s actions against Ukraine

In other words, the authors want to use “lawfare” against Russia.  I agree that the US has good legal arguments against Russia on this issue, and that the US also had good (but not unassailable) legal arguments for its war on terrorism policies. But I don’t think that the US invocation of international law, nor its employment of “lawfare” to highlight international law, will be very successful against Russia.  Lawfare’s main impact against the U.S. was to tie up many of its policies in domestic U.S. litigation. I don’t see that as an avenue against Russia.

Moreover, the employment of lawfareish pressure tactics could easily be used as an excuse to avoid taking more strenuous or effective actions (e.g. tougher sanctions, increased military aid, etc.).  I am not sure US conservatives should be eager to jump on this lawfare bandwagon, no matter how good the cause.

YLS Sale Symposium: A Salvage Operation–Refugee Rights Advocacy in the United States after Sale

by Bill Frelick

[Bill Frelick is the director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program. See part one of his post here.]

Since Sale v. Haitian Centers Council judgment in 1993 settled the issue of extraterritorial application of the principle of nonrefoulement in US domestic law, US-based refugee rights advocates after 1993 were left without recourse to US courts. But, writing for the Sale majority, Justice Stevens had said, “The wisdom of the policy choices by Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton is not a matter for our consideration.”

Accordingly, US advocates turned their attention to the policy choices of the executive branch and tried to push the US president to limit US actions, even if he was not required to do so under US law. Secondarily, they targeted the legislative branch, although the US Congress in the mid-90s had taken a restrictionist turn with respect to asylum and immigration. The stark political reality was that there was no prospect of reversing Sale through legislation. Finally, as discussed in a companion essay, US-based advocates worked with UNHCR and international NGO partners to isolate the US interpretation of the nonrefoulement principle in international fora and to limit the damage of the US precedent in other jurisdictions.

This essay will discuss the first two of these three avenues of post-Sale advocacy in which NGOs tried:  (1) to convince the Clinton Administration (and later administrations) as a matter of policy, if not of law, to adhere to international refugee protection principles, and (2) to prevent Congress from taking even more regressive steps and, if possible, to introduce language into legislation that would ameliorate the worst elements of Sale.

Advocacy with the US Executive

First, refugee advocates engaged with the Clinton Administration to convince the president to refrain, as a matter of policy, from availing himself of the Supreme Court’s free pass to refoule maritime asylum seekers. This effort involved direct meetings with Clinton Administration officials, media outreach, and enlisting the support of influential voices. Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch/Americas Watch, the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, Caribbean Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and Physicians for Human Rights, worked to document human rights abuses of Haitians who had been returned by the United States. Advocates also argued with Clinton Administration figures that the US interdiction practice was likely to be very damaging to refugee rights if widely adopted by other states.

To some extent this advocacy succeeded. The Clinton Administration tested a number of alternatives to direct, summary repatriation of Haitians—short of admitting interdicted Haitians to the United States to pursue asylum claims on US soil. Among these was an in-country refugee processing procedure, modeled to some degree on the Orderly Departure Program that was being used at the same time to bring Vietnamese boat departures to an end. Although NGOs were divided on in-country processing from Haiti, and some were involved in the processing, other advocates, this writer included, sharply criticized in-country processing as deeply flawed based, in part, on rights violations Haitians experienced while waiting in the queue, and rejected it as a rationalization for summary returns (see here).

About a year after Sale, on May 8, 1994, President Clinton announced that his administration would not directly repatriate interdicted Haitians without giving them an opportunity to present refugee claims. In July 1994, the Clinton Administration announced that the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) would be used as a safe haven for Haitians, the same day that the UN Security Council agreed to a resolution calling for all necessary measures to restore democracy to Haiti. Within six months, President Bertrand Aristide had been restored to power and most of the Haitians at GTMO returned voluntarily.  Refugee rights advocates, this writer included, were highly critical of the treatment of Haitians (and Cubans) at GTMO, but for all its faults  it was a vast improvement over having US Coast Guard cutters taking interdicted Haitians directly back to Port-au-Prince.

Policies not grounded in law are subject to change according to political circumstance, however. When Aristide was deposed a second time, in February 2004, the new US president, George W. Bush, announced, “I have made it abundantly clear to the Coast Guard that we will turn back any refugee that attempts to reach our shore,” and US policy had swung back to that of the GHW Bush years, and post-Sale his actions were not amenable to legal challenge.

Advocacy with the US Congress

On the second front, with the US Congress in the mid-1990s, there was considerably less sympathy for Haitian refugees than in the White House. The Congress was in the process of enacting the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), legislation that introduced a host of draconian restrictions on the ability of asylum seekers to lodge claims in the United States. This left US advocates to pursue rearguard actions on the margins of IIRAIRA that might provide some relief to asylum seekers interdicted on the high seas. Refugee rights advocates could not stop Congress from introducing expedited removal as part of IIRAIRA, but were able to convince legislators to include in the category of aliens who were to be treated as applicants for admission in INA §235, the new statutory provision for expedited removal, people who had been “brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters.”

Refugee advocates reasoned that although expedited removal was a step backward in procedural protections for arriving aliens, it at least would provide some procedure, however truncated and accelerated, that would provide a higher measure of protection than was being provided to asylum seekers interdicted at sea and summarily returned to Haiti.

There have been more ambitious legislative initiatives in the 20 years since Sale to try to counter the damage, but none has been enacted into law. The most comprehensive, the Refugee Protection Act (RPA), championed by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), would amend INA §241(b)(3) by including language that specifically addresses protection for aliens interdicted at sea. The RPA would add reference not only to the principle of nonrefoulement in refugee law, but in human rights law as well and would prohibit the return of people interdicted in international or US waters who express a fear of return until they have had the opportunity to be interviewed by an asylum officer to determine whether they have a well-founded fear of persecution or would be subjected to torture. The RPA also outlines procedures applicable for interdicted asylum seekers and indicates how the US should treat those found to be in need of international protection, saying such people should be given the opportunity to seek protection in another country, which could include the United States.

The earliest iteration of the RPA was introduced in the 106th Congress in 1999-2001 at the end of the Clinton administration. Over the years, the RPA has gained widespread NGO support, including from leading refugee and human rights organizations including Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, the ABA, and many faith-based and secular refugee service and advocacy organizations. Introduced again in the 113th Congress, it is now pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Conclusion

Refugee rights advocates in the United States had some success in convincing the Clinton Administration not to refrain from interdicting Haitians on the high seas and summarily repatriating them as a matter of policy, even though the Sale decision authorized it to do so. However, advocates failed to convince the US Congress to change the law to require the executive branch to honor the principle of nonrefoulement where it exercises jurisdiction or control outside US territory. Therefore, the George W. Bush Administration was able to revert to the practice of high seas interdiction and summary return of Haitians to a place where they were likely to face threats to their lives and freedom.

YLS Sale Symposium: Immigration Detention and Status Determinations in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba

by Azadeh Dastyari

[Azadeh Dastyari is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Monash University and an Associate of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.]

US President Barack Obama has stated that Guantánamo Bay is “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law”. He was referring to the imprisonment of non-citizens in the ‘war on terror’ in the US Naval base that has garnered unprecedented international attention and has been the subject of much scholarship. The same quotation is also applicable to the much less known detention of refugees in the US Naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Under its Migrant Interdiction Program, the US intercepts sea vessels outside US waters and returns home individuals who are not authorized to enter the US. A very small percentage (less than 0.6% between 1996 and 2013) of the individuals intercepted at sea are identified by the US Coast Guard as having a credible fear of persecution or torture, and are transferred to Guantánamo Bay for further processing. In Guantánamo Bay, they are interviewed by a US Asylum Officer to determine if they have a well-founded fear of persecution (are refugees) or are more likely than not to be tortured if repatriated.

There are significant shortcomings with status determinations in Guantánamo Bay that place the US at risk of violating its non-refoulement obligations under Article 33(1) of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and Article 3 of the Convention gainst Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The US does not provide individuals being interviewed access to legal counsel, the UNHCR or any other group or NGO. This may leave protection seekers unable to articulate their protection needs and thus fail to have their protected status recognized. The US also fails to provide any independent review of status determinations. Such a review would provide an additional safeguard against mistakes and assist in ensuring that no refugee or individual owed protection under Article 3 of the CAT is wrongly repatriated.

All individuals transferred to Guantánamo Bay under the US interdiction program are detained at the Migrant Operation Center. Detainees are separated into three categories: (i) individuals who are found not to have protection needs are labelled ‘non-protect migrants’ and are repatriated; (ii) asylum seekers whose status has not yet been determined are labelled ‘undetermined migrants’; and (iii) asylum seekers who have had their refugee status recognized by an Asylum Officer are labelled ‘protected migrants’ (as are individuals who are assessed as being more likely than not to be tortured if repatriated).

Individuals in the ‘protected migrants’ category remain in Guantánamo Bay until a third country can be found for their resettlement, which may take months or even years.  It is also worth noting the US government’s insistence on using the term ‘migrants’ when referring to people it has recognised as refugees in Guantánamo Bay. This stems in part from the US’ denial that its obligations under the Refugee Convention extend to its exercise of jurisdiction in Guantánamo Bay. The US views any protection it offers against refoulement to individuals at the Migrant Operation Center a gratuitous humanitarian act rather than what it truly is: the fulfilment of the US’ international legal obligations.

Immigration detention in Guantánamo Bay violates the US’ obligation to refrain from arbitrary detention under Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In A v Australia, the Human Rights Committee considered the legality of Australia’s policy of mandatory immigration detention and stated that the factors necessitating detention must be ‘particular to the individual’ in order for it not to be characterized as arbitrary. In A v Australia Australia’s policy of mandatory immigration detention was found to be arbitrary because the reasons given for the detention (unlawful entry and fears of the detainee absconding if free) were not particular to the detainee in question. As with Australia’s policy of mandatory immigration detention, individuals transferred to Guantánamo Bay under the US interdiction program are subject to arbitrary detention because no assessment is made of the individual circumstances of each detainee and no alternatives to detention are considered.

Closely related to Article 9(1) of the ICCPR is Article 9(4) of the ICCPR. The Human Rights Committee has interpreted Article 9(4) to mean that detainees must have a right to appeal their detention in a court to determine the legality of the detention. Furthermore, a court reviewing detention must be empowered to order the release of the detainee if there is a violation of Article 9(1) of the ICCPR. The Committee has found that review of detention which is ‘limited to mere compliance of the detention with domestic law’ does not satisfy the requirements of Article 9(4) of the ICCPR.

The US Supreme Court has recently confirmed that non-citizens held in Guantánamo Bay must have access to the writ of habeas corpus. As such, immigration detainees should now have a right to appeal their detention in a US court to determine the legality of their detention. However, any review of detention in US courts is “limited to mere compliance of the detention with domestic law”  in violation of Article 9(4) of the ICCPR.

Despite diplomatic efforts, the US has little control over how long it may take to find a third country willing to resettle immigration detainees from Guantánamo Bay. As such, the most viable means of releasing detainees who cannot be repatriated (because they are owed protection from refoulement, are stateless or for some other reason) from arbitrary detention in Guantánamo Bay would be to transfer the detainees to the US mainland. However, despite access to habeas corpus, detainees are unlikely to be brought into the US mainland under any court challenge. The US Supreme Court has determined that it “is not within the province of any court, unless expressly authorized by [municipal] law, to review the determination of the political branch of the Government to exclude a given alien”. US courts have also construed restraints on the freedom of movement of non-citizens resulting from their denial of entry into the US not as unlawful detention, but as a permissible exercise of the executive’s plenary power to deny non-citizens entry. That is, the executive retains the right to decide if and when detainees in immigration detention in Guantánamo Bay can be released from their detention by being brought into the US. As such, the use of Guantánamo Bay as an element of the US’ interdiction program is likely to continue despite violations of the US’ international obligations. 

YLS Sale Symposium: Haitian Democracy, the Sale Decision and Haitian Refugees

by Ira Kurzban

[Ira Kurzban was counsel for the government of Haiti between 1991 until 2004 and was counsel of record in HRC v. Baker and over 10 other class action lawsuits involving Haitian refugees in the United States. Mr. Kurzban continues to serve  as personal counsel for Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president.]

On September 30, 1991, the Haitian military, with the help of the Haitian elite, overthrew the democratically elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide. President Aristide had won Haiti’s first free, fair and open election by 67% of the vote in a field of 17 candidates.

The violence of September 30, 1991 and its aftermath are well known. Estimates range from 1,000 to 3,000 military and paramilitary executions within the first 48 hours of the coup, many in front of the National Palace where supporters of Haitian democracy went to protest the overthrow of their President. Beyond the immediate executions were tens of thousands more over the next several years by DIA/CIA sponsored paramilitary organizations such as the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH). Many of this is documented in trials such as the Raboteau trial where human rights violators were tried in a court of law and brought to justice for the first time in Haitian history.

A second coup, again with the funds and organization of the elite, but also the  support of the United States, French, and Canadian governments, occurred on February 29, 2004 during the second democratically-elected term of Jean Bertrand Aristide.  By the second coup, the Haitian army had been demobilized. One might call this coup, documented in detail in such works as Hallward’s Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment  and Sprague, Paramilitarism and the Assault of Democracy in Haiti, as a slow-motion performance where a military wing went from town to town executing police and supporters of democracy while the elites simultaneously financially supported such executions while proclaimed their rights were being violated. The U.S., French and Canadian government contributed at a minimum to the finance and support of  gross disinformation campaigns, anti-democratic organizations, paramilitary groups and covert operations in the second coup.

The decision in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, a travesty of international and domestic law, and basic human decency, had a significant effect on how Haitian refugees fleeing these two coups were treated. Pre-Sale the U.S. government’s actions were hesitant, unsure, chaotic and erratic. Post-Sale they were ruthless.

In October, 1991, almost  immediately after the coup, Haitians who supported democracy and supported President Aristide began fleeing Haiti in fear of their lives. By mid-October, Haitians were aboard vessels trying to get out of Haiti. By December there were more than 5,000 Haitians who had fled Haiti. At one point in the crisis there were more than 10,000 Haitians in the Guantanamo camps.

The initial response of the U.S post-September 30, 1991 was to decline to return Haitians to the imminent danger they faced. They were taken aboard Coast Guard cutters. The U.S. held them in the cutters and sought to obtain clearance for their trip to the U.S. or their return home.  The U.S. had signed a 1981 interdiction treaty with Haiti that required our country to at least provide  facial compliance with international law by granting “ asylum interviews” aboard Coast Guard cutters prior to forcibly returning refugees to Haiti. The numbers of Haitians on the cutters began to build up. Given the public executions in front of Haiti’s national palace the foreign policy establishment in the U.S. was too embarrassed pre –Sale to immediately return Haitians fleeing the country. By November hundreds of Haitians were simply sitting on the decks of cutters in the Caribbean.  The numbers became too large and by November 18, 1991 the Bush Administration directed the Coast Guard to take the refugees back to Haiti and ignore our 1981 Accords.

The next day the Haitian Refugee Center filed an action for declaratory and injunctive relief in the United States District Court in the Southern District of Florida. They also filed an application for a  temporary restraining order that would prevent the Coast Guard and the U.S. government from removing Haitians on the high seas from being returned. (more…)