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International Law in U.S. Courts

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.

When Is a “Plain Meaning” Not Plain?

by Kevin Jon Heller

In my post on biological and chemical weapons yesterday, I rejected the idea that Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) “squarely appl[ies]” (Ralf Trapp) or “plainly applies” (Alex Whiting) to chemical and biological weapons by arguing that the drafters of the Rome Statute intended Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii), the war crime of “[e]mploying asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases,” to have precisely the kind of “special meaning” that Art. 31(4) of the VCLT requires us to take into account when interpreting that provision.

After the post went up, Alex and I had a heated but typically friendly exchange on Twitter concerning “plain meaning” treaty interpretation. Interested readers can start with this tweet. Our debate did not focus on the applicability of Art. 31(4) of the VCLT. Instead, we argued about whether simply reading the text of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) makes it plain that it criminalises chemical and biological weapons. Alex thinks it’s evident that it does; not surprisingly, I disagree.

The problem with the debate is both obvious and timeless: if two people disagree about the correct interpretation of a text, how do they determine whose interpretation is correct? Alex rightly rightly pointed out that we should not reject a particular “plain meaning” simply because one person disagrees with it; any such standard would deny the possibility of plain meaning altogether. (Which, to be clear, I’d be happy to do on other grounds, because I follow the neo-pragmatic approach to interpretation associated with Stanley Fish. See, for example, this fantastic essay.)

But if one person’s disagreement cannot render a “plain meaning” not plain, how many people is enough? Five? 10? 100? At some point disagreement over the meaning of a text has to negate the possibility of any particular interpretation being considered “plain.” Alex and I went around and around on this, and he finally advocated what is essentially a procedural solution to the problem: the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) is whatever the ICC’s judges ultimately say it is.

As a descriptive matter, Alex is absolutely correct. But unless we believe the ICC’s judges are legally infalliable — and I certainly don’t! — we have to accept the possibility that they could be wrong about the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii). So we are right back where we started: trying to determine how much disagreement over the interpretation of a text has to exist before we conclude the text has no plain meaning.

I have no easy answer. But I would still maintain that it strains credulity to believe that the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) indicates that it criminalises chemical and biological weapons. To see why, we don’t even have to return (as I think we should) to the drafting history of Art. 8. It is sufficient to note that a significant number of states still believe that Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) does not criminalise chemical or biological weapons. How do we know that? Because 14 states formally proposed amending Art. 8 to criminalise those weapons at the ICC’s Review Conference in 2010: Argentina, Belgium, Bolivia, Burundi, Cambodia, Cyprus, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Mexico, Romania, Samoa and Slovenia. Here, in relevant part, are the provisions the 14 states wanted to add to Art. 8(2)(b):

xxvii) Using the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment and means of delivery as defined by and in violation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, London, Moscow and Washington, 10 April 1972.

xxviii) Using chemical weapons or engaging in any military preparations to use chemical weapons as defined by and in violation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction, Paris, 13 January 1992.

These proposed amendments make no sense if the “plain meaning” of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) already criminalises chemical and biological weapons. So how can that interpretation be considered the “plain meaning,” given that at least 11% of the States Parties to the Rome Statute do not understand Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) in the supposedly plain manner? Surely such disagreement indicates that there is no “plain meaning” of the war crime.

Does that mean the 14 states are right? Of course not. Perhaps Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) really does criminalise chemical and biological weapons. All I’m saying is that we cannot reach that conclusion by looking to Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii)’s “plain meaning.” The meaning of the war crime is at best ambiguous or obscure.

But that, of course, is a critical realisation. Because it means that we have to look to the drafting history of the Rome Statute to determine the correct interpretation of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) even if we accept a plain-meaning approach to treaty interpretation. (Which we should not.) Here is Art. 32 of the VCLT:

Recourse may be had to supplementary means of interpretation, including the preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion, in order to confirm the meaning resulting from the application of article 31, or to determine the meaning when the interpretation according to article 31:

(a) Leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure.

Even though my understanding of the VCLT accords with Julian Davis Mortenson’s, I am willing to entertain the idea that the meaning of some provisions of the Rome Statute is so plain that we have no practical need to examine their drafting history. Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii), however, is not such a provision. Given the widespread disagreement among states concerning whether the war crime criminalises chemical and biological weapons, the best interpretation of Art. 8(2)(b)(xviii) is that it has no plain meaning.

So It’s Settled: The President Can Violate Customary International Law

by Julian Ku

There is a lot of interesting material revealed in the Charlie Savage NYTimes article on the legal justification for the Bin Laden raid (including how the Attorney General and Office of Legal Counsel were kept in the dark and out of the loop).  But I want to focus on one paragraph in the article, which explained the lawyers’ backup justification for their conclusion:

There was also a trump card. While the lawyers believed that Mr. Obama was bound to obey domestic law, they also believed he could decide to violate international law when authorizing a “covert” action, officials said.

Deborah has done some very good analysis here on the CIA’s views on this question, as applied to non-self-executing treaties. I think that is a tricky question. But there is also an easier question that was also probably settled in the lawyers’ legal memos.  Like the Bush administration lawyers, the Obama Administration lawyers concluded that the President can choose to violate that customary international law without violating the Constitution or other domestic law.

Although this may seem obvious, it used to be a highly contested question.  I dug up this discussion from a 1986 panel between leading international law scholars Louis Henkin, Anthony D’Amato, Michael Glennon, Abe Chayes and others.  Almost none (even President Reagan’s legal adviser Abe Chayes) would have openly admitted that the President could violate customary international law. The Restatement of U.S. Foreign Relations Law suggests, but does not completely endorse the view that the President can openly violate customary international law.  Indeed, there used to be a fair number of law review articles explaining why the President’s obligation to “Take Care” that the laws are faithfully executed include customary international law. But, if Savage’s reporting is accurate, the U.S. government (under both George Bush and Barack Obama) is no longer troubled by this question, and has moved on. So should the rest of us, apparently.

France Fails to Adopt “Unwilling or Unable” in Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last month, Ashley Deeks claimed that France appeared “to be prepared to invoke the ‘unwilling or unable’ concept in the Syria context.” France did indeed attacks ISIS targets in Syria. And it reported those strikes to the Secretary-General of the UN, claiming self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter as a rationale for violating Syria’s sovereignty. But then something funny happened on the way to the Forum: France did not invoke the “unwilling or unable” theory. Here is its Art. 51 letter:


Looks like the “broad consensus” in favour of “unwilling or unable” now stands at three states — the US, UK, and Australia — not four.

Hat-Tip: Thierry Randretsa, author of the blog Dommages civils.

Defending the FSA Against Russia — the Jus ad Bellum Perspective

by Kevin Jon Heller

It’s been widely reported over the past few days that Russia has been bombing the Free Syrian Army under the pretext of joining the fight against ISIS. That development spurred an interesting post at Lawfare by Bobby Chesney about whether Art. II of the Constitution — the Commander-in-Chief Clause — would permit the US to defend the FSA, which it has been equipping and training. As Bobby points out, rather skeptically I think, the USG seems to believe it would (internal block quote omitted):

[I]t is an interesting legal question, especially in light of recent testimony from Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Wormuth to the effect that Article II could be invoked to permit U.S. forces to defend DOD-trained Syrian forces in the event of an attack on them by Assad regime forces.  Wormuth’s position was repeated by an unnamed “senior administration official” a few days ago.

Given this position, is there any reason to think the answer would be different if we are talking instead about Russian forces attacking those same DOD-trained units?  I see no reason why that would be the case, though the policy stakes obviously are immensely different.  Next, is there anything different if instead we are talking about CIA-trained, rather than DOD-trained, Syrian forces.  Again, I can’t see why this would alter the analysis; under the apparent theory of the Obama administration, the government already possesses whatever legal authority would be needed to use force to prevent Russian jets from striking U.S.-sponsored Syrian units.

I have no doubt Bobby’s right — as I said on Twitter, he has forgotten more about Art. II than I ever knew. I just want to point out that invoking Art. II to defend the FSA against Russia would be more than a little perverse given the status of such an attack under international law — the jus ad bellum, in particular.

Let’s start with Russia. Although its attacks on the FSA might have violated the jus in bello — I certainly wouldn’t be surprised — they did not violate the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force with regard to Syria, because they were conducted with the Syrian government’s consent. Nor is there any plausible argument for viewing the Russian actions as an armed attack on the US — whatever the Art. II argument about the US’s “national interest” (see this skeptical Jack Goldsmith post), an attack on the FSA is not a use of force against the US’s “territorial integrity or political independence.”

What this means, of course, is that the US could not invoke self-defense under Art. 51 to justify using force against Russia to defend the FSA — say, by destroying a Russian bomber. Not only would such a use of force create an international armed conflict between the US and Russia, it would itself qualify as an armed attack under Art. 2(4), thereby permitting Russia to use force against the US in self-defense. Russia would simply be responding to an unlawful act of aggression by the US.

(To be sure, the same analysis would apply to any US use of force against Syria in defense of the FSA. But it would obviously be a much bigger deal for the US to commit an aggressive act against a major Western power — one that is also a permanent member of the Security Council.)

Again, I have no idea how these jus ad bellum considerations affect the Art. II analysis. Knowing the US, the fact that attacking Russia would qualify as an unlawful act of aggression might be irrelevant. The optics of using Art. II to justify such an attack would nevertheless be deeply troubling, to say the least.