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International Law in U.S. Courts

Do Attacks on ISIS in Syria Justify the “Unwilling or Unable” Test?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Almost three years ago to the day, I critiqued an article by Ashley Deeks that argued the right of self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter extends to situations in which states are “unwilling or unable” to prevent non-state actors from using their territory to launch armed attacks. As I noted in my post, Deeks herself admitted that she had “found no cases in which states clearly assert that they follow the test out of a sense of legal obligation (i.e., the opinio juris aspect of custom).”

When Deeks wrote her article, ISIS did not yet exist — and the US and other states had not started attacking ISIS in Syria. It is not surprising, therefore, that Deeks is now relying on the international response to ISIS to argue, in the words of a new post at Lawfare, that “the ‘unwilling or unable’ test is starting to seem less controversial and better settled as doctrine.”

There is no question that the US believes the “unwilling or unable” test is consistent with Art. 51. As Jens noted a few months ago, the US officially invoked the test with regard to ISIS and the Khorasan Group in a letter to the Security Council. Moreover, the UK seems to agree with the US: according to Deeks, the UK submitted a similar Art. 51 letter to the Security Council, stating that it supports international efforts to defend Iraq “by striking ISIL sites and military strongholds in Syria” — a position that, in her view,”implicitly adopts the ‘unwilling or unable’ test.”

Deeks does not provide a link to the UK letter, but I have little doubt she is characterizing the UK’s position accurately. I have significant issues, though, with the rest of her post, which argues that three other factors related to the international response to ISIS support the “unwilling or unable” test. Let’s go in order. Here is Deeks’ first argument:

[S]tates such as Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, which also have undertaken airstrikes in Syria, presumably are relying on the same legal theory as the United States and UK.  (That said, those states have not proffered clear statements about their legal theories.)

There are two problems with this claim. To begin with, even if the four states are relying on “unwilling or unable” to justify their attacks on ISIS in Syria, they have not said so publicly — which means that their actions cannot qualify as opinio juris in support of the test. The publicity requirement is Customary Law 101.

More importantly, though, and pace Deeks, it is actually exceptionally unlikely that these states support the “unwilling or unable” test. All four are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which has consistently rejected the test, most notably in response to Turkey’s cross-border attacks on the PKK in Iraq (see Ruys at p. 431):

We strongly condemn the repeated actions of Turkish armed forces violating the territorial integrity of Iraq under the pretext of fighting guerrilla elements hiding inside Iraqi territory. … We also reject the so-called ‘hot pursuit’ measures adopted by Turkey to justify such actions that are abhorrent to international law and to the norms of practice amongst States.

To be sure, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE have not rejected the “unwilling or unable” test since 9/11 — the statement by NAM above was made in 2000. But there is little reason to believe that their understanding of Art. 51 has fundamentally changed over the past decade. On the contrary, all four are also members of the Arab League, and in 2006 the Arab League formally rejected the “unwilling or unable” test in the context of Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon (see Ruys at p. 453).

Here is Deeks’ second argument:

Iraq vocally has supported strikes within Syria.

This is not surprising, given that ISIS is using Syria as a base for attacks on Iraq. But does Iraq’s support for airstrikes on ISIS in Syria count as opinio juris in favour of the “unwilling or unable” test? I doubt it. After all, not only is Iraq a member of the Arab League, it consistently denounced Turkey’s attacks on PKK bases in its territory between 2007 and 2008 as inconsistent with its sovereignty (see Ruys at p. 461). Iraq’s attitude toward the “unwilling or unable” test thus seems driven exclusively by political opportunism; there is no indication that it considers the test to represent customary international law.

Here is Deeks third argument:

Syria itself has not objected to these intrusions into its territory.

This factor seriously complicates Deeks’ argument. Another word for “not objecting” is “consenting.” And if Syria is consenting to attacks on ISIS in its territory, it is problematic to simply assume — as Deeks does — that all such attacks provide evidence in favour of the “unwilling or unable” test. The US and UK may not want to rely on Syrian consent to justify their attacks. But it seems likely that Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE are relying on Syrian consent rather than Syrian unwillingness or inability to justify their attacks on ISIS in Syria — particularly given their traditional narrow understanding of Art. 51.

Finally, it is important to note what Deeks says immediately after claiming that “[i]In view of these developments, the ‘unwilling or unable’ test is starting to seem less controversial and better settled as doctrine”:

Whether other European states ultimately commit to airstrikes in Syria will be informative; to date, states such as France, Denmark, and Belgium only have provided support to strikes against ISIS within Iraq, not Syria.

This is an important admission, because it means that a member of P-5 and two other important Western states have suggested they are not comfortable with using the “unwilling or unable” test to justify attacks on ISIS in Syria.

So, to recap: the US and UK clearly support the “unwilling or unable” test; Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE are likely basing their willingness to attack ISIS in Syria on Syrian consent; Iraq has a completely opportunistic approach to the “unwilling or unable” test; and France, Denmark, and Belgium seem to reject the test, even if they have not done so explicitly.

And yet we are supposed to believe that the “unwilling or unable” test “is starting to seem less controversial and better settled as doctrine”?

The ACLU Endorses Blanket Amnesty for Torture

by Kevin Jon Heller

I am very rarely shocked, but that was my response to yesterday’s editorial in the New York Times by Anthony Romero — the Executive Director of the ACLU — arguing that Obama should pre-emptively pardon all of the high-ranking officials responsible for the Bush administration’s systematic torture regime at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, various Eastern European black sites, etc. Here is a painful snippet:

Mr. Obama could pardon George J. Tenet for authorizing torture at the C.I.A.’s black sites overseas, Donald H. Rumsfeld for authorizing the use of torture at the Guantánamo Bay prison, David S. Addington, John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee for crafting the legal cover for torture, and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for overseeing it all.


The spectacle of the president’s granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn. But doing so may be the only way to ensure that the American government never tortures again. Pardons would make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals; and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware. Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s box of torture once and for all.

I struggle to discern even the basic logic of this argument. I guess the key is that “[p]ardons would make clear that crimes were committed,” the idea being that you can’t pardon someone for doing something legal. But Romero’s argument has an obvious fatal flaw: “pre-emptive pardons” might make clear that Obama believes Bush administration officials committed torture, but they would say nothing about whether the Bush administration officials themselves believe they did. Romero is not calling for a South-African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would condition amnesty on confession of wrongdoing; he wants to skip the confession part and go right to the amnesty. And the Bush administration’s torturers continue to believe that they did nothing wrong. To the contrary, they still cling to their puerile belief that they were the true patriots, Ubermenschen willing to do what lesser men and women wouldn’t to save the US from the existential threat of terrorism. No amount of evidence will pierce the veil of their self-delusion — and no pardon will have any effect whatsoever on their own perceived righteousness.

That Romero fails to see this is baffling enough. But I’m flabbergasted by his assertion that a blanket amnesty for torture — the correct description of his proposal — is necessary to make clear “that future architects and perpetrators should beware.” Beware what? Not prosecution, unless we are naive enough to believe that there is deterrent value in saying to the Bush administration’s torturers, “okay, we’re giving you a free pass for your international and domestic crimes this time — but next time will be a different story.” I’m sure future Bushes, Cheneys, Rices, Rumsfelds, Yoos, and Bybees will be positively quaking in their boots.

It’s also important to note something that Romero completely fails to address in his editorial — the message blanket amnesty for torture would send to the rest of the world. It’s bad enough that the US portrays itself as a champion of human rights abroad while it simply ignores its obligations under the Torture Convention. But there is a significant difference between lacking the political will to prosecute the Bush administration’s torturers and having the political will to offer them a blanket amnesty. If Obama “pre-emptively pardons” those who committed torture, how could the US ever criticise another government that decides to choose “peace” over justice? Some states in the world can at least plausibly argue that amnestying the previous regime’s crimes is necessary to avoid political destabilisation and future conflict. But the US is not one of them. Republicans and Democrats will not start killing each other if Obama does not pardon the Bush administration’s torturers. Ted Cruz will not lead a convoy of tanks emblazoned with the Texas flag on Washington.

But if Obama does issue Romero’s pardons, you can guarantee that future government officials will turn once again to torture the first time it seems “necessary” to counter a serious threat to the Republic. (Such as ISIS, which will no doubt be exploding Ebola-ridden suicide bombs in downtown Chicago any day now.) That’s the logic of criminality, at least when the crimes are perpetrated by the powerful — impunity simply emboldens them further. Give them an inch, they will take Iraq.

The bottom line is this: you want to make clear that torture is wrong, that torturers are criminals, and that future torturers should beware? You don’t offer blanket amnesty to the Bush administration officials who systematically tortured.

You prosecute them.

Did the Supreme Court Implicitly Reverse Kiobel’s Corporate Liability Holding?

by Julian Ku

Way back in 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Second Circuit held that corporations cannot be held liable under customary international law in ATS lawsuits.  That decision, which was the original basis for the Supreme Court’s consideration of the Kiobel case, has remained the law of the Second Circuit (New York, Connecticut, Vermont) though no other circuit court in the U.S. has followed it.  The Supreme Court was initially going to review that original Kiobel decision, but then decided Kiobel on other grounds, namely, that the presumption against extraterritoriality applies to claims brought under the Alien Tort Statute.  In recent cases, ATS plaintiffs have raised questions about the viability of the original Kiobel corporate liability holding. Did the Supreme Court leave that question open or had it reversed the lower court’s corporate liability decision sub silentio?

The argument that the Kiobel corporate liability holding no longer stands has two parts.  First, a plain reading of the Supreme Court’s Kiobel decision turns up language suggesting that corporations could be liable under the Alien Tort Statute.  In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts stated that ““[c]orporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices [to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application].”  The argument here is that although “mere corporate presence” is not enough, corporations with other, deeper connections might displace the presumption against extraterritoriality. (Since the Court in other places explicitly stated it was not reaching the corporate liability question, I am skeptical of this argument).

Second, and more persuasively, you might argue that because the Supreme Court dismissed the Kiobel case on the grounds that the presumption against extraterritoriality applied to the Alien Tort Statute and that the presumption only applies if the court has reached the merits (e.g. whether the statute applies to the facts at hand).  Because the corporate liability defense was a jurisdictional ruling, this line of reasoning goes, then the Supreme Court must have implicitly found that it had jurisdiction over corporations in order to dismiss the case on the merits.

This second argument has some force to it (it was previewed in our insta-symposium last spring), and it was accepted by Judge Shira Scheindlin in a separate New York district court ATS case even though she ended up dismissing that case on other grounds.   It looks like the plaintiffs in another ATS case, Jesner v. Arab Bank, will get the appeals court to consider the issue as well, according to this NY Law Journal write up of oral argument in that case.

I think it is unlikely that the panel will conclude that the Kiobel corporate liability holding has been implicitly reversed, but I do think there is enough of an argument here to attract review of the full en banc Second Circuit. The tricky part here is that the ATS is itself a “jurisdictional” statute, and as the Supreme Court in Kiobel acknowledged, the presumption against extraterritoriality doesn’t typically apply to jurisdictional statutes.  So the Kiobel presumption is a little different and its application to causes of action that can be brought under the ATS is not exactly the same as when the standard presumption against extraterritoriality is applied to a regular non-jurisdictional statute. But it is unclear whether it is different enough to matter.

I am still coming to my own point of view on this issue. I don’t think the defendants in Jesner really addressed this issue effectively in their brief, but it is a complex issue.  At the very least, I think it will be resolved in the near future by the Second Circuit, either by this panel or by the full court. Corporate liability under the Alien Tort Statute is not quite a dead issue, but ti will take some time to figure out how alive it is.

Why Can’t US Courts Understand IHL?

by Kevin Jon Heller

While researching an essay on the use of analogy in IHL, I had the misfortune of reading Al Warafi v. Obama, a recent habeas case involving an alleged member of the Taliban. Al Warafi argued that even if he was a member of the Taliban — which he denied — he was entitled to be treated in detention as permanent medical personnel under Article 24 of the First Geneva Convention (GC I), which provides that “[m]edical personnel exclusively engaged in the search for, or the collection, transport or treatment of the wounded or sick, or in the prevention of disease… shall be respected and protected in all circumstances.” That protected status is very important, because other provisions in GC I — as well as in the First Additional Protocol (AP I), which extends the rules of GC I — require medics to be given a number of protections and privileges that other detainees do not enjoy.

The District Court rejected Al Warafi’s argument, concluding (p. 17) that he did not qualify as permanent medical personnel under Article 24 because the Taliban had not provided him with “the proof required by the Convention — that is, official identification demonstrating that he is entitled to protected status under Article 24. Absent such identification, petitioner simply cannot prove that he qualifies as Article 24 personnel.” In reaching the conclusion, the District Court specifically relied on paragraph 734 of the Commentary to AP I:

A soldier with medical duties is actually an able-bodied person who might well engage in combat; a medical vehicle could be used to transport ammunition rather than the wounded or medical supplies. Thus it is essential for medical personnel, units, materials and transports to be identified in order to ensure the protection to which they are entitled, which is identical to that accorded the wounded, sick and shipwrecked.

The DC Circuit then rejected Al Warafi’s appeal of the District Court’s decision on the same grounds.

I was puzzled by paragraph 734 when I came across it in the District Court’s decision. It seemed obvious that a medic who was not wearing the identification required by GC I and AP I could be targeted without violating the principle of distinction. It seemed equally obvious that a captured medic without proper identification might have a difficult time convincing his captors of his status. But I found it difficult to believe GC I and AP 1 would actually deprive a medic of his protected status simply because he did not have the proper identification. Doing so would serve no humanitarian purpose whatsoever, assuming the individual could establish his status by other means.

But paragraph 734 said what it said. So surely the District Court’s conclusion was correct. Right?

Wrong. Had the District Court bothered to read the next twelve paragraphs in the Commentary to AP I, it would have realised that, in fact, proper identification is not necessary for a medic to be entitled to protected status. Here is paragraph 746 of the Commentary to AP I:

The basic principle is stated in this first paragraph. The right to respect and protection of medical personnel and medical objects would be meaningless if they could not be clearly recognized. The Parties to the conflict therefore have a great interest in seeing that such personnel and objects can be identified by the enemy. Thus the rule laid down here is in the interests of those who are responsible for observing it. In fact, it would be the medical personnel and medical objects of the Party concerned which would suffer from poor means of identification and which could become the target of an enemy that had not identified them. Yet it must be emphasized that the means of identification do not constitute the right to protection, and from the moment that medical personnel or medical objects have been identified, shortcomings in the means of identification cannot be used as a pretext for failing to respect them.

In other words: the District Court and the DC Circuit should not have dismissed Al Warafi’s habeas petition on the ground the Taliban had not issued him with “official identification demonstrating that he is entitled to protected status.” Neither GC I nor AP I require such identification.

Another day, another misunderstanding of IHL by US courts. Sad, but predictable.

So It Turns Out US Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child Would Be Pointless

by Julian Ku

Internationalists critical of U.S. “sovereigntism” almost always point out that the U.S. is one of only three states in the world that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  Karen Attiah is the latest to take up this old talking point in the Washington Post.

The United States is part of an elite trio of non-ratifiers, along with Somalia, a country that is virtually in anarchy and consistently appears in the lowest ranks of countries in terms of human development, and South Sudan, the world’s newest country, which dealt with a fair share of civil conflict. Back in 2008, Obama said that it was “embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land.”

Attiah argues that the rest of world seems to be making lots of progress in improving child welfare, presumably because of the CRC, and the U.S. is falling behind. But this argument buries the lede.  Why?

Because even if the U.S. accedes to the CRC, it is almost certainly going to do so without passing new legislation or enacting new programs to live up to the treaty’s obligations. As it has done with other human rights treaties it has ratified, the U.S. will also declare the CRC non-self-executing, which means it cannot be enforced by US courts absent subsequent legislation by Congress or the States.  It is highly unlikely that US law or policy will be affected dramatically by joining the CRC if these limitations are imposed.

Rather, the argument for joining the CRC is usually not about changing US policy, but simply about the need for the US to be a member in order to credibly promote and support CRC rights and the interest of children around the world.  As an analyst from Human Rights Watch notes in the Economist, “It is awkward when the US tries to promote child rights in other countries—they all remind us that they’ve joined the treaty and we have not.”

If the data Attiah cites is accurate, though, US non-ratification isn’t having much of an impact on whatever benefits the CRC is providing.  Of course, it may be the case that US non-ratification is limiting whatever additional benefits US promotion of the CRC as a member would provide, but this seems unlikely.

Of course, if the CRC is unlikely to change US law or policy, why should anyone oppose it? This is indeed a mystery. The best case I can come up with is that CRC opponents do not trust the Congress, the President, or the courts to honor the non-self-executing pledge that the US has imposed on all other human rights treaties.  This is not totally unreasonable since some leading scholars have questioned the non-self-execution doctrine in this case.   But US courts have not yet shown any interest in forcing human rights treaties into US law against the wishes of the president and Senate, so this fear is somewhat overstated at this stage.

In the end of the day, Attiah’s reporting answers her own headline-question.  The US hasn’t ratified the CRC because doing so would not change the status quo much, if at all.  US policies domestically will be basically the same with or without the treaty, and (as Attiah points out) the rest of the world will do just fine whether or not the US joins.  So US ratification will accomplish pretty much nothing, which is as good a reason as any for why it is not going to happen.

Bond and the Vienna Rules on Treaty Interpretation

by Roger Alford

Tomorrow I have the good fortune of participating in the Notre Dame Law Review symposium with leading foreign relations scholars. The topic of the symposium is Bond v. United States. The keynote will be given by Paul Clement, who won the case for Petitioner.

The focus of my discussion will be the relationship between Supreme Court treaty interpretation and the international approach to treaty interpretation. As readers of this blog well know, the Supreme Court has never followed the international approach to treaty interpretation. In the over forty years since the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties was signed, the Supreme Court has not relied on its interpretive methodology on a single occasion. This is despite the fact that the Vienna Convention’s interpretive approach (the “Vienna Rules”) reflected the common practice at the time it was adopted, and now reflects customary international law. This is despite the fact that the United States views the Vienna Convention as the authoritative guide to treaty law and practice.

This is not to suggest that the Supreme Court does not utilize the same interpretive tools as the Vienna Rules. Indeed, at one time or another the Court has used every single interpretive tool reflected in the Vienna Rules. It supports reliance on the ordinary meaning of the terms of a treaty. The Court has held that “[a]s treaties are contracts between independent nations, their words are to be taken in their ordinary meaning as understood in the public law of nations.” It recognizes that a treaty should be construed to give effect to its purposes, stating that “[a] treaty should be generally construed liberally to give effect to the purpose which animates it.” It agrees that a treaty should be read in context, reasoning that “when interpreting a treaty, we ‘begin with text of the treaty and the context in which the written words are used.’” It interprets terms in light of subsequent practice and subsequent agreements. It supports recourse to supplementary means of interpretation, such as the negotiating history. It follows general rules of interpretation such as presumptions and constructions that follow ordinary logic and reason. Thus, although the Court has never systematically followed the holistic, unitary approach of the Vienna Rules, it consistently relies on the same interpretive tools.

Bond v. United States marks an important moment in this history of Supreme Court treaty interpretation. Although it did not cite the Vienna Rules, it is the first time that the Supreme Court has analyzed a treaty (and it’s implementing legislation) using the same methodology as the Vienna Rules. That is, the Court interpreted the treaty “in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose.” Because the terms of the treaty were ambiguous and could lead to manifestly absurd and unreasonable results, the Court also applied supplementary means of interpretation, including the negotiating history and a federalism presumption.

The ordinary meaning of the term “chemical weapon” was central to the Court’s analysis. “[A]s a matter of natural meaning, an educated user of English would not describe Bond’s crime as involving a ‘chemical weapon.’” The natural meaning of that term accounts for both the type of chemical used and the circumstances in which they were used. No ordinary person would consider that the chemical Bond used was a deadly toxin of the type the Chemical Weapons Convention was designed to address. The ordinary meaning of a “weapon” is an “instrument of offensive or defensive combat.” Using natural parlance, Bond’s behavior was not combat. Interpreting “chemical weapon” to include Bond’s crime “would give the [implementing] statute a reach exceeding [its] ordinary meaning.” Reliance on the ordinary meaning of “chemical weapon” plays a “limiting role” on the scope of the prohibition, and avoids transforming a “statute passed to implement the International Convention on Chemical Weapons into one that also make it a federal crime to poison goldfish.”

The Court in Bond extensively discussed the object and purpose of the Convention. It began with an image of the ravages of chemical warfare during the First World War as the impetus behind the overwhelming consensus that toxic chemicals should never be used as weapons of war. It cited the bold aspirations expressed in the Convention’s Preamble—the complete elimination of all types of weapons of mass destruction used by state and non-state actors in times of war and peace. These purposes were critical to the Court’s interpretation. “[T]he Convention’s drafters intended for it to be a comprehensive ban on chemical weapons … [and] we have doubts that a treaty about chemical weapons has anything to do with Bond’s conduct.” Given the purpose of the Convention to address “war crimes and acts of terrorism,” the Court concluded that “[t]here is no reason to think the sovereign nations that ratified the Convention were interested in anything like Bond’s common law assault.” It found that Bond’s chemical of choice—an arsenic-based compound that causes minor irritation when touched—bore “little resemble to the deadly toxins that are ‘of particular danger to the objectives of the Convention.’” The “purely local crime” that Bond committed “could hardly be more unlike the uses of mustard gas on the Western Front or nerve agents in the Iran-Iraq war that form the core concerns of the treaty.” Accordingly, the United States and the community of nations have no interest in seeing Bond imprisoned for violating the ban on chemical weapons. “[T]he global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the Federal Government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon.”

The Court also repeatedly cited context as an interpretive aid. It concluded that “the context from which the [implementing] statute arose demonstrates a much more limited prohibition was intended” by the ban on chemical weapons. Rather than rely solely on the statutory definition the Court concluded that the “the improbably broad reach of the key statutory definition” was rendered ambiguous by “the context from which the statute arose—a treaty about chemical warfare and terrorism.” The Court interpreted the term “chemical weapon” in light of the entire Convention, including the Preamble, other treaty provisions, and the Annex on Chemicals. These provisions illuminated the purpose and structure of the ban on chemical weapons, and the nature of the banned chemicals.

Most importantly, the Court twice cited another provision of the Convention, which provides that “[e]ach State Party shall, in accordance with its constitutional processes, adopt the necessary measures to implement its obligations under this Convention.” It cited this provision as contextual support for a federalism presumption. The “constitutional process in our ‘compound republic’ keeps power ‘divided between two distinct governments.’” Faithful to federalism and other constitutional concerns, the Convention only required that “necessary measures” be adopted, leaving to the States how they would be adopted within their constitutional system. This context permitted the Court to interpret the treaty obligation consistent with a federalism presumption, a presumption that has a longstanding history within the Court’s jurisprudence.

Bond raises the possibility that the Court’s interpretive approach could more closely align with the international standard. There already are existing canons of construction that support a greater reliance on the Vienna Rules. Among them is the general rule that treaties are contracts between nations that should be interpreted according to a shared understanding. As the Court recently put it, “[a] treaty is in its nature a contract between nations, not a legislative act.” Therefore, “it is our responsibility to read the treaty in a manner consistent with the shared expectations of the contracting parties.” If the shared expectations of the contracting parties is that treaty terms should be interpreted according to the Vienna Rules, then it follows that the Court could apply that canon not only to interpret the meaning of specific treaty terms, but also to its interpretive methodology. It would not do so because the United States has ratified the Vienna Convention or that the Vienna Rules are otherwise part of United States law. Rather, the Court would rely on them because with every treaty the contracting parties have the expectation that the treaty terms will be interpreted using the Vienna Rules.

Another canon of construction is that the Court should give deference to the Executive Branch’s interpretation of treaties. If the Executive Branch recognizes that the Vienna Rules are the authoritative guide to treaty interpretation, then the Court should give great weight to that conclusion. Ordinarily this deference applies to the Executive Branch’s interpretation of specific treaty terms. But it could also support the Executive Branch’s support for the Vienna Rules as the authoritative guide to treaty interpretation. As the United States argued in one recent case, “[a]lthough the United States has not ratified the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the United States generally recognizes the Convention as an authoritative guide to treaty interpretation.” If the United States views the Vienna Rules as the authoritative guide to treaty interpretation, and the Supreme Court gives deference to Executive Branch’s interpretation of treaties, then the Court could rely on the Vienna Rules in deference to the Executive Branch.

The Supreme Court has long ignored the Vienna Rules. Bond does not change that fact, but it does give support for courts to rely on the interpretive tools that form the basis for the Vienna Rules. The Court has always accepted the tools of interpretation reflected in the Vienna Rules. It now has accepted those tools as part of a holistic, unitary approach. The Vienna Rules are hidden behind the veil of Bond’s interpretative methodology. Consistent with accepted canons of construction, the Court could rely on the Vienna Rules more explicitly.

Lawfare Podcast on al-Bahlul

by Kevin Jon Heller

While in DC last week for the ICC/Palestine event at George Mason — I’ll post a link to the video when it becomes available — I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lawfare’s Wells Bennet and Just Security’s Steve Vladeck to discuss the oral argument at the DC Circuit on the al-Bahlul remand, which the three of us attended that morning. You can listen to the podcast at Lawfare here; Steve did most of the talking, because he understands the constitutional issues in the case better than anyone, but I weighed in a few times on the international-law side. I hope you enjoy it — and my thanks to Wells for inviting me to participate.

Further Thoughts: It is Indeed Legal for a U.S. Court Hold Argentina in Contempt

by Julian Ku

I am fascinated by the ongoing Argentina debt litigation saga (and not just because it looks more and more like a train wreck), but because it is forcing U.S. courts to burrow into even fuzzier nooks and crannies of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to figure out what exactly US litigants can do when suing an intransigent foreign sovereign like Argentina.  I promised I would revisit the question of whether the U.S. judge’s contempt order against Argentina on Monday was legal, and here is my further (although still somewhat brief) analysis.

1) It is legal and consistent with U.S. domestic law for a U.S. court to issue contempt sanctions against a foreign sovereign.  

The most recent authority for this proposition is the quite recent 2011 opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, F.G. Hemisphere Associates v. Congo.   In that case, the D.C. Circuit rejected the argument by Congo (and the U.S. Government) that contempt sanctions due to Congo’s refusal to comply with discovery orders would violate the FSIA.  Following the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Autotech Techs. v. Integral Research & Dev., 499 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir.2007), the Court held that nothing in the text or the legislative history of the FSIA suggested that there was any limitation on the inherent judicial power to issue contempt sanctions. It also rejected contrary precedent from the U.S. Court of Appeals from the Fifth Circuit in Af-Cap, Inc. v. Republic of Congo, 462 F.3d 417 (5th Cir. 2006).

I think the DC and Seventh Circuits are right that nothing in the text or the legislative history of the FSIA bars a judicial contempt order against a sovereign.

2. There is some authority for the proposition that judicial contempt orders against foreign sovereigns are not accepted under international law, but there is reason to question whether there is international consensus supporting this authority.

Argentina can, and did, rightly point to Article 24 of the Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and their Property as authority against the legality of contempt sanctions against sovereigns.

Article 24
Privileges and immunities during court proceedings
1. Any failure or refusal by a State to comply with an order of a court of
another State enjoining it to perform or refrain from performing a specific act
or to produce any document or disclose any other information for the purposes
of a proceeding shall entail no consequences other than those which may result
from such conduct in relation to the merits of the case. In particular, no fine or
penalty shall be imposed on the State by reason of such failure or refusal.

I think that the language of this provision seems to pretty clearly cover the situation in the Argentina debt case.  But I am less sure that Argentina is correct to call Article 24 of the Convention a rule of customary international law.

U.S. briefs citing Article 24 have been careful to call this rule an “international norm or practice” rather than a rule of international law.  There are good reasons to be circumspect on this point. After all, the Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities has NOT come into force, and has NOT even been signed by either Argentina or the United States, and has only been ratified by 14 other countries.  Moreover, the particular rule in Article 24 banning all court contempt-like orders is much broader than the domestic laws of states like the U.S. (see above) and even those agreed to by European states in the European Convention on State Immunity.  Article 17 of the European Convention is focused only on contempt orders for failure to produce documents, not all contempt orders for any act by the foreign sovereign.

So in conclusion, I am very confident that U.S. domestic law does NOT preclude a contempt order of any kind against a foreign sovereign.  I am somewhat confident that there is no clear consensus under international law that all contempt orders (even those unrelated to discovery) are prohibited, although I do think Argentina has a stronger case on this front.  However, in U.S. law, a rule of customary international law cannot override a federal statute, especially when the international acceptance of that rule remains uncertain.

As a practical matter, I do wonder if this whole contempt kerfuffle is just symbolic. The contempt order adds to Argentina’s obligations to pay, but it doesn’t really make it any easier for the creditors to collect since Argentina’s non-commercial assets in the U.S. remains immune from collection. While Argentina’s government may be outraged, this contempt order doesn’t really change the overall dynamic of this case, which remains a standoff that neither side is winning.


The Invention of the Khorasan Group and Non-Imminent Imminence

by Kevin Jon Heller

I will be back blogging regularly soon, but I want to call readers’ attention to a phenomenal new article at the Intercept by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain about how the US government has cynically manipulated public fears of terrorism in order to justify its bombing campaign in Syria. Recall that Samantha Power — the UN Ambassador formerly known as a progressive — invoked the scary spectre of the Khorasan Group in her letter to the Security Council concerning the US’s supposed right to bomb terrorists in Syria in “self-defence.” As it turns out, not only is there literally no evidence that the Khorasan Group intends to launch an imminent attack on US interests — unless “imminent” is defined as “sometime before the Rapture” — there is also very little evidence that the Khorasan Group actually exists in a form that could threaten the US. Here is a snippet from the article on the latter point:

Even more remarkable, it turns out the very existence of an actual “Khorasan Group” was to some degree an invention of the American government. NBC’s Engel, the day after he reported on the U.S. Government’s claims about the group for Nightly News, seemed to have serious second thoughts about the group’s existence, tweeting “Syrian activists telling us they’ve never heard of Khorosan or its leader.”

Indeed, a NEXIS search for the group found almost no mentions of its name prior to the September 13 AP article based on anonymous officials. There was one oblique reference to it in a July 31 CNN op-ed by Peter Bergen. The other mention was an article in the LA Times from two weeks earlier about Pakistan which mentioned the group’s name as something quite different than how it’s being used now: as “the intelligence wing of the powerful Pakistani Taliban faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur.” Tim Shorrock noted that the name appears in a 2011 hacked Stratfor email published by WikiLeaks, referencing a Dawn article that depicts them as a Pakistan-based group which was fighting against and “expelled by” (not “led by”) Bahadur.

There are serious questions about whether the Khorasan Group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner. Aki Peritz, a CIA counterterrorism official until 2009, told Time: “I’d certainly never heard of this group while working at the agency,” while Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said: ”We used the term [Khorasan] inside the government, we don’t know where it came from…. All I know is that they don’t call themselves that.”

I don’t know for a fact that the Khorasan Group doesn’t exist. But it is profoundly troubling that the Obama administration has provided no evidence that it does — especially given that its case for the international legality of bombing Syria is based so heavily on the supposed threat the Khorasan Group poses to the “homeland.”

And let’s not forget that the Obama administration is doing everything it can to denude the concept of “self-defence” of all meaning. Here is the Intercept article on the “imminent” threat posed to the US by the maybe-existing Khorasan Group:

One senior American official on Wednesday described the Khorasan plotting as “aspirational” and said that there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works.

Literally within a matter of days, we went from “perhaps in its final stages of planning its attack” (CNN) to “plotting as ‘aspirational’” and “there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works” (NYT).

Late last week, Associated Press’ Ken Dilanian – the first to unveil the new Khorasan Product in mid-September – published a new story explaining that just days after bombing “Khorasan” targets in Syria, high-ranking U.S. officials seemingly backed off all their previous claims of an “imminent” threat from the group. Headlined “U.S. Officials Offer More Nuanced Take on Khorasan Threat,” it noted that “several U.S. officials told reporters this week that the group was in the final stages of planning an attack on the West, leaving the impression that such an attack was about to happen.” But now:

Senior U.S. officials offered a more nuanced picture Thursday of the threat they believe is posed by an al-Qaida cell in Syria targeted in military strikes this week, even as they defended the decision to attack the militants.

James Comey, the FBI director, and Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, each acknowledged that the U.S. did not have precise intelligence about where or when the cell, known as the Khorasan Group, would attempt to strike a Western target. . . .

Kirby, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said, “I don’t know that we can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months….We can have this debate about whether it was valid to hit them or not, or whether it was too soon or too late… We hit them. And I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes.”

Regarding claims that an attack was “imminent,” Comey said: “I don’t know exactly what that word means… ‘imminent’” — a rather consequential admission given that said imminence was used as the justification for launching military action in the first place.

According to the Obama administration, in short, the US is entitled to act in self-defence against “bad dudes” no matter when — or even if — those “bad dudes” might launch an armed attack against the US. This isn’t even the Bush administration’s “anticipatory self-defence.” This is, for lack of a better expression, “hypothetical self-defence.” Apparently, the US government believes it is entitled to use force against a non-state actor anywhere in the world as long as it can imagine a future state of affairs in which that actor would attack it.

The mind — and international law — reels.

Mike Lewis Is Wrong About the Nature of Self-Defence

by Kevin Jon Heller

Mike Lewis has a guest post at Just Security today responding to Ryan Goodman’s recent post exploring what the US’s claimed “unwilling or unable” test for self-defence against non-state actors means in the context of Syria and ISIS. Ryan, careful scholar as always, rightly points out that the test “remains controversial under international law.” Mike doesn’t seem to have any such qualms, but that’s not what I want to respond to here. Instead, it’s important to note that Mike makes a basic error concerning how the “unwilling or unable” test functions — assuming for sake of argument it is a valid approach to self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter (emphasis mine):

It is important to note that this interpretation does not give the US unlimited license to act in violation of the sovereignty of other states as some opponents of the standard claim. There are limits and dangers associated with taking such a course of action. First of all, an intervening state can only take such actions after giving the host/target state a meaningful opportunity to prevent its territory from being used by the non-state actor to launch attacks. In the case of Syria, there is no question that it is unable to control the territory under ISIS control so further delays are unnecessary. Secondly, the intervening state does so at its own peril. Syria can rightfully interpret any strikes as aggression by the US and it is justified in taking steps to prevent such attacks and to destroy the drones/aircraft conducting such attacks.

Um, no. The entire point of arguing self-defence — in any form, including pursuant to the controversial “unwilling or unable” test — is that it cures any violation of state sovereignty under Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter. So if the US attacked ISIS in Syria because Syria was unwilling or unable to prevent ISIS from using its territory as a base for attacks, the US would not violate Art. 2(4) and Syria would have no right whatsoever to act in self-defence against that armed attack. Indeed, any attempt to “prevent such attacks and to destroy the drones/aircraft conducting such attacks” would represent an act of aggression by Syria against the US, thereby opening the door to legitimate acts of self-defence against Syria itself.

Again, I don’t accept that the “unwilling or unable” test reflects current customary international law. But it’s important not to let that debate obscure how self-defence functions under Art. 51 of the UN Charter.

Is the AUMF Limited to the United States Armed Forces?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Bobby Chesney has responded at Lawfare to my most recent post on the CIA and the public-authority justification. It’s an excellent response from an exceedingly smart scholar. I still disagree, but Bobby’s post really hones in on the differences between us. I’ll leave it to readers to decide who has the better of the argument.

I do, however, want to discuss Bobby’s reading of the AUMF. In his view — echoing John Dehn’s comments — it is possible to read the AUMF to authorise the use of force by both the military and the CIA:

I’m not actually agreeing with [Kevin’s] AUMF reading. Yes, Section 2′s title refers to the armed forces, but the actual text of section 2 is not so limited (in contrast to the similar section of the 2002 Iraq AUMF, for example, which did refer explicitly and only to armed forces). 

I confess that I find this argument baffling. It’s true that Section 2(a) of the AUMF does not mention the Armed Forces, providing only that “the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those  nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11,  2001.” Read in context, however, I don’t see how it is possible to plausibly maintain that the word “force” in Section 2(a) does not specifically refer to force by the United States Armed Forces.

First, the AUMF is a Joint Resolution whose purpose, according to its very first line, is “[t]o authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States.”

Second, Section 1 of the AUMF (“Short Title”) says the joint resolution “may be cited as the “Authorization for Use of  Military Force.” We do not traditionally associate with the CIA, even if the CIA occasionally engages in paramilitary activity. (And the “para” in paramilitary is important in this context.)

Third, Section 2 of the AUMF, which contains the “force” language upon which Bobby (and John) rely, is entitled “Authorization For Use of United States Armed Forces.” I know no theory of statutory interpretation nor any canon of statutory construction that would suggest “force” in the first paragraph of a section entitled “Authorization For Use of United States Armed Forces” should be read in context to refer to something other than the use of force by the Armed Forces.

Fourth, Section 2(b)(1) provides that “[c]onsistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.” Section 8(a)(1) of the WPR provides as follows (emphasis mine)…

A Response to Bobby Chesney — Part II (Article II)

by Kevin Jon Heller

In the first part of my response to Bobby, I argued (after meandering around a bit) that Title 50’s “fifth function” provision cannot be used to authorise the CIA to kill Americans overseas — a necessary condition of any argument that the CIA is entitled to a public-authority justification with regard to 18 USC 1119, the foreign-murder statute. (Bobby kindly responds here.) I thus ended that post by asking where else that authority might be found.

Which brings me to the second argument Bobby makes: namely, that the President’s authority to permit the CIA to kill Americans overseas derives from Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which deems him the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Here is what Bobby writes:

OK, fine, but aren’t covert action programs bound to comply with federal statutes, including 1119?

They sure are, and it is important to the continuing legitimacy of the covert-action instrument that it be subject to American law in this way. But the question remains: Does the covert drone strike program violate 1119 as applied to al-Aulaqi? Kevin argues that it does because the AUMF should be read to exclude CIA, and thus that section 1119 is violated, and thus that the requirement that covert action programs comply with statutes is violated too. I don’t agree, however, for I don’t think the AUMF is the only possible domestic law explanation for the CIA’s role; Article II likely applies here as well, and performs the same function as the AUMF in this respect.

There are two ways to read Bobby’s argument. The first is that the President’s Article II authority simply empowers him to ignore duly-enacted federal statutes like the foreign-murder statute. That is John Yoo’s position, encapsulated so memorably when he said, with regard to the federal torture statute, that the President could authorise an interrogator to crush the testicles of a detained terrorist’s child if he felt it was necessary to protect the United States. I doubt Bobby shares Yoo’s sentiments.

The second way to read Bobby’s argument is as follows: (1) the President cannot rely on Article II to violate duly-enacted federal statutes; but (2) he can rely on his Article II authority to authorise the CIA to kill Americans overseas, which means (3) the CIA has the same public authority to kill that the military has under the AUMF; therefore, (4) the CIA is no less entitled than the military to the public-authority justification with regard to the foreign-murder statute.

That is a much more sophisticated argument, and no doubt the one that Bobby endorses. Unfortunately, once we understand the nature of the public-authority justification, it’s simply a more sophisticated way of arguing that Article II permits the President to violate a duly-enacted statute…