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International Law in U.S. Courts

The Security Council Workaround: How the Iran Deal Can Become Legally Binding Via a UN Security Council Resolution

by Julian Ku

Since the United States has made clear that its “deal” with Iran will NOT be a binding legal commitment under international law, one wonders what all the fuss over the Iran Letter from US Senators was about. As Duncan explains in his great post below, there is little doubt that the President can enter into a nonbinding “political commitment” and withdraw from it without violating international law.  Confusingly, though, Iran keeps talking as if there is going to be a binding international legal commitment.

The answer to this confusion appears to be that the US government plans to make a non-binding political commitment, and then take this commitment to the UN Security Council to get it “carved into marble” as a Security Council resolution that would be binding under international law.  Jack Goldsmith explains in detail at Lawfare how this might happen, and why this is constitutional (if also kind of sneaky).  The President gets to both avoid going to Congress AND get a binding legal obligation on Iran.

Of course, a future President could choose to withdraw or defy the UN Security Council resolution, but the legal and diplomatic costs would be much higher than withdrawing from a mere political commitment.  Congress could also, unquestionably, override any domestic legal effects of a UN Security Council Resolution by passing a statute refusing to lift sanctions on Iran, or stopping the President from doing so.  Diggs v. Shultz makes clear that a statute passed by Congress later in time than a Security Council resolution will have the force of law by operation of the last in time rule.  But the legal and diplomatic costs for doing so would also be higher than for a mere political commitment or even a bilateral executive agreement.

So the Administration has a plan to avoid Congress and get its deal sanctified by international law.  Pretty clever lawyering, although I (like Goldsmith) expect some serious political blowback from Congress.

Dealing with Iran: A Primer on the President’s Options for a Nuclear Agreement

by Duncan Hollis

Without weighing in on the merits of any deal with Iran on nuclear matters, I’ll express some frustration over the rhetoric used in the current firestorm between the White House, 47 Senators (plus Governors Perry and Jindal), Iran’s Foreign Minister, and the 4th Estate on what kind of deal the United States might conclude with Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany).  There seems to be a great deal of confusion and conflation of issues in terms of the legal logistics of concluding any deal.  Now, maybe some of that is willful — obfuscation in service of each side’s political goals.  But, on the chance that some of those weighing in are under-informed on the actual issues and options available, I thought I’d offer a (brief) primer on what the actual options are in this case and how those options may limit/shape U.S. behavior.

For starters, it’s critical to differentiate the question of how nation states can reach agreement from the question of how a domestic legal system authorizes a State to enter into agreements (let alone what effect it gives them).  As such, I think the conversation needs to split off the question of (1) what kind of international deal this will be; from asking (2) what authority does the United States have (or will it need) to conclude such a deal as a matter of U.S. law.  Let’s take each angle separately.

International Commitments

When it comes to nation States entering into an agreement (that is, a mutual commitment of shared expectations as to future behavior), there are actually three basic options States can choose: (a) a treaty; (b) a contract; or (c) a political commitment.

(a) a treaty:  The treaty is a (relatively) well understood vehicle that rests on international law for its authority and effects.  Article 2(a) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) defines a treaty as

an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation

There’s some nuance to this definition, which I’ve explained in the Defining Treaties chapter of my book.  But for our purposes, it suffices to note that the VCLT lays out who has authority to make a treaty (i.e., heads of state and government, foreign ministers and those with full powers) and how they can do so (i.e., by signature, ratification, accession, acceptance, approval or any other agreed means).  Once formed, a treaty is subject to the general (and fundamental) principle of pacta sunt servanda — treaties are “binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.” Domestic legal obligations are not recognized as a basis for breaching treaty commitments, with one exception.  Article 46 provides that

1. A State may not invoke the fact that its consent to be bound by a treaty has been expressed in violation of a provision of its internal law regarding competence to conclude treaties as invalidating its consent unless that violation was manifest and concerned a rule of its internal law of fundamental importance. 2. A violation is manifest if it would be objectively evident to any State conducting itself in the matter in accordance with normal practice and in good faith.

Article 46, however, has proven relatively limited in its availability to States as an exit option; the one time it got raised before the ICJ, the Court suggested that States are not obliged to keep track of other states’ legislative and constitutional regulations on treaty-making and that a violation could not be manifest “unless at least properly publicized.”   Given the varied ways the U.S. authorizes treaties (discussed in more detail below), it’s hard to imagine a later Administration being able to invoke Article 46.  Indeed, if U.S. foreign relations scholars can’t agree on the ground rules for when specific treaty-making procedures are required (or prohibited), I’m hard pressed to say other countries should be able to identify a manifest violation in a case where the Executive branch pursues one specific procedure over others.

(b) a contract:  Interstate commitments can also be contracts instead of treaties. Contracts, like treaties, are considered legally binding, but differ from them in that contracts rely on domestic law as the source of their “bindingness” instead of being governed by international law as treaties are. Still, governments from time to time will do deals (e.g., one State selling helicopters to another) where the agreement specifically indicates its terms are governed by, say, the “law of New York.” This doesn’t seem to be on the table with Iran though, so I’ll reserve to a latter date more detailed analysis of how contracts and treaties differ. 

(c) a political commitment:  The third — and final — option for agreements among States is a “political commitment.”  Some scholars prefer to call it “soft law,” but for reasons Josh Newcomer and I elaborated in our article on political commitments, I think that term is a bit of a misnomer. The basic idea is simple — states can make agreements where the basis of their commitment does not rest on law, but “political” (or perhaps “moral”) forces.  In a political commitment, the fact of the promise itself motivates compliance rather than importing the sanctity of law and its legitimacy to do so. Non-legally binding commitments have now been a feature of international relations for more than a century, and include some pretty high-profile agreements, including the Shanghai Communique, the Helsinki Accords, the recent US-China Deal on Climate Change, and the Comprehensive Joint Plan that started this whole set of negotiations with Iran.  Moreover, as Josh and my article details, these commitments exhibit a tremendous diversity in terms of the form they take, the substantive commitments they contain, the extent to which they establish or implicate institutions, not to mention their varied relationships to other legal and non-legal commitments.

Traditionally, political commitments are seen as distinct from treaties in terms of being (i) more flexible; (ii) less credible because exit options are easier; with (iii) greater opportunities for confidentiality; and (iv) fewer domestic legal hurdles to their formation.  The actual variation in political commitments suggests, however, that these differences may be over-stated — today’s practice suggests that there is some significant overlap in what political commitments and treaties do.  For example, it may have been true at one time that treaties were necessarily less flexible than political commitments, but with the advent of tacit amendment procedures, treaties have gained in flexibility, while some political commitments have become more highly structured and inflexible in terms of the precision or normativity of their contents or the institutional structure in which they operate.  The one area where political commitments appear to hold a distinct advantage (or disadvantage depending on your perspective) is with the relatively weak domestic law attention they receive.  As Josh and I concluded in our article — a point reiterated earlier today by Jack Goldsmith and Marty Lederman, states like the United States have imposed few (if any) legal restrictions on the Executive’s ability to enter into political commitments.

Domestic Authorities to Commit the United States Internationally

In Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution, the President has the “power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”  If one were to take up the issue de novo, you might think this text requires that all treaties the United States wishes to conclude under international law have to proceed to the Senate.  In practice, however, Senate Advice and Consent has become one of only four ways the United States may gain authority to enter into a treaty (in the international law sense of that term).  Add in the possibility that the Iran deal might be a political commitment, and there are actually five options for how U.S. law might authorize a deal with Iran: (i) Senate Advice and Consent; (ii) a Congressional-Executive agreement; (iii) via an existing Senate Advice and Consent treaty; (iv) a sole Executive Agreement; or (v) a political commitment.

(i) Senate Advice and Consent Treaty.  If the United States concludes a treaty (in the international law sense of the term) with Iran and the P5+1, President Obama could send that treaty to the Senate for advice and consent, and, assuming the Senate agreed (with or without reservations, understandings or declarations), the President would then clearly have constitutional authority to consent to the deal.  Senate advice and consent is much less used compared to the past (less than 10% of modern treaties go through the Senate), although it should be noted that almost all past arms control agreements have received Senate advice and consent.  Still, given the general stalemate that has pervaded the Senate’s role in treaty-making the last few years, this seems a complete non-starter as a path forward, particularly with 47 Senators on record against virtually any deal involving Iran.

(ii) Congressional-Executive Agreement:  The President could gain authority to conclude a treaty (again, in the international law sense of that term) with Iran and the P5+1 via Congress instead of the Senate alone.  A simply majority vote of both Houses could enact a bill that with the President’s signature would become federal law and thus create legal authority for the United States to conclude (and perform) an Iranian treaty.  As a practical matter, congressional consent can be ex ante or ex post, but again, domestic politics in this case countenances against this being a likely option (even though today the vast, vast majority of U.S. treaty commitments under international law rely on one or more statutory authorities for their formation).

(iii) via an Existing Senate Advice and Consent Treaty:  Article VI of the Constitution treats both statutes and treaties (i.e., those receiving Senate advice and consent) as the “supreme law of the land.” Thus, just as a statute could authorize President Obama to conclude an international agreement with Iran, so too could a pre-existing Senate advice and consent treaty.  So far, I’m not aware of any nominations for an existing U.S. treaty that could do this (but someone might want to carefully parse the 1955 Treaty of Amity and Peace with Iran if it’s still in force (it’s not listed in Treaties in Force)).   Or, this might be a way forward if, as Marty and Jack hint, the Executive branch concluded the deal with Iran as a political commitment, but then had it endorsed by the U.N. Security Council pursuant to its Chapter VII authorities.  In that case, legal authority to conclude the deal might reside in the U.N. Charter itself since the Senate long ago gave consent, subject to a U.S. veto, to Security Council measures to preserve international peace and security.  As such, I don’t think we can dismiss this option as much as it might seem inapplicable at first glance.

(iv) Sole Executive Agreement:  The President may rely on his own Constitutional powers (e.g., as commander in chief) to authorize a U.S. treaty commitment.  In practice, this is rarely done as the State Department will usually try to also locate authority in at least one federal statute (even something as bland as Congress’ authorization of State Department responsibility for foreign affairs).  That said, the Supreme Court has endorsed the President’s ability to conclude certain treaties as sole executive agreements, although often in the face of congressional acquiescence, not outright opposition.  So, one might imagine this option would generate some inter-branch litigation if the Republican-controlled Congress rejects reading the president’s powers to include whatever sort of commitments are contained in any agreement the United States concludes with Iran.  Still, if the deal is to be a treaty under international law, this seems the most likely basis for authorizing it under U.S. law.  As Fred Kaplan noted yesterday, and Secretary Kerry apparently suggested a few hours ago, all the attention on treaties may have been misplaced and an entirely different deal might be at work here, namely a political one.

(v) Political Commitment;  It’s possible that the White House is looking for a political commitment with Iran and the P5+1.  If so, then all the machinations about forming a treaty under international law, and, just as importantly, the relatively robust set of domestic approval options for treaty-making, are inapplicable.  Although Josh and I argued that functional similarities between treaties and political commitments should require a Congressional role in the formation of at least some political commitments, I concede that Marty and Jack are correct that at present it’s hard to say this is the law of the United States.  On the contrary, today, it still appears that political commitments by their very nature do not implicate any of the domestic legal, procedural hurdles associated with treaties and thus may be a path forward for the United States to do a deal with Iran without worrying about the views of either the Senate or Congress as a whole.

That said, if the United States is actually going to argue it is concluding a political commitment with Iran and not a treaty, I want to conclude with two important caveats on the international and domestic aspects of such a deal that I’ve not seen mentioned previously.

First, a political commitment must be a political commitment for all sides, not just one side.  There’s much ambiguity in the U.S. and Iranian statements surrounding some of the negotiations, and it’s possible to read some of yesterday’s press briefing to suggest a deal where the United States would have only a political commitment while Iran was legally bound to perform its promises (see, for example, the carefully worded “verifiable and enforceable commitments” language used). That, however, is not an available option in international law.  Either the agreement is a treaty for all parties or its a political commitment for all participants.  I am unaware of any case where the nature of the agreement varies for the parties to it (that is it was a treaty for one state and a political commitment for everyone else).  Certainly, there have been disputes in the past as to the status of a particular agreement, with the ICJ and international arbiters called upon to weigh in on whether the deal struck gave rise to international legal obligations or not.  And it’s also possible for a treaty to contain not just legally binding commitments but also political ones (see, e.g., Article 1 of the Algiers Accords).  But, a stand-alone political commitment is, by definition, mutually exclusive from the international legal commitment that defines a treaty.  As such, once an agreement contains at least one commitment intended to be governed by international law, it’s a treaty not a political commitment.  Indeed, unlike contracts, treaties do not require consideration.  Thus, a treaty can exist where only one side (e.g., Iran) makes all the promises to do (or not do) certain things. Taken together, this suggests that, unless the United States is making some new, novel move to unsettle the existing forms of international commitment, its suggestion that it is pursuing a political commitment with Iran should mean that none of the commitments will give rise to any international legal obligations in and of themselves (there may be separate estoppel arguments, but let’s save those for another post).

Second, turning to the U.S. domestic context, it may be true that the Constitution does not require any particular approval procedure for political commitments, but it is also true that the Senate retains significant political power to pressure the President to pursue a treaty over a political commitment or even to insist on having a treaty submitted for Senate advice and consent in lieu of simply relying on Executive Power.  For example, before it became the Senate-approved Moscow Treaty, President Bush had apparently considered the possibility of doing the deal with Russia as either a political commitment or a Sole Executive Agreement.  But the Senate objected; and in a bipartisan push succeeded in having the deal submitted for its advice and consent.  Thus, one could imagine that if the Senate (or I suppose Congress as a whole) wanted to deploy their political checks on Executive power (think appropriations or ambassadorial/cabinet approvals), the White House might have to recalculate whether and how it wants to proceed with Iran here.  Nor is this entirely a U.S. problem; reports suggest that when the United States was looking to craft a strategic framework with Iraq a few years back, the Iraqis ended up concluding that the deal had to be done as a treaty (in the international law sense) since their Parliament was insisting on approving it in lieu of going to more streamlined political commitment route.  Simply put, just because there may be no extant constitutional constraints on the President’s ability to conclude a political commitment with Iran does not mean that there won’t be domestic negotiations over whether and how the United States concludes any deal involving Iran and nuclear matters.

So . . . now that I have that all off my chest, I’ll get out of the way and let the various actors continue to negotiate and debate the merits of the appropriate way(s) forward here.  I just hope that folks will do so with more attention to what the existing international and domestic law has to say (or not say) on these questions.


Mea Culpa Regarding Israel’s Attacks on Hezbollah in 2006

by Kevin Jon Heller

In a number of posts (see, for example, here and here), I have claimed that the League of Arab States (LAS) formally rejected the “unwilling or unable” test in the context of Israel’s 2006 attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thanks to comments by Ori and Tom Ruys on the most recent post, I now realize I have been guilty of the same kind of methodological sloppiness that characterizes most scholarly work in defence of the test. If you read the statement by the LAS — you can find it here — there is no way to determine whether the it denounced Israel’s attack because it rejected the “unwilling or unable” test or — and this actually seems more likely — because it simply rejected Israel’s claim that it was acting in self-defence. (I disagree with Ori that the statement can be read as an indictment of Israel solely for using disproportionate force in self-defence.) And if we cannot determine the precise reason why LAS rejected Israel’s self-defence claim, that rejection obviously cannot provide opinio juris against the “unwilling or unable” test.

That said, loathe though I am to disagree with Tom, I don’t see the international response to Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon as supporting the “unwilling or unable” test. Most obviously, Israel claimed that Hezbollah’s actions were attributable to Lebanon — it did not invoke the test at all. Moreover, no state specifically invoked “unwilling or unable” during the Security Council debate over Israel’s actions — some expressed concern over Lebanon’s failure to exercise effective control over the entirety its territory, but a number of those states attributed that failure to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, not to Hezbollah’s actions. So I agree with Olivier Corten that “these standpoints are highly ambiguous and so it seems a very difficult business to deduce from them any opinio juris.”

My thanks to Ori and Tom for weighing in — and to Ori for providing links to the relevant documents. Apologies to readers for being so sloppy. I just hope my lack of care will not distract from my basic point, which is that scholars who claim that the “unwilling or unable” test represents customary international law have failed to identify (anywhere near) sufficient significant state practice or opinio juris in defense of their position.

Iran Responds to US Senators’ Letter, Shows Why Congress Should Be Involved in the First Place

by Julian Ku

I am totally swamped with various overlapping projects right now, so let me procrastinate anyway by noting that Iran took my suggestion and sent a response to the “open letter” sent them from 47 US Senators yesterday.  The letter actually shows why the President, and not the senators, is the one who is operating on the edge of constitutionality.

In the letter, Iran’s foreign minister suggested the senators were violating the US Constitution’s allocation of foreign policy conduct to the President.

[Foreign Minister] Zarif “expressed astonishment that some members of Congress find it appropriate to write leaders of another country against their own president,” a press release explained. “It seems that the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy.”

As I explained yesterday, I don’t think the letter is a  violation of the Constitution, although there is a closer question under the much-cited, never used Logan Act.

What I found more interesting is the Iranian FM’s suggestion that a future president who withdrew from or amended the agreement would violate international law. This statement illustrates why I think Congress should be included in this process in the first place.

[Zarif] warned that a change of administrations would not relieve the U.S. of its obligations under an international agreement reached under the previous administration. Any attempt to change the terms of that agreement, he added, would be a “blatant violation of international law.”

“The world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by U.S. domestic law,” Zarif explained. “The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.”

Zarif is no doubt right as a matter of international law (assuming there will be a binding agreement as opposed to a mere political commitment).  But think about it.  Why should a president be allowed to commit the US to binding obligations under international law that neither Congress nor a future President can withdraw from without violating international law?  Shouldn’t such a president be required to first get approval from Congress before committing the United States to this path? Isn’t that why there is a Treaty Clause in the first place? At the very least, doesn’t it make constitutional sense for Congress to have a right to weigh in?

So while lefty blogs and lefty senators are having a field day accusing the Republican senators of violating the law or exaggerating Jack Goldsmith’s pretty minor quibble with the letter’s use of the term ratification, they are ignoring the real constitutional question here.  The President seems ready to commit the United States to a pretty serious and important international obligation without seeking prior or subsequent approval from Congress.  And foreign countries are ready to denounce the United States if, say Congress, decides to pull out or refuses to carry out those obligations. Even if the President’s actions are good policy, it seems like a political and constitutional train wreck that could easily be avoided if the Administration simply agreed to send the Iran deal to Congress.

Way back in 2008, leading scholars like Oona Hathaway and Bruce Ackerman repeatedly denounced President Bush for considering executing a security agreement with Iraq without Congress. Where are the academic defenders of Congress’s foreign policy prerogatives now?

47 US Senators Send Iran’s Leader an Unnecessary(?) Primer on How US Constitution Works

by Julian Ku

Most of the US Senate’s Republican membership has signed an open letter to Iran’s leaders “informing” them about the nature of the U.S. constitutional system with respect to international agreements.   It is actually a very accurate statement of US foreign relations law, even if it is a little strange and potentially intrusive into the President’s foreign affairs power. It may also concede more than the Senators may have wanted to on the constitutionality of the proposed Iran deal.

Here are the key paragraphs in the letter;

[U]nder our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays a significant role in ratifying them.  In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify by a two-thirds vote.  A so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House and the Senate….Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.

What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.

OK, there is nothing here that is incorrect, as a matter of law, and this is not surprising since the letter was apparently drafted by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a very smart and knowledgeable constitutional lawyer. The letter does raise a couple of important constitutional issues.

First, a letter sent directly to a foreign leader on a matter which is currently under negotiations with the U.S. could be criticized as an unconstitutional interference in the President’s inherent  power to conduct foreign affairs.  Certainly, it is very unusual.  Imagine if the U.S. Senate had sent a letter to the Iraqi leaders in 2007-8 that Congress was going to have to approve any US-Iraqi alliance or defense cooperation treaty.

In any event, I actually think this letter skirts, but manages to avoid, any unconstitutional interference.  Phrased merely as a letter “bringing attention” to the U.S. constitutional system, the letter does not state U.S. policy, nor does it make any statement on the question of policy.

The most troubling line of the letter is: “The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.  ” But this is indisputably correct as a matter of law.

Maybe the strongest criticism of the letter is simply that it need not have been sent.  The only possible purpose of sending the letter is to discourage the Iranians from actually concluding an agreement, since presumably the Iranians can read US foreign relations law textbooks (or even blogs) without the help of the US Senate.  But then again, maybe they don’t. If the Iranians are somehow deluded into thinking a sole executive agreement could survive a Republican president in 2016, it is probably best for all concerned that they know the truth now.

Second, and on the other hand, I do wonder if the senators here may have conceded more than they wanted to here.  There is still a plausible constitutional argument out there that President must submit the Iran nuke agreement to either the Senate (as a treaty) or to Congress as a whole.  The letter all but concedes that the President can indeed conclude a sole executive agreement with Iran on this matter.  Doesn’t this undercut the Senators’ argument that they should, indeed, must have their say on this deal?  (also, they only got 47 votes! There are 55 Republican senators, plus some Democrats who also oppose the Iran deal. Do they not agree with this statement of law?).

In any event, I can’t recall a letter of this sort from recent (or even older) U.S. history.  Readers should feel free to add examples in the comments.  I wonder if the Iranians will send a letter back?

The Seemingly Inexorable March of “Unwilling or Unable” Through the Academy

by Kevin Jon Heller

How does an international-law doctrine become conventional wisdom without actually having support in the practice of states? It starts with one article asserting the doctrine, but failing to defend it. Then another article makes the same claim, citing only the first article. And then another. And another. And so on — until no one remembers that the first article did not actually identify any state practice at all.

So it is with the “unwilling or unable” test, as indicated by an otherwise quite good new article in the Journal of Conflict & Security Law entitled “Jus ad Bellum and American Targeted Use of Force to Fight Terrorism Around the World.” Consider (p. 228):

With regard to the use of self-defence against private actors located in another state, two consequences flow from the requirement of necessity. First, state practice indicates that the exercise of self-defence against the private actor is conditioned on the inability or unwillingness of the authorities in the host state to stop the private actor’s activities.98 Obviously, if the host state both can and will stop the activities in question, it will not be necessary for the victim state to resort to the use of force.

I’ve left the footnote number in, because it refers to precisely one source: Ashley Deeks’ essay “Unwilling or Unable: Toward an Normative Framework for Extra-Territorial Self-Defense.” An essay in which, as I have pointed out, the author openly admits that she “found no cases in which states clearly assert that they follow the test out of a sense of legal obligation.” (The US and UK have formally endorsed the unwilling or unable test since Deeks’ article was published.)

To be sure, the new article elaborates a bit on the “support” for the unwilling or unable test. But none of that support involves the practice of states — nor does the article acknowledge the inconvenient fact that the Arab League (22 states) has formally rejected the test (post-9/11, even). Instead, it simply says this (p. 229):

The test is widely supported in the literature, and it is also mentioned in two 2013 UN reports by, respectively, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. It also features among a series of “Principles Relevant to the Scope of a State’s Right of Self-Defense Against an Imminent or Actual Armed Attack by Nonstate Actors” proposed by the former legal adviser of the United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Daniel Bethlehem.

“Instant custom”? How passé. Who needs state practice at all? And please don’t bore us by pointing out contrary practice by a bunch of benighted states in the Global South. All we really need are enough scholars, special rapporteurs, and former legal advisors in the Global North willing and able to endorse a particular doctrine and poof — customary international law.

Iran Nuke Review Act Does Not Actually “Require” a Vote of Congress

by Julian Ku

According to the WSJ,  the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act”  that I discussed earlier this week may already have 64 declared supporters in the Senate.  This means that supporters are only 3 votes shy of enough to override President Obama’s veto of this bill.

Since the bill might actually become law, it is worth reminding supporters of the bill that it does NOT guarantee that Congress will vote on the Iran nuke deal.  This might be confusing, but as I argued earlier this week, the proposed law would only suspend the lifting of sanctions for 60 days.  During that 60-day period, Congress could vote on the bill, or it could choose not to do so.  Silence would allow the sanctions to be lifted after the 60 days.  So it is not quite right to say, as the WSJ does, that the proposed law would “require a vote of Congress.”  Still, it is quite likely that Congress would vote, and at least this bill would give them the opportunity to do so.

If the bill passes, and a veto fight breaks out, it will be worth considering whether President Obama invokes any constitutional arguments to justify his position.  I believe that President Obama’s threatened veto reflects a robust and unilateralist conception of the President’s power to make sole executive agreements without Congressional approval.  It will be interesting to see if he defends his veto on constitutional grounds.

The Absence of Practice Supporting the “Unwilling or Unable” Test

by Kevin Jon Heller

Regular readers of the blog know that one of my hobbyhorses is the “unwilling or unable” test for self-defense against non-state actors. As I have often pointed out, scholars seem much more enamored with the test than states. The newest (regrettable) case in point: my friend Claus Kress, who is one of the world’s best international-law scholars. Here is what he writes in an otherwise-excellent contribution to Just Security about the use of force against ISIL in Syria (emphasis mine):

It therefore follows not only from the right of self-defense’s general requirement of necessity, but primarily from the respect for the sovereignty of the territorial State that the right of self-defense in case of a non-State armed attack is of a subsidiary nature. It presupposes that the territorial State is either unwilling or unable to end the non-State armed attack – or, as it should be added for the sake of completeness, fails to exercise due diligence to that effect. State practice is remarkably consistent with these principles. As Professor Ashley Deeks has demonstrated in a formidable article, the legal claims to a right of collective self-defense in cases of non-State armed attacks have generally included the statement that the territorial State is unwilling or unable to deal with the non-State threat.

In terms of what the “unable or unwilling” test might look like if it represented customary international law, Deeks’s article is indeed excellent. But the article is anything but “formidable” in terms of state practice that supports the test. Indeed, the non-state actor section of the article spans all of two pages (pp. 501-03) — and cites precisely two states that officially endorse “unwilling or unable”: the United Kingdom and the United States. That’s it. And those are the same two states that Claus discusses in his post.

Simply put, there is simply no “consistent practice” that supports the “unwilling or unable” test, and scholars need to be careful not to put states in the “unwilling or unable” camp simply because they are willing to use armed force against a non-state actor. Deeks has been particularly prone to this kind of overinclusiveness, most recently arguing that Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Iraq support the “unwilling or unable” test because they have attacked ISIL in Syria — this despite the fact that all five states are members of the Arab League, which has specifically rejected the test in the context of Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon. (Actual opinio juris.)

I have the utmost respect for Claus, and I have no desire to pick on Deeks. But methodological rigor is particularly critical when it comes to doctrines like “unwilling or unable,” because its actual adoption by states would open the floodgates to the extraterritorial (ie, sovereignty-infringing) use of force against non-state actors. There may well come a time when the “unwilling or unable” test reflects customary international law, but that time is not now. Two states do not a customary rule make, however powerful those states may be. And we cannot simply ignore the states in the Global South, however inconvenient powerful states in the Global North may find their views.

What Exactly Is the ICRC’s Position on Detention in NIAC?

by Kevin Jon Heller

I still need to write Part 2 of my response to Ryan Goodman, but it’s worth noting that he and I actually agree about detention in NIAC much more than we disagree. We both agree that IHL itself does not authorize such detention. We both agree that the standard governing detention in NIAC is that it must be non-arbitrary. We both agree that, in practice, it is non-arbitrary to detain individuals in NIAC for (something like) imperative reasons of security. So we seem to disagree only on one substantive point: where the requirement of non-arbitrariness comes from. Ryan says it comes from IHL itself. I argue that it comes from IHRL.

In my previous post, I took issue with Ryan’s claim that an ICRC Background Paper and Rule 99 of the ICRC’s study of customary law supported his position. I argued that neither clearly supports the idea that IHL requires detention in NIAC to be non-arbitrary, because both the Paper and the Rule rely on both IHL and IHRL for the substantive detention rules they endorse — and do not adequately disentangle the two legal strands. In response, Ryan accused me on Twitter — in a friendly manner — of arguing that he and the ICRC don’t understand the law of war.

Ryan and I obviously do disagree about whether IHL itself requires detention in NIAC to be non-arbitrary or whether its silence on that issue means IHRL’s requirement of non-arbitrariness applies as lex specialis. But I was not trying to claim that the ICRC was wrong, because I did not believe that Ryan was accurately characterizing its position. So I spent more time than than I expected after our exchange combing through the ICRC’s statements on the arbitrariness issue. I won’t bore readers with the twists and turns, but I do want to flag the ICRC’s most recent statement, an Opinion Paper dated November 2014. If the Opinion Paper does indeed reflect the ICRC’s current position on detention in NIAC, it turns out that  the ICRC disagrees with both me and Ryan, as well as with Dapo Akande and Lawrence Cawthorne-Hill at EJIL: Talk!, because it believes that IHL does, in fact, authorize detention in one kind of NIAC — extraterritorial NIAC. Here is what the ICRC says (p. 7):

In a “traditional” NIAC occurring in the territory of a State between government armed forces and one or more non-State armed groups, domestic law, informed by the State’s human rights obligations, and IHL, constitutes the legal framework for the possible internment by States of persons whose activity is deemed to pose a serious security threat. A careful examination of the interplay between national law and the applicable international legal regimes will be necessary. The right to judicial review of detention under human rights law will, of course, continue to apply; there are, however, differing views on whether this obligation may be derogated from.

Identifying the legal framework governing internment becomes particularly complicated in NIACs with an extraterritorial element, i.e. those in which the armed forces of one or more State, or of an international or regional organization, fight alongside the armed forces of a host State, in its territory, against one or more organized non-State armed groups.

The fact that Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions neither expressly mentions internment, nor elaborates on permissible grounds or process, has become a source of different positions on the legal basis for internment by States in an extraterritorial NIAC. One view is that a legal basis for internment would have to be explicit, as it is in the Fourth Geneva Convention; in the absence of such a rule, IHL cannot provide it implicitly. Another view, shared by the ICRC, is that both customary and treaty IHL contain an inherent power to intern and may in this respect be said to provide a legal basis for internment in NIAC. This position is based on the fact that internment is a form of deprivation of liberty which is a common occurrence in armed conflict, not prohibited by Common Article 3, and that Additional Protocol II – which has been ratified by 167 States – refers explicitly to internment.

In short, according to the ICRC, IHL does not authorize detention in “traditional” NIACs, those fought solely on the territory of one state, but does authorize detention in extraterritorial NIACs. Indeed, the Opinion Paper specifically cites Serdar Mohammed as an example of the first view of extraterritorial NIAC — the one that the ICRC rejects. The ICRC’s position thus seems to be closest to Aurel Sari in the comments to my previous post, as well as to Kubo Mačák at EJIL: Talk!. Then again, the ICRC doesn’t completely agree with them, either, because the Opinion Paper quite specifically limits IHL’s inherent power to detain to extraterritorial NIAC — thus seeming to agree with me, Ryan, Dapo, and Lawrence that the authority to detain in at least traditional one-state NIACs comes from domestic law, not from IHL itself.

I confess that I find the ICRC’s traditional/extraterritorial distinction rather confusing. I don’t understand how the conventional and customary IHL of NIAC could contain “an inherent power to intern” in extraterritorial NIAC but not in traditional NIAC; doesn’t it have to be both — or neither? After all, each of the factors the ICRC cites in defense of its position apply equally to traditional NIAC. Internment is indeed a “common occurrence in armed conflict,” but it is common in both traditional and extraterritorial NIACs. Common Article 3 does not prohibit detention in either traditional or extraterritorial NIAC. And Additional Protocol II is capable of applying to some traditional NIACs and of not apply to some extraterritorial NIACs. In fact, it is probably more likely to apply in a traditional NIAC.

To be clear, I’m skeptical the Opinion Paper is correct even concerning extraterritorial NIAC. Nothing in conventional IHL suggests an inherent power to detain in any kind of NIAC: as Ryan, Dapo, and Lawrence have all pointed out, international law often recognizes and regulates a practice without authorizing it. And although there could in principle be an asymmetric customary rule that says IHL authorizes detention in extraterritorial NIAC while domestic authorization is required in a traditional NIAC, there seems to be no evidence that such a rule exists. As Dapo and Lawrence point out in their post, “[e]ven in the context of extraterritorial NIACs, states have looked elsewhere for authorisation [to detain] (see, e.g., Iraq and Security Council Resolution 1546).”

My point, then, is simply that I don’t think the ICRC can have it both ways. Either there is an inherent power in IHL to detain in NIAC or there isn’t.

One thing is clear: the ICRC really needs to clarify its position on detention in NIAC.

Responding to Ryan Goodman About Serdar Mohammed — Part I

by Kevin Jon Heller

At Just Security, my friend Ryan Goodman has posted a long analysis of Serdar Mohammed v. Ministry of Defense, in which the UK High Court held that IHL neither authorizes nor regulates detention in non-international armed conflict (NIAC). That decision will soon be considered by the Court of Appeal.

In his post, which is a must-read, Ryan states that he agrees with the High Court that IHL does not authorize detention in NIAC but disagrees that IHL does not regulate such detention. I share Ryan’s position on the first point, but I disagree with him — and agree with Justice Leggatt in Serdar Mohammed — on the second. In a subsequent post, I will address Ryan’s argument that “whatever is permitted in international armed conflict is permitted in noninternational armed conflict.” I have described that argument in a forthcoming book chapter as “reasoning by analogy”; Ryan rejects that description and says he is engaging in “reasoning by structure.” I will try to show in the next post that the “whatever is permitted” argument is problematic no matter how we describe its underlying reasoning.

In this post, I want to focus Ryan’s argument that, contrary to Justice Leggatt, IHL does in fact regulate the permissible grounds for detention in NIAC. Here is what he says (emphasis mine):

So far we have discussed the permissive boundaries of detention in NIAC but what about limitations on states in these contexts? IHL also imposes a set of prohibitions on the grounds for detention in internal armed conflict. That is, multiple sources conclude that IHL prohibits arbitrary deprivation of liberty in NIAC (see footnote 12 of the AJIL article, for example). Subsequent to that law review article, several important states through the Copenhagen Process—including “specially affected” states which is a significant category for customary international law purposes—explicitly accepted such restrictions on detention in NIAC.  Consider also the ICRC’s statement in a Background Paper on detention for the regional consultations 2012-2013: “In terms of grounds for internment, the ICRC, along with a growing international consensus of experts considers that ‘imperative reasons of security’ is an appropriate standard for internment in NIAC.” And a Report by a group of experts convened by the ICRC and Chatham House “quite easily” reached a consensus that in NIACs “parties to a conflict may capture persons deemed to pose a serious security threat and that such persons may be interned as long as they continue to pose a threat.” (See also the ICRC’s customary international humanitarian law Rule 99: Deprivation of Liberty).

To begin, it’s worth noting that Ryan does not seem to be “reasoning by structure” here — he seems to be arguing that, as a matter of customary international law, IHL prohibits arbitrary detention in NIAC. After all, he specifically mentions custom and “specially affected” states in the context of the Copenhagen Process. Moreover, he refers to the ICTY’s jurisdiction decision in Tadic both here and in his superb law-review article on security detention — and Tadic specifically based its (methodologically dubious) extension of IAC-based rules of IHL to NIAC on customary international law. As it said with regard to those rules (para. 127), “it cannot be denied that customary rules have developed to govern internal strife.”

If Ryan is claiming that IHL prohibits arbitrary detention in NIAC as a matter of customary international law, I have no theoretical objection to his argument. Indeed, as I’ll explain in my next post, my position is that international human rights law (IHRL) governs the regulation of detention in NIAC precisely because there are no contrary customary rules of IHL that can serve as the lex specialis of detention. If there are such customary rules, IHL may well displace IHRL (depending on how we understand the lex specialis principle).

That said, I take issue with Ryan’s claim that (as a matter of custom?) IHL prohibits arbitrary detention in NIAC — a standard that has no basis in the conventional IHL of NIAC and is normally associated with IHRL

Go Read Jens’s New Book!

by Kevin Jon Heller

9780199987405_450I am occasionally accused — correctly, of course — of using the blog as little more than a tool for shameless self-promotion. So it gives me great pleasure to use the blog as a tool of shameless other-promotion and announce the publication of Jens’s important new book, The Assault on International Law, now available from our friends at Oxford University Press. Here is the publisher’s description:

International law presents a conceptual riddle. Why comply with it when there is no world government to enforce it? The United States has long history of skepticism towards international law, but 9/11 ushered in a particularly virulent phase of American exceptionalism. Torture became official government policy, President Bush denied that the Geneva Conventions applied to the war against al-Qaeda, and the US drifted away from international institutions like the International Criminal Court and the United Nations.

Although American politicians and their legal advisors are often the public face of this attack, the root of this movement is a coordinated and deliberate attack by law professors hostile to its philosophical foundations, including Eric Posner, Jack Goldsmith, Adrian Vermeule, and John Yoo. In a series of influential writings they have claimed that since states are motivated primarily by self-interest, compliance with international law is nothing more than high-minded talk. Theses abstract arguments then provide a foundation for dangerous legal conclusions: that international law is largely irrelevant to determining how and when terrorists can be captured or killed; that the US President alone should be directing the War on Terror without significant input from Congress or the judiciary; that US courts should not hear lawsuits alleging violations of international law; and that the US should block any international criminal court with jurisdiction over Americans. Put together, these polemical accounts had an enormous impact on how politicians conduct foreign policy and how judges decide cases – ultimately triggering America’s pernicious withdrawal from international cooperation.

In The Assault on International Law, Jens Ohlin exposes the mistaken assumptions of these ‘New Realists,’ in particular their impoverished utilization of rational choice theory. In contrast, he provides an alternate vision of international law based on a truly innovative theory of human rationality. According to Ohlin, rationality requires that agents follow through on their plans even when faced with opportunities for defection. Seen in this light, international law is the product of nation-states cooperating to escape a brutish State of Nature—a result that is not only legally binding but also in each state’s self-interest.

I have had the pleasure of reading the book, and it’s tremendous. Many international-law scholars are (understandably) resistant to the caricature of international law presented by the Posners and Yoos of the world, but few have the theoretical chops to engage in the kind of imminent critique of “New Realism” that Jens provides. I hope the book gets the audience it deserves.

The CIA Violated the Terrorist Bombing Convention

by Kevin Jon Heller

The Washington Post has a long article today about how Mossad and the CIA collaborated to blow up Hezbollah’s chief of international operations in 2008. Here are the key paragraphs:

On Feb. 12, 2008, Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s international operations chief, walked on a quiet nighttime street in Damascus after dinner at a nearby restaurant. Not far away, a team of CIA spotters in the Syrian capital was tracking his movements.

As Mughniyah approached a parked SUV, a bomb planted in a spare tire on the back of the vehicle exploded, sending a burst of shrapnel across a tight radius. He was killed instantly.

The device was triggered remotely from Tel Aviv by agents with Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, who were in communication with the operatives on the ground in Damascus. “The way it was set up, the U.S. could object and call it off, but it could not execute,” said a former U.S. intelligence official.

The United States helped build the bomb, the former official said, and tested it repeatedly at a CIA facility in North Carolina to ensure the potential blast area was contained and would not result in collateral damage.

“We probably blew up 25 bombs to make sure we got it right,” the former official said.

The extraordinarily close cooperation between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence services suggested the importance of the target — a man who over the years had been implicated in some of Hezbollah’s most spectacular terrorist attacks, including those against the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.

The United States has never acknowledged participation in the killing of Mughniyah, which Hezbollah blamed on Israel. Until now, there has been little detail about the joint operation by the CIA and Mossad to kill him, how the car bombing was planned or the exact U.S. role. With the exception of the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, the mission marked one of the most high-risk covert actions by the United States in recent years.

The article touches on the legality of Mughniyah’s killing, with the US arguing that it was a lawful act of self-defense under Art. 51 of the UN Charter and Mary Ellen O’Connell claiming that it was perfidy. Regular readers will anticipate my skepticism toward the former claim, and there is simply no support in IHL for the latter claim. Perfidy is an act “inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with intent to betray that confidence.” Mossad and the CIA did nothing of the kind.

Mossad and the CIA did, however, violate the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, which Israel ratified on 10 February 2003 and the US ratified on 26 June 2002. I don’t want to dwell on Mossad in this post; the analysis is the same as the one I provided here with regard to its assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Instead, I want to focus on the US’s complicity in Mughniyah’s death.

To begin with, there is no question that the bombing itself qualifies as a prohibited act of terrorism under the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Here is the relevant definition, Art. 2(1):

1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person unlawfully and intentionally delivers, places, discharges or detonates an explosive or other lethal device in, into or against a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system or an infrastructure facility:

(a) With the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or

(b) With the intent to cause extensive destruction of such a place, facility or system, where such destruction results in or is likely to result in major economic loss.

Mughniyah’s killing satisfies this definition. The attack involved an “explosive device” and it was clearly intended to “cause death.” It also took place on a public street, which qualifies as a “place of public use” under Article 1(5) of the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Article 1(5) defines a place of public use as “those parts of any building, land, street, waterway or other location that are accessible or open to members of the public, whether continuously, periodically or occasionally.”

The CIA was also complicit in that prohibited act of terrorism, pursuant to Art. 2(3):

3. Any person also commits an offence if that person:

(a) Participates as an accomplice in an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2; or

(b) Organizes or directs others to commit an offence as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2; or

(c) In any other way contributes to the commission of one or more offences as set forth in paragraph 1 or 2 by a group of persons acting with a common purpose; such contribution shall be intentional and either be made with the aim of furthering the general criminal activity or purpose of the group or be made in the knowledge of the intention of the group to commit the offence or offences concerned.

The language of Art. 2(3) easily encompasses the CIA’s involvement in Mughniyah’s death, given that the US admits the CIA built the bomb, helped track Mughniyah’s movements, and had the power to call off the attack.

The US will no doubt object to this analysis by arguing that the Terrorist Bombing Convention is intended to apply to bombings by terrorists, not bombings of terrorists. That objection would be valid had the US military been involved in the operation instead of the CIA. Justifiably or not, Article 19(2) of the Convention specifically permits acts that would otherwise qualify as terrorist bombing when they are committed by the military forces of a state:

2. The activities of armed forces during an armed conflict, as those terms are understood under international humanitarian law, which are governed by that law, are not governed by this Convention, and the activities undertaken by military forces of a State in the exercise of their official duties, inasmuch as they are governed by other rules of international law, are not governed by this Convention.

The CIA, however, does not qualify as the US’s “military forces” under the Terrorist Bombing Convention. Art. 1(4) specifically defines “military forces of a State” as “the armed forces of a State which are organized, trained and equipped under its internal law for the primary purpose of national defence or security, and persons acting in support of those armed forces who are under their formal command, control and responsibility.” The second provision does not apply, because there is no evidence the CIA was acting under the “formal command, control and responsibility” of the military when it participated in Mughniyah’s killing. And neither does the first provision: although there is no question that the CIA contributes to the US’s “national defence or security,” it is not an “armed force” under US “internal law.” According to 10 USC § 101, “[t]he term ‘armed forces’ means the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.”

The bottom line: the CIA committed an act of terrorism — actual terrorism, not figurative terrorism — when it participated in blowing up Mughniyah. The US military has the right to kill terrorists with bombs; the CIA does not. There is no doctrine of “close enough” in the Terrorist Bombing Convention.