Archive of posts for category
International Law in U.S. Courts

An Intersubjective Treaty Power

by Duncan Hollis

Ian Henderson may be mad at me.  He asked for fewer posts on foreign relations.  But he also asked for more posts on treaties.  I have a new paper up that tackles both topics — An Intersubjective Treaty Power.  For those of you who are interested in such things, here’s the abstract:

Does the Constitution require that U.S. treaties address matters of international concern? For decades, conventional wisdom answered that question negatively; The Restatement (Third) of U.S. Foreign Relations Law dismissed the very existence of an international concern test. In Bond v. United States, however, three Justices – Alito, Thomas, and Scalia – insisted on its existence, pushing the issue into the foreground of foreign relations law.

This article analyzes whether the Constitution contains an international concern test and what contours it has. I argue that Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas are correct – and the Restatement (Third) was wrong – on the test’s existence. Various modalities of constitutional interpretation – original meaning, historical practice, doctrine, structure, and prudence – offer evidence supporting some version of an international concern test. But I part ways with the Justices on how the test works. They and other proponents have tended to look for static or objective criteria to divide appropriate “international” matters from impermissible “purely domestic” ones.

In contrast, I argue that the international concern test is intersubjective. U.S. treaties can only be formed (or ratified, implemented, or applied) where the relevant actors at each stage (e.g., States in forming a treaty, the President and the Senate in ratifying it) share a belief that its subject-matter is international. Absent that understanding, the treaty will not be formed (or ratified, or implemented, or applied). Such views may coincide or divide depending on the context. Thus, the Supreme Court could agree that the Chemical Weapons Convention generally addressed a matter of international concern, even if they also agreed that the prosecution of Ms. Bond did not. Nor are these understandings fixed; issues need not be “purely” domestic (or international) for all time. Some topics such as human rights were once understood by States (and the President and the Senate) to be inappropriate subjects for treaty-making, but are now believed to be an essential aspect of international relations. Other topics such as Native American relations were once subject to extensive treaty treatment, but are now no longer accepted as appropriate subjects for U.S. treaties.

This article thus answers one of the longest running questions of U.S. foreign relations law. It confirms the existence of an international concern test, but locates its operation within the treaty process rather than in an externally-imposed laundry list of topics or criteria. In doing so, it provides an explanatory lens for a U.S. treaty practice that many label incoherent and suggests a need for more research on what conditions generate intersubjectivity (or its absence).

 

RIP, Luke T. Lee, Expert on Consular Law

by Julian Ku

I never met the late Luke T. Lee, but his work, Consular Law and Practice, was one of the first treatises on “practical” international law I ever encountered. As a young student intern in the U.S. State Department, I remember going to his book again and again as I tried to figure out exactly what would happen to a U.S. consular official who got into a car accident in Jerusalem but whose consular status was never properly recognized by the government of Israel (There is a memo I wrote on this subject somewhere in the bowels of the State Department that may or may not ever have been read).  Lee’s work was not breathtakingly complex or sophisticated, but it was clear, careful, and comprehensive on the questions it set for itself. Works like Consular Law and Practice are not the only purpose of writing legal scholarship, but it is a purpose that is still worth celebrating.  RIP.

Does President Obama Need Congress’s Approval to Sign a Nuclear Deal with Iran? Can Congress Force Him to Get Their Approval?

by Julian Ku

The fight between President Obama and Congress over Cuba policy is nothing compared the brewing struggle over a U.S.-Iran agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. I noticed this little foreign affairs law nugget today from the WSJ’s report of this ongoing struggle (emphasis added):

In the Senate, Mr. Menendez, of New Jersey, is co-author of a bill that seeks to impose new, escalating sanctions on Tehran if negotiators fail to conclude an agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program before the end of June, the diplomatic deadline.

A second piece of legislation, promoted by the committee’s new chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), seeks to give Congress the power to either approve or reject any nuclear agreement reached with Tehran.

Senior administration officials who testified before the committee said the White House would oppose both bills.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the White House doesn’t view an agreement with Iran as a treaty that requires Senate approval, but a matter of “executive prerogative.”

In general, I think the President has broad discretion under U.S. statutes to impose or lift sanctions on Iran, and although I haven’t looked at the Iran sanctions in detail, I bet the President has broad powers to waive sanctions without going back to Congress. The White House is certainly acting like that’s the case, although the devil is in the details.

New Essay: The Use and Abuse of Analogy in IHL

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have posted a long new essay on SSRN, my contribution to a fantastic collection of essays that OJ’s own Jens Ohlin is editing for Cambridge University Press, The Theoretical Boundaries of Armed Conflict & Human Rights. The essay is entitled “The Use and Abuse of Analogy in IHL,” and here is the abstract:

It is a truism to say that conventional international humanitarian law (IHL) regulates international armed conflict (IAC) far more extensively than non-international armed conflict (NIAC). In IAC, conventional IHL authorizes both targeting and detention and carefully circumscribes their use. In NIAC, by contrast, conventional IHL is silent on the authorization for targeting and detention and imposes only rudimentary limits on when individuals may be targeted or detained.

Like nature, however, international law abhors a vacuum. Many of the gaps in the conventional IHL of NIAC have been slowly filled by custom; the ICRC has concluded that 138 of the 161 customary rules of IHL now apply in both IAC and NIAC – nearly 86%. As a result, it is now common for scholars to claim that, with the notorious exceptions of the combatant’s privilege and POW status, very few critical differences remain between IAC and NIAC concerning the applicable rules of IHL.

From a positivist perspective, the gradual harmonization of IAC and NIAC through convention and custom is unproblematic, because both are formal sources of international law. Since 9/11, however, the United States has consistently taken the position that certain IAC-based rules of IHL can be applied in NIAC via a third method: analogy. The U.S. has argued, for example, that it can target members of any organized armed group that would qualify under IAC rules as a “co-belligerent” of al-Qaeda.

In assessing the legitimacy of such analogies, it is tempting to focus on whether it makes sense to apply a particular IAC rule in NIAC. Is the Haqqani Network’s relationship with al-Qaeda really equivalent to Italy’s relationship with Nazi Germany? Emphasizing the substantive “fit” between IAC and NIAC, however, simply obscures a more fundamental question: where does the U.S.’s authority to analogize between IAC and NIAC come from?

That is a critical question, for two reasons. First, targeting and detention potentially violate the human rights of the individuals they affect. As the International Law Commission has noted, it is not enough for targeting or detention to qualify as a legitimate act of self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter; that targeting or detention must also be consistent with either IHL or international human rights law (IHRL), depending on which legal regime applies. Second, because all of the targeting and detention activities that occur in the NIAC between the U.S. and al-Qaeda take place extraterritorially, each U.S. use of force and each capture operation potentially violates the sovereignty of the state on whose territory it takes place.

Put more simply, by relying on analogized rules of IHL to justify expanded targeting and detention of al-Qaeda, the U.S. potentially runs afoul of a number of prohibitive rules of international law: the principle of non-intervention; the prohibition on the use of force; and IHRL prohibitions on the arbitrary deprivation of life and liberty. What, then, is the legal basis for those analogies?

This chapter’s answer is straightforward: nothing. There is no basis in international law for taking rules of IHL that exist as a matter of convention and custom only in IAC and applying them in NIAC by analogy – which means that the U.S. is systematically violating international law by relying on those analogized rules to target and detain extraterritorially.

I am very rarely happy with essays when I finish them, but I’m quite happy with this one. I’m sure many people will disagree with it, and I’ve likely made plenty of mistakes. But I think the essay addresses a number of difficult issues in IHL/IHRL that deserve further discussion. If I can provoke debate, I’ll be happy.

As always, comments, criticisms, and ad hominem attacks are welcome.

PS:  I should note that the essay was inspired by, and provides a response to, my friend Ryan Goodman’s excellent 2009 article in AJIL, “The Detention of Civilians in Armed Conflict” (pdf here). I highly recommend reading his article before reading my essay.

Is the “Norm” Against Torture Dying (At Least in the U.S.)?

by Julian Ku

Christopher Kutz, Professor of Law in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program at Berkeley Law School, has a fascinating new essay examining the possibility that “norms” against torture and assassination have died in the United States in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  Kutz is not writing to support the CIA interrogation program or the US government’s use of assassination, but he does think that, as a descriptive matter, the rules against torture and assassination may be dead or dying in the U.S. He suggests that democracies have a limited ability to maintain commitment to these kinds of norms because of a democracy’s “sensitivity” to public mobilization.  Eric Posner has a typically interesting response to Kutz here.

I don’t know if the norm against torture is dead in the U.S., but I will say that the U.S. public appears completely unmoved by the release of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s very critical report on the CIA interrogation program.  A raft of new polls shows that the U.S. public’s support for an absolute ban on torture remains relatively low, while a majority, or perhaps a strong plurality, support the actual CIA program and methods that was so harshly criticized by the Senate Report.  See the WSJ/NBC poll here.  See the Pew Research Survey poll here.  We can quibble about the details, but those post-Senate Report polls show almost no change from pre-Senate Report polls.

I emphasize again that the U.S. public’s support for the CIA program does not in any way justify the legality or the morality of the program.  But the public’s failure to support a ban on torture, especially the absolute ban on torture embedded in international law and U.S. law, cannot be ignored either.  It suggests there is little chance of a prosecution over the CIA program, and it really poses a tough challenge for international lawyers. What should the response of international lawyers be when public opinion in a democracy refuses to support a central key rule of international law?  As Kutz’s paper suggests, this whole episode suggests widely accepted international law norms can be fragile, even (or especially) in liberal democracies.

 

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.

[snip]

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.