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International Law in U.S. Courts

Guest Post: Silences in the Bond Case

by Jean Galbraith

[Jean Galbraith is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers School of Law – Camden]

Thank you to Opinio Juris for letting me guest blog on Bond.

The most notable thing about the Bond decision is a resounding silence.  As a matter of law, it should have been easy to find for the government.  The statutory text reads plainly in the government’s favor, and constitutional text, practice, and precedent easily support the conclusion that the federal government can override federalism interests in implementing constitutionally valid treaties.  Yet not a single justice sided with the United States.  This silence is particularly perplexing given that three justices at oral argument seemed sympathetic to the government.

That is the major silence, but there are silences of reasoning in the opinions as well.  In what follows, I focus on two silences.  The first is the lack of consideration in the majority opinion of how treaty-implementing statutes might differ as a matter of statutory construction from ordinary statutes.  The second is the startling absence of constitutional history from the Framing onward in Justice Scalia’s concurrence.

The Majority Opinion

As Peter Spiro has noted, the majority ducks the constitutional question of whether the Treaty Power plus the Necessary and Proper Clause authorizes Congress to criminalize domestic poisonings like that of Ms. Bond.  Following a hint dropped by Justice Kennedy at oral argument, the Court does this by holding that there needs to be a “clear statement that Congress meant the statute to reach local criminal conduct.”  It isn’t enough for Congress to use broad language that seems to cover the act at issue; instead, Congress apparently has to do something more to signal specific intent to reach “local” conduct.  Congress didn’t do so here, so Ms. Bond wins.

I won’t deconstruct the merits of this approach, although I think Justice Scalia does a good job in his concurrence of showing why it is problematic.  But I do want to mention that it leads to an interesting divergence between the interpretation of a treaty and the interpretation of implementing legislation.  The Court spent very little time on the interpretation of the Chemical Weapons Convention itself, merely noting its “doubts” that the Convention was meant to reach ordinary domestic poisonings.  If it had wanted to, the Court could doubtless have done more to interpret the Convention this way (e.g., by explicit discussion of “object and purpose” or perhaps by drawing on rule-of-lenity-related principles in international and comparative law).  But instead the Court accepted a wedge between the interpretation of a treaty and of its implementing legislation.  Federalism principles do not matter to treaty interpretation (given that these principles are country-specific) but do matter to the interpretation of implementing legislation.  If this canon of construction is about Congressional intent, then it strikes me as odd, because there is a countervailing consideration not mentioned by the Court. This is that when Congress uses language that closely tracks a treaty’s language in implementing the treaty, Congress presumably does so because it wants convergence rather than divergence with the treaty.

Justice Scalia’s Concurrence

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Guest Post: Foreign Official Immunity and the Chinese Cyberespionage Indictments

by Chimene Keitner

[Chimène Keitner is Harry & Lillian Hastings Research Chair and Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and an Adviser on Sovereign Immunity for the American Law Institute’s Fourth Restatement of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States.]

As Duncan has pointed out, if a U.S. court sought to exercise jurisdiction over the five Chinese officials indicted by a Pennsylvania grand jury for computer fraud, identity theft, economic espionage, and trade secret theft, the officials would likely claim entitlement to foreign official immunity because they acted on behalf of China. While state action is not a required element of any of the alleged crimes, it permeates the facts of this case, which Attorney General Eric Holder emphasized “represents the first ever charges against a state actor for this type of hacking.”

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act provides the sole basis for obtaining jurisdiction over foreign states and their agencies or instrumentalities, see 28 U.S.C. § 1604, although it remains unsettled whether the FSIA applies to criminal proceedings against entities. The FSIA does not apply to individual foreign officials, see Samantar v. Yousuf, except for the section creating a limited private right of action for state sponsored terrorism, 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(c). Rather, the immunity of current and former foreign officials is governed by applicable treaties (such as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, implemented by the Diplomatic Relations Act) and, in the absence of a statute, the common law.

As Duncan indicates and Jack Goldsmith also notes, the question of foreign official immunity will only arise as a practical matter if the Chinese defendants come within the personal jurisdiction of a U.S. court. The officials could not claim status-based immunity unless they were heads of state, diplomats, or members of special diplomatic missions at the time of the legal proceedings. Instead, they would claim conduct-based immunity on the grounds that their acts were all performed on behalf of the Chinese state.

The decision to bring charges suggests that the USDOJ does not view the defendants as lawfully entitled to assert immunity for their alleged conduct. This could be for one of several reasons: (more…)

Guest Post: Al Nashiri and the Existence of an Armed Conflict

by David Frakt

[David J. R. Frakt, Lt. Col., USAFR, is a legal scholar and former lead counsel, Office of Military Commissions-Defense.]

I wanted to weigh in on the debate between my esteemed colleagues Steve Vladeck, Peter Margulies and Kevin Jon Heller at Just Security, Lawfare and Opinio Juris, on the issue of the existence of an armed conflict at the time of Mr. Al Nashiri’s alleged offenses and the critical questions of who should decide this issue, and when.  Peter argues that this is a question of fact best decided by the panel of military officers who will serve as jurors in the military commissions.  Al Nashiri’s defense team asserts that this is a question of law and they are asking the D.C. District Court to rule that the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 was not part of an armed conflict.  As there was no armed conflict ongoing, so goes their argument, the law of armed conflict does not apply and his actions could not be considered a violation of the law of war; further, because military commissions are courts of limited jurisdiction with power only to try and punish violations of the law of war, the federal court should enjoin any further proceedings at Guantanamo.  It should be noted that Al Nashiri has already raised this matter in a pretrial motion in the military commission, seeking to have the charges dismissed by the military judge on the grounds that the commission lacks jurisdiction over his alleged offenses because they did not take place in the context of an armed conflict.  Judge Pohl declined to dismiss the charges, characterizing the issue as primarily a question of fact for the jury (Ruling AE104F).  Judge Pohl also acknowledged that the question was a “jurisdictional question subject to purely legal determination” but claimed that he must make this determination using a “wide deference” standard.”  Applying this standard, he found that the Congressional authorization to try offenses that occurred prior to 9/11, coupled with the fact that charges had been filed by the prosecutor, referred to trial by the Convening Authority, and not withdrawn by the Secretary of Defense or the President was sufficient to establish the existence of an armed conflict at the time of the offenses for jurisdictional purposes.  This determination is essentially tantamount to a finding that he considered there to be sufficient evidence to submit the question to a jury.  However, he left open the possibility of reconsideration at a later time, presumably in the form of a motion for a directed verdict at the close of the prosecution’s case.

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Pari Passu Clauses: An Alternative Interpretation

by Hayk Kupelyants

[Hayk Kupelyants is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge]

Pari passu clauses remain perhaps the most nebulous clauses found in sovereign bonds. Among varying wordings, the clause in its simplest form provides that the bonds will rank pari passu (i.e., on equal footing). The clause puzzled many academics and has given rise to legal battles before national courts, for it is undeniable that the state is not subject to a bankruptcy regime where the pari passu treatment is naturally well-fitted.

Two interpretations have been offered to demystify the function of the pari passu in sovereign debt bonds. The first and the most controversial of these constructions argues that the clause requires equal payment to all, even holdout, bondholders. Recently, the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in NML v Argentina has endorsed this interpretation of the pari passu clause. Under this construction of the clause, a sovereign debtor is obliged to pay to all bondholders, even those who held out from the sovereign debt restructuring. The pari passu clause can thus become a powerful tool in the hands of holdout creditors which seek to reclaim the full value of the bonds they hold by claiming that the state is in breach of the pari passu clause by the mere fact of refusing to pay up.

Many academics have argued that this interpretation of the pari passu clause is too far-fetched (at least for the pari passu clauses that do not expressly refer to ‘payment’ in their wording). On its face, pari passu clauses simply require equal (legal) ranking, whereas the payment under bonds is a question of factual performance of the contract and not a question of priorities or ranking.

The second and the conventional interpretation of the pari passu clause argues that the clause merely ensures equal legal ranking and no factual equality in terms of payment. By this, the sovereign debtor would be under no obligation to pay to all bondholders.

Two counter-arguments spring to mind. (more…)

Did You Know Hazarding a Vessel Was a War Crime? Me Neither.

by Kevin Jon Heller

We have a new challenger in the competition for worst decision by a military commission ever! Judge Pohl has now issued an order in al-Nashiri concluding that Charge IX, Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft, states a violation of the international laws of war. Here is the definition of that “war crime,” 10 U.S.C. § 950t(23):

(23) Hijacking or hazarding a vessel or aircraft.— Any person subject to this chapter who intentionally seizes, exercises unauthorized control over, or endangers the safe navigation of a vessel or aircraft that is not a legitimate military objective shall be punished, if death results to one or more of the victims, by death or such other punishment as a military commission under this chapter may direct, and, if death does not result to any of the victims, by such punishment, other than death, as a military commission under this chapter may direct.

Hijacking or hazarding a vessel is not a grave breach of either the Geneva Conventions or the First Additional Protocol. The Rome Statute does not criminalise hijacking or hazarding a vessel. No international tribunal has ever prosecuted the hijacking or hazarding a vessel as a war crime — not the IMT, not the ad hocs, not the ICC. The ICRC’s study of customary IHL does not mention hijacking or hazarding a vessel — although it does note that both the US Naval Handbook (Vol. II, p. 3893)  and The Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States (Vol. II, p. 3938) specifically distinguish between hijacking and war crimes. And so on.

How, then, does Judge Pohl somehow conclude that hijacking or hazarding a vessel is a war crime — as opposed to attacking civilians or civilian objects, both of which are war crimes and are both of which are also detailed in al-Nashiri’s charge sheet? By citing the widespread ratification of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.

Seriously. By citing the widespread ratification of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.

Here is what Judge Pohl says (emphasis mine):

The M.C.A. prohibits conduct that “endangers the safe navigation of a vessel.” The similarity between the M.C.A. and the SUA Convention is plain and unambiguous. The SUA Convention proscribes the same conduct the M.C.A. proscribes and of which the Accused is charged… The Commission finds by a preponderance of the evidence the Prosecution has demonstrated the crime of Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft is based on norms firmly grounded in international law and can be plainly drawn from established precedent. Therefore, the Commission concludes the offense of Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft was an international law of war crime at the time the Accused allegedly engaged in the conduct, thus conferring jurisdiction over the offense.

That’s it. That’s Judge Pohl’s entire argument. Never mind that the SUA Convention says nothing about the laws of war, applying equally in armed conflict and peacetime. Never mind that the SUA Convention does not even purport to create an international crime — it is, of course, a suppression convention that simply obligates States Parties to domestically criminalise certain acts. Never mind that, even if it is possible to argue that the widespread ratification of the SUA Convention somehow creates a customary rule prohibiting hijacking or hazarding a vessel (difficult in itself), such a customary rule would still not create “an international law of war crime.”

I hope I don’t need to explain in more detail why the widespread ratification of a suppression convention doesn’t create a war crime. But let’s take Judge Pohl’s methodology seriously. Want to know what other kinds of acts are also war crimes prosecutable in a military commission?

  • Nuclear proliferation (NPT — 190 ratifications)
  • Threatening civilian aviation (Safety of Civilian Aviation Convention – 188 ratifications)
  • Drug trafficking (Illicit Traffic in Narcotics Convention – 188 ratifications)
  • Manufacturing hallucinogenic drugs (Psychotropic Substances Convention – 182 ratifications)
  • Using child labor (Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention – 177 ratifications)
  • Transnational organised crime (Transnational Organized Crime Convention – 176 ratifications)
  • Kidnapping diplomats (Internationally Protected Persons Convention – 176 ratifications)
  • Corruption (Anti-Corruption Convention – 167 ratifications)
All of those conventions are suppression conventions — and each has been much more widely ratified than the SUA Convention. According to Judge Pohl’s logic, therefore, all of those acts are also violations of the international laws of war.In the off chance you needed additional proof that the military commissions are a joke, Judge Pohl’s decision is Exhibit A.

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

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Julian Ku

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

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

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

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

Florida Narrows Foreign Law Ban to Foreign Family Law

by Julian Ku

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

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

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

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

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

by Julian Ku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Michael Ramsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Julian Ku

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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