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International Law in U.S. Courts

State Department Confirms that Senators Rubio and Cotton were Right, Professors Ackerman and Golove were Wrong

by Julian Ku

I can’t resist one final post to complete an earlier discussion between myself and professors Bruce Ackerman and David Golove on the legal status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.  As several others in the blogosphere have noted, the U.S. State Department has confirmed, in a letter to Congress, the following:

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document. The JPCOA reflects political commitments between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China) and the European Union. As you know, the United States has a long-standing practice of addressing sensitive problems in negotiations that culminate in political commitments.

(Thanks to Michael Ramsey at the Originalism Blog and Matthew Weybrecht at Lawfare for noting and posting this letter).

This letter confirms that, contra the argument advanced by Professors Ackerman and Golove in the Atlantic and on this blog, the JCPOA is NOT a congressional-executive agreement authorized by Congress when it passed the Iran Review Act last spring.  Rather, the entire JCPOA is a “political commitment.”

As Professor Ramsey correctly notes, this means that Senator Marco Rubio was quite right in saying that, if elected President, he could withdraw the JCPOA without violating U.S. or international law.  It also means that Senator Tom Cotton was quite right, as a practical matter, in his famous open letter saying that the next US president could withdraw the agreement.  And it means (less importantly in the grand scheme of things but important for me), that I was right in saying that the JCPOA is not a congressional-executive agreement.

The larger issue is this: If the President is going to go around making political commitments, that’s fine.  But he should be clear that this is what he is doing so that smart people like Professors Ackerman and Golove don’t get confused into thinking he is making a binding agreement..  As Dan Bodansky explains, the U.S. is going to make the Paris Agreement a political commitment (at least with regards to emissions reductions).  As I’ve been arguing here and elsewhere, the U.S. should be clear about what it is doing in Paris, and what it is not.

More on Why the U.S. Is Not Violating the Outer Space Treaty By Allowing Asteroid Mining

by Julian Ku

I’ve received some very good (though pretty much all critical) comments to my original post defending the consistency of the recently enacted U.S. Space Act with the Outer Space Treaty. I will concede that my reading of the statute and treaty is not exactly a cut and dried simple legal issue. But I think too much of the reporting on the Space Act has made it seem like it is a clear violation the other way.  (See here, here, and here.)

One thing that few of these articles note is that the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology did study the question of the Outer Space Treaty when it reported out this legislation.  They reasonably concluded that allowing private companies to exploit celestial bodies is not a “national appropriation” within the meaning of the Outer Space Treaty.  Indeed, this has long been a position of the United States. For instance, the House Committee noted that in 1980, the U.S. State Department’s Legal Adviser explained that

`The United States has long taken the position that Article 1 of that treaty [Outer Space Treaty] . . . recognizes the right of exploitation. We were and are aware, however, that this view is not shared by all States or commentators, some of whom take the position that the nonappropriation provisions in Article [II] of the 1967 Treaty preclude exploitation of celestial natural resources and the reduction to private property.”

It is also worth noting that State Practice seems to lean in favor of allowing the use of materials from outer space. Again, from the Committee’s discussion:

State practice is consistent with finding that exploration and use of outer space includes the right to remove, take possession, and use in-situ natural resources from celestial bodies. The United States, Russia, and Japan have all removed, taken possession, and used in-situ natural resources. These activities have never been protested by a State party to the treaty or judged in a court of law to be in violation of the Outer Space Treaty.

Indeed, some moon rocks taken by the Russian government have actually already been sold to private parties at Sotheby’s auctions in recent years.

Finally, the Committee cites Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty as recognizing that non-governmental entities can carry on activities in outer space, as long states bear international responsibility for those private activities.

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.

I will again note that this reading of the Outer Space Treaty is hardly slam-dunk, but I think it is a quite reasonable one that is at least as persuasive as the interpretation offered by the critics.  I think it is worth noting that State practice leans in favor of the U.S. here, which is not decisive, of course, but it is helpful nonetheless.  I also don’t think the U.S. ever would have committed itself to a flat out ban on commercial exploitation of outer space when it signed the Outer Space Treaty.

In any event, we will see how things spin out. As I noted, it is possible we will one day need an “Authority’ like that created for the international seabed, but not just yet.

A Treaty or Not a Treaty? My Senate Testimony About the Paris Climate Change Agreement

by Julian Ku

I had the honor and pleasure of testifying today before the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.  The topic of the hearing was “Examining International Climate Negotiations” and the upcoming conference in Paris. My own contribution argued that an agreement with legally binding emissions reduction obligations should be submitted to the Senate as a treaty rather than as a sole executive agreement.  I further argued that the Senate should require to the State Department to clarify which parts of a climate change agreement are legally binding, and which ones are merely non-binding political commitments.

You can watch the oral testimony and the questions below on C-SPAN (my testimony starts around the 11’40” mark. Almost all of the testimony has to do with the substantive merits of such an agreement (about which I express no opinion), as opposed to the legal aspects. So I will go ahead and declare victory for my argument by default.

When Is a “Plain Meaning” Not Plain?

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(a) Leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure.

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

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

by Julian Ku

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

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

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

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

France Fails to Adopt “Unwilling or Unable” in Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

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


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

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

Defending the FSA Against Russia — the Jus ad Bellum Perspective

by Kevin Jon Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That “Broad Consensus” for Unwilling/Unable Just Got Less Broad

by Kevin Jon Heller

A few days ago, I pointed out that Kate Martin’s “broad consensus that there is a right to use military force in self-defense when the host country is unable or unwilling to stop the attack” actually includes no more than four of the world’s 194 states. That consensus is not exactly broad — and it looks even shakier now that Russia has apparently rejected the “unwilling or unable” test in the context of Syria:

On Saturday, France launched a campaign of airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. Commenting on the effort, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova pondered what kind of conception of ‘self-defense’ would drive one country to carry out an operation to bomb another without that country’s explicit permission.

Earlier, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was cited by French media as saying that Paris’s bombing campaign constitutes self-defense. “We are acting in self-defense,” Valls noted, according to Reuters.

In a post on her Facebook page, Zakharova pondered that “it would be nice to know more about this concept of self-defense, in the form of air strikes [on the territory of Syria,] a state which did not attack anyone, and without its consent, and about this concept’s compliance with international law.”

The spokeswoman referred to the fact that in its air campaign against ISIL, the Western coalition never once found the need to consult with Syria’s legitimate government, and on the contrary, has repeatedly declared that the elected government of Bashar Assad cannot be part of Syria’s future.Zakharova noted that she found it entertaining that “the referendum in Crimea is called an annexation, but air strikes conducted without the approval of the Security Council or of the receiving side is self-defense.”

The spokeswoman emphasized that while “it’s clear that the Islamic State is a threat to the entire world,” first two questions must be answered: “First, who was it that created ISIL? And second, on what basis are you acting on the territory of a sovereign state, bypassing a legitimate government which not only does not support, but is selflessly fighting against ISIL?”

Zakharova concluded that “this is not international law; this is its abolition in front of a shocked international community.”

If I was being picky, I would acknowledge that Zakharova did not specifically reject “unwilling or unable.” Her emphasis on the requirement of Syria’s consent nevertheless implicitly rejects “unwilling or unable” far more clearly than the statements by various governments that supposedly — according to Ashley Deeks — support the test. So it is more than fair to count Russia in the anti-“unwilling or unable” camp.

If you’re keeping score at home, that makes it: at most four states that support “unwilling or unable”; at least one state that rejects it.

And yet scholars claim that there is a “broad consensus” in favour of the test. Thus does method die not with a bang, but a whimper.

Does President Obama Have to Send the “Cyber Arms Control” Agreement with China to the Senate?

by Julian Ku

U.S. and Chinese negotiators are apparently very close to working out an agreement to limit the use of cyberweapons against each other.  There is talk that this agreement will be concluded before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the U.S. next week.  The agreement will be pretty narrow in scope and apparently would not address the acts of cyber-theft and espionage that China allegedly carried out earlier this year. According to the NYT:

The United States and China are negotiating what could become the first arms control accord for cyberspace, embracing a commitment by each country that it will not be the first to use cyberweapons to cripple the other’s critical infrastructure during peacetime, according to officials involved in the talks.

I am skeptical that this kind of agreement could be effective for the reasons that Jack Goldsmith and Paul Rosenzweig have laid out (see also Goldsmith at greater length here).  But putting aside its effectiveness, it is worth asking whether a “cyber arms control agreement” would be the type of an agreement that required approval by two-thirds of the Senate as a treaty.

Much depends on exactly what the agreement purports to do.  If the agreement actually contains a commitment by the U.S. to “not be the first to use cyberweapons to cripple the other’s critical infrastructure”, than it is much closer to the traditional kinds of arms control agreements that have usually been approved under the U.S. system as treaties.  Unlike the Iran Nuclear Deal (which is mostly about lifting economic sanctions), the U.S. would be committing to refraining from using certain weapons or from exercising its military forces.

On the other hand, U.S administration sources caution that this agreement would not lay out specific obligations, but it “would be a more ‘generic embrace’ of a code of conduct adopted recently by a working group at the United Nations.” But even an agreement incorporating that code of conduct might be considered an “arms control” agreement since it requires that a state “should not conduct or knowingly support ICT activity contrary to its obligations under international law that intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs the use and operation of critical infrastructure to provide services to the public;” The rest of the code of conduct also imposes fairly robust obligations on a state.

I will have to think about this some more, but on first cut, it is possible that this cyber control agreement will have to be sent to the Senate as a treaty.  I think Senate approval of such a treaty would be a non-starter given the current political climate, so perhaps the Obama Administration will announce that this will be a sole executive agreement after all.  Whether that is permitted under the Constitution remains unclear though.


Why Professors Ackerman and Golove Are Still Wrong About the Iran Deal

by Julian Ku

I thank Professors Ackerman and Golove for taking the time to respond to my earlier post on whether a future President could unilaterally withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal.  But I remain unconvinced by the claims they made in their original Atlantic essay that a future President’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Deal would be “lawless”. Here’s why I still think they are wrong:

1)  Ackerman and Golove argue that the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act “authorizes” President Obama to enter into binding congressional-executive agreement with Iran.  In their sur-reply, Professors Ackerman and Golove cite two pieces of statutory text from the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act which they say is congressional authorization for the President to conclude the Iran Deal (the JCPOA).  They point out that the act “specifically defines ‘agreement’ to include any accord with Iran ‘regardless of whether it is legally binding or not.’ § 2610e(h)(1).” They then point out that the Act “authorizes the President to implement sanctions relief unless Congress enacts ‘a joint resolution stating in substance that the Congress does not favor the agreement.’ 42 U.S.C. § 2610e(c)(2)(B).”

For the purpose of this argument, it doesn’t really matter whether the agreement is legally binding or not.  The real problem is that Professors Ackerman and Golove do not (and cannot) cite statutory text “authorizing” the President to enter into an agreement with Iran.  They can’t cite this text because that language does not exist in the Act.  The Act defines an “agreement” broadly because Congress wants the President transmit everything, including supporting materials and annexes, to Congress.  The Act suspends the President’s pre-existing power to suspend or terminate sanctions on Iran while Congress “reviews” the agreement.  Congress may vote a resolution of disapproval, which would prevent the President from lifting or waiving sanctions, but it doesn’t say he can’t enter into the Agreement.  But Congress may also simply do nothing (which is what it has done), which would also allow the President to lift the sanctions after 90 days.  Nothing in the Act says the President can’t enter into the Agreement. It just says, once he does so, he has to disclose that agreement to Congress and hold off on implementation.*

Professors Ackerman and Golove somehow read this framework as an authorization of the President’s power to conclude an agreement, but a more plausible reading of the Act as a whole sees it as a suspension of the President’s pre-existing power to implement an agreement.  If you think (as I do) that the President has broad powers to conclude international agreements (especially nonbinding ones) without Congress, then this law makes a lot of sense since it requires the President to suspend implementation of the agreement for 60 or 90 days and disclose all information about the agreement.

Under the Ackerman/Golove reading of this language, Congress has authorized the President to enter into whatever agreement with Iran he wants, and the only condition it places on it is that Congress gets 90 days to review it before it automatically goes into effect. Why would  Congress bother to give the President the power to enter into an agreement without reserving for itself the power to approve it?

It is worth noting that Congress knows how to specifically authorize an executive agreement, and require its approval before going into effect.  In Section 103(b) of the Trade Promotion Authority Act (enacted about the same time as the Review Act), Congress states that:

“[w]henever the President determines that one or more existing duties or other import restrictions of any foreign country or the United States are unduly burdening and restricting the foreign trade of the United States and that the purposes, policies, priorities, and objectives of this title will be promoted thereby, the President

(A) may enter into trade agreements with foreign countries before— (i) July 1, 2018…

[Emphasis added].

Moreover, the trade agreements require approval by a separate Act of Congress.  As the TPA bill makes clear in Section 106, no agreement “entered into under section 103(b) shall enter into force with respect to the United States if (and only if)—” among other requirements — “(F) the implementing bill is enacted into law.” [Emphasis added).  Again, Congress is making clear that it ( and not the President) is the one who has authorized the agreement and that the agreement cannot have any force until Congress acts to approve and implement it.

It bears repeating: there is no language even remotely like this in Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. There is no language saying the President can enter into an agreement, nor is there language explaining when that agreement has “entered into force.”  Congress knows how to authorize an international agreement, and the most natural reading of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act is that it didn’t do so there.

2) Professors Ackerman and Golove also argue that a future President cannot legally (under U.S. law) terminate this agreement without either approval from Congress or without undermining U.S. credibility in trade agreements like NAFTA or the WTO.

I find this argument lacking for at least two reasons.

First, as I stated above, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act doesn’t follow the pattern of trade promotion authority laws  in any way so it is highly unlikely that any trading partners will worry about a President Rubio pulling out of the WTO because he pulled out of the JCPOA. (Simon Lester makes that point here)

Moreover, the Review Act does not in any way prohibit a future President from withdrawing from the JCPOA, nor does it prohibit the President from reimposing sanctions on Iran. He is perfectly free to put them back on without violating the Review Act or any other U.S. statutory law.

The contrast with trade agreements is again instructive because Congress knows how to reserve to itself the power to terminate an agreement.  Under Section 125 of the Uruguay Agreements Implementation Act, Congress can vote every five years on whether to pull out of the WTO. This suggests that Congress has reserved for itself some power to terminate the WTO agreement. And because the laws implementing the WTO agreement change all sorts of other U.S. laws, it makes sense for Congress to supervise how and when the U.S. gets out. (It bear repeating: terminating the JCPOA does NOT violate or change any U.S. domestic law).

Second, as I noted in my original post, even if the Iran Deal was a treaty approved by the Senate, there is good reason to think the President could withdraw from the Iran deal-treaty without going back to the Senate for approval.  President Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty without going to the Senate, President Carter withdrew from the U.S.-Taiwan defense treaty without going to the Senate, etc.  For this reason, a future President could withdraw from the JCPOA (even if the JCPOA is legally binding) without going back to Congress, especially where the Review Act does not reserve to Congress any termination rights.  Thus, even if Professors Ackerman and Golove are right that the Review Act authorizes the President to enter into an agreement, it doesn’t REQUIRE him to do so or REQUIRE him to stay in the JCPOA. (And he can withdraw via the JCPOA’s provisions if he chooses).

In conclusion, I am back where I started.  Professors Ackerman and Golove use the thinnest of statutory language to claim that Congress “authorized” the President to make an agreement, and further, that Congress has also prohibited the President from withdrawing from it.  That’s a lot of work for a mere definition of the word “agreement” to carry. It’s far too much, especially when one considers the way Congress goes about its business in the trade agreement context.  The next President can unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA. And, with all due respect to Professors Ackerman and Golove, such a withdrawal will be the opposite of “lawless.”


*As a side note, the fact that the definition of an agreement includes non-binding political commitments suggests that Congress is really after review and disclosure, not authorization and approval.  Could Congress authorize the President to enter into a non-binding political commitment? And then require him and future presidents to stick to such a commitment?

President Rubio/Walker/Trump/Whomever Can Indeed Terminate the Iran Deal on “Day One”

by Julian Ku

Professors Bruce Ackerman and David Golove argue in this Atlantic essay that the next President cannot withdraw from the Iran agreement because it is a “congressionally authorized executive agreement.” They argue that Senator Marco Rubio’s pledge to terminate the Iran Deal on day one “would destroy the binding character of America’s commitments to the IMF, the World Bank, NAFTA, and the World Trade Organization….The President can no more walk away from them than he can from any other law or treaty.”

I am sorry to say that this article, which comes from two super-respected legal scholars, is deeply and badly mistaken.

This argument is based on the premise that the “legislation that Congress adopted last May, …explicitly grants the Administration authority to negotiate and implement binding legal commitments with Iran.” In their view, the Iran Deal is a simply a congressional-executive agreement exactly akin to U.S. trade agreements like NAFTA.

But this premise is wrong.  The U.S. government has repeatedly stated (see here)  that the “Joint Coordinated Plan of Action” between Iran and the P-6 powers is a “nonbinding” political commitment. And the JCPOA itself talks only of “voluntary measures.” (see Dan Joyner’s discussion of this here).   Even the United Nations Security Council Resolution that implements the JCPOA does not legally bind the U.S. to stick to the JCPOA (as John Bellinger argues here).

Nor does the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act explicitly (or implicitly) authorize the President to make an agreement with Iran that would go beyond the President’s existing constitutional powers to make sole-executive agreements or nonbinding political commitments. The Review Act simply sets up a disclosure and timetable regime for the President’s disclosure of his foreign affairs activities that he wouldn’t otherwise have to disclose to Congress.

It is nothing like the Trade Promotion Authority that the President has received to conclude trade agreements like NAFTA or the WTO. While the Review Act discusses agreements that were already made and sets out disclosure and timing requirements, Trade Promotion Authority laws (like the most recent one) say things like: “the President— (A) may enter into trade agreements with foreign countries before” certain dates and then cannot afterwards.”  This is explicit authority, and no similar language can be found in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

In any event, Ackerman and Golove are also mistaken on a more mundane point. Even if the Iran Deal is a binding congressionally authorized international agreement, a future President could withdraw from such an agreement unilaterally.  This is true because: 1) the JCPOA itself has an “exit ramp” under Paragraph 36 which allows the U.S. to terminate its participation after 35 days if its concerns about Iran’s compliance are not satisfied; and 2) the President appears to have broad constitutional powers to unilaterally terminate treaties without Congress or the Senate’s approval.  Surely, the President could terminate a nonbinding voluntary “plan of action” without going back to a Congress that didn’t really authorize him to make an agreement in the first place.

Even though I am increasingly convinced that the Iran Nuclear Deal is a bad deal for the U.S. and Europe (not to mention Israel), I have publicly defended the legality of President Obama’s decision to conclude a nuclear “agreement” with Iran without going to Congress to get approval. But the decision to bypass Congress has got to have a price for the President.  And that price is that the Iran Deal does not bind his predecessor either as a matter of constitutional or international law.

The Difference Between the British and American Debates Over the Legality of Drone Strikes: The Brits Seem to Care About International Law

by Julian Ku

Earlier this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK had conducted a lethal drone strike against one of its own nationals (affiliated with ISIS)  in August and that the British government was confident of the strike’s legality under international law.

As an outside observer, I am fascinated at how important the drone strike’s legality under international law seems to be for UK policymakers and commentators.  The BBC’s useful analysis of “Who, What, Why: When is it legal to kill your own citizens?” is exclusively focused on the legality of the strike under international law.  So is this editorial from the UK newspaper The Independent.

To be sure, the US debate over drone strikes also dealt seriously with international law.  But the most powerful legal arguments against drone strikes were those made on the basis of the U.S. Constitution’s Due Process Clause and U.S. statutes criminalizing murder of U.S. nationals abroad. International legality has not played a big part in this litigation, nor even in its broader public debate. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky famously filibustered for a whole day against targeted killings but his legal complaint was wholly constitutional.

But as far as I can tell, there has been little discussion of whether the UK government’s killing of a UK national abroad violates the UK Human Rights Act (incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights) or UK statutory law more generally.  I may be missing something, but it does seem a telling difference in the nature of public and legal discourse in the two countries.