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International Law in U.S. Courts

Guest Post: Steinman–SCOTUS Decision in Daimler AG v. Bauman: Constitutional Limits on General Jurisdiction

by Adam N. Steinman

[Adam N. Steinman is Professor of Law and Michael J. Zimmer Fellow at Seton Hall University School of Law. This contribution is cross-posted at Civil Procedure & Federal Courts Blog.]

Last week the Supreme Court issued its decision in Daimler AG v. Bauman, a case covered earlier here and here and here. In many ways, the case resembles Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, last Term’s decision on the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). The Daimler plaintiffs had brought claims under the ATS against Daimler—a German company headquartered in Stuttgart—for human rights and other violations committed by Daimler’s Argentinian subsidiary during the “dirty war” of the 1970s and 1980s. The Supreme Court’s decision in Daimler, however, is all about personal jurisdiction, and it is not limited to the ATS context.

The Ninth Circuit had held that Daimler was subject to general personal jurisdiction in California based on the activities of its American subsidiary, MBUSA. Because it involves general jurisdiction, Daimler is an important follow-up to the Court’s 2011 decision in Goodyear Dunlop v. Brown. Writing for a unanimous Court in Goodyear, Justice Ginsburg explained that general jurisdiction over corporations is proper “when their affiliations with the State are so ‘continuous and systematic’ as to render them essentially at home in the forum State.”

In Daimler, all nine Justices conclude that it would be unconstitutional for California to exercise general jurisdiction over Daimler. Justice Ginsburg again writes for the Court, although Justice Sotomayor writes a separate concurrence that disagrees with much of Justice Ginsburg’s reasoning. Parts of the decision—and some of the areas of disagreement—are harder than usual to follow because the parties either conceded or forfeited a number of potentially important points during the course of the litigation [See p.15]. That said, the most significant parts of the Daimler decision address three issues:

(1) When can a subsidiary’s activities in the forum state be attributed to the parent for purposes of general jurisdiction?

(2) More generally, when is a corporation subject to general jurisdiction under the Goodyear standard?

(3) What role (if any) do the so-called “reasonableness” factors play in the general jurisdiction context?

The majority opinion does not provide much affirmative guidance on the first question, although Justice Ginsburg rejects the Ninth Circuit’s approach. The Ninth Circuit had attributed MBUSA’s contacts to Daimler using an “agency theory,” which “rested primarily” on the premise that “MBUSA’s services were ‘important’ to Daimler, as gauged by Daimler’s hypothetical readiness to perform those services itself if MBUSA did not exist.” [p.17] Justice Ginsburg reasons that this view “stacks the deck, for it will always yield a pro-jurisdiction answer.” [p.17]. Nor—on these facts—could attribution be based on Daimler’s “control” over MBUSA. According to the Ninth Circuit, (more…)

The United States breaches the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations . . . Again

by Duncan Hollis

News out of Texas today that it executed Edgar Tamayo, a Mexican national, for killing a police officer, Guy Gaddis.  Tamayo was one of the nationals Mexico named in the Avena case.  Thus, he fell within the scope of the ICJ’s order that the United States provide ‘review and reconsideration’ of the conviction and sentence of named Mexican nationals in light of the U.S. failure to provide a right to consular access within a reasonable time of their arrest pursuant to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR).  Thus, whatever Texas’ interests in ensuring justice was served on someone who killed a police officer, the execution is a clear violation of U.S. obligations under the ICJ Statute (Art. 59), the UN Charter (Art. 94), and, of course, the VCCR itself (Art. 36), given US adherence at the time to the VCCR’s Optional Protocol.

This marks (I believe) the third Mexican national Texas has executed since the ICJ issued its decision in Avena, and since the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Medellin that the US treaty obligations in question are non-self executing, meaning that as a matter of U.S. constitutional law, the Executive is powerless to stop Texas absent further implementation of the VCCR (or other treaties) by federal legislation.  The prospects of Congressional action to implement Avena, however, seem pretty dim at this point.

So, what happens now? Will Mexico continue to treat each new execution with the same weight as it has previously?  There are still dozens of Mexican nationals to whom the Avena decision had purported to offer relief. I also wonder if the State Department will maintain the same level of lobbying against these executions or if its statements will become more a matter of lip service?  I’d note, for example, the extent of federal lobbying seems to be lessening over time — compare Kerry’s comments on Tamayo’s case with the 2008 efforts by the White House, State, and Justice Department to delay Mr. Medellin’s execution).  In other words, will the regularity with which these executions (and the arguments surrounding them) seem destined to occur diminish their visibility for either the States themselves or their nationals?  Is Mexico’s claim against the United States strengthened or weakened by the United States’ continued inability (or some might say unwillingness) to comply with its international obligations?  As a formal matter, one would have to insist that Mexico has more to complain about with each execution.  But, on a more practical level, I’d argue Mexico’s chances for relief are likely to diminish the more the international community comes to expect continued U.S. non-compliance with the Avena judgment.  That may not be the right result, but I’m thinking it’s the most likely one. What do readers think?  Am I missing something?

 

 

Guest Post: Ghodoosi–Comprehensive Solution to an Agreement: How the New Iran Deal Is Framed Under Iranian Law?

by Farshad Ghodoosi

[Farshad Ghodoosi is a JSD candidate at Yale Law School.]

In continuation of the discussion about the New Iranian Deal started by Duncan Hollis, I decided to take a stab at clarifying the Iranian side of the story.  The new deal, the so-called Geneva Agreement (24 Nov. 2013) and the ensuing implementation agreement (that took effect on Jan 20th, 2014), between Iran and the 5 plus 1 group seems to be more than a joint plan of action. Practically, it attenuates some of the bites of the previous Security Council Resolutions on the Iran Nuclear Program and will create tit-for-tat commitments on both sides. Whether the agreements reached thus far create binding obligations under international law is beyond the scope of this piece and requires further details on the recent –yet unpublished – implementation agreement. However, the drafters of the agreement of Nov. 24th deftly avoided the term “agreement” and instead employed the term “comprehensive solution”.

This choice of term might have been to avoid the formalities of treaty law internationally but also domestically vis-à-vis Iran.  Naming might make a difference under Iranian Law. Generally speaking, the Iranian Constitution seeds skepticism towards international agreements and contracts in the present Iranian legal system. Article 77 declares, “international protocols, treaties, contracts and agreements should be ratified by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis)”. The Article is very broad and all encompassing. Those hardliners unhappy about the deal in Iran’s parliament are pressing on implementing this article, stating that the agreement needs to be ratified domestically, otherwise it is void of effects. On the other hand, supporters in parliament categorize it as a “preliminary agreement” not requiring parliament approval.

I believe a preliminary agreement is still an agreement and is subject to Article 77 of the Iranian Constitution. If I were in the shoes of the supporters of the deal in the Parliament, I would emphasize the word “comprehensive solution” as it is reflected in the text. The term “comprehensive solution” is not listed in the Article 77 of the Iranian Constitution and therefore would arguably not need parliament approval.

Another hurdle for international agreements is Article 125 of the Iranian Constitution. This Article stipulates that “signing international treaties, protocols, agreements and contracts of the Iranian states with other states and also signing conventions pertaining to international organizations, subsequent to Islamic Consultative Assembly approval, is vested in the President or his legal representative.” The Council of Guardians, the body responsible for interpreting the Constitution, restricts this Article to instances where the international instrument contains “an obligation” or “a contract” (decision March 13, 1983). It handed down its decision in a situation where “a letter of intent” for cooperation was signed between Iran and India while there were doubts whether parliament had to approve it.

Despite the language in the Iranian Constitution, I believe, it is not certain that Articles 77 and 125 make the Iranian legal system a dualist system. In dualist systems, international instruments are devoid of any status in domestic law until ratified through the legislative process. I posit that the matter should be clear in the language of the Constitution. Under Article 77, however, the sanction for non-compliance with the provision is unclear. It does not mention whether non-compliance renders the international agreements ineffectual, or makes them of lower status (similar to regulations) in relation to other domestic laws. Alternatively, it could be simply a ground for impeachment or question from the President. Article 125 also seems only to vest the signing authority on the President to render the international instruments official, and not necessarily dictate their binding nature.  It might sound like a long shot, but I believe, notwithstanding the requirement of parliamentary approval, international agreements could still be invoked and enforced in Iranian domestic law—at least as a contractual agreement between parties. This interpretation makes international agreements and contracts with Iran, most of which are not ratified by parliament, valid and effective under Iranian Law.

I would like to end this post with a separate comment — the absence of any dispute resolution mechanism in the deal. It is indeed not a very smart idea to omit any form of dispute resolution mechanisms. Considering the lack of trust and the history of contention between both sides (especially Iran and the US), any minor disagreement might lead to dismantling the entire agreement and the new rapprochement (as was apparently close to happening in the implementation the Joint Action Plan). There are several potential reasons parties avoided incorporating any dispute resolution mechanism. First and foremost, they probably disliked the idea of handing over such a highly political matter to a judicial body of any sort. Another potential reason was to avoid making the agreement seem like a treaty subject to international law or otherwise a binding instrument. Nonetheless, I believe disagreements over implementing the agreement could have been vested to an arbitral body or a mediation panel at least in an advisory capacity.

Post-Kiobel, Are We All Ready to Move On From the ATS?

by Julian Ku

The American Journal of International Law has posted electronic excerpts from its “Agora: Reflections on Kiobel”, which will be published in its next issue.  As a contributor to the AJIL Agora myself, I was fascinated to see the different takes that everyone had on the decision.  For the most part, contributors seem to read Kiobel the same way: as sharply cutting back or even eliminating the vast majority of Alien Tort Statute claims that are based on overseas conduct.  In general, the Agora seems to signify that the international legal academy is ready to move on from the ATS: to other jurisdictions like the Netherlands or Europe, to new statutory amendments to the ATS, to other non-litigation based mechanisms, or perhaps to state courts in the U.S.

As for my contribution, I was more interested in taking apart Kiobel’s resounding, unanimous, and surprising rejection of universal civil jurisdiction under the ATS.  I am in partial sympathy with the take of Professor David Moore, another Agora contributor who is more focused on US domestic law aspects of the ATS.  I think scholars and advocates have underestimated the importance of plain-vanilla separation of powers concerns in leading to the Court’s refusal to read the ATS as granting universal jurisdiction to federal courts.  Here is the opening from my essay (and make sure you check out the whole Agora):

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. has not ended future debate about the scope and impact of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS).2 But the Kiobel Court did resolve at least one issue with surprising unanimity: both the opinion for the Court by Chief Justice John Roberts and the main concurring opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer refused to interpret the ATS as authorizing universal jurisdiction. All nine justices rejected decades of lower-court precedent and widespread scholarly opinion when they held that the ATS excluded cases involving purely extraterritorial conduct, even if the alleged conduct constituted acts that are universally proscribed under international law.

In this short essay, I argue that the surprising death of universal jurisdiction reflects the triumph of the “separation of powers” critique of the ATS, which casts a skeptical eye on giving federal courts an independent role in the administration of both ATS lawsuits and cases involving international law more generally. I argue that this separation of powers critique of the ATS, which has found relatively little academic support, is a crucial reason why the Court unanimously rejected universal jurisdiction in Kiobel and why the Court may further restrict the ATS in future cases.

Is the New Iranian Nuclear Deal a Secret Treaty?

by Duncan Hollis

Well, it’s not exactly a secret treaty in the sense that yesterday, the news wires were abuzz about the fact that the United States, Iran and five other world powers concluded an agreement to implement Iran’s earlier November deal on its nuclear program.  But, what’s being held back is the actual text of the deal.  There’s not many details (the only story I found on this was here). Still, at this point it’s not clear whether or not yesterday’s implementing agreement is actually a treaty or just another political commitment like the deal last November?  Assuming it is legally binding, it’s also unclear as to why the text is not being released?  Is this just a temporary delay pending a good scrub by treaty lawyers of the final text and any language/translation issues?  Or, is it that some of the implementation agreements’ contents are being treated as classified by one or more of the participants/parties such that they have no intention of ever releasing the text?

Now, as I’ve written in the past, there’s a tendency among students of international relations to assume that secret treaties died with Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points of light speech and its admonition for “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind.”  That view was codified, first in Article 18 of the Treaty of Versailles, and later (in a looser form) in Article 102 of the U.N. Charter (requiring Member States to register and allow to be published ”[e]very treaty and every international agreement” they make with the understanding that unregistered treaties may not be invoked before any organ of the United Nations).  But, as far as international law is concerned, reports of the extinction of secret treaties appear exaggerated.  As D.N. Hutchinson noted here back in 1993, Article 102 is most often honored in the breach, and has little relevance today to determining the legal status of an agreement (the ICJ appears to agree given its holdings in the jurisdictional phase of Qatar v. Bahrain).  Thus, I’m not terribly surprised by the idea that the text of the deal may be secret even if its existence is not (particularly given the ‘nuclear’ subject-matter).  Moreover, I don’t think the fact that Iran and these other States concluded it without making the text publicly available will deny it the status of a treaty under international law.

A more important question may be, given the reality of some significant Congressional hostility to the deal, whether keeping its text secret will prove problematic under U.S. law or the domestic law of any of the other State participants?  I can’t speak to the domestic law of other States, but on the U.S. front, I have my doubts. There are obvious questions as to what legal authority the United States has to conclude this implementation agreement (i.e. is it a sole executive agreement, or does the Obama Administration view some existing legislative authority as sufficient to treat it as a congressional-executive agreement?).  Assuming legal authority to conclude an implementation agreement, however, there is statutory authority for it to be done in secret provided the Executive Branch follows the appropriate procedures under the 1972 Case-Zablocki Act:

The Secretary of State shall transmit to the Congress the text of any international agreement (including the text of any oral international agreement, which agreement shall be reduced to writing), other than a treaty, to which the United States is a party as soon as practicable after such agreement has entered into force with respect to the United States but in no event later than sixty days thereafter. However, any such agreement the immediate public disclosure of which would, in the opinion of the President, be prejudicial to the national security of the United States shall not be so transmitted to the Congress but shall be transmitted to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives under an appropriate injunction of secrecy to be removed only upon due notice from the President. Any department or agency of the United States Government which enters into any international agreement on behalf of the United States shall transmit to the Department of State the text of such agreement not later than twenty days after such agreement has been signed. (emphasis added)

Simply put, U.S. law accepts and regulates secret treaties and other international agreements. Thus, I don’t think the fact of its secrecy will sway proponents (or opponents) of this deal one way or another.  Even so, I’m curious to know more about the Iranian implementation agreement.  Is it intended to be legally binding or a political commitment?  And, if it’s a treaty, what’s the Executive Branch view as to the legal authority to conclude it short of getting new legislation or going to the Senate under Article II of the Constitution?  I’d welcome comments from readers who know more details here than I do.

Hat Tip:  Orde Kittrie

Why the U.S. State Department Deserves an “F” on their Handling of the Indian Consul Flap

by Julian Ku

It looks like the U.S. and India have worked out a sort-of deal to end the battle over visa-fraud charges brought against India’s deputy consul-general in New York Devyani Khobragade.  Yesterday, a U.S. grand jury indicted Khobragade on the visa-fraud charges, and shortly thereafter, Khobragade was allowed to leave the U.S. for India.  India is now retaliating by demanding the U.S. withdraw a U.S. diplomat from India.

From a purely legal perspective, this is a smart move by the U.S. since even if it had continued with the prosecution, Khobragade would be able to raise a variety of defenses based on her possible status as a diplomat accredited at India’s UN Mission at the time of her arrest, or at least her status at the Mission now.  I think those defenses are decent (though hardly slam-dunk) and, if rejected, would further inflame India as well as create unwelcome precedents for US consuls and diplomats abroad.

Of course, from a diplomatic perspective, it seems clear to me that this prosecution should never have been brought, or at least there should never have been an “arrest” (much less the strip-search).  Why couldn’t the U.S. have indicted her without arresting her, or even just demanded her withdrawal without indicting her?  That is effectively what has happened anyway, except that we also get a crisis in US-India relations like we haven’t had in decades.

I’m putting the blame here almost completely on the U.S. State Department. They (supposedly) had notice that this arrest was going to happen, and they did not take steps to head off a pretty serious diplomatic incident.  Dealing with foreign diplomats is at the heart of what they do.  And they couldn’t have predicted what happened here?  C’mon Secretary Kerry, hold someone responsible!

I’ve just finished my grades from last semester (yes I know, I’m late!).  But I have no problem giving the U.S. State Department an “F” here.

Exploring International Law with Opinio Juris in 2013: Highways, Back Roads, and Uncharted Territories…

by Chris Borgen

There’s never a boring year in international law and 2013 turned out to be particularly eventful: Syria, major cases in front of national and international courts, a possible nuclear deal with Iran, and turmoil in Eastern Europe, Egypt, and South Sudan, to name but a few reasons.

This post is not an attempt to log all that we have written about on Opinio Juris this year. There’s just too much.  If any of these topics (or others) are of particular interest to you, you can use our search function to find the posts related to them.  Rather, this post is an idiosyncratic tour of some of the highways, back roads, and other territory that we traversed in 2013… (Continue Reading)

Daphne Eviatar on the Military Commission Train Wreck

by Kevin Jon Heller

Train wreck, fiasco, disaster, dumpster fire, bad joke, kangaroo court, show trial — take your pick, the description applies. Eviatar’s post at Just Security a while back is a must-read; here is but one particularly disturbing snippet:

Recent pre-trial hearings have revealed, for example, that the Guantanamo courtroom was equipped with microphones able to eavesdrop on privileged attorney-client communications; that the CIA was secretly monitoring the hearings and, unbeknownst to the judge, had the ability to censor the audio feed heard by observers; and that the meeting rooms where defense lawyers met their clients had been secretly wired with video and audio monitors, hidden in devices made to look like smoke detectors. In addition, all legal mail is screened by government security personnel, and documents previously deemed acceptable were later confiscated from the defendants’ prison cells without explanation; those documents included a detainee’s own hand-written notes or a photograph of the grand mosque in Mecca.

Seventy years ago, the United States bent over backwards to provide high-ranking Nazis with fair trials. These days, a fair trial for someone as unimportant as bin Laden’s driver is nothing but a dream. How far the mighty have fallen.

“Love is Greater than Treaties”

by Duncan Hollis

That’s the punchline of a podcast Radiolab just released this week, provocatively titled “Sex, Ducks and The Founding Feud”.  Along with John Bellinger, Joseph Ellis and Nick Rosenkranz, I was interviewed for the story by Jad Abumrad and Kelsey Padgett.  It was a fun experience overall trying to explain to a general audience the importance of the US treaty power and how it plays out in the Bond case, and Missouri v Holland before that. On the whole, I enjoyed hearing some fabulous sound editing (which is not surprising given Jad’s previous work won him a McArthur Genius award). Entertaining as it is though, I also found the piece quite thoughtful in framing the importance of the treaty power and offering both sides of the arguments, even if one might quibble over a few details here and there (eg the constitutionality of the implementing legislation versus that of the treaty).

Interested readers can take a listen here.

 

 

Does the U.S. Congress Have to Approve the New WTO Agreement? Apparently Not.

by Julian Ku

Simon Lester of the IELP Blog raises an interesting and possibly important point about the new WTO Agreement just reached in Bali.  In order for the U.S. to enter into the agreement, will the U.S. Congress have to approve it?

On first glance, the answer would seem to be: “yes” since the U.S. Congress invariably is required to approve all U.S. trade agreements (as opposed to just the Senate, if it were a treaty).  In any event, I would have thought the U.S. Congress would have to approve the new Bali agreement as new legislation.  But then Simon points out this comment by U.S. trade officials from Inside U.S. Trade:

At the press conference, Punke said the Obama administration does not believe the deal requires congressional approval. “Our analysis of the trade facilitation agreement is it can be effectuated through administrative means and would not require legislation to put it into force,” he said. The obligations of the trade facilitation agreement are enforceable under the WTO Dispute Settlement Understanding.

This makes sense if one thinks of congressional approval of executive agreements as simply implementation of international obligations into domestic U.S. law.  But the congressional role in trade agreements has also been understood to fill in for the role of the U.S. Senate in approving treaties even if those treaties have no domestic law impact.  For U.S. law purposes, the President can’t enter into a treaty unless the Senate gives its advice and consent.  In the trade agreement context, I think many scholars have thought that Congress’ approval of those agreements by a majority of both houses serves the same role of giving the input of the legislature on the President’s decisions to enter into international agreements.

Or perhaps not.  Maybe the President really is free to bind the U.S. under international law via executive agreement on trade matters without any approval of Congress as long as no domestic law change is needed. This means that trade agreements really are just sole executive agreements that Congress is not really approving, but just implementing into U.S. domestic law.  And if no implementation is required, no Congress. This makes sense, but I just don’t think this the common understanding of how or why these congressional-executive agreements work.

One way out of this problem is (as Simon also points out) to understand the Bali Agreement as an amendment to the WTO Agreement. That agreement  (in Art. X) specifically outlines a mechanism for amendment which requires “consensus” (e.g. unanimity) or (depending on which provision is being affected) a two-thirds vote of the Ministerial Conference. In this way, Congress may be understood to have already approved future amendments to the WTO Agreement when it “approved” the original WTO Agreement back in 1994.  This “delegation” theory is probably a better explanation of why no congressional approval qua approval is needed for the Bali Agreement. Not totally satisfying, but probably enough here.

Why Is the New Agreement Between P5+1 and Iran Not Void?

by Kevin Jon Heller

A few days ago, in response to reports of an imminent deal between P5+1 and Iran concerning Iran’s uranium enrichment, Tyler Cullis and Ryan Goodman debated whether Iran has a “right” to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes. Tyler argued that Iran does, citing (inter alia) Art. IV of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT):

Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.

Ryan disagreed, arguing that any such “right” in the NPT has been superceded by a series of Security Council resolutions — beginning with Res. 1696 in 2006 — demanding that Iran cease its enrichment activities. In defense of his position, Ryan cited a number of eminent non-proliferation scholars, such as Larry D. Johnson, a former Assistant-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs at the United Nations:

While Iran claims that it has a right to enrich uranium as part of its peaceful nuclear energy program, the IAEA Board of Governors found that there had been a history of concealment and failure to declare certain activities to the agency, and therefore reported the matter to the Security Council. The Council has decided that over and above its obligations under NPT and the safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Iran was required, under Chapter VII of the Charter, to suspend all proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities, including all enrichment-related and all reprocessing activities, as confidence-building measures.

I think Ryan are Johnson are right that the “inalienable right” guaranteed by Iran’s ratification of the NPT is nullified — at least for now — by the various Security Council resolutions. So here is my question: why is the just-announced agreement between P5+1 and Iran not void ab initio for the same reason? SC Res. 1737 categorically prohibits Iranian uranium enrichment (emphasis mine)…

Doesn’t the U.S. Senate Care about Mercury?

by Duncan Hollis

On November 6, the United States signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury and deposited an instrument of acceptance indicating its consent to be bound by the treaty on its entry into force, making it the first nation to do so.  Here’s how UNEP summarizes the Convention:

The Minamata Convention for Mercury is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. It was agreed at the fifth and final session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in Geneva, Switzerland at 7 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, 19 January 2013.

The major highlights of the Minamata Convention on Mercury include a ban on new mercury mines, the phase-out of existing ones, control measures on air emissions and the international regulation of the informal sector for artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

The treaty certainly seems to address an important environmental problem with significant momentum from State participants — although opened for signature only a month ago, it has already garnered 93 signatories (of course, everyone most people know that those signatures are not the same as consent, which is why the United States took the additional step of depositing an instrument of acceptance).  The treaty will enter into force on the deposit of the 50th instrument of ratification, accession, acceptance or approval.   

What interests me about the Mercury treaty though is not just its contents — which are the latest iteration of multilateral environmental governance — but the process for U.S. acceptance.  Here’s how the State Department describes it:

The Minamata Convention represents a global step forward to reduce exposure to mercury, a toxic chemical with significant health effects on the brain and nervous system. The United States has already taken significant steps to reduce the amount of mercury we generate and release to the environment, and can implement Convention obligations under existing legislative and regulatory authority. The Minamata Convention complements domestic measures by addressing the transnational nature of the problem.

Three questions.  First, is the Administration considering this a congressional executive agreement? If so, shouldn’t they be a bit more specific about which U.S. laws authorize U.S. participation in this treaty.  In particular, it would be interesting to know if the legislation authorizes not just the regulation of mercury but U.S. participation in an international legal regime regulating mercury (I’m guessing it doesn’t).  That’s a big distinction, especially since the Obama Administration has already gotten into quite a dust-up over how it reads statutes with respect to authorizing U.S. consent to treaties (e.g., ACTA).  And if there’s no statutory authority to join the Minamata Convention, doesn’t that mean it must be a sole executive agreement?

Second, where’s the U.S. Senate in all this? As Oona Hathaway has explained there are few, if any, ways to rationally explain why certain international agreements go to the U.S. Senate for advice and consent versus those that Congress approves via ex ante or ex post legislation (let alone those that are done under the President’s sole executive powers).  Rationality aside, however, there is a long history of the Senate exercising its prerogatives over certain subject areas when it comes to giving advice and consent to treaties.  Thus, when President Bush suggested he’d not send the Moscow Treaty on arms control with Russia to the Senate, the Senate issued a non-partisan threat request that he do so . . . and the Administration changed course and obliged the Senate by sending it there.  I’d always understood multilateral environmental agreements to warrant similar treatment.  With one notable exception — the 1976 Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution Convention and its various protocols —  I believe multilateral environmental agreements have always gone through the Senate advice and consent process . . . until now.

This raises a third and final question:  Why did the Administration decide to bypass the Senate in consenting to the Minamata Convention? Perhaps the Senate indicated to the Obama Administration that they would not object to having this treaty concluded as an executive agreement?  Or, maybe the statutory authority (would love further details on what it is) is more robust than in the ACTA context.  Alternatively, I wonder, if this isn’t the Obama Administration response to the Senate’s repeated intransigence lately to approve any of the Administration’s major treaty priorities; from the Disabilities Convention to UNCLOS, the Senate’s been pretty deadlocked of late. Maybe the idea here was to send a warning shot to demonstrate that the Administration no longer feels bound to adhere to past practice when it comes to reserving certain treaty subjects for Senate attention and/or that the Administration wants to remind the Senate that it has other ways to pursue its international agenda if the Senate continues to delay or deny consent to the treaties it receives from the White House.

I’d welcome comments, especially from any readers who know more of the back story on this Convention or the U.S. approach to consenting to it.