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International Legal Theory and Teaching

Engaging the Writings of Martti Koskenniemi

by Duncan Hollis

MK2r_hollis (2)

Last Spring, Temple Law School was pleased to host a two day workshop on the scholarship of one of international law’s true giants – Martti Koskenniemi (simply put, I’m a big fan). Organized by my colleague, Jeff Dunoff, it was a great event with a wide-ranging conversation launching off Martti’s works in international legal theory, international legal history, fragmentation, interdisciplinary scholarship, ethics and the future of international law.  

Given how great the workshop was, I could not be more pleased to note that the accompanying papers have now been compiled and published in a single volume of the Temple International and Comparative Law Journal (vol. 27, no. 2). The full table of contents for the Symposium Issue can be found here

The papers include Jeff Dunoff’s framing introduction, a fascinating paper by Martti on the historiography of international law, and a slew of papers by renowned scholars, including Kim Scheppele, Tomer Broude, Sean Murphy, Mark Pollack, Rob Howse and Ruti Teitel, Samuel Moyn, Jan Klabbers, Andrew Lang and Susan Marks, Frédéric Mégret, and Ralf Michaels.  These papers address a number of themes that run through Koskenniemi’s work, including international law and empire; the fragmentation of international law; interdisciplinary approaches to international law; reading – and misreading – the tradition; and the international lawyer as ethical agent.  Both individually and collectively, the papers represent a significant effort to engage, explore, and extend the ideas found in Koskenniemi’s writings.

The special symposium issue is the first of what will be a tradition of yearly Symposia that will be organized by Temple faculty and published in the Journal.  As such, the Symposia marks a new form of collaboration between Temple faculty and students, and represent an experiment in academic publishing designed to provide students the experience of editing papers on cutting-edge research, and at the same time injecting faculty expertise into the selection and substantive editing of papers.

From Intervention to Recognition: Russia, Crimea, and Arguments over Recognizing Secessionist Entities

by Chris Borgen

In a matter of days, we have gone from talking about the illegality of Russia’s military intervention, to issues of the Crimean referendum, to Russia’s recognition of Crimea as a new state. While these events have moved quite rapidly, they are not really surprising: arguments over attempted secessions often shift from the question of the legality of the secession itself (about which, as discussed in a previous post, international law is largely silent; although it is generally understood that secession is not a right), to the question of the legality of the recognition of the secession. That is a subtly different question.

By recognizing Crimea, Russia is attempting to shift the discussion off of the issue of military intervention and also, by its recognition, “create facts on the ground” that will at least help Russia;s own negotiating position, if not lay the groundwork for Russia annexing Crimea (by having a Crimean “sovereign state” ask to join Russia). To assess how Russia is doing this, this post will consider the law of recognition and the following post will consider how Russia has used arguments about recognition in relation to Kosovo and South Ossetia in comparison to what it is doing today regarding Crimea.

For this post, the underlying question is whether Russia’s recognition of Crimea was possibly an illegal act.

First of all, what is “recognition?” There are actually different types of recognition: recognition of statehood, recognition of a government, and recognition of a belligerency, recognition of territorial change. For the moment, we are talking about whether Crimea can and should be recognized as a state. In the days to come, we may be talking about issues of recognizing territorial change, if Russia attempts to annex Crimea.

States tend to view the decision to recognize or not recognize an entity as a state as a political decision, albeit one that exists within an international legal framework. That legal framework is in part the rules of statehood. The standard view in international law is that a state must have (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) a government; and (d) the capacity to enter relations with other states.

While entities that claim statehood often try to do a quick “check the box” summary of these criteria and claim they have all the requirements of statehood, the actual assessment is meant to be more rigorous than a soundbite. For Crimea, the problems include that its territory is completely contested—this isn’t an issue of where the border between Crimea and Ukraine should be, this is a dispute over the whole of the territory of Crimea. Moreover, whether Crimea has a functional government or the capacity to enter into international relations are both very much in doubt: Crimea as a supposedly independent entity would not exist but for Russian military intervention. The control of Crimean territory seems to be more under the command of the Russian President than the Crimean authorities. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself what would happen if the Crimean “president” said he wanted all roads to Ukraine reopened and the Russian barriers taken down. Would his command be decisive? Or President Putin’s?

These criteria are meant to reflect the nuts and bolts of sovereignty: an ability to stand on your own feet, make decisions for yourself, and undertake international relations. Crimea seems less like a sovereign than a hothouse flower: alive due to extraordinary intervention, surviving due to conditions carefully controlled by others, and with little real say in its destiny.

What does the law of recognition have to say about such a case, when it is doubtful that Crimea even meets the basic requirements of statehood? Can Russia just recognize it anyway?…         (Continue Reading)

Can Crimea Secede by Referendum?

by Chris Borgen

As Julian mentioned, the Crimean parliament is attempting to achieve the secession of Crimea through the use of a parliamentary vote and a referendum. More legal rhetoric in the midst of political crisis. Back in 2007 and 2008, Russia, the U.S. and the EU used quasi-legal arguments to try to explain why one could support the independence of Kosovo, but not South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or vice versa. It looks like a new iteration of this debate is starting. According to CNN:

lawmakers in Crimea voted in favor of leaving the country for Russia and putting it to a regional vote in 10 days.

It’s an act that drew widespread condemnation, with Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk calling the effort to hold such a referendum “an illegitimate decision.”

“Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine,” he said.

The legal issue here is really one of Ukrainian Constitutional law more than of international law, because, as it is generally understood, there is no right to secede under international law. Under international law, a secession is neither a right nor necessarily illegal. It is treated as a fact: a secession either was successful, it was not, or it is still being contested.

There is, however, a right to self-determination, which is understood to be, for communities that are not colonies and are within existing states, meaningful political participation and the pursuit of economic, social and cultural development under the auspices of that existing state, in this case Ukraine.  This conception of internal self-determination makes self-determination closely related to the respect of minority rights and it does not include a right to dismember an existing state. Furthermore, modern views of self-determination also recognize the “federalist” option of allowing a certain level of cultural or political autonomy as a means to satisfy the norm of self-determination. Crimea is already an autonomous republic within Ukraine; more on that in a minute.

Nor does the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence under international law recognize an international right of secession. It side-stepped the question of whether there is a right to secede under international law and framed the legal issue as one of domestic law. It was an advisory opinion that gave very little advice.

If the recent ICJ opinion does not provide much guidance, the tradition of state practice over the longer term does. The international community has not given much legal weight to referenda such as these. Back in the interwar period the Aaland Islands attempted to use a referendum to secede from Finland. In that case, an international commission of jurists brought in to assess the situation for the League of Nations found that there is no right of national groups to separate by the simple expression of a wish. And, particularly relevant today, the ability to choose secession by plebiscite must be granted by the state itself, that is, Ukraine. Otherwise, such a formulation would infringe upon the sovereign right of states. (See the Report of the International Committee of Jurists Entrusted by the Council of the League of Nations with the Task of Giving an Advisory Opinion upon the Legal Aspects of the Aaland Islands Question, League of Nations Off. J., Spec. Supp, No. 3, at 5-10 (1920)).

We have seen more recent examples of referenda, such as when Transnistria tried to use a plebiscite to claim independence from Moldova and possible unification with Russia. It received no support from the international community for that claim. (This tactical use of referenda seems to be used time and again by secessionist groups supported by Russia.)

It is important to keep in mind that the whole population of Ukraine has a right of self-determination, as well, and that includes the right not to have their country be torn asunder either by a local referendum and/or external military intervention.

The only place that could confer a right to Crimea to leave by referendum is the Ukrainian Constitution. As far as I can see, there is nothing there conferring the power to secede by referendum. Title X of the Ukrainian Constitution (revised link) concerns the Autonomous Republic of Crimea; there is no mention of secession by act of regional parliament or by local referendum.

Even the Constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea defers to the Ukrainian Constitution. Article 1 of the Crimean Constitution states:

The Autonomous Republic of Crimea shall be an integral part of Ukraine and it shall solve, within the powers conferred upon it by the Constitution of Ukraine, any and all matters coming within its terms of reference.

The Autonomous Republic of Crimea shall also exercise any and all powers as may be delegated to it by Ukrainian laws pursuant to the Constitution of Ukraine.

By the way, as I understand it (and, again, I invite any readers with particular knowledge in this area to comment), the term “autonomous republic” had a specific meaning in the old Soviet constitutional law.  Under the Soviet constitution, there were “union republics” and “autonomous republics.” Union republics had the highest form of sovereignty within the USSR. When the USSR dissolved, the Union republics such as Russia, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine became new sovereign states. The autonomous republics did not have that level of sovereignty; they were subsidiary entities.

I note that Russia has within it its own autonomous regions and republics. Yet, I see nothing indicating that they believe those entities can voluntarily secede from Russia.

Words like “self-determination” are rhetorically persuasive when kept vague but they also have actual legal meaning. One needs to be careful about setting up unreasonable expectations by claiming certain results (such as secession) as a matter of right, when no such right exists.

Such use of legal rhetoric does not help resolve conflicts; it only makes some people more intransigent and the conflict more intractable.

The Crimea, Compliance, and the Constraint of International Law

by Chris Borgen

[I ended my previous post stating that I would next consider the options available to Russia, Ukraine, the EU, and the U.S. But then this conversation started… I’ll come back to the “next steps” question in a following post.]

Julian, Eric Posner, and others look to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its takeover of Crimea and see the limits of international law.  But, even in this case, international law and legal rhetoric play a broader, and perhaps more subtle, role in foreign policy than being a brick wall blocking invading armies. (And nowadays brick walls don’t work too well, either.)

Yes, there are the ongoing difficulties of enforcement in a pluralist international community (and, as Peter notes, there are also significant enforcement and compliance problems in domestic societies). But international law and legal discourse also frame expectations and viable policy options in such a way that can have greater long-term constraints on state practice than may be appreciated by international legal skeptics. However, even for this constraint to work, there still needs to be political will to enforce legal rules. And here I think we are all in agreement.

As I mentioned in my previous post, and in various other posts, Russia (and states, in general) cloaks its actions in “law talk” to foster a reputations of being a lawful actor, even-or perhaps especially-when it is not. (Andrew Guzman has written extensively on the role of reputation as a prod towards compliance to international rules. See Andrew T. Guzman, ‘Reputation and International Law,’ 34 Ga J Intl & Comp L 379 (2006).)  How states and other actors use language—what are the bounds of “self-defense,” when may a state legally intervene, what is “self-determination,” and so on—plays an essential role in defining expectations of how states and others will act.  How they use these terms inform other actors as to which arguments may or may not be made legitimately.

This is especially powerful in international law. Regardless as to whether Russia (or any other state) uses legal rhetoric, but especially when it does, it becomes bound-up by the expectation of legal compliance in general.  Invoke the law, get bound by the law.

Yet, just as the lack of a single sovereign means that enforcement is difficult, the pluralist nature of international law means that in most cases there is no final interpreter of what law is. Moreso than the ICJ, the most important interpreters of international law are the states themselves. Their interpretations are in part based on their short-term interests, but also on their long term concerns. These interpretations, in turn, affect international relations. Politics affects international law, which then affects politics, and so on.

International law has thus become a consensual vocabulary and grammar for how states talk about international relations. In short, how we talk about terms like “self-defense” can affect legal substance of what “self-defense” is. Legal rhetoric can frame policy options.

While Eric and Julian focused on the inability of international law to stop Russia from sending troops into Crimea, it is important to keep in mind that the use of force issue is embedded in a much bigger dialogue about the future of Ukraine… (Continue Reading)

2014 ASIL Certificates of Merit Announced

by Duncan Hollis

I had the great pleasure the last several months to serve on ASIL’s Book Awards Committee (along with Jutta Brunnée, Jean d’Aspremont, Saira Mohamed, and a very well organized chair in Jacob Cogan).  I’m pleased to announce that the Society’s Executive Council has selected three winners for 2014 based on our nominations.  The winners (plus the Committee’s accompanying citation) are as follows:

Certificate of Merit for a Preeminent Contribution to Creative Scholarship:  Ryan Goodman and Derek Jinks, Socializing States: Promoting Human Rights through International Law (Oxford University Press 2013).

In Socializing States: Promoting Human Rights Through International Law, Ryan Goodman and Derek Jinks offer a groundbreaking theory of acculturation that illuminates how social processes can promote human rights and, more generally, can influence norms. “Acculturation” refers to “the general process by which actors adopt the beliefs and behavioral patterns of the surrounding culture.” The authors distinguish acculturation from two other mechanisms of social influence: “material inducement,” or the offering of rewards for conformity or punishments for nonconformity with a state’s or institution’s demands, and “persuasion,” whereby actors internalize new norms through a process of social learning and “redefine their interests and identities accordingly.” Goodman and Jinks offer a sophisticated account that both defends the relevance of acculturation and acknowledges its weaknesses in some areas. The theoretical complexity and methodological rigor of Socializing States make this a book that should be studied by any scholar interested in promotion of human rights, the spread of global norms, regime design, or compliance. It has already changed scholarship in these areas and will certainly continue to influence the field in the years to come.

Certificate of Merit for High Technical Craftsmanship and Utility to Practicing Lawyers and Scholars:  Robert Kolb, The International Court of Justice (Hart Publishing 2013)

Robert Kolb’s International Court of Justice provides a magisterial, lucid study of its subject. The breadth and depth of the treatment are impressive: Kolb takes the reader from the history of the Court, to its role in international society, to the more technical questions concerning its composition, powers and procedures, to the development of its jurisprudence, and to its future. The finely grained discussion provides much more than a mere survey of the Court’s constitutive instruments and decisions. It engages the Court as an institution and asks how it actually operates, and secures efficacy and authority in doing so. The book’s careful and detailed coverage of the Court’s legal framework and operation will benefit practitioners and scholars alike. There is no doubt that Kolb’s volume immediately takes a place among the authoritative references on the Court.

Certificate of Merit in a Specialized Area of International Law:  Bardo Fassbender and Anne Peters eds., The Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law (Oxford University Press 2012).

The Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law innovatively and comprehensively provides a timely and ambitious global history of international law from the sixteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Under the skilled editorship of Bardo Fassbender and Anne Peters, the contributors, experts who themselves come from all parts of the world, present a history that imagines international law as the product of different regions, cultures, actors, and eras. Setting a new agenda for the field, the Handboowill be the indispensable starting point for students and researchers exploring the history of international law.

The awards will get presented at this year’s ASIL Gala Dinner.  I’m looking forward to seeing the authors there and having a chance to congratulate them personally on their achievements.

AJIL Symposium: Reply to Comments on “The Travaux of the Travaux”

by Julian Davis Mortenson

[Julian Davis Mortenson is Assistant Professor of Law at Michigan Law.]

I am most grateful for the thoughtful comments offered by Bart, Richard, and Ulf. Their observations are well-informed, generous, and extremely useful in advancing the conversation about treaty interpretation. So first and foremost, sincerest thanks to each of them.

In my response, I hope (1) to clarify the question that seems principally at issue in the discussion so far, and (2) to suggest how the historical evidence helps answer that question. As Ulf rightly points out, the article’s aim is not to march through a unified field theory of treaty interpretation in the exhaustive fashion of a single subject treatise. It is, rather, to debunk a theoretically central misunderstanding about the interpretive role of travaux under the VCLT as a historical document.

The article is thus fundamentally a historical inquiry. But it also has obvious doctrinal implications. While those implications are not the article’s central concern, I will briefly expand their logic as outlined on page 5 of the draft posted on SSRN. I take some time to spell this out because—with the exception of Richard’s kind and detailed approbation of the historical analysis—the commentaries in this symposium understandably engage less with the particulars of the history than with its doctrinal implications for contemporary interpretive practice.

So here is a sketch of the case for those implications:

  • First:  Every mainstream understanding of treaty interpretation contemplates the use of travaux to resolve ambiguity that remains after the methods described in Article 31 are applied. We argue about the use of travaux in other circumstances. But no one seriously contests that they are not just available but potentially decisive in the face of ambiguity. (This is why any perceived doctrinal circularity is illusory. Since all parties to the debate are in agreement on at least this point, for doctrinal and argumentative purposes we can treat the relevance of drafting history in cases of ambiguity as an axiom requiring no proof.)
  • Second:  The complex, multilayered, and rather-quirkily-drafted provisions of Article 31 and 32 are a textbook example of such ambiguity, both in their individual meanings at the subsection level and in their overall structural interrelationship. One might reasonably rely (for example) on the structural separation of Articles 31 and 32 to conclude that they instantiate an interpretive hierarchy that disfavors travaux. But one might also reasonably rely (for example) on the existence of the “special meaning” and “confirm[ation]” provisions to conclude that they do not. This ambiguity is stubborn, and no amount of deductive gymnastics can make it disappear.
  • Third:  Because the treatment of travaux under Articles 31 and 32 is ambiguous, every mainstream theory of treaty interpretation must concede a potentially decisive role for the VCLT’s drafting history in resolving that ambiguity. Putting it as one might in a legal brief:  assuming arguendo with the most conservative commentators that resort to travaux is available only in the case of ambiguity, that condition is easily satisfied here.
  • Fourth:  Careful review of the VCLT travaux—and it is on this point that the article focuses—demonstrates that Articles 31 and 32 were understood to reject a hierarchical or mechanistic view of interpretation. The holistic view of interpretation adopted by the drafters extended in particular to the use of travaux, which were viewed as automatically incorporated among and conceptually equivalent to the many other (potentially contradictory) indicators of legal meaning enumerated in the VCLT.

With the exception of the last bullet point, these statements are obviously asserted rather than demonstrated. But if each of them holds up, then as a matter of modern legal meaning the VCLT instantiates neither an interpretive hierarchy generally nor a hostility (suspicion, inhospitality, etc.) toward drafting history specifically. The Vienna settlement erected neither barriers, nor thresholds, nor negative presumptions regarding the use of travaux. Instead, it incorporated drafting history as a central and indeed crucial tool for identifying correct legal meaning.

Bart puts his finger right on the most important open question about this bottom line doctrinal conclusion. Given the conceded prevalence of learned professions that such a hierarchy does exist, it’s not out of bounds to argue that subsequent practice under the VCLT conflicts with its original meaning. (Note that, as explored in a shorter paper available here, the VCLT does not tell us how to resolve such a conflict. But bracket that for now.)

Partly because of the stark contradiction that Ulf observes between actual interpretive practice and professions of interpretive principle, however, it is my strong instinct that no such practice has in fact arisen among states parties to the VCLT. But the burden here will be on anyone seeking to dislodge the Vienna settlement. They will have to show, in the precise terms of Article 31, that contrary “subsequent practice in the application of the treaty . . . establishes the agreement of the parties regarding its interpretation.” If you can’t make that showing, then it’s hard to avoid the following doctrinal conclusion:  Drafting history is generally and automatically available as a source of meaning in every single case.  And that’s true even if—as Richard so nicely shows with the meaning of “poison” under the Rome Statute—the particular travaux of a particular treaty might not in fact illuminate a particular question facing a particular interpreter at any particular moment.

AJIL Symposium: Szewczyk Comment on “The Travaux of the Travaux”

by Bart Szewczyk

[Dr. Bart Szewczyk is an Associate in Law at Columbia Law]

This excellent article provides an invaluable contribution to our knowledge of the original understanding of Articles 31 and 32 of the Vienna Convention of the Law of the Treaties.  Its careful attention to the factual details, articulated in an elegant narrative, provides a vivid picture of the debates and decisions in Vienna.  And its comprehensive analysis of the historical record corrects any modern misperceptions as to what the drafters of the VCLT expected as the rules applicable to treaty interpretation.  The follow-on question, as the article notes, is “whether a regular and uncontested contrary practice has arisen—not just as a matter of what interpreters say, but of what they do—sufficient to undercut that original understanding.” (at 785).

Indeed, alongside the VCLT, there may exist several conventions (in the commonwealth, rather than international, sense of the term) governing interpretation for particular treaties, courts, or jurisdictions.  Such contemporary customs or practice may be as important in interpreting treaties as the rules of the VCLT.  For instance, judgments of the International Court of Justice are formally binding only between the parties to a particular case.  The ordinary meaning of the text of Article 59 of the Court’s Statute—the “decision of the Court has no binding force except between the parties and in respect of that particular case”—allows for no other interpretation.  Yet, any State would be highly remiss—and its advocates would border on malpractice—if it argued that an ICJ judgment on a specific legal question should be disregarded because it is not binding.  On the other hand, judicial decisions of other courts may be granted less weight in the ICJ, even though formally, they have equal status with ICJ judgments under Article 38(1)(d) of the ICJ Statute as “subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law.”

Or take Article 27 of the U.N. Charter:

Decisions of the Security Council on all other matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of the permanent members.

In the Legal Consequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia (South West Africa), the ICJ held that “concurring,” notwithstanding its apparent textual clarity and travaux to the contrary, included voluntary abstentions from voting.  The Court’s interpretation was based on the “consistent[] and uniform[]” practice of the Security Council.” (para. 22).  As for the U.N. Charter so too for the VCLT, subsequent practice can inform or even transform the original interpretation of a treaty provision.

The article recognizes this tension between the original understanding of the VCLT and subsequent interpretive practice of international courts.  It notes that  (more…)

AJIL Symposium: Comment on “The Travaux of Travaux: Is the Vienna Convention Hostile to Drafting History?”

by Richard Gardiner

[Richard Gardiner is a Visiting Professor at University College London, Faculty of Laws]

The article which this symposium addresses is important, timely, and elegant.

It is an important study because it examines one of the most common misunderstandings about the VCLT provisions on the role of preparatory work in treaty interpretation. It lays to rest the mistaken idea that an interpreter may only consider preparatory work if interpretation of a treaty provision by applying the general rule reveals ambiguity or obscurity, or leads to a result which is manifestly absurd or unreasonable. As the study shows, these considerations are only prerequisites for use of preparatory work to determine meaning, not for its much wider role of confirming meaning.

This is particularly timely because the ILC may itself have given the misleading impression in its recent (and otherwise very useful) work on subsequent agreements and practice, suggesting that any recourse to preparatory work is limited by preconditions:

Article 32 includes a threshold between the primary means of interpretation according to article 31, all of which are to be taken into account in the process of interpretation, and “supplementary means of interpretation” to which recourse may be had when the interpretation according to article 31 leaves the meaning of the treaty or its terms ambiguous or obscure or leads to a result which is manifestly absurd or unreasonable. (ILC 2013 Report, Chapter IV, A/68/10, p 14, Commentary on Draft Conclusion 1, para (3), footnote omitted.)

This seems to lose the careful distinction in the 1969 ILC/VCLT scheme between general use of preparatory work to confirm and its conditioned use to determine meaning.

The most elegant feature of the study is its use of the preparatory work of the VCLT to confirm the proper meaning of the Vienna provisions themselves. (more…)

AJIL Symposium: Is the Vienna Convention Hostile to Drafting History? A Response to Julian Davis Mortenson, Part 2

by Ulf Linderfalk

[Dr. Ulf Linderfalk is a Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law at Lund University, Sweden. The first part of his comments can be found here.]

In what sense does the VCLT give a description of the way to understand a treaty?

The way Julian describes prevailing legal doctrine, the presumption against preparatory work is effectuated “by a set of threshold restrictions that relegate drafting history to ‘a carefully bounded and contingent role’, for use only … ‘when the text [of a treaty] cannot, in itself, guide the interpreter’” (pp. 782-783). Julian finds this position to be inconsistent with legal practice. As he says, (p. 783)

the ‘strange thing’ about Articles 31 and 32 ‘is that the one serious limit these rules set, is constantly ignored: I cannot think of a serious lawyer who would not at least have a look at some of the preparatory work to bolster her conclusion or, if necessary, reconsider her conclusion, regardless of whether the interpretation without the preparatory works would lead to ambiguous or absurd results.’

Such statements indicate a failure to distinguish between the scholarly investigation and description of an activity such as the interpretation of treaties in a context of discovery and in a context of justification, respectively.

Investigating the usage of Articles 31-32 of the VCLT in a context of discovery, scholars’ primary interest is with the mental processing of the kinds of material listed in those two provisions. Scholars are interested in knowing the way some given agent or agents, or class of agents (such as international lawyers or judiciaries, for instance) actually use particular means of interpretation in reaching an understanding of a treaty. Investigations ask questions such as the following:

(1)   When lawyers think they have an insufficient understanding of a treaty, do they generally consult preparatory work?

(2)   In any situation described in Question (1), do lawyers generally consult the relevant conventional language or languages, that is, the lexicon, grammar, and pragmatic rules of the language used for the authenticated version or versions of the treaty?

(3)   In any situation described in Question (1), to the extent that lawyers consult preparatory work and conventional language, do they generally consult conventional language before they consult preparatory work, or rather the opposite?

Investigating the usage of Articles 31-32 of the VCLT in a context of justification, scholars’ primary interest is with international law as a reason for action. Scholars are interested in knowing under what particular condition or conditions an understanding of a treaty will be considered legally correct. Investigations ask questions such as the following:

(4)   In a situation where a treaty is in need of clarification, when does an agent have a legally sufficient reason to understand the treaty in accordance with conventional language?

(5)   In any situation described in Question (4), when does an agent have a legally sufficient reason to understand the treaty in accordance with whatever can be inferred from its preparatory work?

(6)   In any situation where the usage of conventional language and preparatory work imply the adoption of different meanings, when does an agent have a legally sufficient reason to understand the treaty in accordance with conventional language rather than in accordance with whatever can be inferred from preparatory work?

(7)   In any situation described in Question (6), when does an agent have a legally sufficient reason to understand the treaty in accordance with whatever can be inferred from preparatory work rather than in accordance with conventional language?

Obviously, like most rules in the VCLT, Articles 31-32 give a description of the proper justification of legal propositions. They do not seek to teach us anything about the mental processing of interpreters of interpretation data such as preparatory work and conventional language. Rather, they seek to teach us something about the conditions under which the understanding of a treaty in accordance with each respective set of data will be considered legally correct. Any failure to see this will quite naturally cause questions like that posed by Julian on page 787:

[The Confirmation Route] allows the use of travaux to check and reassess the provisional hypothesis yielded under Article 31. Unsurprisingly, this inquiry usually validates the interpreter’s hypothesis. But not always. Sometimes, a fair and thorough analysis of the travaux will convince an interpreter that the drafters meant to convey something different from her original understanding. What happens then?

Obviously, if Articles 31-32 gives a description of the interpretation of treaties, not in a context of discovery, but in a context of justification, then nothing in the VCLT prevents an agent from consulting the preparatory work of a treaty before he/she/it engages in serious studies of conventional language, the context of the treaty, or its object and purpose. The order of consultation is immaterial. In a context of justification, the relevant questions are whether or not the meaning that the agent possibly discovers from studying preparatory work can be justifiably inferred; whether Article 31 provides sufficient reason to confer a different meaning on the treaty; and if so, whether there are sufficient reasons to refer to that meaning as manifestly absurd or unreasonable, in the sense of Article 32.

What is the appropriate method for a scholarly analysis of Articles 31-32 of the VCLT?

Julian’s conclusion about the role and significance of preparatory work for the interpretation of treaties builds on an analysis of the meaning of Article 31, paragraph 4, and Article 32 of the VCLT. The methodology used for this analysis implies very little usage of other interpretation data than the preparatory work of the VCLT, including Summary Records and Documents of the Vienna Conference; Reports of the 1966 meetings of the Sixth Committee of the UN General Assembly; the Final Draft Articles With Commentaries adopted by the International Law Commission in 1966; comments given by governments on the ILC Final Draft Articles; the Draft Articles With Commentaries preliminarily adopted by the International Law Commission in 1964; Summary Records of the ILC meetings held in 1964 and 1966; and the Third and Sixth Reports of the ILC Special Rapporteur on the Law of Treaties. Obviously, this choice of methodology assumes the conclusion. Julian relies primarily on preparatory work to show that preparatory work can be used as a “primary means of interpretation” – on an equal footing with conventional language, context, and the object and purpose of a treaty. To Julian’s defense, it could perhaps be contended that whatever other methodology he would have chosen, he would have appeared as internally inconsistent. This contention, however, builds on a misunderstanding of the role of the international legal scholar.

Treaty interpretation is an activity that engages many different kinds of agents, including, for example, international legal scholars, judiciaries, state organs and representatives, and state counsels. Not all agents are subject to the same societal constraints, of course. Depending on the capacity of a treaty interpreter, consequently, different lines of action are typically expected. So, for example, is a person acting as state counsel expected to choose the line of action that serves the particular interest of his or her employer or client as effectively as possible. One-sidedly advocating a particular meaning of a treaty, without caring too much about other possible meanings or counter-arguments, is standard procedure. If instead the person had acted in the capacity of an international legal scholar, like Julian Mortenson does, this same line of action would be considered improper. A scholar is expected to consider openly the possibility of conferring different meanings on a treaty. He or she is expected to conduct an open-minded assessment of those different possibilities, making allowance for arguments and counter-arguments alike.

Consequently, as I see it, the only appropriate method for Julian to conduct his analysis of the meaning of Articles 31-32 of the VCLT is to assess his preferred interpretation with an open mind to other possible alternatives. Thus, he should have inquired more carefully into (i) the wording of the VCLT, (ii) the organizational structure of Articles 31-32 of the VCLT, and (iii) the general significance and possible ways of reading ILC materials. In so doing, his entire argument would have come out rather differently. For those with a particular interest in issues of treaty interpretation, I have developed this argument in a working paper posted on the SSRN.

AJIL Symposium: Is the Vienna Convention Hostile to Drafting History? A Response to Julian Davis Mortenson, Part 1

by Ulf Linderfalk

[Dr. Ulf Linderfalk is a Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law at Lund University, Sweden.]

Julian’s article focuses on a single proposition (p. 780)

“[W]hen an interpreter thinks a text [of a treaty] is fairly clear and produces results that are not manifestly unreasonable or absurd, she ought to give that prima facie reading preclusive effect over anything the travaux [préparatoires] might suggest to the contrary.”

Specifically, Julian argues (p. 781), that this proposition – while today shared by an overwhelming majority of international judiciaries and legal scholars – “cannot be reconciled with the agreement actually reached in 1969” and embodied by Articles 31 and 32 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT).

In critically assessing Mortenson’s article, I find that it builds on three assumptions:

  • In the final analysis, the legally correct meaning of a treaty is determined by the intention of its parties. Thus, when interpreting a treaty, the ultimate purpose is to find out how the original parties to the treaty actually intended it to be understood.
  • Articles 31 and 32 of the VCLT guide interpreters to discovering the common intention of treaty parties. Thus, ordinary meaning, context, preparatory work, and other means of interpretation help interpreters understand the legally correct meaning of a treaty.
  • A detailed analysis of the preparatory work of the Vienna Convention is an appropriate method for a scholarly analysis of the legally correct meaning of Articles 31 and 32 of the VCLT.

As I will explain in my two posts for this Symposium, I think all three of Julian’s assumptions are either fundamentally flawed or seriously debatable. Readers with a particular interest in issues of treaty
interpretation might want to consult the slightly more elaborate working paper that I have recently posted on the SSRN.

(more…)

AJIL Symposium: The Travaux of Travaux

by Julian Davis Mortenson

[Julian Davis Mortenson is Assistant Professor of Law at Michigan Law]

It is often asserted that the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties relegates drafting history to a rigidly subsidiary role in treaty interpretation. Many commentators go so far as to suggest that the VCLT entrenches a categorical prejudice against travaux préparatoires—the preparatory work of negotiation, discussions, and drafting that produces a final treaty text. Because of this alleged hostility to history as a source of meaning, the conventional wisdom is that when an interpreter thinks a text is fairly clear and produces results that are not manifestly unreasonable or absurd, she ought to give that prima facie reading preclusive effect over anything the travaux might suggest to the contrary.

As The Travaux of Travaux: Is the Vienna Convention Hostile to Drafting History? demonstrates, however, this conventional wisdom cannot be reconciled with the agreement that was actually concluded in 1969. Careful analysis of the multi-decade process that led to the VCLT shows that, far from adopting a doctrinally restrictive view of drafting history, the Vienna Conference sought to secure the place of travaux as a regular, central, and indeed crucial component of treaty interpretation. In reaching this conclusion, the article draws on a range of published and unpublished sources, including minutes from meetings of the Institut de droit international, the International Law Commission, the UN General Assembly in both its plenary and Sixth Committee sessions, and the Vienna Conference itself; internal memoranda and other documents circulated at each of those institutions; and proposed drafts and amendments that were submitted throughout the process.

It is true (and likely a source of modern confusion) that Vienna Conference delegates rejected a U.S. proposal to formulate the rules of treaty interpretation as a totality-of-the-circumstances balancing test. But that had nothing to do with hostility to travaux as such, much less with any desire to impose strict threshold requirements on their use. Rather, the delegates were rejecting Myres McDougal’s view of treaty interpretation as an ab initio reconstruction of whatever wise interpreters might view as good public policy. They objected to the purpose for which New Haven School interpreters wanted to use travaux—not to drafting history as a source of meaning per se.

To the contrary, the drafters repeatedly reiterated that any serious effort to understand a treaty should rely on the careful and textually grounded resort to travaux, without embarrassment or apology. They themselves leaned heavily on travaux when debating any legal question that turned on the meaning of an existing treaty. And each time a handful of genuinely anti-travaux delegates attempted to restrict the use of drafting history to cases where the text was ambiguous or absurd, those efforts were roundly rejected.

The understanding that emerged was of interpretation as a recursive and inelegant process that would spiral in toward the meaning of a treaty, rather than as a rigidly linear deductive algorithm tied to a particular hierarchical sequence. In any seriously contested case, interpreters were expected automatically to assess the historical evidence about the course of discussions, negotiations, and compromises that resulted in the treaty text—in short, the travaux. The modern view that Article 32 relegated travaux to an inferior position is simply wrong. The VCLT drafters were not hostile to travaux. They meant for treaty interpreters to assess drafting history for what it is worth in each case: no more, but certainly no less.

TED Talks, Placebo Politics, and the Work of International Lawyers

by Chris Borgen

I recently wrote a post that described the virtues of international lawyers thinking about the future and having an international law analog to “design fiction.” The main point being we as international lawyers are often so focused on historical examples, issues, and analogies that we need to spend more time considering the technological changes that are upon us and changing the world in which we live. A bit of tech futurism + international legal practice.

One of the best-known critiques of the profession considered the lack of imagination of the international legal profession. In 2001, Martti Koskeniemi wrote in The Gentle Civilizer of Nations that international law had been depoliticized and marginalized “as graphically illustrated by its absence from the arenas of today’s globalization struggles” or it had become “a technical instrument for the advancement of the agendas of powerful interests or actors in the world scene.” (page 3) He further wrote that international lawyers “in the past 40 years have failed to use the imaginative opportunities that were available to them, and open horizons beyond academic and political instrumentalization, in favor of worn-out internationalist causes that form the mainstay of today’s commitment to international law.” (page 5)

Now, having made a plea for a little more tech futurism in international law, I note that Professor Benjamin Bratton has just done a great job of taking the form of technological futurism most prevalent in TED conferences and smacking it upside the head a few times. Moreover, he did this in a sharp TEDx presentation (and an essay in The Guardian). I highly recommend watching the full TED talk. There’s a lot there that also applies to international legal profession.

Bratton describes the problem of “placebo politics”—focusing on technology and innovation as the solution to major world problems, but not taking into account the difficult issues of history, economics, and politics that bedevil actual workable solutions. Problems become oversimplified. He wrote in The Guardian:

Perhaps the pinnacle of placebo politics and innovation was featured at TEDx San Diego in 2011. You’re familiar I assume with Kony2012, the social media campaign to stop war crimes in central Africa? So what happened here? Evangelical surfer bro goes to help kids in Africa. He makes a campy video explaining genocide to the cast of Glee. The world finds his public epiphany to be shallow to the point of self-delusion. The complex geopolitics of central Africa are left undisturbed. Kony’s still there. The end.

You see, when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation. If you are not cynical you should be sceptical. You should be as sceptical of placebo politics as you are placebo medicine.

For more on Kony 2012, see our discussion of it, here.

Bratton continued:

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.

Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.

[Emphases added.]

International lawyers can be (but aren’t always) good at the facts on the ground, the messy realities of history, politics, economics. If my previous post was about how lawyers need to keep a weather eye on how new tech is changing the present and shaping the future, then Bratton reminds us how the technologists need to appreciate the hard realities of the present and to remember the lessons of past. In other words, each of us has a lot to learn from the other.