Archive of posts for category
International Legal Theory and Teaching

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.


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.

Two Thoughts on Manuel Ventura’s Critique of Specific Direction

by Kevin Jon Heller

Manuel Ventura, the director of the Peace and Justice Initiative, has published two excellent posts at Spreading the Jam (here and here) that criticize the specific-direction requirement — and my defence of it. I cannot possibly address all of the points that Manuel makes, but I do want to respond to his understanding of the role that customary international law plays at the ICTY and his defence of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s (STL) analysis of the general definition of terrorism under customary international law.

Custom at the ICTY

As Manuel notes, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) rejected Perisic‘s specific-direction requirement because it concluded that the requirement lacked an adequate foundation in customary international law. I criticized the SCSL’s position in a recent post, pointing out that the ICTY did not need to find a customary foundation for the specific-direction requirement:

Ad hoc tribunals are limited to applying customary international law because of the nullem crimen sine lege principle: relying on non-customary principles to convict a defendant would convict a defendant of acts that were not criminal at the time they were committed. The specific-direction requirement, however does not expand criminal liability beyond custom; it narrows it. There is thus no reason why the requirement has to have a customary foundation.

Manuel takes issue with my argument in an interesting way — by insisting that the ICTY can only apply legal principles that have a customary foundation, because customary international law is the only source of law that the Tribunal is empowered to apply:

But, says Kevin Jon Heller here and here, this is all irrelevant, as specific direction need not have a customary law basis since it only serves to narrow criminal responsibility rather than expand it. In his view only in the latter is nullum crimen engaged – the reason why the ICTY was mandated to apply customary international law. However, this view misses an important and very basic point. As he acknowledges, the mandate of the ICTY is to apply custom, and while it is true that nullum crimen is not engaged when criminal liability is contracted rather than expanded, it is also true that in not applying custom the ICTY is not applying the law it was specifically mandated and empowered by the UN Security Council to apply. If specific direction is not custom, then it is still applying something, but it cannot be called customary international law. In other words, it went beyond applying its governing law, and into a realm that is was not expressly empowered to go. In short, if specific direction is not customary, then it acted ultra vires and that is as problematic as a nullum crimen violation. It is not simply a bad policy decision that only engages ‘criminal law theory’.

There are two basic problems with Manuel’s argument. First, it is based on a misunderstanding of the ICTY’s mandate. Manuel claims that the Tribunal is empowered to apply one source of law and only one source of law: custom. But the Secretary-General’s report on SC Res. 808 does not say that. Here is the relevant paragraph about custom (para. 34)…

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)

When the “Things to Come” are Already Here, Where Should International Law Go?

by Chris Borgen

Novelists such as H.G. Wells and George Orwell used fantastic fiction to describe their world as it was and to imagine, to use Wells’ title, “The Shape of Things to Come.” This past summer I wrote a post on what current science fiction can bring to international law. I mentioned various books that, though fantastic, illuminated topics related to international law, international relations, or national security.

Well, according to my tricorder, I mean, the newsfeed on my smartphone, this past week reality just got a little more science fictional with the revelations of US intelligence agents roaming around in World of Warcraft and Second Life, on the hunt for any terrorist who might be using these virtual worlds to communicate, plot, and even train.

For all the surprise this has elicited, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen virtual worlds (weirdly) interact with the very real world of international relations. There was that time that the Green Lantern Corps had to patrol a virtual refugee camp that had been built by human rights activists in Second Life’s Sudan in order to protect it from vandals.  Or that proprietary financial system owned by a Chinese company that would support financial transfers and investments across the economies of different virtual worlds.  Or that time that NATO commissioned an interactive model of Afghanistan for planning and training.  And then there’s the Swedish Embassy in Second Life

So, Snowden reveals that U.S. intelligence agents are posing as, let’s say, warrior elves and they’re running around on quests in World of Warcraft looking for al Qaeda organizers.  I’m just not all that surprised.  It is a bit amusing, though, that there ended up being so many intelligence officers online that they had to set up a “deconfliction group” to keep track of who was really whom, so that some Jack Ryan posing as a warrior elf wouldn’t report a wizard as being an al Qaeda operative when that wizard is actually a US agent posing as an al Qaeda operative who’s avatar is a wizard. This truly is “The Looking Glass War.”

These are the types of scenarios one sees in “political science fiction.” Sci-fi bloggers have remarked that the Snowden revelations are not that different from plot points in Neal Stephenson’s novel REAMDE, one of the books I mentioned in my post this summer.  And another author that I wrote about, Charles Stross, has decided to not write the third book in his near future cybercrime trilogy because the present is already arriving at his imagined future. Here’s how Stross put it:

At this point, I’m clutching my head. “Halting State” wasn’t intended to be predictive when I started writing it in 2006. Trouble is, about the only parts that haven’t happened yet are Scottish Independence and the use of actual quantum computers for cracking public key encryption (and there’s a big fat question mark over the latter—what else are the NSA up to?).

I’m throwing in the towel.…<snip> …The science fictional universe of “Halting State” and “Rule 34″ is teetering on the edge of turning into reality. Meanwhile, the financial crisis of 2007 forced me back to the drawing board for “Rule 34″; the Snowden revelations have systematically trashed all my ideas for the third book.

Our colleagues in the world of architecture and design have “design fiction”: films and websites devoted to as-yet non-existent objects as a means of thinking about the possibilities of design and engineering and their relationship to society.  Here are three very different examples (noted by Tobias Revell in the previous link): “New Mumbai,” “Microsoft’s Productivity Future Vision,” and “Post CyberWar.”

As lawyers, we spend much of our time looking at precedent, at the lessons of history.  We cannot stop doing that, as history is the great teacher. But we also have to remember that with every passing second, the future arrives. And, like the writers, the designers, the engineers, and the architects, we have to imagine what things may come, and how our work may shape the future and how the future may shape our work.

Because law is itself a disruptive technology.