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International Legal Theory and Teaching

Book Symposium: Is there Existential Interpretation in International Law?

by Duncan Hollis

I want to start off our conversation about the larger project Bianchi, Peat and Windsor have undertaken with their new book before introducing my own contribution to it.  For years, the concept of interpretation has had a fairly narrow focus within the international legal landscape.  It has almost uniformly been associated with a discrete set of objects — treaties. From Grotius to Oppenheim, let alone McNair to Gardiner, when international lawyers have thought about interpretation, there has been a strong push to do so almost entirely with respect to treaty instruments.  Moreover, for several decades now the vehicle for interpretation has been widely accepted in the rules of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.  Although there was a time when the issue of how to interpret treaties garnered a really diverse range of views, modern discourse has largely devolved into claiming that the VCLT approach gives priority to (or at least endorses inclusion of) different methods of interpretation (e.g., intentional, textual, teleological). Now, to be clear, these are tremendously important issues given the role of treaties in international law today; scholarship on these topics has been, and remains, an important part of international legal discourse.  Nevertheless, what I like about the Bianchi, Peat and Windsor book (putting aside my own contribution) is the editors’ willingness to deal with the traditional games of treaty interpretation while also expanding the discourse to frame interpretation as a much larger project within the international legal order.  It is an important move, and one I hope to see continued in future scholarship as international lawyers begin to recognize all the ways interpretation operates within every nook and cranny of the field.

As for my own chapter (which is still up on SSRN, although you should really buy the book), its inspiration lay in one other aspect of the conventional approach to interpretation — defining interpretation simply as a process of giving meaning to treaty texts.  I’ve always thought that this approach under-claimed the functions interpretation can serve.  Certainly, interpretation has an expository function where its processes help interpreters ascertain what meaning to assign some treaty provision or other aspect of international law.  But, interpretation can have other functions as well.  For example, although still controversial in some circles, there is the idea that interpretation has an inventive or creative function where instead of simply “finding” meaning, interpreters craft one for the circumstances presented.  Alternatively, interpretation may serve a relational role in delimiting not what specific things mean, but how they relate to one another (i.e. whether one treaty provision supersedes another, whether some international humanitarian law rule takes priority over a human right guarantee, etc.).

My contribution to this functional analysis is to highlight the existential potential of interpretation.  My chapter explores how, in ascertaining meaning, interpretation operates to confirm—or even establish—the existence of the subject interpreted within (or outside) the corpus of international law.  I argue that all interpretations have existential effects as they create, confirm, or deny the existence of the subject of interpretation. At the same time, I identify a particular structure of interpretative argument – what I call “existential interpretation” – by which interpreters ascertain the existence of their subjects.  Interpreters can foreground or background existential interpretations depending on whether the existence of the subject-matter is accepted or disputed. Moreover, I find existential interpretations are not limited to the treaty-context.  Rather, they are visible at all levels of international legal discourse, including which particular (i) authorities, (ii) evidence, (iii) rules, or (iv) sources exist for purposes of international law.

Some of these existential interpretations are quite prominent and should actually be familiar to most international lawyers even if not previously couched in such terms.  Does the U.N. Human Rights Committee have authority to sever reservations as inconsistent with the object and purpose of the ICCPR?  For purposes of identifying customary international law, is evidence of “State practice” only comprised of what States “do” or can it also count what States “say”?   Is there an “unwilling or unable” test in the jus ad bellum in response to non-State actor attacks?  Is R2P now a part of international law?  Is the new Iran Deal a treaty or not? Are decisions of international organizations a separate source of international law?   These are all examples of existential interpretative inquiries.

My chapter seeks to illuminate the existential function of interpretation and illustrate such interpretations in all the various aspects of the international legal system.  But my paper is not simply an exercise in interpretative taxonomy — identifying different frames for interpretative questions.  Rather, I seek to illuminate the consequences that the presence or absence of an existential interpretation may have in terms of international legal (a) discourse, (b) doctrine, and (c) theories of international law.  For starters, existential interpretations delineate the boundaries for interpretative discourse, narrowing it in cases of consensus on the existence of the interpreted subject, and broadening it in cases of dispute. Where interpretative resolutions of existential questions are possible, they may impact the content of international law doctrine, either directly or indirectly. And, where resolution is not possible, existential interpretations may operate as proxies for theoretical disagreement about the nature or purpose of international law (e.g., positivists may insist interpreters exclude from their toolbox the same soft law sources that naturalists insist require effectiveness as a matter of right).

I conclude my paper by calling for further study of existential interpretation for practical and theoretical reasons.  As a practical matter, it would be useful to know more about when and how actors actually foreground existential interpretations.  Obviously, there may be cases where an interpreter does so in good faith, but I suspect existential interpretations might also be deployed instrumentally.  Consider the possibilities when a State (or other actor) objects to an interpreter X claiming that Rule Y means Z.  Of course, the State might simply disagree that Z is the correct meaning of Rule Y. But a State could expand the scope of the interpretative dispute by also questioning whether X has authority to interpret, the evidence on which Rule Y rests as well as the source of international law it is derived from. The objecting State may thus complicate the dispute by expanding its scope.  In doing so, moreover, the objecting State may change the nature of the dispute itself, shifting a discussion away from the initial question (e.g., protecting victims of a humanitarian crisis) to issues of authority or procedure (does international law contain a rule requiring such protection and who has authority to invoke its mantel).

As a theoretical matter, existential interpretations can serve as a new lens for mapping the unity and fragmentation of the international legal order itself. Instead of examining fragmentation along a single axis (eg norms), mapping existential arguments offers a way to gauge the extent of unity versus fragmentation along multiple axes.  Since existential interpretations are manifest throughout international legal discourse, questions of unity or fragmentation can be examined in terms of authority, the sources of international law, the rules of international law and the evidence on which they are based, the actors who may participate, or the remedies international law affords.  In each area, the number and depth of existential debates offer a rough gauge for mapping unity versus fragmentation.  Where existential inquiries are absent or where a consensus exists on the answers, unity may be presumed.  Conversely, where there are existential disputes, they indicate a fragmentation of the legal system.

In sum, as much as I love treaties, I believe that there is significant value in thinking about interpretation as more than a process of giving treaty provisions meaning.  My introduction of the concept of existential interpretation is an effort to show just how broadly interpretative processes reach and structure the international legal order.  In doing so, I hope to illustrate — as the book itself does — the importance of thinking about interpretation as its own field within international law.

[An introductory post to the book symposium can be found here.]

The Advantage for Palestine of a Slow Preliminary Examination

by Kevin Jon Heller

Nearly everyone treats Palestine’s membership in the ICC as a done deal; after all, the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) has accepted Palestine’s accession to the Rome Statute and the OTP has publicly stated that “since Palestine was granted observer State status in the UN by the UNGA, it must be considered a ‘State’ for the purposes of accession.” But neither the UNSG nor the OTP has final say over whether Palestine qualifies as a state; as Eugene Kontorovich, my friend and regular Israel/Palestine sparring partner, has repeatedly pointed out on Twitter (see here, for example), statehood is a legal issue that the ICC’s judges will eventually have to decide.

Unlike Eugene, I would be very surprised if the judges second-guessed the UNSG and the OTP and held that Palestine does not qualify as a state. But it’s certainly possible. So here is something for Palestine to consider: because the ICC’s judges cannot make a determination concerning Palestine’s statehood until the OTP has decided to formally investigate the situation, the longer the preliminary examination takes, the longer Palestine will have to make it more difficult for the judges to decide against it.

I don’t want to get into too much detail about the relevant provisions in the Rome Statute; a brief summary should suffice. Art. 15, which concerns proprio motu investigations — the current situation regarding Palestine, because the OTP treats an Art. 12(3) declaration as a request for an Art. 15 investigation — does not permit the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) to determine whether a situation “appears to fall within the jurisdiction of the Court” until the OTP has asked it to authorise a formal investigation. Art. 18, which in certain circumstances requires the OTP to defer to state investigations of specific suspects, also does not apply until the OTP has decided to formally investigate (whether proprio motu or on the basis of a state referral). And Art. 19, the basic complementarity provision, does not permit a state to challenge admissibility until there is a specific case pending and does not permit a suspect to challenge admissibility (which includes jurisdiction) until a warrant for his arrest or a summons for his appearance has been issued — both of which occur subsequent to the opening of a formal investigation.

There is, in short, only one party that can ask the PTC to decide a jurisdictional issue prior to the commencement of a formal investigation: the OTP itself. That’s Art. 19(3). And it’s safe to say that the OTP won’t ask the PTC to determine whether Palestine qualifies as a state before it has to.

That means, of course, that it could easily be years before the PTC gets to weigh in on the issue of Palestinian statehood. Why is that a good thing for Palestine? Most obviously, because it gives it more time to get its statehood ducks in a row — acceding to more international conventions, resolving internal political differences, seeking additional recognitions of Palestine as a state, etc. More importantly, though, it gives Palestine time to become an integral member of the Court, thereby increasing the institutional pressure on the PTC to conclude that it is a state. Assume that the OTP takes four years to open a formal investigation, which would be relatively quick by OTP standards. Palestine could — and should! — take advantage of that gap to pay dues each year to the ICC; to attend the annual sessions of the ASP (as it did as an observer in the 13th Session) and participate in its intersessional work; to nominate Palestine’s delegate to the ASP for a position in the Bureau; and (better still) to nominate a Palestinian as a judge. After four years of such involvement, it would be very difficult for the PTC to conclude that Palestine was not a state, given that such a decision would force the ASP to expel the Palestinian delegate, (presumably) refund four years of Palestine’s dues, and perhaps even unseat a Palestinian judge.

I’m sure some readers — particularly those who believe that Palestine cannot qualify as a state as long as Israel illegally occupies its territory — will find my strategy cynical. Perhaps it is — but it would hardly be the first time a state acted strategically with regard to an international organisation. After all, Israel is the culprit-in-chief in that regard; its favourite strategy, which is the height of cynicism, is to refuse to cooperate with an international investigation and then dismiss the results of that investigation as “one-sided” and thus biased. Moreover, I use the term “state” with regard to Palestine deliberately; contrary to the view of many pro-Israel commentators, the Montevideo criteria do not remotely doom Palestine’s claim to statehood. On the contrary, I believe Palestine has legally qualified as a state under those criteria for many years. But that is a subject for another day. (Interested readers can start with this brief, written by Errol Mendes.)

For now, Palestine needs to take full advantage of its admittedly provisional membership in the ICC. As a wise man once said, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

What Exactly Is the ICRC’s Position on Detention in NIAC?

by Kevin Jon Heller

I still need to write Part 2 of my response to Ryan Goodman, but it’s worth noting that he and I actually agree about detention in NIAC much more than we disagree. We both agree that IHL itself does not authorize such detention. We both agree that the standard governing detention in NIAC is that it must be non-arbitrary. We both agree that, in practice, it is non-arbitrary to detain individuals in NIAC for (something like) imperative reasons of security. So we seem to disagree only on one substantive point: where the requirement of non-arbitrariness comes from. Ryan says it comes from IHL itself. I argue that it comes from IHRL.

In my previous post, I took issue with Ryan’s claim that an ICRC Background Paper and Rule 99 of the ICRC’s study of customary law supported his position. I argued that neither clearly supports the idea that IHL requires detention in NIAC to be non-arbitrary, because both the Paper and the Rule rely on both IHL and IHRL for the substantive detention rules they endorse — and do not adequately disentangle the two legal strands. In response, Ryan accused me on Twitter — in a friendly manner — of arguing that he and the ICRC don’t understand the law of war.

Ryan and I obviously do disagree about whether IHL itself requires detention in NIAC to be non-arbitrary or whether its silence on that issue means IHRL’s requirement of non-arbitrariness applies as lex specialis. But I was not trying to claim that the ICRC was wrong, because I did not believe that Ryan was accurately characterizing its position. So I spent more time than than I expected after our exchange combing through the ICRC’s statements on the arbitrariness issue. I won’t bore readers with the twists and turns, but I do want to flag the ICRC’s most recent statement, an Opinion Paper dated November 2014. If the Opinion Paper does indeed reflect the ICRC’s current position on detention in NIAC, it turns out that  the ICRC disagrees with both me and Ryan, as well as with Dapo Akande and Lawrence Cawthorne-Hill at EJIL: Talk!, because it believes that IHL does, in fact, authorize detention in one kind of NIAC — extraterritorial NIAC. Here is what the ICRC says (p. 7):

In a “traditional” NIAC occurring in the territory of a State between government armed forces and one or more non-State armed groups, domestic law, informed by the State’s human rights obligations, and IHL, constitutes the legal framework for the possible internment by States of persons whose activity is deemed to pose a serious security threat. A careful examination of the interplay between national law and the applicable international legal regimes will be necessary. The right to judicial review of detention under human rights law will, of course, continue to apply; there are, however, differing views on whether this obligation may be derogated from.

Identifying the legal framework governing internment becomes particularly complicated in NIACs with an extraterritorial element, i.e. those in which the armed forces of one or more State, or of an international or regional organization, fight alongside the armed forces of a host State, in its territory, against one or more organized non-State armed groups.

The fact that Article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions neither expressly mentions internment, nor elaborates on permissible grounds or process, has become a source of different positions on the legal basis for internment by States in an extraterritorial NIAC. One view is that a legal basis for internment would have to be explicit, as it is in the Fourth Geneva Convention; in the absence of such a rule, IHL cannot provide it implicitly. Another view, shared by the ICRC, is that both customary and treaty IHL contain an inherent power to intern and may in this respect be said to provide a legal basis for internment in NIAC. This position is based on the fact that internment is a form of deprivation of liberty which is a common occurrence in armed conflict, not prohibited by Common Article 3, and that Additional Protocol II – which has been ratified by 167 States – refers explicitly to internment.

In short, according to the ICRC, IHL does not authorize detention in “traditional” NIACs, those fought solely on the territory of one state, but does authorize detention in extraterritorial NIACs. Indeed, the Opinion Paper specifically cites Serdar Mohammed as an example of the first view of extraterritorial NIAC — the one that the ICRC rejects. The ICRC’s position thus seems to be closest to Aurel Sari in the comments to my previous post, as well as to Kubo Mačák at EJIL: Talk!. Then again, the ICRC doesn’t completely agree with them, either, because the Opinion Paper quite specifically limits IHL’s inherent power to detain to extraterritorial NIAC — thus seeming to agree with me, Ryan, Dapo, and Lawrence that the authority to detain in at least traditional one-state NIACs comes from domestic law, not from IHL itself.

I confess that I find the ICRC’s traditional/extraterritorial distinction rather confusing. I don’t understand how the conventional and customary IHL of NIAC could contain “an inherent power to intern” in extraterritorial NIAC but not in traditional NIAC; doesn’t it have to be both — or neither? After all, each of the factors the ICRC cites in defense of its position apply equally to traditional NIAC. Internment is indeed a “common occurrence in armed conflict,” but it is common in both traditional and extraterritorial NIACs. Common Article 3 does not prohibit detention in either traditional or extraterritorial NIAC. And Additional Protocol II is capable of applying to some traditional NIACs and of not apply to some extraterritorial NIACs. In fact, it is probably more likely to apply in a traditional NIAC.

To be clear, I’m skeptical the Opinion Paper is correct even concerning extraterritorial NIAC. Nothing in conventional IHL suggests an inherent power to detain in any kind of NIAC: as Ryan, Dapo, and Lawrence have all pointed out, international law often recognizes and regulates a practice without authorizing it. And although there could in principle be an asymmetric customary rule that says IHL authorizes detention in extraterritorial NIAC while domestic authorization is required in a traditional NIAC, there seems to be no evidence that such a rule exists. As Dapo and Lawrence point out in their post, “[e]ven in the context of extraterritorial NIACs, states have looked elsewhere for authorisation [to detain] (see, e.g., Iraq and Security Council Resolution 1546).”

My point, then, is simply that I don’t think the ICRC can have it both ways. Either there is an inherent power in IHL to detain in NIAC or there isn’t.

One thing is clear: the ICRC really needs to clarify its position on detention in NIAC.

Responding to Ryan Goodman About Serdar Mohammed — Part I

by Kevin Jon Heller

At Just Security, my friend Ryan Goodman has posted a long analysis of Serdar Mohammed v. Ministry of Defense, in which the UK High Court held that IHL neither authorizes nor regulates detention in non-international armed conflict (NIAC). That decision will soon be considered by the Court of Appeal.

In his post, which is a must-read, Ryan states that he agrees with the High Court that IHL does not authorize detention in NIAC but disagrees that IHL does not regulate such detention. I share Ryan’s position on the first point, but I disagree with him — and agree with Justice Leggatt in Serdar Mohammed — on the second. In a subsequent post, I will address Ryan’s argument that “whatever is permitted in international armed conflict is permitted in noninternational armed conflict.” I have described that argument in a forthcoming book chapter as “reasoning by analogy”; Ryan rejects that description and says he is engaging in “reasoning by structure.” I will try to show in the next post that the “whatever is permitted” argument is problematic no matter how we describe its underlying reasoning.

In this post, I want to focus Ryan’s argument that, contrary to Justice Leggatt, IHL does in fact regulate the permissible grounds for detention in NIAC. Here is what he says (emphasis mine):

So far we have discussed the permissive boundaries of detention in NIAC but what about limitations on states in these contexts? IHL also imposes a set of prohibitions on the grounds for detention in internal armed conflict. That is, multiple sources conclude that IHL prohibits arbitrary deprivation of liberty in NIAC (see footnote 12 of the AJIL article, for example). Subsequent to that law review article, several important states through the Copenhagen Process—including “specially affected” states which is a significant category for customary international law purposes—explicitly accepted such restrictions on detention in NIAC.  Consider also the ICRC’s statement in a Background Paper on detention for the regional consultations 2012-2013: “In terms of grounds for internment, the ICRC, along with a growing international consensus of experts considers that ‘imperative reasons of security’ is an appropriate standard for internment in NIAC.” And a Report by a group of experts convened by the ICRC and Chatham House “quite easily” reached a consensus that in NIACs “parties to a conflict may capture persons deemed to pose a serious security threat and that such persons may be interned as long as they continue to pose a threat.” (See also the ICRC’s customary international humanitarian law Rule 99: Deprivation of Liberty).

To begin, it’s worth noting that Ryan does not seem to be “reasoning by structure” here — he seems to be arguing that, as a matter of customary international law, IHL prohibits arbitrary detention in NIAC. After all, he specifically mentions custom and “specially affected” states in the context of the Copenhagen Process. Moreover, he refers to the ICTY’s jurisdiction decision in Tadic both here and in his superb law-review article on security detention — and Tadic specifically based its (methodologically dubious) extension of IAC-based rules of IHL to NIAC on customary international law. As it said with regard to those rules (para. 127), “it cannot be denied that customary rules have developed to govern internal strife.”

If Ryan is claiming that IHL prohibits arbitrary detention in NIAC as a matter of customary international law, I have no theoretical objection to his argument. Indeed, as I’ll explain in my next post, my position is that international human rights law (IHRL) governs the regulation of detention in NIAC precisely because there are no contrary customary rules of IHL that can serve as the lex specialis of detention. If there are such customary rules, IHL may well displace IHRL (depending on how we understand the lex specialis principle).

That said, I take issue with Ryan’s claim that (as a matter of custom?) IHL prohibits arbitrary detention in NIAC — a standard that has no basis in the conventional IHL of NIAC and is normally associated with IHRL

Go Read Jens’s New Book!

by Kevin Jon Heller

9780199987405_450I am occasionally accused — correctly, of course — of using the blog as little more than a tool for shameless self-promotion. So it gives me great pleasure to use the blog as a tool of shameless other-promotion and announce the publication of Jens’s important new book, The Assault on International Law, now available from our friends at Oxford University Press. Here is the publisher’s description:

International law presents a conceptual riddle. Why comply with it when there is no world government to enforce it? The United States has long history of skepticism towards international law, but 9/11 ushered in a particularly virulent phase of American exceptionalism. Torture became official government policy, President Bush denied that the Geneva Conventions applied to the war against al-Qaeda, and the US drifted away from international institutions like the International Criminal Court and the United Nations.

Although American politicians and their legal advisors are often the public face of this attack, the root of this movement is a coordinated and deliberate attack by law professors hostile to its philosophical foundations, including Eric Posner, Jack Goldsmith, Adrian Vermeule, and John Yoo. In a series of influential writings they have claimed that since states are motivated primarily by self-interest, compliance with international law is nothing more than high-minded talk. Theses abstract arguments then provide a foundation for dangerous legal conclusions: that international law is largely irrelevant to determining how and when terrorists can be captured or killed; that the US President alone should be directing the War on Terror without significant input from Congress or the judiciary; that US courts should not hear lawsuits alleging violations of international law; and that the US should block any international criminal court with jurisdiction over Americans. Put together, these polemical accounts had an enormous impact on how politicians conduct foreign policy and how judges decide cases – ultimately triggering America’s pernicious withdrawal from international cooperation.

In The Assault on International Law, Jens Ohlin exposes the mistaken assumptions of these ‘New Realists,’ in particular their impoverished utilization of rational choice theory. In contrast, he provides an alternate vision of international law based on a truly innovative theory of human rationality. According to Ohlin, rationality requires that agents follow through on their plans even when faced with opportunities for defection. Seen in this light, international law is the product of nation-states cooperating to escape a brutish State of Nature—a result that is not only legally binding but also in each state’s self-interest.

I have had the pleasure of reading the book, and it’s tremendous. Many international-law scholars are (understandably) resistant to the caricature of international law presented by the Posners and Yoos of the world, but few have the theoretical chops to engage in the kind of imminent critique of “New Realism” that Jens provides. I hope the book gets the audience it deserves.

What Are International Law’s “Must Reads” from the Past Decade?

by Chris Borgen

In a comment to a recent post, Patrick O’Donnell noted a post from the first year of Opinio Juris in which I had taken a crack at starting a list of the “must reads “of international law. I wanted to get a discussion going over what should be the key scholarly texts in our field. Opinio Juris readers made significant contributions and suggestions to the list.

Returning to this discussion, are there any “must reads” that we should add from the last ten years: articles, books, blog posts? What were the any earlier texts that we missed?

As Peter mentioned in his post, international law is constantly expanding breadth and drilling down in depth, such that there are now relatively few generalists. It may be that the moment has passed where one person could have have deep expertise across the whole of the field.

I wonder if the “must reads” on international law will be less and less about “international law” in general, but rather be deep dives into a particular substantive areas. My guess is that as international law itself is flowering, the list of “must read” texts is also growing as there are important texts across an ever-widening spectrum of international legal theory and practice. But now some (perhaps most?) of the “must reads” might not be “must reads” for everybody, but for anybody interested in a certain area of our profession.

If you have any suggestions as to “must reads,” either generalist texts or in a particular sub-field, please let us know in the comments to this post or via Twitter to @Chris_Borgen and @OpinioJuris with the hashtag #OJ10 (we may then post them in the comments section to the post).

I have a few initial (and non-exhaustive) suggestions from the last decade. They are texts that I return to time and again for their perspectives and insights. With the following selections to start things off (as well as the original list from 2005), I look forward to any other suggestions the Opinio Juris community may have!

General Texts or Treatises

James Crawford, The Creation of States in International Law (Oxford 2d ed. 2006)  A remarkable compendium of analysis of the international law of statehood and sovereignty.

James Crawford, The International Law Commission’s Articles on State Responsibility: Introduction, Text and Commentaries (Cambridge 2002). This should have been on the original list back in 2005. A key reference to an important project in international law.

Report of the Study Group of the International Law Commission on Fragmentation of International Law: Difficulties Arising from the Diversification and Expansion of International Law (.pdf) (13 April 2006) UN Doc A/CN.4/L.682 and the accompanying Analytical Study (.pdf). Much the this post is built on the assumption that international law is expanding, becoming more institutionally complex, and deepening. But is the proliferation of law and institutions also leading to legal fragmentation? This has been a much-debated topic since at least the 1990’s. The ILC’s report, finalized by Martti Koskenniemi and the related study, have been much-debated and remain key resources in thinking-through this important topic.

The Oxford Guide to Treaties (Duncan Hollis, ed.) (Oxford 2012) At the risk of being accused of cheering for the home team, I want to note this volume that Duncan edited because it is a particularly significant contribution to the law of treaties, with 25 essays by many of the leading scholars and practitioners in the field as well as a sort of “bird-watcher’s guide” with examples of treaty clauses. (Truth in advertizing, I have a short piece in this book. No, my own chapter is not a “must read.”)

Legal History

The Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law (Bardo Fassbender and Anne Peters, eds) (Oxford 2012). A deep survey of the history of international law in and across countries and cultures. It goes beyond international legal history as European history and widens the focus to encompass comparative legal histories and how different international legal traditions encounter and interact with each other. Plus a section of legal biographies. A fascinating and much-needed resource.


Blogging and the Marketplace of Ideas

by Roger Alford

marketplace of ideasI started blogging at Opinio Juris in June 2005. My first post was a postcard from India. Since that time I have published over 1,000 posts. During that same ten-year period I have also published dozens of articles and a few books. In light of that background, I thought I would use Opinio Juris’ ten-year anniversary to reflect on the state of law blogging within the legal academy.

In the early days, law blogging was controversial. Many serious scholars were wary of blogging. Crusty established professors at elite schools saw little point in it, and untenured professors were intrigued but nervous. The sweet spot were young newly-tenured (or soon-to-be tenured) professors at reputable non-elite schools eager to build their brand and willing to embrace the medium despite the risks. Chris Borgen, Julian Ku, and Peggy McGuinness seized the opportunity and were the first-movers in the international law blog space.

As soon as I started reading Opinio Juris I knew I wanted to become a permanent contributor. Why? Because professors are in the marketplace of ideas, and blogging presented a whole new medium to sell our ideas. If a scholar is serious about the marketplace of ideas, it is not enough to simply produce a great product. One also has to promote that product in a thoughtful, respectful manner. This is no easy task.

So exactly how does one sell ideas? In the old days, promoting one’s scholarship required an inordinate amount of time speaking at conferences. At those conferences we would spend ten hours of travel time in order present for twenty minutes about an article that we had been working on for fifty-two weeks. If we were lucky, there would be about a hundred people in the audience. The incremental payoff was meager, but with enough effort a scholar could build a reputation.

Blogging completely changed the equation. Now a scholar can spend two hours summarizing an idea, post that summary on a blog, and reach an audience of thousands. That audience is not clustered in a particular geographic region, but is spread throughout the world. That audience is not required to listen to your ideas because they are second-year law review staffers, but they eagerly seek out your ideas because they are sincerely interested in what you have to say. Conferences continue to have their place, but the cost-benefit analysis favors blogging.

After over a decade of experience, the payoff is now clear. There is no doubt that blogging promotes scholarship. Consider law schools where there are well-known, reputable scholars who routinely blog. Where do they rank on SSRN downloads? Invariably law professors who blog are near the top of their respective faculty download rankings. At law schools where there are well-known law professor bloggers—schools like Chicago, Georgetown, UCLA, Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, BYU, George Mason, Temple, Pepperdine, Case Western, American, San Diego, Hofstra, and South Texas—again and again we see permanent bloggers are at or near the top for all time SSRN downloads for their respective faculty.

I seriously doubt that the quality of the scholarship of law professor bloggers is uniformly better than that of their colleagues who do not blog. But there is almost no question that law professors who blog have a distinct advantage when it comes to promoting their scholarship. If I write a blog post and make a passing reference to a recent article, (see, e.g., here and here) there is the distinct possibility that of the thousands who read the post, a significant minority will read the article linked in that post. If I write a blog post specifically about a recent article, I can almost guarantee a download bounce.

As others will discuss during this anniversary symposium, blogging serves many useful purposes. But one undeniable benefit is to provide a platform for law professors to promote their scholarship.

Scholarship is not about producing great ideas. It is about producing great ideas and communicating those ideas to the broader world. Some law professors have embraced a medium that gives them a megaphone to share their ideas. Other brilliant scholars choose to produce great scholarship and forego the opportunity to promote it.

Opinio Juris has carved out a unique place in the international legal academy where we actively promote the ideas of the permanent contributors, and others who reach out to us and use this space to share their ideas.

New Essay: The Use and Abuse of Analogy in IHL

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have posted a long new essay on SSRN, my contribution to a fantastic collection of essays that OJ’s own Jens Ohlin is editing for Cambridge University Press, The Theoretical Boundaries of Armed Conflict & Human Rights. The essay is entitled “The Use and Abuse of Analogy in IHL,” and here is the abstract:

It is a truism to say that conventional international humanitarian law (IHL) regulates international armed conflict (IAC) far more extensively than non-international armed conflict (NIAC). In IAC, conventional IHL authorizes both targeting and detention and carefully circumscribes their use. In NIAC, by contrast, conventional IHL is silent on the authorization for targeting and detention and imposes only rudimentary limits on when individuals may be targeted or detained.

Like nature, however, international law abhors a vacuum. Many of the gaps in the conventional IHL of NIAC have been slowly filled by custom; the ICRC has concluded that 138 of the 161 customary rules of IHL now apply in both IAC and NIAC – nearly 86%. As a result, it is now common for scholars to claim that, with the notorious exceptions of the combatant’s privilege and POW status, very few critical differences remain between IAC and NIAC concerning the applicable rules of IHL.

From a positivist perspective, the gradual harmonization of IAC and NIAC through convention and custom is unproblematic, because both are formal sources of international law. Since 9/11, however, the United States has consistently taken the position that certain IAC-based rules of IHL can be applied in NIAC via a third method: analogy. The U.S. has argued, for example, that it can target members of any organized armed group that would qualify under IAC rules as a “co-belligerent” of al-Qaeda.

In assessing the legitimacy of such analogies, it is tempting to focus on whether it makes sense to apply a particular IAC rule in NIAC. Is the Haqqani Network’s relationship with al-Qaeda really equivalent to Italy’s relationship with Nazi Germany? Emphasizing the substantive “fit” between IAC and NIAC, however, simply obscures a more fundamental question: where does the U.S.’s authority to analogize between IAC and NIAC come from?

That is a critical question, for two reasons. First, targeting and detention potentially violate the human rights of the individuals they affect. As the International Law Commission has noted, it is not enough for targeting or detention to qualify as a legitimate act of self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter; that targeting or detention must also be consistent with either IHL or international human rights law (IHRL), depending on which legal regime applies. Second, because all of the targeting and detention activities that occur in the NIAC between the U.S. and al-Qaeda take place extraterritorially, each U.S. use of force and each capture operation potentially violates the sovereignty of the state on whose territory it takes place.

Put more simply, by relying on analogized rules of IHL to justify expanded targeting and detention of al-Qaeda, the U.S. potentially runs afoul of a number of prohibitive rules of international law: the principle of non-intervention; the prohibition on the use of force; and IHRL prohibitions on the arbitrary deprivation of life and liberty. What, then, is the legal basis for those analogies?

This chapter’s answer is straightforward: nothing. There is no basis in international law for taking rules of IHL that exist as a matter of convention and custom only in IAC and applying them in NIAC by analogy – which means that the U.S. is systematically violating international law by relying on those analogized rules to target and detain extraterritorially.

I am very rarely happy with essays when I finish them, but I’m quite happy with this one. I’m sure many people will disagree with it, and I’ve likely made plenty of mistakes. But I think the essay addresses a number of difficult issues in IHL/IHRL that deserve further discussion. If I can provoke debate, I’ll be happy.

As always, comments, criticisms, and ad hominem attacks are welcome.

PS:  I should note that the essay was inspired by, and provides a response to, my friend Ryan Goodman’s excellent 2009 article in AJIL, “The Detention of Civilians in Armed Conflict” (pdf here). I highly recommend reading his article before reading my essay.

Customary International Law is Obsolete

by Roger Alford

That’s the provocative conclusion of the latest research by Joel Trachtman. Trachtman’s articles are typically succinct and seductive, so you owe it to yourself to read the short article (and skim the long appendix).

Trachtman examined 300 different CIL rules and found that only 13 (4.33%) have not been either incorporated in treaties or codified. Trachtman argues that the move toward treaties is because CIL cannot respond effectively to the great modern challenges of international society: global environmental protection, international public health, cybersecurity, financial cataclysm, and liberalization of movement of goods, services, and people. Trachtman also argues that CIL is incapable of addressing enduring challenges of regulating war, protecting human rights, and reducing poverty.

According to Trachtman, the reasons for CIL’s obsolescence are manifold. CIL (1) cannot be made in a coordinated manner; (2) cannot be made with sufficient detail; (3) cannot be made with sufficiently heterogeneous reciprocity; (4) cannot be made with specifically-designed organization support; (5) is not subject to national parliamentary control; (6) purports to bind states that did not consent but failed to object to its formation, and (7) provides excessive space for auto-interpretation by states or undisciplined judges.

For Trachtman, the obsolescence of CIL should lead states to stop arguing about CIL and start legislating mutually beneficial transactions. It should also lead NGOs and advocates to stop trying to “bootstrap a desired CIL past a target state” and instead engage with those states in treatymaking. Academics should “focus our analysis on the politically immanent, interdisciplinary, work of developing proposed rules that are administratively workable and effective, and that achieve actual social goals.” He suggests that the international legal system could survive just fine without CIL. So stop worrying about custom and learn to love treaties.

This is powerful stuff. With this piece Trachtman has done a great service to the academic debate on the relevance of CIL. Perhaps unwittingly, he also has done great service to customary international law by offering a comprehensive appendix that lists 300 of the most important CIL rules. If you want students to quickly grasp the scope and contours of CIL, just peruse the appendix.

Applying Trachtman’s thesis to my world of international economic law, I must concur with much of Trachtman’s argument. International trade law, in particular, is all about negotiating, interpretation, and enforcing treaties. We rarely if ever discuss CIL in a trade class. The very nature of an FTA is that it confers rights and obligations exclusively its Members. The defects of CIL are significant enough that trade law is almost exclusively treaty law.

International arbitration is more complicated. Trachtman only identifies two CIL rules for international economic law (Rule 207 and 208), both codified in the investment chapter of NAFTA Chapter 11. But the norm for investment arbitration is to articulate a general standard of protection in bilateral investment treaties (or FTA investment chapters), and then leave it to arbitral tribunals the task of devising detailed obligations from those general standards. Indeed, most BITs require States to afford investors protection consistent with international law, leaving to tribunals the task of discerning precisely what international law requires. BITs are not codifying CIL, but in a sense they instruct tribunals to create it.

Trachtman would not disagree that CIL is still relevant in limited contexts. He specifically recognizes that occasionally CIL is more precise than a codified rule. International humanitarian law and investment arbitration may be such categories. Likewise, Trachtman would concede that CIL is relevant where the treaty is binding on only a few states, as is the case with rules of state succession.

One can easily find selective instances where Trachtman is wrong. But what I doubt critics will be able to do is refute his general thesis that the codification of international rules through treaties has made CIL increasingly obsolete.

Guest Post: The ILC Project on the Identification of Customary International Law–Saving the Temple from Submergence

by Duncan French and Jean d'Aspremont

[Duncan French is the Head of Law School and a Professor of International Law at the University of Lincoln and Jean d’Aspremont is a Professor of International Law at the University of Manchester and a Professor of International Legal Theory at the University of Amsterdam.]

The two-day expert seminar on the identification of customary international law, co-organised by Lincoln Law School and the Manchester International Law Centre, took place on 13-14th November at the University of Lincoln. With the active participation of Sir Michael Wood, the Special Rapporteur of the International Law Commission (hereafter ILC) on the issue, the seminar witnessed the contribution of over 25 international lawyers from around the United Kingdom. Discussions focused on Sir Michael’s second report, the eight draft conclusions adopted by the ILC drafting committee and those issues yet to be considered in the preparation of the third report.

A blog for Opinio Juris in advance of the seminar entitled “Amidst the Academic Mania for the Identification of Customary International Law–The ILC and the Operative Value of Distinctions” had flagged many of the salient matters discussed during the seminar. As could be anticipated, interventions were made on the methodological aspects of the “two element” approach to the identification of customary international law, the role of international organizations in the determination of customary international law, inaction and acquiescence, and how customary international law has developed within particular areas of international law, notably in the economic and environmental spheres. There was also more wide-ranging discussion on, inter alia, the notion of opinio juris, the scope of the ILC conclusions, whether the development of human rights has impacted upon the identification of customary international law, international organizations, non-state actors, the role of the persistent objector, the relevance of specially affected states, the temporal inter-relationship between state practice and opinio juris, and the existence of special/local/regional custom, etc.

It is beyond the purpose of this blog to revisit the depth and richness of these exchanges. It will limit itself to formulating four sets of remarks.

First, there was general agreement among the participants that the scope of the ILC codification exercise is rightly restricted to the identification of customary international law. This was perceived as a pragmatic, and reasonable, delimitation. Nevertheless, it was acknowledged that one could not always easily distinguish between the formation, the identification and the evidence of customary international law. In that sense, it was highlighted that the current title was too narrow, and that, in the French text, the word (‘détermination’) captured more accurately the more nuanced and various complexities of the question. And this was not the only issue arising in the respective translations. The importance – both conceptually and practically – in the assessment of evidence in identifying customary international law [draft conclusion 3] takes on a subtly alternative understanding when interpreted as ‘áppreciation des moyens’.
Secondly, as indicated in the earlier blog, the practice and opinio juris of international organizations in the identification of customary international law – as distinct from the acts of States within and through such organizations – proved particularly contentious and triggered a lot of debate. The contribution of international organizations primarily raises the question as to whether the practice and opinio juris of international organizations should contribute generally to any customary rule, or only when it concerns the development of rules that will also bind international organizations. The Special Rapporteur and several participants indicated that, in their view, an organization can only contribute to the formation of a rule of customary law which it can potentially be bound by. This has to do with the self-commitment at the heart of the doctrine of customary international aw. It is also perhaps as a matter of equity between participants in the international legal system.

Equally, there was discussion as to which international organizations can contribute to the formation of customary international law. Legal personality is a seemingly determinate variable. Yet, a question remains as to whether there is a significant difference between organizations with a high degree of autonomy, those with more independent-minded secretariats and those international organizations that are member-state driven. It seems axiomatic that the greater the autonomy, the greater the extent to which the practice and the opinio juris of an international organization itself (in contrast to the acts of its members within the context of the organization) should contribute to customary international law.

The point was also made (more…)

What Does China Mean When It Celebrates the “International Rule of Law”?

by Julian Ku

In observance of United Nations Day on October 24, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi issued a long statement expressing China’s view of itself as a “staunch defender and builder of international law” (Chinese version here). As China-watchers know, China’s Communist Party has just completed its “Fourth Plenum” (sort of a Party leadership strategy meeting) on the theme of the promotion of the rule of law, so it is not surprising that China’s leadership would have something to say about the international rule of law as well.

The statement is pretty predictable (and largely unobjectionable) in its broad pledge for Chinese support to “international law” or the “international rule of law.”  It is hardly pathbreaking.  Still, as I have suggested in earlier posts, China’s government tends to have a slightly different view on what constitutes “international law” as compared to the United States or Europe.  So while much of the statement is pretty anodyne (it is communist-party-speak, after all), there are a few points relating to China’s emphasis on sovereignty and its allergy to human rights that are worth noting:

1) International Law and China’s History of National Humiliation

The statement places China’s commitment to international law in the context of its historical struggles facing foreign oppression in invasion beginning with the Opium War of the 1840s.  This reference to China’s historical weakness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is standard nationalist fare in China, but it is interesting that it is linked here to modern international law. As the statement notes, “[s]eeing the contrast between China’s past and present, the Chinese people fully recognize how valuable sovereignty, independence and peace are.”  I think this historical experience is a useful explanation for why there are deep roots to the version of international law presented here.  For China, international law is closely linked to its achievement of independence from foreign powers, and there is no principle more dear to China in international law than “sovereignty” and independence from foreign domination.  Those of us educated in the States have been taught that sovereignty is usually an obstacle to the promotion of international law (Louis Henkin even called it the “S” word), but that concept is still hard to sell in China.

2) Sovereignty 5:  Human Rights 0

Indeed, the statement mentions “sovereignty” five times as a fundamental principle of international law, as referenced in the United Nations Charter. Thus, the statement cites certain universally recognized norms of international law and relations such as

…[A]s respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of international disputes and non-interference in the internal affairs of others, as enshrined in the UN Charter, are the foundation stones upon which modern international law and conduct of international relations are built.

This is right out of Article II of the UN Charter.  But it is hard to imagine a statement by the United States about international law that did not also mention the UN Charter’s commitment to the protection of human rights.  To be sure, human rights protection is not in Article II of the UN Charter’s list of “Principles” but it is odd (at least to an American) to see it ignored so completely here.

3) Just Say No to Responsibility to Protect 

The statement takes direct aim at those countries who are interventionist.

Hegemonism, power politics and all forms of “new interventionism” pose a direct challenge to basic principles of international law including respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Some countries follow a pragmatist or a double-standard approach to international law, using whatever that suits their interests and abandoning whatever that does not.

Hmm.. I wonder which country or countries it is referring to here?  This position also reflects longstanding Chinese policy against any kind of military intervention (and most other kinds as well) no matter what the justification.  So don’t count on a Chinese vote for that Syria intervention.

4) Go Democracy (between, but not within, nations)!

The statement also endorses democracy…that is to say, democracy in international lawmaking.  It accuses some countries (the One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) of trying to make “rules of certain countries as “international rules”, and their standards “international standards”. I am guessing this is clearly a shot at the U.S. in areas as varied as trade laws, IP, and human rights.

5) Philippines and UNCLOS arbitral tribunal: Don’t You Dare Ruin International Law

Not surprisingly, the statement takes aim at international and national courts.   It declares:

“National and international judicial institutions should avoid overstepping their authority in interpreting and applying international law. Still less should they encroach on the rights and interests of other countries under the pretext of”the rule of law” in total disregard of objectivity and fairness.”

I think this is clearly a warning signal to the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal formed to resolve the Philippines claim against China.  This is another sign there will be no backing down on this arbitration. China is going to continue to loudly proclaim its commitment to rule of law, and continue to reject and maybe even denigrate the legitimacy of this arbitration.

6) International Rule OF Law, not Rule BY Law

Finally, I’ll note that the statement’s use of the phrase “international rule of law” might help clarify a debate among China-watchers as to what China means by the phrase “rule of law.”  As Josh Chin has usefully explained in the Wall Street Journal here, the Chinese phrase “法治“ (fazhi) is often translated as “rule of law” but could also be translated as “rule by law”.  Indeed, there is a traditional Chinese “Legalist” tradition that thinks of law as an instrument for ruling society, but less so as a constraint on lawmakers and government.  Most China-watchers would probably say that “rule by law” is a more accurate translation of what the Chinese Communist Party means when they call for the promotion of the “法治” (fazhi) in domestic reforms, since most expect the Party to remain effectively above the law for most key matters in the future, but for law to be used as a mechanism of social and political control of everyone else.

No matter what the Party means domestically by 法治 (fazhi), it is clear that its use internationally fits within the Western conception of law as an autonomous force constraining state power and preserving state equality.

In promoting international rule of law, the most important thing is to use universally applicable rules in international relations to distinguish right and wrong, end disputes and seek a win-win solution through coordination. This is vital to international rule of law. The formulation, interpretation and application of international law should all be conducive to this goal. Under no circumstances should we inflate the arrogance of hegemonism and power politics, still less use international rule of law to instigate disagreement and friction,for it will only lead us to a wrong direction.

Indeed, in its call for universally applicable principles, democratic lawmaking, and the use of law to restrain strong states from taking advantage of the weak, the Chinese Communist Party is invoking a version of rule of law that many Westerners would be familiar with.  It will be interesting to see if this conception bleeds over into the Party’s push for domestic rule of/by law reform.


A Tale of Two Baarles: Crazy-Quilt Maps and Sovereignty Over Certain Frontier Land

by Chris Borgen

Map credit: Wikimedia Commons via Radiolab

Map credit: Wikimedia Commons via Radiolab

Radiolab has  posted an informative and entertaining essay entitled “How to Cross 5 International Borders in 1 Minute without Sweating.” It describes the intertwined municipalities of the Dutch town Baarle-Nassau and the Belgian town Baarle-Hertog. Here’s the evocative description by Robert Krulwich of Radiolab:

The hunky yellow bit labeled “H1” (for Hartog) toward the bottom is mostly the Belgian town. But notice those little white bits inside the yellow — labeled “N1, N2, N3” — those are little patches of the Dutch town (N for Nassau). The two towns are not geographically separate. Instead, they’re like M&M’s in a candy bowl. There are 22 distinct Belgian bits, and a dozen or so Dutch bits, and they are sprinkled together; so sometimes you’ve got bits of Belgium inside Dutch areas, and sometimes Dutch patches inside Belgian neighborhoods. They vary in size. The largest is 1.54 square kilometers, the smallest, an empty field, is 2,632 square meters.

Krulwich is correct to note that in the Middle Ages “Checkerboard maps were common.” One reason they were common was that feudalism had a different conception of sovereignty than the “modern” conception of sovereignty that became prevalent in the years following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Rather than strictly territorial, medieval sovereignty was in part relational, between lords and subjects as well as between and among varying levels of nobility. With an emphasis on personal loyalty and duty, the feudal conception of sovereignty was like a network of individuals with multiple linkages and relationships.  Displaying such relationships as a territorial map with bold-line boundaries results in a crazy quilt that may actually obscure the complex interwoven relationships.

But the Westphalian emphasis on territorial sovereignty called for such bold-line maps. Areas that started as territorial patchworks were usually consolidated and rationalized. Krulwich continues:

But for some reason, writes Alastair Bonnet in his new book, Unruly Places, it didn’t [happen here]. During Napoleon’s time, villages were swept cleanly into one nation or another, the borders tidied up, but apparently — and no one can quite explain why — Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog escaped the broom. Maybe they were too small, too unimportant, but they made it through, their mosaic-ness intact, becoming, Bonnet says, a “living laboratory of medieval micro-borders.”

For more detail on the land grants, treaties, planning commissions, and other aspects of the history of these two towns, see this website.

This mosaic of sovereignty has led to some incredible results. In a 2008 post on Baarle-Hertog/ Baarle-Nassau,  BLDGBLOG reported that:

Sarah Laitner, at the Financial Times, adds that “women are able to choose the nationality of their child depending on the location of the room in which they give birth.”

For more about the administration of Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau, see this .pdf.

The contested status of two specific plots created by these micro-borders led to a dispute before the International Court of Justice, Sovereignty over Certain Frontier Land (Belgium/ Netherlands). The ICJ found that the plots in question were under Belgian sovereignty.

While perhaps the most complex territorial enclave, the two Baarles are not the only examples; see  the website European Small Exclaves. You can also see more about Swiss cheese sovereignties and cartographic discrepancies in this post I wrote a while back. (And the part about cartographic discrepencies should really be considered by that guy trying to found a Kingdom of North Sudan for his daughter…)