Archive of posts for category
Law of the Sea

Can Israel Cut Off Water and Power to Gaza?

by Kevin Jon Heller

That’s the question at the heart of a complicated debate between a variety of IHL scholars. The debate began with a legal opinion that Avi Bell submitted to the Knesset, in which he argued that nothing in international law prohibits Israel from cutting off the water and power it provides to Gaza. Although the opinion is dense — and has been updated in response to a document criticising an earlier published version — the bottom line is that Bell rejects the idea that Gaza is still occupied and believes it is thus impossible to find a positive obligation on Israel to continue to provide water and power (p. 5):

Some have argued that Israel is required to supply the Gaza Strip because Israel allegedly maintains control over Gaza. There are two versions of this claim: one version claims that Israel belligerently occupies the Gaza Strip; the other claims that Israel “controls” the Gaza Strip for purposes of human rights treaties or “post-occupation” duties even though it neither occupies nor exercises sovereignty over the Gaza Strip. When it controls territory through belligerent occupation, a state may have the duty supply certain goods to a civilian population if there is no other way to ensure access to the goods. Similarly, when it controls territory over which it has lawful sovereignty, a state may have the duty to supply certain goods when human rights treaties demand their provision to the civilian population. However, Israel does not control the Gaza Strip for purposes of the law of belligerent occupation or human rights  duties. Thus, Israel cannot be held to a duty to supply.

Bell’s legal opinion led a group of leading Israeli international-law scholars, including Eyal Benvenisti, Aeyal Gross (also at SOAS), David Kretzmer, and Yuval Shany, to submit a response to the Knesset. The essence of the response is that even if Israel is no longer occupying Gaza (on which the experts do not take an opinion), its ongoing control over basic features of Gazan life means that it is not free to completely ignore basic Palestinian humanitarian needs. Here is the key paragraph (pp. 10-11):

Israel and Gaza are not equal sovereign entities. Israel has controlled Gaza for decades, which resulted in significant dependence on Israeli infrastructure. Even after the disengagement, it still holds certain powers over the population in Gaza – including by its control over essential infrastructure. Since Israel does not allow, de facto, the development of independent infrastructure in Gaza, it cannot completely deny the responsibility to provide these essential supplies. Therefore, the interpretation suggested in the Opinion does not reflect a proper balance between the different objectives of IHL – even when considering the special challenges of asymmetric warfare. Chiefly, this is because it results in a legal “black hole” which deprives the civilian population of the effective protection of international law.

The debate between Bell and the other experts led Diakonia, a Swedish NGO, to commission a third report from Michael Bothe, one of the world’s foremost IHL experts. Bothe concludes, like the group of experts, that cutting off water and power to Gaza could (in certain circumstances) violate IHL. But he offers two independent bases for that conclusion…

Let Me Be Clear: Taiwan Should Be Defended, Even Though the Defense is Illegal

by Julian Ku

So I managed to anger lots of folks (mostly on twitter) with my post Friday (republished in the Diplomat and RealClearWorld yesterday) on the international legal problems created by any Japanese intervention to defend Taiwan from an attack by China.  I don’t mind angering people (especially on twitter), but I do want to make sure they are angry with me for the right reasons. Many readers seem to think I want China to invade Taiwan, which is in fact the complete opposite of my policy goal.   So let me offer some clarifications of my position on policy, and a few rebuttals of legal responses to my arguments.

1) Policy: I am squarely in favor of U.S. military intervention to defend Taiwan against any PRC military attack. I am even in favor of intervention in the case of a declaration of independence by Taiwan as long as Taiwan acts in a responsible way so as not to threaten China’s national security.(My only hesitation on this is the cost to the US, but not on the merits of Taiwan’s case). Given how strong China is these days, I am pretty sure Taiwan could not be a real military threat to China (nor would it want to be).  Whether the US would actually protect Taiwan is the zillion dollar policy question that I don’t have the answer to.  I hope it does, but I don’t know if it will.

2) Law: However, my favored US policy is in deep tension with, or even direct conflict with, traditional understandings of the international law governing the use of force.  For those of us who love and cherish Taiwan, it is no use pretending as if the law supports a US or Japanese military intervention to defend Taiwan. It doesn’t. It would be better for all concerned if we faced this legal problem head-on rather than try to come up with complicated not-very-persuasive workarounds.  Here are the two most obvious workarounds, raised in this very angry and excited post by Taiwan-expert J. Michael Cole:

a) Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention
Here is a simple response: R2P are non-binding principles that, even if they were binding, seems to require Security Council consent.  Humanitarian intervention remains deeply contested and doubtful in international law, and would not apply to Taiwan in any case until it was probably too late. Kosovo is a great example of how contested this doctrine is. Syria is another.

b) The ROC is a separate legal entity.
I get that this is a complicated issue, but I don’t think I am “misreading” historical documents when I write that i) the US recognizes the PRC as the government of China and that the US accepts that Taiwan is part of China; 2) Japan recognizes the PRC as the government of China, and Japan accepts that Taiwan is a part of China.  Sure, neither country recognizes that Taiwan is a part of the PRC, but both the US and Japan have made clear that China is a single legal entity that includes Taiwan, and that the PRC is the sole government in charge of this entity. We can futz around the details, but there is a reason why neither the US nor Japan (nor almost anyone else) have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Here is one interesting and unexpected policy consequence of Taiwan’s current legal position: it would be safer from a legal perspective for Taiwan to declare independence, since that would protect it from this legal problem I’ve identified. Of course, that legal position would probably be the least safe from a policy perspective, since it is the mostly likely to spark a Chinese attack.

Which brings me to my real point: the increasing irrelevance of Article 51 of the UN Charter to decisions by major powers on whether to use military force. The decision on whether to defend Taiwan should not depend on workarounds for Article 51. It should depend on the combination of moral values and national interests the US and Japan consider worth protecting here in Taiwan. I think Taiwan is worth protecting, but it is important to recognize that the law is not on Taiwan’s side.

Why “Lawfare” Won’t Deter China in the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

Harry J. Kazianis, the managing editor of The National Interest, has a smart post discussing the risk that the U.S. is taking if it tries to take more aggressive action to counter China in the South China Sea.  Essentially, he argues the U.S. has no effective strategy to counter China’s “non-kinetic” strategy to subtly alter the status quo by using non-military assets to expand control and influence in the region.  I agreed with Kazianis all the way until he offered his own solution:

There only seems one solution to the various territorial disputes in the region—specifically, what some are calling “lawfare.” All of the various claimants that have disputes with China in the South China Sea should appeal collectively to any and all international bodies that could possibly hear their claims. Only together can they hope to get Beijing to halt its aggressive actions.

He goes on to cite the Philippines claim against China in the UN Law of the Sea arbitration system as a possible model for other nations.

“Lawfare” or international law litigation is not going to be an effective counter to China here for at least two reasons (one legal, one policy-based):

  • 1) China has opted out of any “compulsory” system of international dispute resolution that would rule on its territorial claims in the South China Sea (or anywhere, for that matter).  This “opt-out” is perfectly legal and may very well prevent the Philippines from even making their full case to the UNCLOS arbitration tribunal.  There are no other legal institutions that have jurisdiction.  So the only way “lawfare” can work here is if China consents to arbitration. But if Kazianis is right that this is a strategy by China’s neighbors to block its expansion, then why would China ever agree to arbitration?
  • 2) Even if compulsory jurisdiction were somehow found in one of these international bodies, there is very little chance that China would feel compelled to comply with any negative ruling.  This is not a China-specific problem, but rather a problem almost every country faces when considering arbitration over territorial disputes.  The effectiveness of tribunals in these contexts is highly limited since they depend for enforcement on the individual state-parties.  This is why voluntary arbitration tends to work better than compulsory arbitration in these kinds of territorial disputes.  The U.S. and Canada, for example, have managed to settle (most of) their often contentious land and maritime borders through a combination of non-arbitral commissions, and then special bilateral arbitrations.  In the famous “Gulf of Maine” case, the U.S. Senate actually approved a special treaty with Canada to send a maritime dispute to a special chamber of the ICJ.  Although clunky, this model is far more likely to succeed in getting state compliance.

So while I agree with Kanianis and other commentators that China needs to be deterred from its current strategy in the South China Sea, I am fairly confident the use of “lawfare” will not be a way to accomplish this goal.

Game On, Again? Vietnam Planning to File Legal Action Against China Over South China Sea Dispute

by Julian Ku

There have been lots of reports out in the last 24 hours saying that the Government of Vietnam is planning to take legal action against China for its movement of an oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea.  Indeed, the Philippines Government has stated that Vietnam has consulted it about its ongoing arbitration case against China and the two nations issued a joint statement of solidarity opposing China’s actions in the South China Sea.

What would the Vietnam legal action look like? The most likely action would be to seek arbitration under Annex VII of UNCLOS, just as the Philippines has done.  Of course, China would have the same defense and likely the same reaction to any Vietnam claim: that China’s Article 298 declaration excluding disputes over matters involving “sea boundary delimitations”or “involving historic bays or titles….” would exclude jurisdiction.  Moreover, China might further argue that Article 298 also allows it exclude “disputes concerning military activities, including military activities by government vessels and aircraft engaged in non-commercial service, and disputes concerning law enforcement activities in regard to the exercise of sovereign rights or jurisdiction….”

At first glance, I can’t see how Vietnam’s claim would be any better or worse than that of the Philippines with respect to jurisdiction.  Vietnam has the same objection to China’s Nine Dash Line, and Vietnam similarly argues certain South China Sea features claimed by China are not “islands” for purposes of UNCLOS entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone.  So I think we will see a rerun of the Philippines arbitration.  Vietnam will constitute a tribunal, China will not participate, and away it goes.

Some other reports out of Vietnam suggest it will file a claim with the International Court of Justice, if only to show their good faith, even though the ICJ has no jurisdiction over China.  I don’t think this is a great strategy, but maybe it will be a useful diplomatic showcase.

Finally, there are reports Vietnam will allow its state-owned oil company to file an action against China’s state-owned oil company in Vietnamese courts.  This actually seems like an interesting idea, since once the Vietnamese company won the judgment, it could in theory try to enforce it against the assets of the Chinese company overseas.  It is not a slam-dunk, but it certainly could be a plausible claim.

I am doubtful that  an additional arbitration will lead to China backing down.  Certainly, the Philippines arbitration has not caused China to moderate its behavior toward the Philippines.   The extra added pressure of  a Vietnam arbitration is not huge, and my guess is that China will continue to simply ignore the arbitrations, reputational costs be damned.  I am not saying that it is bad strategy for Vietnam to try the arbitration route, but Vietnam should be realistic about the veryreal costs, and limited benefits of this strategy.

Did You Know Hazarding a Vessel Was a War Crime? Me Neither.

by Kevin Jon Heller

We have a new challenger in the competition for worst decision by a military commission ever! Judge Pohl has now issued an order in al-Nashiri concluding that Charge IX, Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft, states a violation of the international laws of war. Here is the definition of that “war crime,” 10 U.S.C. § 950t(23):

(23) Hijacking or hazarding a vessel or aircraft.— Any person subject to this chapter who intentionally seizes, exercises unauthorized control over, or endangers the safe navigation of a vessel or aircraft that is not a legitimate military objective shall be punished, if death results to one or more of the victims, by death or such other punishment as a military commission under this chapter may direct, and, if death does not result to any of the victims, by such punishment, other than death, as a military commission under this chapter may direct.

Hijacking or hazarding a vessel is not a grave breach of either the Geneva Conventions or the First Additional Protocol. The Rome Statute does not criminalise hijacking or hazarding a vessel. No international tribunal has ever prosecuted the hijacking or hazarding a vessel as a war crime — not the IMT, not the ad hocs, not the ICC. The ICRC’s study of customary IHL does not mention hijacking or hazarding a vessel — although it does note that both the US Naval Handbook (Vol. II, p. 3893)  and The Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States (Vol. II, p. 3938) specifically distinguish between hijacking and war crimes. And so on.

How, then, does Judge Pohl somehow conclude that hijacking or hazarding a vessel is a war crime — as opposed to attacking civilians or civilian objects, both of which are war crimes and are both of which are also detailed in al-Nashiri’s charge sheet? By citing the widespread ratification of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.

Seriously. By citing the widespread ratification of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.

Here is what Judge Pohl says (emphasis mine):

The M.C.A. prohibits conduct that “endangers the safe navigation of a vessel.” The similarity between the M.C.A. and the SUA Convention is plain and unambiguous. The SUA Convention proscribes the same conduct the M.C.A. proscribes and of which the Accused is charged… The Commission finds by a preponderance of the evidence the Prosecution has demonstrated the crime of Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft is based on norms firmly grounded in international law and can be plainly drawn from established precedent. Therefore, the Commission concludes the offense of Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft was an international law of war crime at the time the Accused allegedly engaged in the conduct, thus conferring jurisdiction over the offense.

That’s it. That’s Judge Pohl’s entire argument. Never mind that the SUA Convention says nothing about the laws of war, applying equally in armed conflict and peacetime. Never mind that the SUA Convention does not even purport to create an international crime — it is, of course, a suppression convention that simply obligates States Parties to domestically criminalise certain acts. Never mind that, even if it is possible to argue that the widespread ratification of the SUA Convention somehow creates a customary rule prohibiting hijacking or hazarding a vessel (difficult in itself), such a customary rule would still not create “an international law of war crime.”

I hope I don’t need to explain in more detail why the widespread ratification of a suppression convention doesn’t create a war crime. But let’s take Judge Pohl’s methodology seriously. Want to know what other kinds of acts are also war crimes prosecutable in a military commission?

  • Nuclear proliferation (NPT — 190 ratifications)
  • Threatening civilian aviation (Safety of Civilian Aviation Convention – 188 ratifications)
  • Drug trafficking (Illicit Traffic in Narcotics Convention – 188 ratifications)
  • Manufacturing hallucinogenic drugs (Psychotropic Substances Convention – 182 ratifications)
  • Using child labor (Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention – 177 ratifications)
  • Transnational organised crime (Transnational Organized Crime Convention – 176 ratifications)
  • Kidnapping diplomats (Internationally Protected Persons Convention – 176 ratifications)
  • Corruption (Anti-Corruption Convention – 167 ratifications)
All of those conventions are suppression conventions — and each has been much more widely ratified than the SUA Convention. According to Judge Pohl’s logic, therefore, all of those acts are also violations of the international laws of war.In the off chance you needed additional proof that the military commissions are a joke, Judge Pohl’s decision is Exhibit A.

Guest Post: Law Of The Sea Tribunal Implies A Principle Of Reasonableness In UNCLOS Article 73

by Craig H. Allen

[Craig H. Allen is the Judson Falknor Professor of Law and of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington.]

On April 14, 2014, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) issued its ruling in the M/V Virginia G case (Panama/Guinea-Bissau), Case No. 19.  The dispute arose out of  Guinea-Bissau’s 2009 arrest of the Panama-flag coastal tanker M/V Virginia G after it was detected bunkering (i.e., delivering fuel to) several Mauritanian-flag vessels fishing in the Guinea-Bissau exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without having obtained a bunkering permit.  The case presented a number of issues, including whether the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both states are party, grants a coastal state competency to control bunkering activities by foreign vessels in its EEZ.

After disposing of objections raised over jurisdiction and admissibility (notwithstanding the parties’ special agreement transferring the case to ITLOS), the decision adds a substantial gloss to several articles of the UNCLOS, particularly with respect to Article 73 on enforcement of coastal state laws regarding the conservation and management of living resources in the EEZ. Among other things, Panama alleged that Guinea-Bissau violated each of the four operative paragraphs of Article 73 in its boarding, arrest and confiscation of the Virginia G and by seizing and withholding the passports of its crew for more than 4 months. The tribunal’s holding can be summarized as follows:  (more…)

So How is China Reacting to the Philippines Arbitration Submission? Not Very Well

by Julian Ku

China has not been quiet in reacting to the Philippines filing Sunday of its memorial in the UNCLOS South China Sea arbitration.  In addition to the foreign ministry’s remarks, the People’s Daily has released a full-scale defense of China’s legal and policy position (recently translated here). It is the longest official (well, close-to-official) statement of China’s legal position on the arbitration as I’ve seen anywhere. The heart of China’s argument is that this whole Philippines dispute is about sovereignty over the Nansha Islands, parts of which the Philippines is illegally occupying.  Because this is about sovereignty, and because China excluded maritime and territorial disputes from UNCLOS arbitral jurisdiction in its 2006 declaration, it is the Philippines (and not China) that is violating international law by filing the arbitration claim. Here are a couple of legal arguments or claims in the commentary that jumped out at me. (Read more after the jump)

Game On! Philippines Files (4000 page) Memorial in China UNCLOS Arbitration

by Julian Ku

Just in time for the odd Sunday filing deadline, the government of the Philippines announced that it had submitted its memorial in its arbitration with China under UNCLOS.

Ignoring a possible backlash from China, the Philippine government transmitted the document, called a “memorial” in international arbitration parlance, on Sunday to the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration where a five-member tribunal operating under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea will hear Manila’s complaint.

“Today, the Philippines submitted its memorial to the arbitral tribunal that is hearing the case its brought against the People’s Republic of China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told a news conference.

“With firm conviction, the ultimate purpose of our memorial is our national interest.”

Manila declined to release a copy of the memorial as it has yet to be reviewed by the court.

But Del Rosario said the Philippine “memorial” consists of “ten volumes with maps,” “nearly 4,000 pages” and will fortify the Philippine case which seeks to declare China’s exaggerated claim illegal. A hard copy will be forwarded to the tribunal on Monday.

I hope and trust that at least volume I of the memorial (containing the 270-pages of actual legal argument and analysis) is released publicly soon.  I do think the additional 3700-plus pages of annexes is overkill in a case where the other side is highly unlikely to bother answering.  Still, it will be an interesting public statement of the Philippines’ best legal arguments.  I have grown increasingly skeptical of this Philippines argument, both from a legal and a strategic standpoint.  But I would like to see their arguments.

Bolivia´s Reasonably Strong ICJ Case against Chile

by Andrés Guzmán Escobari

[Andrés Guzmán Escobari is a former Bolivian diplomat, a Professor at Universidad del Valle and Universidad de los Andes and an associate researcher for the German Foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. The opinions expressed are strictly personal.]

A few days after Bolivia instituted proceedings against Chile before the International Court of Justice, Julian Ku wrote a post here on Opinio Juris entitled “Bolivia´s Ridiculously Weak ICJ Case against Chile”.  His main claim?  “This case looks like a sure loser on admissibility; it looks like it is going to be a major waste of time for the ICJ”.

In this post, I would like to offer a rebuttal to Mr Ku’s comments and to explain why Bolivia’s case is not only not a ‘sure loser’ but is reasonably strong.  The case concerns Bolivia’s request that the Court declare and adjudge that “Chile has the obligation to negotiate with Bolivia in order to reach an agreement granting Bolivia a fully sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean” because “Chile has breached the said obligation”. Specifically, for that reason, “Chile must perform the said obligation with good faith, promptly, formally, within a reasonable time and effectively, to grant Bolivia a fully sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean”.

Mr Ku develops two mains arguments to support his opinion: (1) that there is no compulsory ICJ jurisdiction under the Bogota Treaty; and (2) that there is no specific obligation on Chile to negotiate an agreement granting Bolivia an access to the Pacific Ocean because the language of the declarations made by Chilean authorities with the purpose of giving Bolivia back sovereign access to the sea were “non-obligatory”.

(more…)

YLS Sale Symposium: Sale’s Legacies

by Harold Hongju Koh

[Harold Hongju Koh is Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale Law School. He served as Legal Adviser, U.S. Department of State, from 2009-13 and Counsel of Record for plaintiffs in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, from 1992-93.]

Why, two decades later, does the Sale v. Haitian Centers Council litigation still spark such interest? This year alone, symposia about the litigation have transpired at law schools at Yale, Columbia, Howard, Brooklyn, and in London.  The case has been dissected in first-year Procedure Classes at Yale, Columbia, Touro, University of Connecticut, and New York Law Schools, just to name a few, using as texts Brandt Goldstein’s absorbing nonfiction novel Storming the Court, and his Storming the Court: A Documentary Companion, compiled with co-authors Professors Rodger Citron and Molly Beutz Land.

These texts tell the tale of a complex bifurcated lawsuit brought by a class of “screened-in” refugees and their lawyers against the U.S. Government, challenging first, the long-term detention of Haitians on Guantanamo, and second, starting in May, 1993, their direct return to Haiti following interdiction on the high seas.  Remarkably, the two halves of this frenetic case—which rocketed to the Supreme Court eight times in just fifteen months—ended on the same day in June 1993.  The Direct Return half of the case concluded with an 8-1 defeat for the Haitians at the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the nonrefoulement obligations of  8 U.S.C. sec. 1253(h) and Art. 33 of the Refugee Convention do not apply on high seas. But on that same day, in the Illegal Detention wing of the lawsuit, some 200 HIV+ Haitian refugees detained for months on Guantanamo were released following trial, pursuant to a permanent injunction granted by Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr. of the Eastern District of New York. “Although the [U.S. government] defendants euphemistically refer to its Guantánamo operation as a ‘humanitarian camp,’” Judge Johnson wrote, “the facts disclose that it is nothing more than an H.I.V. prison camp presenting potential public health risks to the Haitians held there.”

This Opinio Juris Symposium just concluded reveals that, even decades after Sale ended, its story keeps repeating.  In particular, as the excellent contributions to this symposium have illustrated, Sale leaves behind three competing legacies. The first is the continuing governmental search for “national security black holes” through techniques of high seas interdiction, offshore detention camps, and theories that human rights law can be displaced by extraterritoriality and the law of armed conflict.  But this first legacy has been countered by a second legacy– constantly evolving strategies of transnational legal process and litigation– and a third– rapidly adjusting changes in human rights advocacy and clinical education. Together, the second and third legacies have largely thwarted continuing governmental efforts to construct enduring legal black holes.

In Sale, Justice John Paul Stevens found for eight Justices that the non-return (nonrefoulement) obligations of Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention did not apply on the high seas.  As I chronicled shortly after the decision, that conclusion was deeply flawed methodologically: it ignored both the plain text and object and purpose of the treaty and statute. Moreover, the majority ignored contradictory negotiating and legislative history underlying both laws; overly deferred to executive power; and exalted the so-called statutory “presumption against extraterritoriality,” a trend the current Court strengthened in its recent Kiobel decision. Justice Blackmun’s compelling dissent skewered the majority, underscoring not only that the text and meaning of the INA and Refugee Convention were simple and crystalline—“Vulnerable refugees shall not be returned”—but also that that object and purpose would be entirely thwarted if those legal obligations did not apply extraterritoriality to protect fleeing refugees.

Looking back, Justice Stevens’ decision is most striking for its frank and admirable acknowledgement of the “moral weight “ of the Haitians’ claim. Justice Stevens found his own ruling deeply in tension with the spirit of the treaty, but curiously, instead of reading that text consistent with that object and purpose, Justice Stevens found instead that, although “the human crisis is compelling, there is no solution to be found in a judicial remedy.” Internal Court memos unearthed after Sale show that Justice Scalia had objected to the Court’s mere mention of “the moral weight” of the Haitians’ claim, saying “For my taste, that comes too close to acknowledging that it is morally wrong to return these refugees to Haiti, which I do not believe.”  To which Justice Stevens responded,  “I think it is undeniable that it has some moral weight and I think it would be unfortunate for us to imply that we think it may have none” (emphasis in the original).

(more…)

YLS Sale Symposium: International Protection Challenges Occasioned by Maritime Movement of Asylum-Seekers

by T. Alexander Aleinikoff

[T. Alexander Aleinikoff is the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees.]

Irregular maritime movement raises complex issues of “mixed migration” flows, life-risking sea crossings, varying state policies, well-ingrained smuggling and trafficking networks, and emerging regional processes.  Movement of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers by sea is a world-wide phenomenon, with Afghans, Sri Lankans, Rohingyas, and Bangladeshis, among others, travelling by boat in the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea; more than 60,000 persons a year (mostly Ethiopians) arriving in Yemen; sub-Saharan Africans and now increasingly Syrians and Palestinians from Syria seeking to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe; and several thousand Cuban and Haitian migrants interdicted each year in the Caribbean.

The central goal of UNHCR is that states adopt policies and practices that are protection-sensitive.  A protection-sensitive approach would, at a minimum, embrace the following core principles:

  • The norm of non-refoulement, which prevents forcible return of a person in need of protection, applies wherever a state has de jure or de facto jurisdiction  (that is, whether the individual is encountered on the high seas or within the territorial water of a state).
  • Effective application of the non-refoulement principle requires fair and timely procedures for assessing whether an individual in an irregular situation is in need of international protection.
  • During the time that refugee claims are being examined, persons must not be subject to arbitrary detention or inhumane or degrading treatment.
  • Persons recognized as in need of international protection should ultimately be afforded a solution (such as third country resettlement or lawful presence in the state in which their claim is assessed).

Rescue at Sea

The vessels used by irregular migrants are often unseaworthy, and search and rescue efforts are frequently required in order to save lives.  “Rescue at sea” standards are embodied in number of international instruments, but important gaps remains—particularly related to (1) where rescued migrants should be disembarked, and (2) how best to ensure the processing of asylum claims and the provision of solutions.  A UNHCR-hosted experts meeting on Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Distress at Sea (held in Djibouti in 2011) supported a Model Framework for Cooperation for rescue at sea operations.  The aims of the Framework are to reduce loss of life, ensure predictability regarding disembarkation, preserve the principle of non-refoulement, and foster burden-sharing. The expert group also supported the establishment of mobile protection teams that can respond in rescue at sea situations, including by providing assistance with the reception and processing of rescued persons.

In November of 2013, UNHCR launched the Central Mediterranean Sea Initiative (CMSI), which proposes a comprehensive strategy for the region that would strengthen search and rescue by E.U. authorities and private ships, identify safe places for disembarkation, and provide screening of migrants to assess protection needs and other grounds of vulnerability. As to burden-sharing, the CMSI recognizes that the location for assessment of refugee claims need not be the state of disembarkation and recommends the establishment of a joint processing pilot for persons rescued in international waters and the resettlement of persons found in need of protection. The Initiative also proposes measures to reduce irregular migration, including mass communication efforts in countries of origin highlighting the dangerousness of irregular movement at sea, the establishment of robust asylum and protection processes in North Africa, and the enhancement of legal migration opportunities.

Interdiction

Rescue at sea is a humanitarian response to migrants in danger on the high seas. Interdiction is a law enforcement activity undertaken to prevent irregular migration that seeks to avoid state migration rules and processes. The reasons for irregular migration are numerous: migrants for whom legal channels of migration are not available may seek to join family members or to obtain work; or persons involved in criminal activity may try to avoid detection by law enforcement officers. Of central concern to UNHCR are individuals who undertake irregular movement in order to flee from persecution, conflict or other situations of violence and seek to access international protection guaranteed by international law.

UNHCR recognizes that states have legitimate interests in law enforcement actions against smugglers and traffickers and migrants seeking entry outside of lawful avenues.  But we urge states to ensure that such efforts comply with international conventions and norms relating to refugees and human rights.  UNHCR’s Executive Committee has declared that “[i]nterception measures should not result in asylum-seekers and refugees being denied access to international protection, or result [in non-refoulement].” (Conclusion on Protection Safeguards in Interception Measures (Conclusion 97, 2003).)

Despite this well-recognized norm, we see alleged “tow-backs” of boats in the Mediterranean that result in the loss of life, “push-backs” in the Andaman Sea that seem to be instances of refoulement, and on-board screening and returns in the Caribbean that appear not to fully protect against non-refoulement.

Interdiction and return—without any process—raises obvious protection concerns (and was held in Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy to be a violation of European human rights norms).  Fortunately, it is not generally the rule, and states that intercept migrants at sea generally have policies and practices in place that they assert meet its duty to comply with international protection principles.  Thus, they may (1) screen and/or process intercepted asylum-seekers on the high seas (e.g., ship-board screening by the U.S. Coast Guard); (2) undertake extra-territorial processing (e.g., United States assessments of “screened-in” Cubans in Guantanamo), or (3) transfer interdicted asylum-seekers to other states for processing (the transfer of asylum-seekers by Australian authorities to Papua New Guinea and Nauru is one of several measures undertaken by Australia to deter irregular migration). (more…)

YLS Sale Symposium: Sale’s Legacy and Beyond (Part II)

by Guy Goodwin-Gill

[Guy S. Goodwin-Gill is a Senior Research Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford and Professor of International Refugee Law, University of Oxford.]

Recent EU and ECHR jurisprudence on a range of State activities affecting refugees and asylum seekers has emphasized that fundamental rights are not just about freedom from torture or refoulement, but also about effective remedies.

What comes through in the judgments of the CJEU in N.S. and Puid, for example, is acceptance of the notion that fundamental rights may well require proactive, protective action – in the case of the Dublin system, a duty to assume responsibility wherever transfer may expose the individual to a serious risk of prohibited harm, such as refoulement or inhuman or degrading treatment. The European Court of Human Rights decision in M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece further supports this proposition, while that in Hirsi v Italy goes still further on the interception issue.

Other courts in other jurisdictions have been no less robust in defence of the displaced, this especially vulnerable group of asylum seekers who require special protection – the UK House of Lords in the Roma Rights case, facing up to a policy and practice clearly discriminatory by reference to race; the UK Supreme Court in EM (Eritrea), recognizing that any real risk of prohibited treatment, not just a systemic failure, was sufficient to require non-removal under Dublin; the European Court of Human Rights in M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece, also on Dublin transfers, but also on knowledge and risk, among others, and on the right to an effective remedy; and again in Hirsi v Italy; and the Australian High Court in Plaintiff M70.

Australia once actively promoted temporary refuge, then turned to mandatory detention as supposedly some sort of deterrent to boat arrivals; when that seemed to have little effect, it tried to emulate some of the interdiction practice. Interestingly till now, and as in the early days of US interdiction, it has expressly recognized its basic obligations towards the intercepted, and its goal, in theory, has been to accommodate non-refoulement, but to deny on-shore processing and even, from time to time, on-shore solutions.

What the M70 decision of the Australian High Court reveals, however, is that international obligations are difficult to wish away onto other States. In its earlier dealings with the remote island nation of Nauru, Australia had clearly been the principal in a ‘principal-agent’ relationship, paying the full costs of detention accommodation of the intercepted, relying on Nauru and distance to keep lawyers and journalists at bay, but impliedly accepting that it remained responsible internationally.

Behind M70, though, there was different thinking. It involved an agreement – intentionally not a binding treaty – to trade asylum seekers: 800 to go to Malaysia, 4000 to be resettled out of Malaysia over four years. The domestic legal background was a provision of the Migration Act which anticipated that the Minister would make a declaration, identifying a State as appropriate for such an arrangement, and as able to provide the requisite level of protection.

The High Court placed this agreement firmly within the context of an effort by Australia to ensure that its international obligations were met; but as a ‘protection exercise’, this meant that, as a matter of domestic law and statutory construction, Australia was obliged to ensure that those transferred enjoyed legal protection of their rights, not just practical protection; what is more, this meant more than just non-refoulement, but the protection also of other, Convention-related rights in the State of intended destination. (more…)