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Law of the Sea

Implications of the Rohingya Argument for Libya and Syria (and Jordan)

by Kevin Jon Heller

In my previous post, I offered three cautionary thoughts about the OTP’s decision to ask the Pre-Trial Division to hold that the ICC has jurisdiction over Myanmar’s deportation of the Rohingya to Bangladesh. In this post, I want to offer a few thoughts on what a successful outcome would mean for refugee crises elsewhere — particularly in Libya and Syria.

We can start with the relatively easy case: Libya. Because of UNSC Res. 1970, the ICC has jurisdiction over any international crime committed on the territory of Libya from 2011 onwards. If the OTP’s theory of deportation is correct, it would be able to prosecute both (1) deportations from Libya committed by the Libyan government and armed forces, and (2) deportations into Libya from neighbouring states that are not members of the ICC — namely, Egypt, Sudan, and Algeria. Fatou Bensouda has already signalled interest in prosecuting “migrant-related crimes” committed by Libyans in Libya. A positive outcome to the OTP’s request in the Rohingya situation would make it possible for her to prosecute Egyptian, Sudanese, and Algerian nationals as well.

The more interesting case is Syria, given that Syria is not a member of the ICC and there is little chance the Security Council will refer the situation in Syria to the Court anytime soon. There are two scenarios worth discussing here: (1) deportations by the Syrian government or by various Syrian rebel groups into a neighbouring state; and (2) deportations by the Syrian government or by various Syrian rebel groups onto the high seas.

Going in reverse order, the ICC would have no jurisdiction over any deportation from Syria onto the high seas. There are two possible situations here: where the deported civilians drown on the high seas, and where the deported civilians make it to an ICC member-state such as Italy or Germany. In the first (profoundly sad) situation, no essential element of deportation (or of any other international crime) would have taken place on the the territory of a state party. And in the second situation, the civilians would not have been deported “directly” into the territory of a member-state — they would have been directly deported onto the high seas and only “indirectly” deported into the territory of a state party. Deportation’s “essential element” of crossing an international border would thus have taken place in Syria and on the high seas — not on the territory of a member state. This is the importance of the OTP’s repeated insistence in its request (see paras. 4, 13, and 28) that only direct deportations activate the Court’s jurisdiction.

In the second scenario, where the civilians are directly deported into a neighbouring state’s territory, a positive outcome to the OTP’s request in the Rohingya situation would mean that the ICC would have jurisdiction over any deportation from Syria into the territory of a state party. There is, in fact, only one ICC member-state that borders Syria: Jordan. Jordan would be a particularly attractive application of the OTP’s theory of deportation, given that more than 650,000 Syrians are currently taking refuge there — almost exactly the same number as the Rohingya in Bangladesh. (Though not all of the Syrian refugees in Jordan have been the victim of deportation.)

I wonder, though, what Jordan would think of the OTP opening an investigation into deportations from Syria into Jordan. Presumably, that situation would not be limited to deportations, but would also include Jordan’s own treatment of Syrian refugees. (A more tailored situation would be immediately seen for what it was — a sop to Jordan.) As Human Rights Watch has ably documented, Jordan has been summarily returning hundreds of Syrian refugees back to Syria each month, a clear violation of international law. Those actions very likely qualify as the crime against humanity of persecution, especially when Jordanian authorities specifically target for expulsion a national group such as Palestinians. So it is not difficult to imagine the OTP bringing a case involving Jordan’s expulsions as part of an investigation into Syrian deportations. Indeed, the OTP would likely find it much easier to prosecute the expulsions, given that Jordan is not only obligated to cooperate with the ICC but has long been one of its most vocal supporters. Ironically, then, an investigation into Syrian deportations might mean that a Jordanian ends up in the dock before a Syrian!

NOTE: I don’t think the Jordan prosecution I discuss above is likely to happen. I’m just teasing out the possible implications of the ICC having jurisdiction over deportations from non-member states to member-states.

No, There Is No International Legal Basis for the “Bloody Nose” Strategy

by Kevin Jon Heller

At Lawfare yesterday, two law professors at West Point defended the US’s right to attack North Korea if it tests another nuclear weapon or fires another missile into Japanese waters:

North Korea is extraordinarily close to becoming a . This very real possibility has reportedly resulted in the United States debating a limited military strike dubbed the “bloody nose” strategy. In effect,  would allow for a timely and proportional response against North Korean sites in the event of another nuclear test or missile launch. For , such a strike might include using force to target a North Korean missile site or a military base. The hope would be that such a strike would “” and “illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior” without “igniting an all-out-war on the Korean Peninsula.”

In the authors’ view, “[t]here is a strong argument such a strike would be lawful” either as collective self-defense of Japan or as individual self-defense by the US.

I disagree.

The fundamental problem is that “another nuclear test or missile launch” would not qualify as an armed attack sufficient to give rise to the right of either collective or individual self-defense. The authors make no attempt to explain how another nuclear test would be an armed attack — which is not surprising, given that previous tests have all been on North Korean territory (with terrible consequences for North Koreans). And here is their argument concerning another conventional missile launch:

More difficult is determining whether North Korea’s current behavior justifies the limited military strike proposed in the “bloody nose” strategy. Consider, for example, another North Korean test in which it launches an unarmed missile into Japanese sovereign territory. Arguably, a test rocket without armed explosives is merely a delivery system, not a “weapon.” On the other hand, such a rocket is capable of causing “” and thus could be construed as a “weapon.” According to the and the , a “[b]ombardment by the armed forces of a State against the territory of another State, or the use of any weapons by a State against the territory of another State” is an act of aggression. Such a North Korean missile launch would seem to fall within this definition and could  as an armed attack.

On the contrary, such an interpretation would not be reasonable — even if we accept the idea that an unarmed missile is a weapon. Tom Ruys has carefully analysed state practice concerning when a de minimis attack qualifies as an armed attack for purposes of self-defense. Here is his conclusion (p. 155; emphasis mine):

In the end, customary practice suggests that, subject to the necessity and proportionality criteria, even small-scale bombings, artillery, naval or aerial attacks qualify as ‘armed attacks’ activating Article 51 UN Charter, as long as they result in, or are capable of resulting in destruction of property or loss of lives. By contrast, the firing of a single missile into some uninhabited wasteland as a mere display of force, in contravention of Article 2(4) UN Charter, would arguably not reach the gravity threshold.

The attack that the authors imagine — an unarmed missile fired into Japan’s territorial sea — is precisely the kind of attack that is not “capable of resulting in destruction of property or loss of lives.” That attack thus cannot give rise to the right of self-defense. Indeed, even the source that the authors cite, Karl Zemanek’s entry “Armed Attack” in the Max Planck Encyclopedia of International Law, rejects their insistence that an unarmed missile fired into Japan’s territorial sea could “reasonably be interpreted as an armed attack.” Here is what Zemanek says about de minimis attacks (emphasis mine):

In sum, it is submitted that regardless of the dispute over degrees in the use of force, or over the quantifiability of victims and damage, or over harmful intentions, an armed attack even when it consists of a single incident, which leads to a considerable loss of life and extensive destruction of property, is of sufficient gravity to be considered an ‘armed attack’ in the sense of Art. 51 UN Charter.

The authors’ claim that the US would be entitled to act in “collective self-defense” in response to an “armed attack” in the form of an unarmed missile fired into Japan’s territorial waters is also problematic. Here is their argument:

The 1960  of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan states “[e]ach Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.” This treaty may provide a basis for the United States’ to engage in a limited retaliatory strike. One could argue that, pursuant to the 1986  out of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United States would have to obtain Japan’s affirmative consent before engaging in a strike against North Korea in collective self-defense. However, Article 51 certainly does not refer to any such prerequisite, and the ICJ’s conclusion in Nicaragua is . On a more practical note, it is highly unlikely  a collective self-defense strike by the United States.

It is not clear why the authors believe that Japan would not need need to specifically consent to “collective self-defense.” There are two possible interpretations of their argument: (1) the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation automatically provides the US with the consent it needs to “defend” Japan in case of an armed attack; (2) collective self-defense never requires the consent of the attacked state. The authors’ criticism of the Nicaragua judgment implies that they take position (2). As Ruys explains, however, state practice — from Jordan in 1958 to South Vietnam in 1965 to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 — indicates that collective self-defense is lawful only when the state with the right of individual self-defense requests it (pp. 88-89):

This brings us to the third and decisive reason why the conception of collective ‘defence of the other’, endorsed by the ICJ and a majority of legal scholars, holds the upper hand over the ‘defence of the self’ approach: customary practice provides virtually no support either for the requirement that a proximity relationship should exist, or for the idea that collective self-defence may be exercised absent the approval of the actual victim State. On the contrary, practice convincingly shows that a State which is the subject of an attack has a legal right to ask for military assistance.

[snip]

In sum, in each case, what was deemed crucial was whether the actual victim State had a right of individual self-defence, and whether it approved of the actions of the assisting State. Of course, the assisting State will most often have some sort of interest in responding to the victim’s request; States seldom engage in military action out of pure altruism. Yet, practice makes clear that a proximate relationship is not a legal criterion; only the victim State’s approval is.

The stronger argument, then, is that the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation would automatically provide the necessary consent for US to engage in “collective self-defense.” Aurel Sari raised this possibility on Twitter last night. I am not convinced that the Treaty eliminates the need for Japan’s consent to armed force being used on its behalf. In particular, Art. IV provides that “[t]he Parties will consult together… at the request of either Party, whenever the security of Japan or international peace and security in the Far East is threatened,” which seems to contemplate acts of self-defense being undertaken only with the specific agreement of both Japan and the US. But Aurel’s argument must still be taken seriously, and it provides the only coherent basis for the authors’ position on collective self-defense.

(As an aside, I find very unconvincing the author’s casual assertion that “it is highly unlikely  a collective self-defense strike by the United States.” On the contrary, I think Japan would be quite likely to oppose the US responding to a unarmed missile attack by using force — even relatively restrained force — directly against North Korea. A North Korean response would be more likely to target Japan than the US. So Japan would have every incentive not to consent to “collective self-defense” in such a situation.)

Finally, I find very unconvincing the author’s insistence that the US is close to having an individual right of self-defense against North Korea:

Even without another missile targeting Japan, the United States could arguably rely on its own Article 51 individual right of self-defense to justify a “bloody nose” strike. While somewhat controversial, the United States interprets the individual right of self-defense to allow for a preemptive-but-proportional  when the need to do so is . In other words, if the United States determines North Korea’s behavior indicates a forthcoming attack it can act in self-defense before absorbing the first blow.

North Korea’s recent activities help support a preemptive self-defense argument. Despite extensive efforts by the international community, including through , and , North Korea continues to defiantly test powerful nuclear weapons and launch ballistic missiles. Furthermore, it has gone to great lengths to conceal its nuclear testing program by creating underground facilities and intricate . This behavior, coupled with North Korea’s pattern of  and  against the United States and other nations, makes a preemptive use of force seem more and more . As the North Korean threat increases and non-military measures are exhausted, it becomes reasonable to believe that the last opportunity for the United States to act is fast approaching.

There is no question that the US would have the right to act in self-defense to prevent an imminent attack by North Korea — anticipatory self-defense. But the authors seem to adopt an understanding of self-defence’s necessity requirement that goes well beyond the traditional Caroline standard of imminence, according to which the need to act must be “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” They specifically argue for preemptive self-defense, a term that the US traditionally uses to describe self-defense against attacks that are not imminent.(The Bush doctrine is an example.) And they invoke the “last opportunity to act” test, which is not necessarily inconsistent with anticipatory self-defense, but can easily be interpreted to allow for preemptive self-defense, as Adil Haque nicely explains here.

If the authors are endorsing a view of self-defense that does not require an imminent attack, their position is clearly wrong. Here is Ruys again (pp. 336-38):

[T]here can be no doubt that even among States adhering to the “counter-restrictionist” view, support for self-defence against non-imminent threats is virtually non-existent. Apart from the fact that the sponsors of Operation “Iraqi Freedom” avoided this justification, it may be observed that many States, such as Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Uganda, Singapore or Liechtenstein, which professed support for anticipatory self-defence after 2002, nonetheless placed great weight on the imminence requirement. Germany, for instance, expressly denounced an erosion of the Charter framework and State practice via the notion of “preventive self-defence.” Likewise, the French politique de defense unequivocally “rejects… the notion of preventive self-defence.”

What is more, even the “traditional” adherents of the counter-restrictionist interpretation of Article 51 generally appear to uphold the imminence requirement. Despite bold statements by its Prime Minister on the need to adapt the UN Charter, Australia’s response to “In Larger Freedom” was rather cautious: it simply “[supported] reaffirmation by the Secretary-General that Article 51 of the Charter adequately covers the inherent right to self-defence against actual and imminent attack.” Israel called for an explicit recognition in the World Summit Outcome that States may use force in self-defence “in the event of both actual and imminent attacks.” As far as the British position is concerned, Attorney- General Lord Goldsmith in 2004 declared before the House of Lords that: “It is… the Government’s view that international law permits the use of force in self-defence against an imminent attack but does not authorize the use of force to mount a pre-emptive strike against a threat that is more remote.”…

[W]e may therefore conclude that the trend in State practice has been broadly similar to that in legal doctrine: support for anticipatory self-defence has increased, but has by and large restricted this concept to imminent threats.

By contrast, if the authors believe that an imminent attack is required but want to define “imminent” to include the “last opportunity to act” test,” they are not necessarily arguing for an unlawful version of self-defense. It depends on how broadly they interpret “last opportunity to act.” An acceptably narrow definition of the test does, however, seem inconsistent with the authors’ insistence that “[a]s the North Korean threat increases and non-military measures are exhausted, it becomes reasonable to believe that the last opportunity for the United States to act is fast approaching.” To begin with, although there is certainly cause for concern, North Korea does not seem particularly close to having the technology necessary to attack the US mainland with a nuclear missile. Moreover — and more importantly — despite its belligerence and bluster, there is little evidence that North Korea actually wants to attack the US, much less intends to do so as soon as possible. North Korea has long had the ability to launch a conventional attack against numerous US installations overseas — and probably now has the ability to reach the US mainland with a conventional missile. Yet no such attack has ever taken place.

Is it possible that, at some point, the US will have the legal right to attack North Korea in self-defense? Absolutely. But that time is not now — even if North Korea fires another unarmed missile into Japanese territorial waters. And there is little reason to believe that the “last opportunity for the United States to act is fast approaching.” Any argument at present for the “bloody nose” strategy, therefore, is both legally unsound and profoundly counterproductive.

A Potentially Serious Problem with the Final Decision Concerning Comoros

by Kevin Jon Heller

A couple of days ago, the OTP finally announced what we all expected: that it would not reconsider its refusal to open a formal investigation into Israel’s attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. Dov Jacobs has already offered some thoughts on the lengthy document the OTP has filed with the Court explaining its reasoning — what the OTP nicely calls the Final Decision. I fully concur with Dov’s thoughts (except with his position on retroactive acceptance of jurisdiction), and I write here simply to add one of my own.

To begin with, I think this is the most impressive OTP brief I have ever read — especially given the complexity of the procedural issues that it addresses. It is exceptionally well written and argued. I don’t know who the author is, but she would have made an excellent analytic philosopher. Fatou Bensouda should promote her immediately.

That said, I strongly believe that the Final Decision’s understanding of when the OTP is required to investigate a situation is fundamentally flawed — and will almost certainly come back to haunt the OTP in future preliminary examinations. I have argued, as have most scholars, that situational gravity is a function of all the potential cases in a situation that would be admissible before the Court: the greater the number of prosecutable crimes and the greater their individual gravity, the more situationally grave the situation. To be sure, it is not an easy task to compare the situational gravity of different situations. But I don’t think there a practical alternative, given that the OTP can only investigate a very small percentage of the situations in which admissible crimes have been committed.

The Final Decision, however, appears to take a very different approach. Instead of deciding whether to open an investigation based on the gravity of all the potentially admissible cases in a situation, the OTP seems to believe that it is required to open an investigation as long as even one potential case within a situation would be sufficiently grave to prosecute. Consider the following paragraphs (emphasis mine):

11. Although the Prosecution maintains its view that no potential case arising from this situation would be admissible before this Court—which is the only issue in dispute with the Comoros—this does not excuse any crimes which may have been perpetrated.

332. Consistent with article 53(3)(a) of the Statute and rule 108(3), and based on the above reasoning and the information available on 6 November 2014, the Prosecution hereby decides to uphold the disposition of the Report. There remains no reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation, since there is no reasonable basis to conclude that any potential case arising from the situation would be of sufficient gravity to be admissible before the Court.

This approach, it is worth noting, appears to represent a retreat from the position the OTP took in its initial explanation of why it would not investigate the Comoros situation. Here is paragraph 24 of that document (emphasis mine):

Having carefully assessed the relevant considerations, the Office has concluded that the potential case(s) that would likely arise from an investigation of the flotilla incident would not be of sufficient gravity to justify further action by the Court, in light of the criteria for admissibility 8 provided in article 17(1)(d) and the guidance outlined in article 8(1) of the Statute.

It is possible, of course, that the Final Decision refers to the gravity of “any potential case” instead of “the potential case(s)” not because the OTP’s approach to situational gravity has changed, but because there is only one potential case in the Comoros situation: the attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. But the difference of language is striking — and given the legal and analytic precision of the Final Decision, I find it difficult to believe that its emphasis on whether any individual case would be admissible is simply a slip of the keyboard.

I assume, therefore, that the Final Decision means what it says: the OTP believes it has to investigate any situation in which there is at least one potential case that is grave enough to be admissible. But that is a very problematic position.

To begin with, it leads to precisely the kind of unhelpful dispute we have seen in Comoros situation, where the OTP believes a specific case is not sufficiently grave to be admissible and the Pre-Trial Chamber disagrees. Both the OTP and the PTC have spent a great deal of time during their “judicial dialogue” (Dov’s apt expression) comparing the Mavi Marmara case to the Abu Garda and Banda cases. Here, for example, is how the Final Decision critiques the PTC’s insistence that the Mavi Marmara case is sufficiently grave to be admissible:

77. However, the Request does not address the basis on which the Prosecution considered that “the total number of victims of the flotilla incident reached relatively limited proportions as compared, generally, to other cases investigated by the Office”—in particular, the circumstances of the Abu Garda and Banda cases (which are, in relevant part, identical). Although the majority likewise referred to these cases, it did not consider those particular characteristics.

78. As the Report expressly states, Abu Garda likewise concerned the allegation of “a single attack involving a relatively low number of victims”—but it was “distinguishable” because of “the nature and impact of the alleged crimes”, which were committed against international peacekeeping forces. Accordingly, the attack alleged in Abu Garda differed in nature from the identified crimes aboard the Mavi Marmara. Crimes against international peacekeepers strike at the heart of the international community’s mechanisms for collective security, and thus their direct and indirect victims include not only the peacekeepers and their families, but also the large number of civilians deprived of protection more widely because of the disruption to the peacekeepers’ operations. The Request does not address this distinction. [130]

n. 130 Likewise, the recent Al Mahdi case—solely concerning attacks on property protected under article 8(2)(e)(iv) of the Statute—was considered sufficiently grave to be admissible before the Court, resulting in a conviction. In the context of sentencing, the Trial Chamber stressed that the charged conduct was of “significant gravity”, among other reasons, because 1) the destroyed mausoleums were “among the most cherished buildings” in Timbuktu, an “emblematic city” which “played a crucial role in the expansion of Islam in the region” and which is “at the heart of Mali’s cultural heritage”; 2) the destroyed mausoleums were of proven significance to the inhabitants of Timbuktu not only as a matter of religious observance but also as a symbol and focus of community activity and unity; and 3) all the destroyed sites but one were designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, whose destruction also directly affects “people throughout Mali and the international community.” This same reasoning is applicable, mutatis mutandis, to the question of admissibility.

I don’t find the OTP’s efforts to distinguish the Mavi Marmara case from Abu Garda, Banda, and Al Mahdi particularly convincing. Its selection of factors to highlight strikes me as completely subjective and result-driven. Indeed, when faced with the PTC’s insistence that the message the Mavi Marmara attack sent to the international community — that Israel is willing to use force to maintain an illegal blockade that is causing a massive humanitarian crisis in Gaza — it simply retreats to “well, we disagree, and there is nothing you can do about it”:

80. Indeed, the majority appears simply to disagree with the Prosecution’s view of the weight to be given to… the significance of any ‘message’ sent by the interception of the flotilla itself. Given the Prosecution’s understanding of the proper standard of review under article 53(3)(a), and the absence of a reasoned conclusion that the Report was in these respects incorrect or unreasonable, the Prosecution does not consider it appropriate to depart from its original determination in the Report.

My point is not that the PTC’s gravity analysis is right and the OTP’s is wrong. (Though I do think the PTC has the stronger argument.) My problem is with the OTP’s position that it must investigate any situation in which at least one case is grave enough to be admissible. Debates over case gravity are inevitable when that is the standard for opening an investigation. But they are easily avoided if the OTP takes a more holistic approach to situational gravity, comparing the gravity of different situations by examining all of the potentially admissible cases within them. Even if we assume (as I do) that the attack on the Mavi Marmara is sufficiently grave to be admissible, the overall situational gravity of the Comoros situation (which involves only one case) still pales in comparison not only to numerous other situations under preliminary examination, but even — and more importantly — to the situational gravity of the Palestine situation as a whole. As I have argued previously, the last thing the OTP should do is investigate one very small part of the much larger conflict between Israel and Palestine. If it ever takes the Palestine situation on, it needs to look at crimes committed by both sides throughout Palestinian territory.

There is, however, an even more significant problem with the Final Decision’s standard for opening an investigation: if taken seriously, it will simply overwhelm the OTP’s resources. There may not be even one admissible case in the Comoros situation (because there is only one case), but how likely is it that larger situations, which are the norm, will not contain even one case sufficiently grave to prosecute? Just think about the situations currently at Phase 2 or Phase 3 of the preliminary-examination process: Burundi, Gabon, Iraq, Palestine, Ukraine, Colombia, Guinea, and Nigeria. There may well be complementarity issues in some of those situations that counsel not opening an investigation, but it seems exceptionally likely that each contains at least one admissible case. The Final Decision’s standard would thus seem — barring complementarity concerns — to require the OTP to open a formal investigation in all eight situations. Which is, of course, practically impossible.

Nor is that all. If the existence of even one admissible case is enough to require the OTP to investigate a situation, states will have little problem using referrals (self or other) to achieve nakedly partisan ends. Palestine, for example, could simply refer a single day during Operation Protective Edge in which Israel flattened an entire neighbourhood in Gaza or destroyed a UN school sheltering displaced civilians. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for the OTP to plausibly maintain that those acts are not grave enough to prosecute. So it would have to open an investigation. That makes little sense. Far better for the OTP to simply say that, however grave those specific attacks might be, the overall gravity of the gerrymandered “situation” is not sufficient to investigate in light of the gravity of other situations.

I hope I am wrong about when the OTP believes it is required to open an investigation into a situation. If so, the OTP needs to clarify its position immediately. Because the standard articulated in the Final Decision — the existence of even one case sufficiently grave to be admissible — is simply unworkable.

Ghana v. Côte d’Ivoire: Unilateral Oil Activities in Disputed Marine Areas

by Xuechan Ma

[Xuechan Ma, PhD candidate at Grotius Center for International Legal Studies of Leiden University, the Netherlands, researching on the topic of international cooperation in disputed marine areas; L.L.M. & L.L.B. at Peking University, China. Email: maxuechan [at] gmail [dot] com.]

The Special Chamber of the ITLOS delivered its judgement of the Ghana v. Côte d’Ivoire case on 23 September 2017, which pertained to unilateral oil activities in disputed marine areas. Both parties agreed that the dispute concerned the establishment of a single maritime boundary to delimit the territorial sea, exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, including the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, between them in the Atlantic Ocean. While both parties concurred that there was no formally concluded delimitation agreement between them, they disagreed as to whether there had been a maritime boundary established by a tacit agreement. Ghana argued that both parties had recognized and respected a maritime boundary in the area concerned on the basis of a tacit agreement which had been developed or confirmed as a result of the oil activities of both parties over years. By contrast, Côte d’Ivoire claimed that such a tacit agreement did not exist and that the oil practice of Ghana in the disputed marine areas should be deemed a violation of international law, including Article 83(3) of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Notably, the oil activities discussed in this case are unilateral due to the absence of any provisional arrangement between the parties. This case indeed contains two interlinked legal issues in relation to unilateral oil activities in disputed marine areas. The first issue pertains to the legal effect of unilateral oil activities. Put differently, can such oil activities improve the legal position of the parties to the dispute? The second issue is about the legality of unilateral oil activities. In other words, are such unilateral activities in contravention of certain international obligations undertaken by a State to a marine dispute? These two issues are interlinked in the sense that if these activities are deemed illegal, it is impossible to conclude that such activities can contribute to the improvement of the legal position of the party who undertakes them. The reason is quite simple: otherwise it would entail positive implications for the illegal conduct of States. Nevertheless, the converse is not necessarily true. Even if unilateral oil activities cannot have any legal effect on improving a State’s legal position, they are not necessarily deemed illegal.

The Special Chamber first addressed the issue about the legal effect of unilateral oil activities. In its view, evidence for the purpose of establishing a tacit agreement regarding a maritime boundary should be compelling. In the present case, the Special Chamber considered that the mutual, consistent and long-standing oil practice and the adjoining oil concession limits alleged by Ghana might reflect the existence of a maritime boundary or might be explained by other reasons. Thus, it was not convinced of the existence of a tacit agreement in relation to a maritime boundary in the area concerned. Moreover, the Special Chamber explicitly concluded that the all-purpose nature of the maritime boundary meant that evidence relating solely to the specific purpose of oil activities in the seabed and subsoil could not be determinative of the extent of the boundary. In addition, it also concluded that in principle the location of oil resources could not be considered a relevant circumstance in maritime delimitation and that the only exception to this principle is that the delimitation was “likely to entail catastrophic repercussions for the livelihood and economic well-being of the population of the countries concerned”. Nevertheless, Côte d’Ivoire had not advanced any arguments which might have led the Special Chamber to be convinced that the situation in this case constituted the aforementioned exception.

As mentioned above, the lack of legal effect on improving a State’s legal position does not necessarily indicate that unilateral oil activities should be deemed illegal. Hence, the Special Chamber had to deal with the issue of legality separately. Indeed, this issue was entertained by the Special Chamber during the proceedings of provisional measures. Côte d’Ivoire requested Ghana be ordered to suspend all ongoing oil exploration and exploitation operations and refrain from granting any new operations in the disputed area. The Special Chamber admitted that both the ongoing and future exploration and exploitation activities would result in significant and permanent modification of the physical character of the area in dispute and thus create a risk of irreversible prejudice to the rights of Côte d’Ivoire and also cause harm to the marine environment. However, it also noted that suspending Ghana’s ongoing activities in respect of which drilling had already taken place would not only entail the risk of considerable financial loss to Ghana and its concessionaries, but also pose a serious danger to the marine environment, particularly caused by the deterioration of equipment. In this light, it considered that an order suspending all ongoing activities would cause prejudice to the rights claimed by Ghana and create an undue burden on it. Hence, the Special Chamber issued an order of provisional measures requesting that Ghana refrain from conducting any new drilling in the disputed area and authorizing Ghana to continue the ongoing drilling in the disputed area as long as it carried out strict and continuous monitoring of all activities undertaken by it or with its authorization “with a view to ensuring the prevention of serious harm to the marine environment”.

This finding seems to contradict previous jurisprudence. In the Guyana v. Suriname case, Suriname claimed that by allowing its concession holder to undertake exploratory drilling in the disputed marine areas Guyana violated its obligation not to jeopardize or hamper the reaching of the final agreement as provided by Article 83(3) of UNCLOS. The tribunal took the position that exploitation of oil and gas reserves as well as exploratory drilling belonged to activities of the kind that lead to a permanent physical change to the marine environment and thus should be prohibited in disputed waters. On this basis, the tribunal concluded that “Guyana’s authorisation of its concession holder to undertake exploratory drilling in disputed waters constituted a violation of its obligation to make every effort not to jeopardise or hamper the reaching of a final agreement on delimitation”.

In the present case, Ghana argued that this case should be distinguished from the Guyana v. Suriname case in the sense that the latter involved wholly new and unilateral activities that had been undertaken following the emergence of the dispute, namely the critical date, while in this case, Ghana’s activities were “simply the continuation of decades of previous activity of a kind which would have been conducted by Côte d’Ivoire”. By this argument, Ghana implied that its ongoing activities were a normal continuation of acts conducted prior to the critical date and thus could not be deemed illegal. However, the Special Chamber had already negated the relevance of the notion of critical date in the present case on the ground that the activities of both parties in the maritime area concerned had not changed over years. In fact, even if the notion of critical date were held to be relevant in this case, Ghana’s argument would still be untenable because it mixed two issues, namely the legal effect and the legality of unilateral acts. The notion of critical date is only relevant to the legal effect of unilateral oil activities. Put differently, unilateral oil activities as a normal continuation of acts prior to the critical date could not improve the legal position of the party which relied on them. However, this cannot lead to a conclusion on whether such unilateral activities should be deemed legal or illegal.

Nevertheless, there is indeed some difference between the Guyana v. Suriname case and the present case. The oil activities involved in the former case only included exploratory drilling and did not include any actual exploitation operation. Consequently, the suspension of such activities would not entail the risk of considerable financial loss to Guyana and its concessionaries and pose a serious danger to the marine environment particularly caused by the deterioration of equipment. By contrast, in the present case, the oil practice included oil concessions, seismic surveys and exploration and drilling activities. The extent and intensity of the unilateral oil activities undertaken by Ghana were much greater than that of Guyana. Consequently, suspending Ghana’s activities would cause prejudice to the rights claimed by Ghana and create an undue burden on it. Moreover, it is generally accepted that an international court or tribunal can only prescribe provisional measures when there is “a real and imminent risk that irreparable prejudice may be caused to the rights of the parties in dispute”. Therefore, a provisional measure could not itself cause prejudice to the rights of both parties in dispute. In this light, it is understandable why the Special Chamber had refused to order Ghana to stop all ongoing drillings in the disputed area during the proceedings of provisional measures.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that the standard for an activity to be qualified as a provisional measure differs from that for an activity to be considered not hampering or jeopardising the reaching of a final agreement. The tribunal has confirmed in the Guyana v. Suriname case that the former standard has a higher threshold than the latter. In other words, activities qualified as a provisional measure can be considered not a violation of the obligation not to hamper or jeopardize the reaching of a final agreement under Article 83(3) of UNCLOS. But the converse is not necessarily true. In the present case, the fact that the Special Chamber did not order the suspension of ongoing oil exploration and exploitation operations as a provisional measure could not indicate that such ongoing activities did not violate the obligation under Article 83(3) of UNCLOS.

It is a pity that the Special Chamber missed the opportunity to further address the compliance of Ghana’s unilateral oil activities in the disputed marine area with Article 83(3) of UNCLOS. Côte d’Ivoire had requested the Special Chamber to declare that unilateral activities undertaken by Ghana after the issuance of the provisional measures “in the Ivorian maritime area” constituted a violation of the obligation not to jeopardize or hamper the reaching of the final agreement as provided by Article 83(3) of UNCLOS. The Special Chamber opted not to explicitly address the real issue as to whether the unilateral oil activities undertaken by Ghana in the disputed area constituted a violation of the obligation set forth by Article 83(3) of UNCLOS. It simply concluded that the activities of Ghana did not meet the qualification of the relevant submission of Côte d’Ivoire since such activities took place not “in the Ivorian maritime area” but in an area attributed to Ghana. This finding implies that unilateral oil activities would not be deemed illegal as long as relevant areas of oil operations are found to belong to the party who has undertaken the activities.

To conclude, the judgement in this case contributes to clarifying the legal effect of unilateral oil activities in disputed marine areas. It is explicitly declared that unilateral oil activities have no legal effect on improving the legal position of a State to a marine dispute. However, by circumventing the issue about the legality of unilateral oil activities in disputed marine areas, this case may have negative impact on other unsettled marine disputes around the world. Following this jurisprudence, an international court or tribunal could not order a provisional measure to suspend ongoing unilateral oil activities in marine area in dispute as long as the extent and intensity of such oil activities are so great that suspending such activities would cause irreparable prejudice to the right of the party who undertakes such activities. In this sense, it can be imagined that States to a marine dispute would be motivated to undertake as many unilateral oil exploration and exploitation activities as possible since these unilateral activities would not be deemed illegal provided that relevant marine areas of oil operations are found to belong to them in the end.

New Essay: Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have just posted on SSRN a draft of a (very) long article entitled “Specially-Affected States and the Formation of Custom.” It represents my first real foray into both “classic” public international law and postcolonial critique. Here is the abstract:

Although the US has consistently relied on the ICJ’s doctrine of specially-affected states to claim that it and other powerful states in the Global North play a privileged role in the formation of customary international law, the doctrine itself has been almost completely ignored both by legal scholars and by the ICJ itself. This article attempts to fill that lacuna. In particular, by focusing on debates in a variety of areas of international law – with particular emphasis on the jus ad bellum and jus in bello – it addresses two questions: (1) what makes a state “specially affected”? and (2) what exactly is the importance of a state qualifying as “specially affected” for custom formation? The article concludes not only that the US approach to the doctrine of specially-affected states is fatally flawed, but also that a more theoretically coherent understanding of the doctrine would give states in the Global South power over the development of custom that the US and other Global North states would never find acceptable.

You can download the article here. As always, comments most welcome!

Dear Secretary Tillerson (and the World Media): Qatar is NOT Under a “Blockade”

by Julian Ku

Longtime readers of this blog may have noticed that one of my pet peeves is the incorrect usage of international legal terms in public and diplomatic discourse.  Hence, Israel did NOT commit “piracy” during the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid despite lots of governments claiming otherwise.  Cuba is not under a “blockade” despite tons of Cuban government propaganda otherwise. So you can imagine my dismay when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued this statement yesterday calling the situation in Qatar a “blockade.”

We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar. There are humanitarian consequences to this blockade.

(Emphasis added). Global media is using the term  “blockade” as well.

I don’t doubt that Qatar is under severe economic pressure.  It is reported that all of Qatar’s neighbors in the Gulf have cut off air, land and sea trade with Qatar.  Saudi Arabia has blocked the only land border into Qatar, which is a peninsula.  But as powerful as these economic pressures are, they do NOT constitute a blockade as defined by international law.  As this definition from the Max Planck Institute Encyclopedia of Public Law explains:

A blockade is a belligerent operation to prevent vessels and/or aircraft of all nations, enemy and neutral from entering or exiting specified ports, airports, or coastal areas belonging to, occupied by, or under the control of an enemy nation.

There is no evidence, as far as I know, that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are preventing “vessels and/or aircraft of all nations” from entering Qatar ports.  Instead, the Gulf nations are simply preventing anyone in their territories from traveling to or trading with Qatar.  A blockade would mean that the Gulf nations actually used military force to interdict all shipping and flights into Qatar by any nation and through international waters.  Israel has essentially established such a blockade of the Gaza Strip, but that has not happened to Qatar (yet). Until that happens, there is no blockade.

Why is it so shocking that Secretary Tillerson did not recognize this legal distinction? Because the U.S. frequently engages in economic sanctions of the sort currently being imposed against Qatar.  The U.S. has either strict economic sanctions or full-scale embargoes on countries like North Korea, Cuba, and Iran.  Cuba in particular has tried to label the US embargo on it as a “blockade” even though the U.S. does not use military force to prevent other countries from trading with Cuba. The U.S. should not and cannot water down the legal definition of “blockade” without imperiling an crucial tool in its diplomatic toolbox.   Moreover, since “blockades” are traditionally seen as an “act of war,” they would probably constitute a “use of force” under Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter.  The U.S., more than any country, should want to maintain the legal right to impose embargoes.

So please, Secretary Tillerson, consult your many talented and knowledge State Department lawyers.  Qatar is NOT being blockaded, and the U.S. (of all countries) should avoid saying so.

What to Look for in any U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

by Duncan Hollis

President Trump has indicated that he will announce a decision on future U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement later today at 3 pm. Reports suggest that he has already made up his mind to withdraw. That decision is likely to receive extensive attention (not to mention criticism) on the merits. And certainly that attention is warranted. But I believe an equally important issue will be how the Trump Administration pursues its withdrawal.

Contrary to popular opinion (and this erroneous NY Times Q&A), the Paris Agreement was never intended to be non-binding. It is, on its face, pretty clearly a treaty in the international law sense of that term (see the standard definition in Art. 2(1)(a) of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law Treaties (VCLT)). True, one key provision of the Paris Agreement (Article 4) contains language that does not evidence an intention to create legal rights or obligations (and the negotiation of which almost blew up the original deal). But the rest of the agreement was clearly intended to create a treaty and the language used manifests such intentions. For confirmation, one only has to look to the U.N. Treaty Office (which is home to some of the world’s leading experts on treaties) and note how it has always regarded the Paris Agreement as a treaty.

The United States formally joined the Paris Agreement on November 4, 2016, following its acceptance of that treaty on September 3, 2016. It is true that the United States did so without seeking the U.S. Senate’s advice and consent under Art. 2, cl. 2, section 2, nor did Congress specifically authorize U.S. participation as it did for treaties like NAFTA or the WTO Agreement. But U.S. treaty law and practice has long accommodated other means for the United States to enter into treaties in the international law sense, including through the President’s sole executive powers or where prior Congressional authorization supports U.S. participation. In the case of Paris, the precise grounds for U.S. acceptance are contested (see Dan Bodansky and Peter Spiro’s impressive take on these issues here).

As far as international law is concerned, however, there is little question that the United States is currently bound by its acceptance. The law of treaties is most famous for the foundational principle pacta sunt servanda, or as VCLT Art. 26 puts it, “Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.” And for those less familiar with the VCLT, it is important to note that although the United States never joined the “treaty on treaties” every Administration since Richard Nixon’s has regarded almost all of its provisions as customary international law (the exceptions being provisions on signature and consultations in the event of breach). Thus, to withdraw or otherwise end its obligations under the Paris Agreement, the United States will have to look to the law of treaties. Indeed, VCLT Article 42 provides that a treaty’s validity or a State’s consent can only be impeached through the VCLT’s application and, more pertinently, “[t]he termination of a treaty, its denunciation or the withdrawal of a party, may take place only as a result of the application of the provisions of the treaty or of the present Convention.”

So, how can the United States get out from the Paris Agreement? I predict the Trump Administration will invoke one of four possible avenues for its exit later today.

Syria War Crimes Accountability Act — Now Revised!

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last month, I blogged about the Syria War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017, a bipartisan Senate bill “[t]o require a report on, and to authorize technical assistance for, accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Syria.” I praised the bill, but pointed out that Section 7(a) was drafted in such a way that it permitted the US to provide technical assistance to entities investigating international crimes committed by pro-Assad forces and “violent extremist groups,” but did not permit the US to support entities investigating international crimes committed by rebels.

I am delighted to report that Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), successfully introduced an amendment to the bill at last Thursday’s SFRC’s business meeting that corrects the asymmetry in Section 7(a). The new version reads as follows (emphasis in original):

The Secretary of State (acting through appropriate officials and offices, which may include the Office of Global Criminal Justice), after consultation with the Department of Justice and other appropriate Federal agencies, is authorized to provide appropriate assistance to support entities that, with respect to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, all forces fighting on its behalf, and all non-state armed groups fighting in the country, including violent extremist groups in Syria beginning in March 2011…

This is a welcome change, because — as I pointed out in my original post — there is no reason to treat crimes committed by rebels any differently than crimes committed by Assad’s forces or by ISIS.

Kudos to Sen. Cardin! Let’s hope the revised version of the bill passes the full Senate soon.

ICC Communication About Australia’s Mistreatment of Refugees

by Kevin Jon Heller

As has been widely reported, 17 international-law scholars — including yours truly — recently submitted a 105-page communication to the Office of the Prosecutor alleging that Australia’s treatment of refugees involves the commission of multiple crimes against humanity, including imprisonment, torture, deportation, and persecution. The communication is a tremendous piece of work, prepared in large part by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic.

Peter Dutton, Australia’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, has described our efforts as a “wacky cause.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The communication is serious, sober, analytic, and comprehensive. I think it establishes far more than a “reasonable basis” to believe that Australian government officials and officials of the corporations that run the prison camps on Manus Island and Nauru have committed crimes against humanity. Here is (most of) the executive summary…

Event: Australia, Refugees, and International Criminal Law (February 13)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call readers’ attention to what should be — despite my participation — a fantastic event at City Law School the week after next. Here is the info:

City, University of London: The Refugee Crisis and International Criminal Law: Are Australian Agents and Corporate Actors Committing Crimes Against Humanity?

City Law School invites you to a panel discussion of international criminal law aspects of the refugee crisis, with a focus on the Australian detention facilities. The discussion will follow the announcement and launch of a new major initiative by the Stanford International Human Rights Clinic and the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN).

Refugees and asylum seekers are currently under attack in many developed countries, including in European states, the US, and Australia. International criminal law has developed around the need for international institutions to intervene on behalf of the most vulnerable populations, when states are unwilling or unable to do so. Can international criminal prosecution help counter the current encroachment upon refugee rights? Currently, the most flagrant examples of such encroachment are Australian practices, which have also served as a model for migration restrictionists around the world. Our focus will be on the treatment of refugees in Nauru and Manus Island by Australian officials and agents, including corporate actors. At issue, however, are not only legal questions. As important are contemporary political conditions, in which the international criminal court is under sustained critique for a seeming bias against African leaders; and in which Western governments and populist movements are proposing new policies that violate refugee rights. Does the concept of Crimes against Humanity accurately capture the conditions of detention and practices of mass deportations? And, if there are international crimes committed, are these grave enough for the International Criminal Court to investigate? Can and should International Criminal Law shift its focus from instances of spectacular or radical evil to the normalised and ‘banal’ violence waged by Western states as a consequence of the structures of global inequality?

Speakers: Ms Diala Shamas, Supervising Attorney and Lecturer, Stanford Law School International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic; Dr Cathryn Costello, Andrew W. Mellon Associate Professor in International Human Rights and Refugee Law, fellow of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford; Professor Kevin Jon Heller, Professor of Criminal Law, SOAS, University of London; Dr Ioannis KalpouzosLecturer in Law, City Law School, City, University of London; Legal Action Committee, Global Legal Action Network; Dr Itamar Mann, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Haifa; Legal Action Committee, Global Legal Action Network; Ms Anna Shea, Researcher and Legal Advisor, Refugee and Migrant Rights, Amnesty International.

The event takes place on Monday 13 February 2017 at 18:00 at City, University of London, College Building, St John Street, EC1V 4PB – Room AG21. The event will be followed by a wine reception. Attendance is free. You may sign up here.

Hope to see some OJ readers there!

Symposium on Asia and International Law

by Chris Borgen

The forthcoming issue of the European Journal of International Law will feature an article by Professor Simon Chesterman, the Dean of the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law, entitled Asia’s Ambivalence About International Law and Institutions: Past, Present and Futures. This week, Opinio Juris and EJILTalk will hold a joint symposium on the two blogs on Professor Chesterman’s article.

The article’s abstract explains:

Asian states are the least likely of any regional grouping to be party to most international obligations or to have representation reflecting their number and size in international organizations. That is despite the fact that Asian states have arguably benefited most from the security and economic dividends provided by international law and institutions. This article explores the reasons for Asia’s under-participation and under-representation. The first part traces the history of Asia’s engagement with international law. The second part assesses Asia’s current engagement with international law and institutions, examining whether its under-participation and under-representation is in fact significant and how it might be explained. The third part considers possible future developments based on three different scenarios, referred to here as status quo, divergence and convergence. Convergence is held to be the most likely future, indicating adaptation on the part of Asian states as well as on the part of the international legal order.

The symposium will begin on Monday with an opening post by Professor Chesterman, followed by posts on Opinio Juris by Professor Tony Anghie of the National University of Singapore and on EJILTalk by Professor Eyal Benvenisti of Cambridge University.  On Tuesday, Opinio Juris will have commentary by Professor B.S. Chimni of Jawaharlal Nehru University and EJILTalk will have a piece by Professor Robert McCorquodale of the University of Nottingham and the Director of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law.   Wednesday will have observations and reactions on Opinio Juris by Judge Xue Hanqin  of the International Court of Justice and on EJILTalk by Judge Paik Jin-Hyun of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Finally, there will be a closing post pn both blogs by Professor Chesterman on Thursday.

We hope you will join us on both blogs for the discussion.

Ukraine’s UNCLOS Arbitration Claim Against Russia May Depend Upon Philippines-China Precedent

by Julian Ku

After months (or even years) of threats, Ukraine finally filed an arbitration claim against Russia under Annex VII of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.  According to this statement from the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign of Affairs, the claim will focus on Russia’s actions in the maritime zones bordering Crimea.

Since the Russian Federation’s illegal acts of aggression in Crimea, Russia has usurped and interfered with Ukraine’s maritime rights in these zones.  Ukraine seeks to end the Russian Federation’s violations of UNCLOS and vindicate Ukraine’s rights in the Black Sea, Sea of Azov, and Kerch Strait, including Ukraine’s rights to the natural resources offshore Crimea which belong to the Ukrainian people.

I discussed Ukraine’s claim back in February here, as well as Russia’s likely response.  I can’t find a copy of the Ukrainian statement of claim online, but the MFA description sounds like it will be pretty similar to the approach pioneered by the Philippines in its claim against China.  Ukraine will seek to avoid Russia’s Article 298 declaration excluding jurisdiction relating to sea boundary delimitations by not asking the tribunal to rule on sea boundaries. Ukraine will not seek to have the arbitral tribunal declare that the annexation of Crimea is illegal. Rather, the focus will be on specific actions Russia has taken in the Crimea maritime zones, which Ukraine is going to assume is part of Ukraine.

It will be interesting to see if Russia responds at all to this arbitration, or whether they follow China’s example and simply boycott the arbitration process completely.  I am not sure Russia’s jurisdictional defense is as strong as China’s (which lost anyway), so I am betting Russia simply declares it will not even show up, while loudly declaiming the legality of their actions.  Stay tuned.