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Law of the Sea

So How Is China Taking Its Loss at the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal? Not Well.

by Julian Ku

I have been curious to see how China would respond to yesterday’s UNCLOS Annex VII Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling finding it has jurisdiction to hear the Philippines South China Sea related claims.  Well, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was ready with this blistering response:

Q: The Arbitral Tribunal established at the request of the Republic of the Philippines rendered the award on jurisdiction and admissibility of the South China Sea arbitration. What is China’s comment on that?

A: The Chinese government will not accept nor participate in the South China Sea arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has immediately released a statement to elaborate on China’s solemn position. The award is null and void, and has no binding effect on China. I would like to highlight three points.

First, China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters. As a sovereign state and a State Party to the UNCLOS, China is entitled to choose the means and procedures of dispute settlement of its own will. China has all along been committed to resolving disputes with its neighbors over territory and maritime jurisdiction through negotiations and consultations. China and the Philippines have repeatedly reaffirmed in bilateral documents since the 1990s and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 that they shall resolve relevant disputes through negotiations and consultations.

Second, disregarding that the essence of this arbitration case is territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation and related matters, maliciously evading the declaration on optional exceptions made by China in 2006 under Article 298 of the UNCLOS, and negating the consensus between China and the Philippines on resolving relevant disputes through negotiations and consultations, the Philippines and the Arbitral Tribunal have abused relevant procedures, misrepresented the law and obstinately forced ahead with the arbitration, and as a result, have severely violated the legitimate rights that China enjoys as a State Party to the UNCLOS, completely deviated from the purposes and objectives of the UNCLOS, and eroded the integrity and authority of the UNCLOS.

Third, as a State Party to the UNCLOS, China firmly opposes the acts of abusing the compulsory procedures for dispute settlement under the UNCLOS, and calls upon all parties concerned to work together to safeguard the integrity and authority of the UNCLOS. China urges the Philippines to honor its own commitments, respect China’s rights under international law, change its course and return to the right track of resolving relevant disputes in the South China Sea through negotiations and consultations. That is the correct path with bright prospects.

The full MFA statement is here, and includes a swipe at the Philippines for using the “cloak of law as a political provocation.”  It is worth noting that China is still aiming most of its rhetorical fire at the Philippines, but it has also now directly criticized the Arbitral Tribunal for “abus[ing] relevant procedures [and] misrepresent[ing] the law….”  I also detect a slightly larger emphasis in China’s complaint about the “unilateral” nature of this arbitration.

I am also impressed by China’s willingness to just ignore the clear provisions of Article 288(4) of UNCLOS, and simply declare that the Tribunal’s ruling is “null and void” and has “no binding legal effect.”  At some point, someone in China is going to have to gin up a legal argument to get past UNCLOS’ clear language giving the Tribunal the power to determine questions of jurisdiction.  But for now, it looks like China is going to stick to its guns.

Breaking: UNCLOS Tribunal Rules Against China, Unanimously Finds It Has Jurisdiction Over Philippines South China Sea Claims

by Julian Ku

It’s been a rough week for China’s South China Seas policy. In addition to facing a US Freedom of Navigation operation near one of its artificial islands, the arbitration tribunal formed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has decided that it has jurisdiction to proceed to the merits on the Philippines’ legal challenge to certain Chinese activities in the South China Sea.

I will blog more about this later, but for now it is worth noting that the tribunal unanimously ruled that it can proceed to the merits on seven out of 15 of the Philippines’ claims, and that it reserves the question of jurisdiction on seven other claims as being so interwoven with the merits that it cannot be resolved without first considering the merits.

I will note that the tribunal reserved the question of jurisdiction over the Philippines’ biggest and most flashy claim: the argument that China’s Nine Dash Line “historic rights” claim is inconsistent with UNCLOS. It held that:

The Philippines’ Submission No. 1 does, however, require the Tribunal to consider the effect of any historic rights claimed by China to maritime entitlements in the South China Sea and the interaction of such rights with the provisions of the Convention. This is a dispute concerning the interpretation and application of the Convention. The Tribunal’s jurisdiction to consider this question, however, would be dependent on the nature of any such historic rights and whether they are covered by the exclusion from jurisdiction over “historic bays or titles” in Article 298. The nature and validity of any historic rights claimed by China is a merits determination. The possible jurisdictional objections with respect to the dispute underlying Submission No. 1 therefore do not possess an exclusively preliminary character. Accordingly, the Tribunal reserves a decision on its jurisdiction with respect to the Philippines’ Submission No. 1 for consideration in conjunction with the merits of the Philippines’ claims.

On the other hand, the Tribunal did find that the question of whether the Scarborough Shoal is a “rock” or an “island” is clearly within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, irrespective of the merits. It did so because it held that there are no overlapping sovereignty or sea boundary claims that might impact the determination.

Overall, it should never be surprising when an arbitral tribunal finds that it has jurisdiction to hear a case. The Tribunal did throw China a bone by noting that it is still possible that seven of the Philippines’ claims (including the Nine Dash Line challenge) could be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction at the merits stage.

But by reserving the question of jurisdiction, and guaranteeing it will rule on the merits for several other claims, the Tribunal shoves the ball back onto China’s court.  Will China continue to claim it is not bound by the Tribunal for lack of jurisdiction, when the Tribunal has now found it has jurisdiction?  China would more clearly be in violation of UNCLOS now than it was before, because UNCLOS Article 288(4) makes it clear that “[i]n the event of a dispute as to whether a court or tribunal has jurisdiction, the matter shall be settled by decision of that court or tribunal.”  My guess is China will pretend that Article 288 doesn’t exist and continue to refuse to participate.  The interesting question is whether China will pay any serious price (in reputational terms) if it does so.

China’s Weak Legal Basis for Criticizing the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

The US Navy executed a much anticipated “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) today within 12 nautical miles of Subi reef, the site of one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.   Predictably, China has reacted sharply to this operation by sending two Chinese destroyers to shadow the U.S. ship and planes, summoning the U.S. ambassador, and issuing angry public statements (see below).  Although it is not the main focus of their complaints, the Chinese have repeatedly described the U.S. operation as “illegal” thus highlighting the legal conflict underlying this naval showdown.

The most detailed official reaction was presented by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lu Kang.

The USS Lassen illegally entered waters near relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands without the permission of the Chinese government on October 27. Relevant authorities of the Chinese side monitored, followed and warned the US vessel. Relevant actions by the US naval vessel threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, put the personnel and facilities on the islands and reefs at risk and endangered regional peace and stability. The Chinese side hereby expresses strong dissatisfaction and opposition.

It is unclear exactly how the U.S. ship put personnel on the islands and reefs at risk, but in any event, the spokesperson went on to assure the world that China has, and always will, respect the freedom of navigation consistent with international law.

China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui echoed these remarks, although this statement focused more on China’s “indisputable sovereignty” than on the legality of the U.S. actions.  China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi simply warned the U.S. against “stirring up trouble.” Perhaps more seriously, China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson called the U.S. action an “abuse” of the principle of “freedom of navigation under international law” that would cause “harm” to bilateral trust and relations.

As I suggested in a previous post, the US and China might have chosen to downplay this incident by treating the U.S. naval visit as an “innocent passage” through China’s territorial seas.  But China believes even innocent passage requires its permission, and the U.S. Navy made sure that its destroyer was accompanied by naval surveillance aircraft. The inclusion of the aircraft makes it clear that the U.S. is not trying to claim an “innocent passage.” Rather, the U.S. is stating (through its actions) that it does not believe Subi reef (where the Chinese have added an artificial island) is a rock or island generating a territorial sea.  Therefore, US naval vessels should be free to conduct any activity they wish in this area.

It is interesting that at least one Chinese media outlet is claiming that there is no real conflict over international law between the two sides.  In this portrayal, China’s actions in building artificial islands is “completely legal” and the U.S. is just trying to flaunt its power by “harassing” China.  China’s legal position appears to be that it is building artificial islands on reefs that are entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea.  Or, as another commentator sympathetic to China’s position has argued, because China claims every land feature in the South China Sea, even if the relevant reef is not entitled to a territorial sea, other nearby land features (also claimed by China) probably generate such rights.

In my view, the U.S. has a much stronger legal position.  Indeed, China is barely offering any serious legal defense other than repeating the words “indisputable sovereignty” repeatedly.  China is not doing itself any favors by calling US actions illegal, but failing to offer any specific criticism or explanation of its own legal position.

On the other hand, perhaps it is China’s interest to downplay the legal aspects of this dispute, and to feed the narrative that the U.S. is “provoking” a confrontation.  To some degree,this is working, as the global and Chinese media are feeding the narrative about a US-China naval showdown and ignoring the niceties of the U.S. legal position.  Indeed, if China raises the stakes by threatening some military response (as it is getting close to doing), it will be hard to convince the world (or the U.S. public) that such a conflict is worthwhile in order to vindicate an abstract legal principle like “freedom of navigation.”

Why “Following International Law” Won’t Necessary Solve the South China Sea Conflict Over Freedom of Navigation

by Julian Ku

As Chris notes below, it seems like there will be a showdown soon between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea over the right of freedom of navigation set out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law. It is tempting to see this as a problem of one side ignoring international law, and the other trying to uphold it.  But the U.S. and China have a fundamentally different understanding of what international law requires and allows under the principle of “freedom of navigation”. So getting all sides  to “follow” international law is not necessarily going to solve the dispute here.

The U.S. definition of freedom of navigation means all ships (including warships) are allowed to traverse both the 200 nm exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and the 12 nm territorial seas without obtaining the permission of the coastal state.  In the 200 nm EEZ, the U.S. believes that military ships may conduct any activity, including surveillance of the coastal state (e.g. “spying”).  Within 12 nm, the U.S. believes military ships must abide by the rules of “innocent passage” which precludes any overt military-related activity.

The Chinese definition of freedom of navigation is quite different.  Essentially, the Chinese argue that military ships should have to follow rules of innocent passage even in the 200 nm EEZ, and that military ships must get permission to enter the 12 nm territorial sea, even if those ships are planning to make an innocent passage.

Why does this difference in the definition of freedom of navigation matter?  Because it allows both sides to say that they are abiding by the rules for freedom of navigation set forth in UNCLOS, while disagreeing dramatically on what each side is allowed to do.  From the U.S. perspective, its navy should be allowed to enter the 12 nm territorial seas around China’s “islands” as long as they abide by the rules of innocent passage.  But the Chinese will say that freedom of navigation doesn’t permit this activity.

Most states agree with the U.S. definition of freedom of navigation.  But some states (including neighboring South China Sea coastal states) do agree with the Chinese view on the EEZ (like Malaysia) and others follow the Chinese view on the 12 nm territorial sea (like Vietnam). So although I think the U.S. reading of UNCLOS is the correct one, the Chinese are not alone in their interpretation.  And as this editorial from China’s leading state-run English language paper indicates, the Chinese are going to emphasize this difference in legal interpretations in their response.

Of all foreign military activities in the special economic zones (especially those of China and the U.S.), the innocent passage of warships through territorial seas, have fueled the majority of clashes and disagreements, as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea fails to provide explicit regulations on such activities.

To be sure, the Chinese may be shifting their own views since the Chinese Navy recently entered U.S. territorial seas on an “innocent passage”. But the official Chinese position still would require the U.S. to get permission before entering its 12 nm territorial seas.

One more note:  because several of China’s “artificial islands” are not islands but underwater features like shoals or reefs, the U.S. position ought to be that there is no “innocent passage” requirement for its naval ships even after entering within 12 nm miles.  Because China’s artificial island do not generate a 12 nm territorial sea, the U.S. should make clear it is NOT following the rules of innocent passage.

In any event, although international law is important, it cannot by itself resolve this festering US-China dispute until both sides agree on what international law actually requires.

Freedom of Navigation Operations and the South China Sea

by Chris Borgen

The BBC charts the latest back-and-forth between China, the U.S. over the Spratly Islands and, especially, navigation in the South China Sea. Much of the discussion of this issue has focused on the increased pace of China construction and land reclamation on series of islands and reefs, changing the “facts on the ground” to bolster its territorial and maritime claims. Other countries have also built on various islands and reefs, positioning for their own claims. But the scope of China’s activities had brought the issue back to the forefront.

The current flurry has been about the U.S.’s reaction and, in particular, whether the U.S. will use of “freedom of navigation” (FON) operations (previously discussed by Julian, here) in the midst of all this activity in the Spratlys.

According to the BBC, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry stated:

“We will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight.”

On Tuesday, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter expressed “strong concerns” over island-building, and defended Washington’s plans.

“Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception,” he said at a news conference with the Australian foreign and defence ministers.

“We will do that in the time and places of our choosing,” he added, according to Reuters news agency.

According to the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. has undertaken such freedom of navigation (FON) operations since 1983 to “exercise and assert its navigation and overflight rights and freedoms on a worldwide basis in a manner that is consistent with the balance of interests reflected in the Law of the Sea (LOS) Convention.” This is a topic where one can see the U.S. refer explicitly and repeatedly to international law:

The FON Program since 1979 has highlighted the navigation provisions of the LOS Convention to further the recognition of the vital national need to protect maritime rights throughout the world. The FON Program operates on a triple track, involving not only diplomatic representations and operational assertions by U.S. military units, but also bilateral and multilateral consultations with other governments in an effort to promote maritime stability and consistency with international law, stressing the need for and obligation of all States to adhere to the customary international law rules and practices reflected in the LOS Convention.

Emphases added.

A year-by-year summary of Freedom of Navigation operations by the U.S. can be found on the U.S. Department of Defense website, here.

However, the BBC notes that:

The US might have mounted sea patrols in this area, but not for several years, our analyst says – and not since China began its massive building programme in the South China Sea.

A US military plane that flew near one of the islands in May was warned off – eight times.

The US now has to decide whether to send in its ships and risk confrontation, or back down and look weak, our analyst says.

How the situation evolves from here will depend in part on the reactions of other states that border the South China Sea or use its sea lanes.  Stay tuned…

Touchy, Touchy. What China’s Sensitivity About the Philippines Arbitration Reveals About the Strength of Its Legal Position

by Julian Ku

While I was on (my completely undeserved) vacation in California recently, I noticed more evidence that China’s government is becoming hyper-sensitive about criticism of its non-participation in the Philippines-China arbitration at the Hague.

First, a top U.S. government official stated at a conference on July 21 that, among other things, “…[W]hen they became parties to the Convention, both the Philippines and China agreed to its compulsory dispute settlement regime. Under this regime, the decision of the arbitral tribunal is legally binding on the parties to the dispute. It’s a treaty. In keeping with the rule of law, both the Philippines and China are obligated to abide by whatever decision may be rendered in the case, whether they like it or not. ”

On July 17, the New York Times published a rather bland staff editorial on the China-Philippines arbitration gently chiding China for failing to participate in that arbitral process.  Noting that China was likely to ignore the arbitration’s outcome, the NYT opined: “[China] should participate in the tribunal process if China wants to be recognized as a leader in a world that values the resolution of disputes within a legal framework.”

Both statements are pretty gentle, in my view, and Russel’s point about China’s obligation to abide by the arbitral tribunal’s rulings on jurisdiction is quite correct as a matter of law.  But it is China’s rather vociferous response that is more striking.

First, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sharply rejected Russel’s remarks.  Most curiously, it charged that the U.S. was, by “[a]ttempting to push forward the arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, [acting] like an ‘arbitrator outside the tribunal’, designating the direction for the arbitral tribunal established at the request of the Philippines.”  The spokesperson went on to say “This is inconsistent with the position the US side claims to uphold on issues concerning the South China Sea disputes.”

Second, the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. wrote a letter to the editor of the NYT, calling its editorial “unfair.”  It also concluded that  “we do not believe that the arbitration court has jurisdiction, and as a member of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, China is entitled to exclude any third-party compulsory settlement.”

I am sympathetic to China’s position that compulsory arbitration is not the way to go here, but as a legal matter, their views are hard to understand.  The UNCLOS does NOT give China the right to exclude any “third-party compulsory settlement.”  It does the opposite, and allows very limited exceptions to compulsory dispute resolution which may or may not apply here.  Furthermore, as numerous commentators have explained but which China continues to ignore, Article 288 of UNCLOS plainly gives the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal the final say on jurisdiction.  Russel was only repeating what is in the plain text of the treaty (UNCLOS) that China signed and ratified.

China’s sharply worded but legally incoherent responses are a sign that it is more nervous about the Philippines arbitration than it has let on in the past. China should just stop complaining about the arbitration and move on. It should have enough diplomatic, military, and political leverage to get past this.  It will get nowhere with its legal arguments.

The Pre-Trial Chamber’s Dangerous Comoros Review Decision

by Kevin Jon Heller

In late 2014, the Office of the Prosecutor rejected a request by Comoros to open a formal investigation into Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara. To my great surprise, the Pre-Trial Chamber (Judge Kovacs dissenting) has now ordered the OTP to reconsider its decision. The order does not require the OTP to open a formal investigation, because the declination was based on gravity, not on the interests of justice — a critical distinction under Art. 53 of the Rome Statute, as I explain here. But the PTC’s decision leaves little doubt that it expects the OTP to open one. Moreover, the PTC’s decision appears designed to push the OTP to decline to formally investigate a second time (assuming it doesn’t change its mind about the Comoros situation) on the basis of the interests of justice, which would then give the PTC the right to demand the OTP investigate.

To put it simply, this is a deeply problematic and extremely dangerous decision — nothing less than a frontal assault on the OTP’s prosecutorial discretion, despite the PTC’s claims to the contrary. I will explain why in this (very long) post.

At the outset, it is important to emphasise that we are dealing here with situational gravity, not case gravity. In other words, the question is not whether the OTP should have opened a case against specific members of the IDF who were responsible for crimes on the Mavi Marmara, but whether the OTP should have opened a situation into the Comoros situation as a whole. The Rome Statute is notoriously vague about the difference between situational gravity and case gravity, even though it formally adopts the distinction in Art. 53. But it is a critical distinction, because the OTP obviously cannot assess the gravity of an entire situation in the same way that it assesses the gravity of a specific crime within a situation.

The PTC disagrees with nearly every aspect of the OTP’s gravity analysis. It begins by rejecting the OTP’s insistence (in ¶ 62 of its response to Comoro’s request for review) that the gravity of the Comoros situation is limited by the fact that there is no “reasonable basis to believe that ‘senior IDF commanders and Israeli leaders’ were responsible as perpetrators or planners of the apparent war crimes’.” Here is how the PTC responds to that claim:

23. The Chamber is of the view that the Prosecutor erred in the Decision Not to Investigate by failing to consider whether the persons likely to be the object of the investigation into the situation would include those who bear the greatest responsibility for the identified crimes. Contrary to the Prosecutor’s argument at paragraph 62 of her Response, the conclusion in the Decision Not to Investigate that there was not a reasonable basis to believe that “senior IDF commanders and Israeli leaders” were responsible as perpetrators or planners of the identified crimes does not answer the question at issue, which relates to the Prosecutor’s ability to investigate and prosecute those being the most responsible for the crimes under consideration and not as such to the seniority or hierarchical position of those who may be responsible for such crimes.

These are fundamentally irreconcilable conceptions of “potential perpetrator” gravity. The OTP is taking the traditional ICTY/ICTR approach, asking whether the Israeli perpetrators of the crimes on the Mavi Marmara are militarily or politically important enough to justify the time and expense of a formal investigation. The PTC, by contrast, does not care about the relative importance of the perpetrators; it simply wants to know whether the OTP can prosecute the individuals who are most responsible for committing the crimes in question.

To see the difference between the two approaches — and to see why the OTP’s approach is far better — consider a hypothetical situation involving only one crime: a group of the lowest-ranking soldiers from State X executes, against the stated wishes of their commanders, 10 civilians from State Y. The OTP would conclude that the “potential perpetrator” gravity factor militates against opening a formal investigation in State Y, because the crime in question, though terrible, did not involve militarily important perpetrators. The PTC, by contrast, would reach precisely the opposite conclusion concerning gravity, deeming the soldiers “most responsible” for the crime by virtue of the fact that they acted against orders. After all, no one else was responsible for the decision to execute the civilians.

The PTC’s approach to “potential perpetrator” gravity is simply bizarre….

Dear World Media: The U.S. is NOT Challenging China’s Territorial Claims in the South China Sea (Yet)

by Julian Ku

I have been following closely the U.S. Navy’s plans to use military ships and aircraft to challenge China’s aggressive land reclamation activities in the South China Sea, and China’s not very positive reaction to these plans.  But although there is a real dispute brewing here that could escalate into a sovereignty fight, I think media reports are making this dispute more serious than it actually is.

Contrary to some media reports, the U.S. Navy plans do NOT intend to challenge China’s “sovereignty” claims in the South China Sea. Instead, the U.S. Navy is asserting its rights to freedom of navigation under international law. If we understand the U.S. Navy plans in this context, it may help us defuse (at least somewhat) the growing tensions between the U.S. and China in this region, if only the media would help us out with better reporting.

From CNN, here is an example of how media reporting is making this dispute seem worse than it is.

Above the South China Sea (CNN)The Chinese navy issued warnings eight times as a U.S. surveillance plane on Wednesday swooped over islands that Beijing is using to extend its zone of influence.

The series of man-made islands and the massive Chinese military build-up on them have alarmed the Pentagon, which is carrying out the surveillance flights in order to make clear the U.S. does not recognize China’s territorial claims.

(Emphasis added). This report feeds into the (accurate) narrative about growing tensions between the US and Chinese navies.  In this story, the US Navy is flying “over” the Chinese islands in order to challenge or reject China’s territorial claims.  But later in that same report, CNN says that U.S. Navy is considering “flying such surveillance missions even closer over the islands, as well as sailing U.S. warships within miles of them, as part of the new, more robust U.S. military posture in the area.” (emphasis added).

Here’s the problem.  If the U.S. Navy aircraft featured in the CNN video (a military surveillance plane and “sub hunter”) actually flew “over” the Chinese artificial islands, then why would they consider flying even closer “over” the islands and what would be the significance of sending naval ships?

In fact, the US Navy has tried to make it clear to reporters that they are merely conducting freedom of navigation operations and “that U.S. military aircraft do not fly directly over areas claimed by China in the Spratly Islands.” (in the washington post).  It’s my guess that the Navy hasn’t even flown within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands.

Why? Because as far as I can tell, this is a standard US Navy “freedom of navigation” operation that it uses to assert international law rights of navigation against numerous countries around the world.  It is NOT, as the CNN and other reports suggest, a challenge to China’s territorial claims.

Freedom of Navigation” operations involve sending US Navy warships into both the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone and the 12 nautical mile territorial seas recognized under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  In the view of  the U.S., military warships and aircraft are free to conduct surveillance operations (e.g. spying) in any country’s 200 nm EEZ and surface warships (but not military aircraft or submarines) have the right to “innocent passage” through a country’s 12 nautical mile territorial waters.

The U.S. Navy has been conducting  “freedom of navigation” operations for decades to enforce these views of international law, and it even has a “Freedom of Navigation” website making public where it has been operating. The point of these operations it to publicly challenge a country which is making (in the U.S. view) unjustified legal rights under UNCLOS.  China has a longstanding disagreement with this U.S. interpretation of UNCLOS. So they always make protests, and China has sometimes sent its fighter jets out to harass or challenge US spy aircraft.

But the bottom line: pace CNN, freedom of navigation operations are not challenges to “territorial claims” or “sovereignty.” The US Navy operations assume that the other nation has “sovereignty” over the relevant coastline or island.  So the US Navy operations near China’s artificial islands can assume that China has sovereignty but still demand China allow US military aircraft and ships  transit rights etc. under UNCLOS.

It is worth noting that the U.S. could escalate the dispute with China.  The U.S. might take the view that China is building artificial islands on top  of reefs or submerged features which do not entitle China to any legal rights at all (See UNCLOS, Art.60(8): “Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.”).  If so, then the US would fly within 12 nm miles or even directly “over” the artificial islands. Such operations would effectively be a direct challenge  to a China’s territorial claims, because the U.S. would be taking the view that China has no territorial basis at all for claims in the South China Sea.

“Challenging legal rights under UNCLOS” doesn’t make for very sexy headlines or get many clicks as compared to “challenging China’s territorial claims”. But it is worth parsing media reports about US Navy activities in the South China Sea very carefully, and it would be nice of those well-sourced reporters would clarify just how close the US Navy is going to fly/sail to China’s reclaimed islands.

Maybe the U.S. government should directly challenge China’s territorial claims and sovereignty claims.  I am not sure in my own mind whether the U.S. should take that next step.   But for now, the U.S. hasn’t challenged China’s territorial claims yet, and I wish reporters would stop making it seem like it is doing so.

Whale Wars Seeks a New Forum: The U.S. Supreme Court

by Julian Ku

Sea Shepherd, the activist group that has been aggressively protesting Japanese whaling practices, has filed a very interesting petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court.  Readers may recall that Sea Shepherd was sued by a group representing Japanese whalers under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS).  The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Sea Shepherd’s actions of boarding the Japanese whalers and obstructing them could fall within the definition of “piracy” for the purposes of jurisdiction under the ATS.

The best argument for Sea Shepherd is that the definition of piracy adopted by the Ninth Circuit cannot meet the Supreme Court’s “Sosa” standard for requiring ATS claims to be “universal” and “specific” under international law.  I think there is some force to this argument, although I find their disparagement of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea’s definition of piracy a little odd.  In any event, the question may turn on the definition of “private ends” that UNCLOS requires as an element of piracy.  I don’t have a strong view on this, but I refer our readers to Kevin’s critique of the Ninth Circuit conclusion that private ends can include political activism, and Eugene Kontorovich’s contrary view in support of the Ninth Circuit. The petition for certiorari smartly frames this as a “Sosa” issue, which would ordinarily mean that the uncertainty as to the applicability of “private ends” here should defeat ATS jurisdiction.  I am not sure the petitioners will get much traction, given the unusual and narrow facts of this case, but no doubt this case is worth watching.

Guest Post: The Mediterranean Migrants Crisis and the Use of Force–Is There a Case for Destroying Smugglers’ Boats?

by Sondre Torp Helmersen and Niccolo Ridi

[Sondre Torp Helmersen is a PhD Candidate at the University of Oslo and Niccolò Ridi is a PhD Candidate at King’s College London and SNSF Research Assistant, The Graduate Institute, Geneva.]

1. Introduction

The recent disasters off the coasts of Italy have been the deadliest documented incidents in the troubled history of migration in the Mediterranean sea. The unprecedented number of lives lost at sea has prompted outrage in a number of countries and brought the Mediterranean migrants Crisis at the top of the European political agenda. After more than 1000 people drowned in ten days, a summit was finally called by the President of the European Council Donald Tusk.

The outcome of the meeting has been met with disappointment: outside of southern European Countries, plans for a more equitable distribution of migrants within the European Union states do not seem a priority, and the measures agreed upon focus merely on preventing departure. States have agreed on a number of measures comprising the tripling of the funding allocated to Europe’s Operation Triton (which had previously been called ‘woefully inadequate’ by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres), improved cooperation against smugglers networks, a generic pledge to do more for refugee protection and resettlement on a voluntary basis and, more controversially, actions directed to identify, capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers before they can be used.

The idea of targeting smugglers’ vessels was originally included in a 10-point action plan relying on the precedent of Operation Atalanta, which focuses on protecting on preventing piracy acts off the coast of Somalia. The adoption of such a strategy as a means of dealing with a migrants crisis, however, calls for careful consideration.

European leaders have asked EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini “to propose actions in order to capture and destroy the smugglers’ vessels before they can be used”. However, aside from rumours on the possible use of Apache helicopters targeting vessels from a range of 2 km, proposals on the use of force have so far been quite vague, and their wording careful enough to suggest that any action would have to be consistent with international law. Angela Merkel is reported to have suggested that either a Security Council resolution or the cooperation of a Libyan unity government would be prerequisite for these operations. French President François Hollande has said that France and the United Kingdom will push for a Security Council resolution. But how do these proposed operations fit in the traditional paradigms on the use of force?

2. The Legality of Using Force

The force envisaged by European leaders would apparently be used to destroy boats docked in African harbours or internal or territorial waters. This would violate the prohibition of using force in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, unless one of its exceptions apply. Attacking the boats may alternatively be classified as ‘law enforcement’ rather than ‘use of force’ (e.g. Guyana v Suriname para 445), but such enforcement would be equally illegal in another State’s territory or internal or territorial waters in the absence of the same exceptions.

The exception for self-defence is not applicable, since there has been no “armed attack” against European countries from African States or people smugglers (the latter would be relevant if one recognises a right to self-defence against non-State actors). There may also be a right for States to use force to protect their nationals abroad, but European nationals are generally neither threatened by nor involved in the smuggling. The more or less debunked doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ would also not be applicable, since, even if one could argue that parts of Africa and/or the Middle East are suffering humanitarian crises, destroying people smugglers’ ships would not help alleviate those crises.

The simplest approach would be to have the consent of the relevant African States. In most cases this would mean Libya. A complicating factor is the current split between the two governments that claim to represent the State of Libya. One is based in Tripoli, the other in Tobruk. This raises the question of which of these, if any, that may give valid consent to the use of force in Libyan harbours and waters. The Tobruk government controls the majority of Libya’s territory, and is recognised by most other States as Libya’s government. However the Tripoli government controls the country’s traditional capital as well a substantial part of its territory. Some territory is also controlled by other groups, including the (so-called) Islamic State. In short, the situation is murky. After having repeatedly offered its cooperation to help fight the smuggling operations, the Tripoli government has said it will not give consent to using force against people smugglers. The Tobruk government has apparently not yet taken an official position.

The second option is to get authorisation from the UN Security Council, under the UN Charter Chapter VII. Such authorisation was given for the EU’s anti-piracy ‘Operation Atalanta’ off the coast of Somalia. However in that case the authorisation was made conditional on the consent of the Somali government. A similar condition could be set now. Authorisation would also require the consent of the UNSC’s five permanent members. Relations are currently frosty between Russia and the West, and one reason is how the Western powers used and possibly abused the 2011 authorisation to use force in Libya. Indeed, President Hollande has conceded that some convincing might be necessary to overcome Russian reluctance. Another basic condition for the UNSC to authorise the use of force is that the force is necessary to “maintain or restore international peace and security” (Article 42), in the presence of either a “threat to” or “breach of” international peace or an “act of aggression” (Article 39). The most plausible route would be to argue that the situation in the Mediterranean constitutes a “threat to the peace”. This is not obvious from the text of Article 39, but the UNSC has interpreted the provision highly flexibly in the past, and may well do so again. For example, in Resolution 668 (on Iraq’s treatment of its Kurdish population), the UNSC held that “a massive flow of refugees towards and across international frontiers … threaten[s] international peace and security”.

Other legal issues may also arise. African countries’ failure to clamp down on people smugglers’ activities may constitute a violation of the ‘duty of vigilance’ (Armed Activities para 246-250), but such a violation does not in itself authorise other States to respond with armed force. Further, if we concede that international humanitarian law applies, smugglers’ boats would be entitled to protection as civilian objects. The smugglers’ activities should not qualify as ‘piracy’ under the UNCLOS Article 101. That would in any case only make them liable to seizure by force by any State on the high seas (Article 105). To argue that the provision allows to destroy their ships when docked in a harbour seems too much of a stretch.

3. Conclusion: Another Problem that Cannot be Solved by Force

While there are legal avenues open for using force against African people smugglers, a wholly different question is whether this would actually contribute to solving the problem. The former head of operations of Atalanta has recently stated that to destroy smugglers’ boats would not be effective, as the boats used tend to be cheap and easy to replace. In a broader perspective, it would help solve neither the underlying causes of migration, which include conflict and misrule in Africa, nor the causes of the EU’s attempts to restrict migration, which include its social and economic costs.

The EU does seem to envisage the destruction of boats as one element in a broader set of tools. What is lacking, though, is an attempt to improve the current European asylum framework and a more equitable distribution of migrants among the members of the Union. This remains one of the most controversial and polarising issues in the EU. It therefore comes as no surprise that states less concerned by the refugee flows, such as the UK, would lend their support to operations at sea but avoid committing to any plans for a new resettlement system.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the construction of a narrative that places emphasis on the criminal nature of smuggling activities is conspicuous. There is clearly no question that smugglers are criminals. The idea of a “war on smugglers” seems to fit the policy goal of avoiding to give the Triton operation a clear search and rescue mandate – indeed, one of the most significant concerns voiced by human rights groups. As Kenneth Roth has suggested, to reduce the problem to the “false pretext of criminality” is to ignore the gravity of the situations from which many migrants are fleeing, and the resulting readiness to go to any lengths to seek better opportunities on European soil.

Guest Post: Law of the Sea Tribunal Adopts ‘Due Diligence’ Standard for Flag State Responsibility for IUU Fishing

by Craig H. Allen

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

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Tribunal) continued to develop the law of flag State responsibility in a 68-page advisory opinion issued on April 2, 2015 (Request for an advisory opinion submitted by the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC), ITLOS Case No. 21, Advisory Opinion of April 2, 2015). Five ITLOS judges wrote separate declarations or opinions.

A “Living” Law of the Sea Convention?

The April 2, 2015 advisory opinion was the first one issued by the full Tribunal. Four years earlier, the Tribunal’s Seabed Disputes Chamber had issued an advisory opinion, as it was expressly authorized to do under Article 191 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (Responsibilities and obligations of States sponsoring persons and entities with respect to activities in the Area [Request for Advisory Opinion submitted to the Seabed Disputes Chamber], ITLOS Case No. 17, Advisory Opinion of Feb. 1, 2011). In response to the SRFC request concerning IUU fishing, however, several States, including Australia, China, Ireland, Spain and the UK, objected that the Tribunal lacks jurisdiction to issue advisory opinions except in disputes involving the international seabed. Writing separately, Judge Lucky characterized the States’ jurisdictional objections as “cogent, clear and articulate, as well as considerably persuasive,” but he ultimately rejected them (Separate Opinion of Lucky, J.). In doing so, Judge Lucky opined that UNCLOS “is akin to (comparable with) a national constitution” and that, just as the “living constitution” doctrine advocates argue, UNCLOS “must ‘grow’ in accordance with the times.” (Id. ¶ 9). Oddly, in interpreting the Convention, Judge Lucky did not cite the relevant articles of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties until much later in his opinion.

The Opinion

Jurisdictional issues aside, this latest advisory opinion brings needed definition to the law of State Responsibility with respect to UNCLOS. The opinion was issued in response to a 2013 request by the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC) established by seven West African States). The SRFC submitted four questions, principally regarding the obligations and liability of flag States for IUU fishing by their vessels in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of another State. In all, 20 judges participated in the decision. They unanimously held that the Tribunal had jurisdiction to issue the advisory opinion, citing Article 138 of the Court’s own rules. At the same time, the Tribunal noted that since the Tribunal was established in 1996 this was the first time an advisory opinion had been issued by the full Tribunal.

In answering the questions presented, the Tribunal distinguished the flag State’s responsibility under UNCLOS from its liability. With respect to the latter question, the Tribunal declared that the liability of the flag State does not arise from a failure of vessels flying its flag to comply with the applicable laws and regulations, because “the violation of such laws and regulations by vessels is not per se attributable to the flag State” (¶ 146). Instead, the liability of the flag State arises from its failure to comply with its own “due diligence” obligations. Thus, the flag State will not be liable if it has taken “all necessary and appropriate measures to meet its ‘due diligence’ obligations” to ensure that vessels flying its flag do not conduct IUU fishing activities in the EEZ of the coastal States (¶ 148).

The due diligence standard adopted by the Tribunal can be traced to the arbitration panel’s decision in the CSS Alabama case, which involved Great Britain’s responsibility for damages done by the CSS Alabama, a Confederate States warship built in Great Britain, in violation of that State’s neutrality in the Civil War (Alabama claims of the United States of America against Great Britain, Award of Sept. 14, 1872, XXIX Reports of International Arbitration Awards 122, 129.) The standard was also adopted in the ITLOS Seabed Disputes Chamber’s 2011 advisory opinion (¶¶ 110-117), in which it cited the ICJ’s 2010 decision in the Pulp Mills on the Uruguay River case (2010 ICJ Rep. 14, 79, ¶ 197).

Importantly, in its opinion the Tribunal cited flag State responsibilities under Articles 58.3 (rights and duties of other states in the EEZ), 62.4 (utilization of living resources of the EEZ), 94 (duties of the flag State) and 192 (general obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment). In a separate opinion, Judge Paik elaborated on the flag States’ obligations under Article 94. Thus, the opinion’s examination of flag State responsibility and the due diligence standard is likely to find application beyond the context of IUU fishing in the EEZ.

Cote D’Ivoire Seeks Provisional Measures Order from ITLOS To Stop Oil Exploration in Disputed Waters

by Julian Ku

Last September, Ghana commenced an arbitration under Annex VII of the UN Convention for the Law of Sea seeking judicial confirmation of its rights to explore for oil and other resources in maritime areas disputed by its neighbor Cote D’Ivoire.  This past January, the two countries agreed to submit a dispute over maritime boundaries to a special chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.  And last week, Cote D’Ivoire filed a request for Provisional Measures with the special chamber asking it to require Ghana to suspend any oil exploration activities while the matter is before the ITLOS special chamber.

Under UNCLOS Article 290, a court or tribunal with jurisdiction is empowered to issue provisional measures “which it considers appropriate under the circumstances to preserve the respective rights of the parties to the dispute or to prevent serious harm to the marine environment, pending the final decision.”  I haven’t been privy to the papers filed in this case, but it does seem like Cote D’Ivoire should have a pretty reasonable provisional measures claim.  Indeed, the UK oil company currently exploring the disputed waters pursuant to a contract with Ghana is already planning to suspend its operations pending the outcome of the provisional measures hearing.

The Ghana-Cote D’Ivoire dispute bears watching. If these two countries are able to settle their maritime boundary dispute where lots of oil is at stake, then this would be a pretty significant accomplishment for the UNCLOS dispute settlement system. Hello, China? Anyone there?   History suggests this is going to be pretty hard, but you never know.