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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.

Emojis and International Law

by Chris Borgen

Emojis: love them or hate them, you can’t seem to get away from them.  🙂  The smiley face, the thumbs-up, the smiling pile of poop, and the hundreds of other little symbols and pictograms that get used in text messages, tweets, and the like.  And tomorrow, June 21, we will have 71 new emojis to play with.  Why will there be new emojis tomorrow? And what does this have to do with international law? Read on…

First, a bit of background: while the smiley face is very much an iconic 1970’s symbol (“Have a Nice Day!’), the use of what we would call emoji in electronic communications started in the 1990’s in Japan, for use in cellphone texts.  Each little frowny face or thumbs-up, though, needs to be mapped using a common standard, or else it would only be able to be seen on certain platforms (say, an Android smartphone) but not on others (such as a Mac).

Consequently, there is actually an approved set of “official” emojis that can work across multiple software and hardware platforms and that new emojis are released once a year by a standard-setting organization called the Unicode Consortium, “a non-profit corporation devoted to developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalization standards and data, particularly the Unicode Standard, which specifies the representation of text in all modern software products and standards.”  The Consortium’s membership includes Apple, Adobe, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Yahoo, among others. By providing cross-platform standards, the Consortium is essentially making the soft law of the interoperability of symbols across different programs and devices. 😎

Proposals for new emojis are made to the Unicode Consortium, which then reviews and decides which symbols  should become standard and how they should be encoded. There are currently about 1,300 emojis, with about 70 added each year.   (By way of perspective the total  “Unicode Standard is mammoth in size, covering over 110,000 characters. “) The list of new emojis being released on June 21 is here.  Can’t wait to use the team handball emoji!

But, besides this being an unexpected story of industry standard-making bodies and funny little symbols, one must keep in mind that the Unicode Consortium’s responsibilities go well beyond encoding the broken heart glyph. As NPR reported last year:

The Unicode Consortium’s job has always been to make basic symbols work across all computers and other devices, but the emoji has put the group at the center of pop culture.

“Our goal is to make sure that all of the text on computers for every language in the world is represented,”

However, as Mashable notes:

getting characters added to the Unicode Standard is a long, drawn-out process. In addition to the original Japanese emoji characters, the Unicode additions included other new characters — such as country maps and European symbols.

What this means is that there is a data file that maps every individual emoji symbol to a Unicode code point or sequence.

But this is just the standardization of the symbols. Supporting emoji, as well as the specific design of the emoji characters, is up to software makers.

Thus, the administrative scaffolding that makes emojis ubiquitous is based on a non-governmental standard-setting body using soft law to allocate Unicode points or sequences to symbols (be they emojis, letters, mathematical symbols, etc.) that are approved by the Consortium.   The approval of emojis is simply one example of a set of responsibilities with much broader implications than just whether “nauseated face” deserves its own encoding. (According to the Consortium, it does.)

Besides interest in the process of institutional decision-making in standard-setting bodies such as the Consortium, there is also a question  of whether the Consortium’s overall goal of ensuring that the script of every language in the world is represented digitally is in tension the current focus on encoding more and more emoji.  Some have expressed concern that this focus on emojis may divert time and resources away from the protection of endangered languages. Peoples who are trying to preserve endangered languages (such as, for example, Native American and First Nation languages) would be greatly helped if the alphabet of that language would be as easy to read across a variety of computer platforms and digital devices as a smiley-face. Consider this an issue of resource allocation.  Letterjuice, a Brighton and Barcelona-based type foundry, posted a thoughtful essay on Unicode and language rights, which stated: (more…)

U.S. Government Prepares to Approve First Private Space Expedition to the Moon

by Julian Ku

This is big.  Huge, even. From the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. officials appear poised to make history by approving the first private space mission to go beyond Earth’s orbit, according to people familiar with the details.

The government’s endorsement would eliminate the largest regulatory hurdle to plans by Moon Express, a relatively obscure space startup, to land a roughly 20-pound package of scientific hardware on the Moon sometime next year.

The main obstacles to this commercial moon mission are not technical or financial. The main problem appears to be legal.  First, the U.S. government must approve the launch (this appears to be happening soon).  Second, the U.S. and the world need to figure out how to regulate commercial exploitation of the moon, because companies like “Moon Express” are not in this for the science alone.  The Moon Treaty seems to prohibit any commercial exploitation of the Moon’s resources under Article 11 (“[N]atural resources of the moon… shall [not] become the property of any ..person”), but the U.S. never ratified it and neither did any of the other major spacefaring nations.

So we are left to the “Outer Space” treaty, which the U.S. did join, but which has much less emphatic limitations on commercial development of celestial resources (as I argued here and here).  I think it is safe to say commercial exploitation of the moon and asteroids is going to happen sooner than we think (starting next year?).  The law will have to catch up later.

Apple Rejects Game Where You Play a Palestinian

by Kevin Jon Heller

palestinegameThe game in question — from which the screenshot is taken — is entitled Liyla and the Shadows of War. Here is how the gaming magazine Hardcore Gamer describes it:

Liyla and the Shadows of War is a short, dark game about exactly what the title implies. You play as a father running home through a war zone attempting to collect his family and get them to safety as the bombs fall and the drone strikes mow down anything that moves.


At the start I navigated a few platforming sections, figured out how to avoid gunfire, made a couple of story choices, and even did a simple auto-run section where I had to control the jumping of two characters simultaneously. Of the 30-ish minutes of using the app, this was about 28 or so. The final two  minutes (and it might have been less, I wasn’t running a timer) were spent reading.

A game, right? Not if you’re Apple, apparently:

CiwVR6mUUAA4j4pThe gaming community is mocking Apple’s decision, and rightfully so. As Hardcore Gamer points out, “Liyla and the Shadow of War is a game. Having a serious message about a real-world conflict doesn’t make it any less so, and it’s insulting not just to the developers but to gaming in general to say otherwise.” Indeed, there is no way Apple actually believes that Liyla and the Shadow of War isn’t a game; it simply doesn’t want to host a game developed by a Palestinian that encourages thinking critically about Israel’s violence toward Palestinians. But rejecting the game on political grounds would itself be seen as political — correctly — so Apple comes up with a ridiculous pretext for rejecting it and hopes nobody notices.

I know what you’re thinking: doesn’t Apple has the right to avoid “political” games? Isn’t it smart business to stay out of the Israel/Palestine conflict?

Fair question. And in response I give you this:

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Meet Israeli Heroes, an Angry Birds rip-off in which — according to Boing Boing — “you hurl cartoon missiles at vaguely Arabic-looking adversaries.” Currently available for free on iTunes.

So much for Apple’s political neutrality.

Liyla and the Shadow of War is still available for Android on Google Play. I haven’t tried it yet, but it has a 4.9 average from 333 reviews, so it’s obviously good. Check it out. Maybe you’ll have fun playing and learn something about life in Palestine in the process.

Which is precisely what Apple doesn’t want you to do.

New General Editors for CUP’s International Law Series

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’m delighted to announce that two good friends, Leiden’s Larissa van den Herik (also one of my PhD supervisors!) and Manchester’s Jean d’Aspremont, are the new General Editors for CUP’s prestigious Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law book series, which celebrates its 70th birthday next year. Here is Larissa’s statement:

It is with great enthusiasm that I take on the general editorship of one of Cambridge University Press’ flagship series in law. I feel honoured to lead this series into the twenty-first century with a view to promoting the most outstanding scholarship on international law as we previously did as joint editors-in-chief of the Leiden Journal of International Law. Building on the Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law series’ impressive heritage and committed to fostering its repute of excellence, it is my ambition to be open to new and fresh voices in terms of perspective and geography as well as to a great range of themes and approaches. Such an overture is essential, in my view, to preserve the Law series’ generalist character and its position of standard-setter in international legal thought and practice.

And here is Jean’s:

Books, like courtrooms, are where choices about what we call international law and what we do with it are debated, made, and unmade. Books are serious matters. Taking the helm of the prestigious series is thus a huge responsibility. It is also a great honour given the unequalled credentials of the preceding General Editors. The challenges ahead are gargantuan, especially in the light of some of the dramatic changes witnessed in the scholarly landscape. In order to keep some a-temporal relevance, scholarship must denote a certain degree of methodological, conceptual and political self-awareness. This means that it must be possible to situate any claim made about what we call international law by any professional of the subject. In my view, it is only as long as the series nurtures such a culture of self-awareness that it can make the works it publishes today relevant to the thinkers and practitioners of tomorrow.

CUP has done well replacing James Crawford. The series is clearly in good hands. Please join me in congratulating Larissa and Jean!

How Not to Wish Us a Happy Yom Kippur

by Kevin Jon Heller

Wishing Jews a happy Yom Kippur — good. Doing so over an image of the yellow star Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis — not so much:


Not surprisingly, WGN Chicago has since apologized.

Congratulations to Anna Dolidze!

by Kevin Jon Heller

Anna, who has guest-blogged for us in an academic capacity on a number of occasions (see here, here, and here), has just started a new job as Georgia’s Deputy Minister for Defence. See if you can spot her in this photo:

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Heartfelt congratulations to Anna. Academia’s loss is Georgia’s gain. I have no doubt that she will do exemplary work on behalf of her country.

A Bad Weekend at the Office for CNN

by Kevin Jon Heller

First it confused ISIS’s flag with a gay-pride flag depicting various sex toys:


Then it placed Hong Kong somewhere in Brazil:


Interested readers may want to apply for fact-checking positions at CNN. I hear they’re hiring.

Book Symposium: Is there Existential Interpretation in International Law?

by Duncan Hollis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP, Chinua Achebe (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I just learned — much belatedly — that Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist, died two years ago today at 82. Here is a snippet from his 2013 obituary in the New York Times:

Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist and Nobel laureate, hailed Mr. Achebe in a review in The New York Times in 1988, calling him “a novelist who makes you laugh and then catch your breath in horror — a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.”

Mr. Achebe’s political thinking evolved from blaming colonial rule for Africa’s woes to frank criticism of African rulers and the African citizens who tolerated their corruption and violence. Indeed, it was Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960s and then its military dictatorship in the 1980s and ‘90s that forced Mr. Achebe abroad.

In his writing and teaching Mr. Achebe sought to reclaim the continent from Western literature, which he felt had reduced it to an alien, barbaric and frightening land devoid of its own art and culture. He took particular exception to”Heart of Darkness,”the novel byJoseph Conrad, whom he thought “a thoroughgoing racist.”

Conrad relegated “Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind,” Mr. Achebe argued in his essay “An Image of Africa.”

“I grew up among very eloquent elders,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2008. “In the village, or even in the church, which my father made sure we attended, there were eloquent speakers.” That eloquence was not reflected in Western books about Africa, he said, but he understood the challenge in trying to rectify the portrayal.

“You know that it’s going to be a battle to turn it around, to say to people, ‘That’s not the way my people respond in this situation, by unintelligible grunts, and so on; they would speak,’ ” Mr. Achebe said. “And it is that speech that I knew I wanted to be written down.”

Chinua’s passing fills me with great sadness, because I had the honour of getting to know him quite well in the late 1980s — just before the car accident that left him paralyzed — when I was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research. He was a dear friend of the anthropologist Stanley Diamond, for whom I did research and whose journal, Dialectical Anthropology, I edited. I will long treasure the memories of Chinua’s kindness and warmth. He would always go out of his way to include me in conversations, and to ask me — a lowly graduate student, barely 21 — what I thought about things. And his terrible accident did not dim his spirit in the slightest; he was just as kind and warm the first time I saw him after the accident, when he was still recovering.

Chinua was also, needless to say, a remarkable novelist. I just wish he had written more — his two-decade-long writers block, which he attributed to the trauma of the Nigerian civil war (as the obituary notes), cheated us all out of so many great novels that will now never be written. I plan to re-read “Things Fall Apart” in his honour as soon as I can. It remains one of the great novels written by any writer — not just by an African one. Chinua’s fiction, though so inextricably tied to his country and to his continent, always transcended the limits of geography. I still get angry when I think about Saul Bellow’s profoundly racist comment concerning the supposed non-existence of great African literature: “When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy, we will read him.” I don’t know about the Zulus, but the Ibo certainly produced one. His name was Chinua Achebe.

Requiescat in pace, Chinua. You will be missed — and remembered.

UPDATE: I have updated the post to reflect that I only found out today about Chinua’s death. I hope these thoughts are better late than never.

JFK: Keeping the World Safe for Santa

by Kevin Jon Heller

Courtesy of Chris Moody, here is an actual letter written by John F. Kennedy in 1961 to a little girl in Michigan:


Santa Claus has always seemed a bit communist to me. More of the Vietnamese or Chinese nationalist variety, I guess.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Congratulations, Dr. Kersten

by Kevin Jon Heller

Mark Kersten, creator of Justice in Conflict, long one of the most important blogs in international criminal justice, successfully defended his thesis yesterday at the LSE. Heartfelt congratulations, my friend!

And, of course, now that Mark has the word “Dr.” in front of his name, we can finally take him seriously.