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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.]

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/04/06/is-there-existential-interpretation-in-international-law/

Book Symposium: Interpretation in International Law–What’s In A Game?

by Daniel Peat and Matthew Windsor

[Daniel Peat and Matthew Windsor are PhD candidates at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Law, and members of Gonville and Caius College.]

International lawyers have long realised the importance of interpretation to their academic discipline and professional practice. Interpretation in international law has traditionally been understood as a process of assigning meaning to texts with the objective of establishing rights and obligations. This has led to an almost exclusive focus on the interpretive methodology encapsulated in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Outside the auspices of the VCLT rules, interpretation in international law has rarely been regarded as a distinct (and broader) field of inquiry. As new insights on interpretation have abounded in other fields, international law and international lawyers have continually granted an imprimatur to rule-based formalism. Given that interpretation is a pervasive phenomenon in international law that is irreducible to analysis of the VCLT rules, a greater methodological awareness of interpretive theory and practice in international law is imperative.

We convened a conference on interpretation in international law at the Lauterpacht Centre and the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge in 2013. The aim was to provoke fresh insights on a foundational topic. The result is a recently published book with Oxford University Press, Interpretation in International Law. The book is co-edited by Andrea Bianchi, Professor of International Law at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. A symposium of papers dealing with discrete interpretive topics from the conference also featured in the Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law.

In his preface, James Crawford describes our book as ‘teeter[ing] intriguingly between interpretation in the way international lawyers normally think about it and interpretation as everything they think about’. International lawyers normally think about interpretation with reference to the rules in the VCLT. Indeed, the literature on treaty interpretation is voluminous. This work is invaluable: it provides states and other actors in the international arena with a guide to the conventionally accepted norms of interpretation in the community within which they operate. But this project does not tell the whole story. It does not interrogate the larger purpose of interpretation in the international legal system, whether and why the VCLT rules act as a constraint on interpretation in practice, whether actors’ interpretations differ according to their professional identities, or if strategy motivates interpretive choice. In their mantra-like recital of the VCLT as a formal methodology for the interpretation of international legal rules, international lawyers till a bounded field, largely insulated from interdisciplinary influence or insight. A greater awareness of broader interpretive debates helps shed light on both the underlying premises and shortcomings of the rule-based orthodoxy. In short, interpretation in international law is not an island.

Our introductory chapter to Interpretation in International Law, which is freely available here, surveys the ‘state of play’ of scholarship on interpretation in international law, before analysing alternative approaches to the ascertainment of meaning. Such approaches reveal that any interpretive inquiry rests upon contestable bases regarding meaning, language and the importance of societal context and norms. The view that the interpretive inquiry in international law is reducible to, and exhausted by, the VCLT rules is overly reductionist.

The book is structured around the metaphor of the game, which captures and illuminates the constituent elements of an act of interpretation. The object of the game of interpretation is to persuade the audience that one’s interpretation of the law is correct. There are players who are engaged in the game, namely functionally specialised interpretive communities who deploy international law as a professional vocabulary. The VCLT rules of play are known and complied with by the players, even though much is left to their strategies. There is also a meta-discourse about the game of interpretation – ‘playing the game of game-playing’ – which involves consideration of the nature of the game, its underlying stakes, and who gets to decide by what rules one should play.

The game metaphor is more than a rhetorical flourish. It offers a heuristic framework that highlights topics of crucial importance in order to foster innovative thinking on interpretation in international law. The argument is not that interpretation is a game, but that particular facets of the comparison are illuminating and capable of capturing both routine interpretive operations as well as those advances that transform the law. To say that interpretation in international law is akin to playing a game does not imply that the process is frivolous or that the parties involved in interpretation are not seriously engaged in it. Rather, in its attention to interpretation as a complex social practice, and in its focus on socio-historical contingency and the relationship between freedom and constraint, the game metaphor helps reinsert some vitality in a discipline that has too often become bogged down in formalist interpretive technique.

Interpretation in International Law breaks free from a myopic focus on the VCLT to reveal interpretation as a phenomenon that permeates all areas of international law as a discipline and professional practice. We hope to convince readers that the game metaphor crystallises a set of concerns that are too often neglected in a formalist rule-based paradigm. Topics canvassed in the book are deliberately eclectic, ranging from theories of rhetoric and argumentation to the sociology of precedent, from cognitive frames of interpretation to the politics of hermeneutics.

Over the next few days, several of the book’s contributors will introduce their chapters. Duncan Hollis examines the object of the game of interpretation in terms of its existential function. Michael Waibel analyses the players of the game by discussing the nature of interpretive and epistemic communities in international law. Julian Arato confronts the paradox that, despite the unity and universality of the VCLT rules, there is a practice of affording some treaties differential treatment in the process of interpretation. Fuad Zarbiyev characterises the interpretive method of textualism in strategic terms, revealing the historical contingencies that led to it being regarded as sacrosanct in international law. Philip Allott’s contribution to the symposium is emblematic of the aims of the book: to promote critical and open-minded reflection on interpretive practices and processes in international law.

We are grateful to our contributors for their participation, and to Opinio Juris for hosting this discussion. We hope that the insights contained in Interpretation in International Law, and this symposium, will stimulate further research on interpretation that does not shy away from methodological innovation and creativity.

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/04/06/book-symposium-interpretation-in-international-law-whats-in-a-game/

Weekly News Wrap: Monday, April 6, 2015

by Jessica Dorsey

Your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:

Africa

Middle East and Northern Africa

Asia

  • An Indonesian court will rule on Monday on an appeal against President Joko Widodo’s refusal of clemency for two Australian drug convicts who are facing execution by firing squad.
  • North Korea fired four short-range missiles off its west coast on Friday in what South Korea called a bid to stoke tension during its annual joint military drills with the United States and has declared a no-sail zone for its ships off its east coast, South Korean media reported on Monday, suggesting more missile launches are possible before the U.S. defense chief visits Seoul this week.
  • A Chinese naval frigate has evacuated 225 foreign citizens from strife-torn Yemen, its foreign ministry said, marking the first time that China’s military has helped other countries evacuate their people during an international crisis.

Europe

Americas

Oceania

UN/World

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/04/06/weekly-news-wrap-monday-april-6-2015/
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Weekend Roundup: April 4, 2015

by An Hertogen

This week on Opinio Juris, Kevin posted links to Justice in Conflict‘s symposium on Palestine and the ICC (1, 2), and commented on John Bellinger’s op-ed on the prosecution of ISIS through the ICC. Following the University of Southampton’s withdrawal of its permission for a conference on Israel, Kevin argued that Israel’s defenders use double standards when it comes to academic freedom. He also asked for reader recommendations for a good book on the practicalities of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.

Duncan noted the usage of “will”, as opposed to “shall”, in the Iran nuclear deal, as an indication of the political, rather than the legal nature, of the commitments.

In a guest post, Sushma Nagaraj noted the Delhi High Court’s embrace of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

Finally, Jessica wrapped up the international news headlines and I listed events and announcements.

Thank you for following us on Opinio Juris. Have a great weekend!

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/04/04/weekend-roundup-april-4-2015/
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Weekly News Wrap: Monday, March 30, 2015

by Jessica Dorsey

Your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:

Africa

  • Kenya’s government said it was “shocked and concerned” over the latest travel warnings issued by the UK and others and said security conditions in the east African country were improving.
  • Islamist Boko Haram insurgents launched two deadly attacks on voters in northeast Nigeria on Saturday, police and a security source said, killing six people in an election in which insecurity is a major issue.
  • In Sudan, Reuters covers an unlikely path to jihad for students.
  • The number of people in northern Cameroon who have fled their homes fearing the violence in neighboring Nigeria and cross-border raids by Islamist sect Boko Haram doubled in March to 117,000, a United Nations survey showed.

Middle East and Northern Africa

Asia

Europe

Americas

Oceania

UN/World

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/03/30/weekly-news-wrap-monday-march-30-2015/
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Weekend Roundup: March 15-26, 2015

by Jessica Dorsey

In the last fortnight at Opinio Juris, we saw Julian critique M. Cherif Bassiouni on his take on the Amanda Knox case in Italy, arguing that she would indeed be extraditable to the US.

Peter analyzed whether the Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz is in fact a natural-born citizen (spoiler alert: he is).

Kevin posted his thoughts on the two-year anniversary of the death of Chinua Achebe and a response to a Just Security post from Blank, Corn and Jensen on the assessment of proportionality and finally a response to Bartels (also posting on Just Security) on perfidy.

We received a guest post from Sonya Sceats on China as a shaper of international law, in conjunction with a series of meetings at Chatham House. And finally, An posted on events here, I did here, and I added two weekly news wraps (here and here).

Thanks to our guest contributors and to you for following us on Opinio Juris. Have a great weekend!

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/03/28/weekend-roundup-march-15-26-2015/
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Weekly News Wrap: Tuesday, March 24, 2015

by Jessica Dorsey

Your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:

Africa

Middle East and Northern Africa

Asia

Europe

Americas

Oceania

UN/World

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/03/24/weekly-news-wrap-tuesday-march-24-2015/
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Weekly News Wrap: Monday, March 16, 2015

by Jessica Dorsey

Your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:

Africa

  • The conviction of ex-president Laurent Gbagbo’s allies for their role in the violence that followed the 2011 election in Ivory Coast has deepened a rift in his party that risks radicalizing hardliners ahead of polls this year in the world’s top cocoa grower, analysts say.
  • Somali Islamist militants killed at least one man and wounded three others in the northern Kenyan town of Mandera on Sunday, the second deadly attack in the area in three days, an official and the Islamist group said.

Middle East and Northern Africa

Asia

  • Japan’s ‘comfort women’ battle has spilled over into the United States.
  • Myanmar expressed “deep sorrow” on Monday for the deaths of five people across the border in China’s Yunnan province that it has been blamed for, and said it was jointly investigating the incident with Beijing.
  • China’s relations with Japan face a “test” this year linked to whether Japan can properly atone for its wartime past, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Sunday.
  • About $1 million provided by the CIA to a secret Afghan government fund ended up in the hands of al Qaeda in 2010 when it was used to pay a ransom for an Afghan diplomat, the New York Times reported on Saturday.

Europe

Americas

Oceania

UN/World

  • The United Nations has postponed until next week a new round of talks with Libyan politicians to try to end a crisis that has left the country with two rival governments and armed factions battling for power and oil wealth.
  • One of the Pacific Ocean’s most powerful ever storms devastated the island nation of Vanuatu on Saturday, tearing off roofs, uprooting trees and killing at least eight people with the toll set to rise, aid officials said and the United Nations was preparing a major relief operation and Australia said it was ready to offer its neighbor whatever help it could.
http://opiniojuris.org/2015/03/16/weekly-news-wrap-monday-march-16-2015/
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Weekend Roundup: March 8-14, 2015

by Jessica Dorsey

This week on Opinio Juris, we saw some analysis on the recent letter sent by US Republicans to Iran. Julian kicked off the discussion by pointing out the (unnecessary?) letter explaining the US Constitution and foreign relations law and Peter questioned whether the letter might be unconstitutional and even criminal. Julian offered further thoughts about why the Congress should be involved in the process, after Iran responded to the letter. Duncan spelled out the President’s options for dealing with Iran, with a focus on international commitments and domestic authority to commit the US internationally and Julian found a workaround toward a legally binding solution via a Security Council resolution on the matter.

Kevin added a few of his thoughts on the recent domestic conviction by the Ivory Coast of Simone Gbagbo and complementarity at the ICC, and offered a mea culpa on the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah in 2006. Finally, Tom Ruys offered a response to a recent discussion with his guest post on self-defense and non-state actors in the Cold War Era. We saw a lot of discussion on all the posts this week in the comments.

I wrapped up the news here and listed the events and announcements here.

Thanks for following us and have a great weekend!

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/03/14/weekend-roundup-march-8-14-2015/
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Weekly News Wrap: Monday, March 9, 2015

by Jessica Dorsey

Your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:

Africa

Middle East and Northern Africa

Asia

Europe

Americas

Oceania

  • Australia is systematically violating the international Convention Against Torture by detaining children in immigration detention, and holding asylum seekers in dangerous and violent conditions on Manus Island, a United Nations report has found.

UN/World

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/03/09/weekly-news-wrap-monday-march-9-2015/
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Weekend Roundup: February 21- March 6, 2015

by An Hertogen

This fortnight on Opinio Juris, Kristen discussed the Elders Proposal for Strengthening the UN and its proposals to change the selection process for the position of the Secretary-General

Jens pointed out how the end of an armed conflict can be as legally complex as its start, and wrote about the proposed CIA reorganisation.

Patryk Labuda contributed a guest post on hybrid justice in Africa

Julian asked whether Japan will embrace the ‘illegal but legitimate view of the UN Charter’s limits on the use of force. He also wondered whether the proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act amounts to a violation of the principle of non-intervention. Julian then argued that the proposed Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act would only impose modest oversight on the administration, and should therefore not be vetoed by the President, although he pointed out that it is close to having enough votes to override a veto. Julian also updated us on the latest steps in the Ghana-Côte d’Ivoire ITLOS arbitration.

Kevin traced the march of the “unwilling and unable” doctrine through academia and spread the news about job vacancies at SOAS

Jessica wrapped up the international news headlines (1, 2) and we listed events and announcements (1, 2).

Have a nice weekend!

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/03/07/weekend-roundup-february-21-march-6-2015/
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Weekly News Wrap: Monday, March 2, 2015

by Jessica Dorsey

Your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:

Africa

Middle East and Northern Africa

Asia

Europe

Americas

Oceania

UN/World

http://opiniojuris.org/2015/03/02/weekly-news-wrap-monday-march-2-2015/
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