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Trade, Economics and Environment

The Incredible Shrinking Climate Agreement?

by Daniel Bodansky

[Dan Bodansky is the Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is in Paris for the climate change negotiations. This is the fourth in a series of updates both from the U.S. and from Paris. Professor Bodansky has consulted for the government of Switzerland and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) in relation to the Paris Summit. However, he is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss government or C2ES.]

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from COP to COP.” For many, that might be the slogan of the UN climate change regime. Or, to mix literary metaphors, the COPs are reminiscent of Sartre’s No Exit, where hell consisted of being locked in a room talking to the same small group of people for eternity.

Paris is the opportunity to prove the skeptics wrong – to show that the climate change regime can take a real step forward, rather than just creep along from COP to COP. But whether it will succeed in doing so remains an open question.

First, the good news. Paris is definitely one of the best-organized COPs ever – the French have done a fantastic job. And the mood, perhaps not coincidentally, is also good, totally unlike the poisonous atmosphere in Copenhagen, where some countries sought to systematically undermine the Danish Presidency. In contrast, one hears nothing but praise for the French team’s handling of COP21. Instead of angry protesters outside the venue, people are handing out apples, as a taste of biodiversity.

Moreover, the text is gradually being streamlined to a more manageable size. Parisagreement.org, a group based at UC San Diego, have been tracking the number of brackets and options in each successive iteration of the negotiating text. According to their figures, the number of brackets in the December 5 text has shrunk by 45% from the November 10 text, and the number of options by 60%. Of course, their work reminds me a bit of the Monty Python skit in which John Cleese compares the difficulty of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of the number of words they contain: Hamlet has 8262, Othello has 941 words fewer, and so forth. But then he adds, “Ah well, I don’t want you to get the impression it’s just the number of words … I mean, getting them in the right order is just as important.” Something similar could be said of brackets; it’s not just the number, it’s also a matter of whether they reflect real differences or are just negotiating ploys. That said, I do think it’s fair to infer that the shrinking number of brackets and options reflects progress. And I remain optimistic that there will be an agreement this week in Paris.

The question is what will survive the negotiating process and make it into the agreement. Although the text is in better shape than many expected and the number of crunch issues is relatively manageable, states continue to push proposals that have no prospect of being accepted, in an effort to gain negotiating leverage. So progress remains slow.

The political imperative of reaching a deal gives tremendous leverage to potential naysayers. The usual solution, when time is running out, is to cut and cut and cut, until the outcome doesn’t push any country past its comfort zone. Developing countries want strong provisions on finance and differentiation, while developed countries want more modest provisions. Conversely, developed countries want strong provisions on transparency and updating (to promote progressively higher mitigation ambition), while the big developing countries do not. How to bridge these differences? The easiest solution is to trade weak provisions on finance and differentiation for weak provisions on transparency and updating.

Even if this is how the end game plays out – and that is, of course, by no means a foregone conclusion – I don’t think it would be fair to characterize the Paris process as a failure. Paris has served as a catalyst both for national governments and for sub-national and non-governmental initiatives. It has prompted more than 185 countries to put forward INDCs, which would reduce emissions by an estimated 4-8 gigatons below business as usual by 2030, according to a recent report by UNEP. It has led to a groundswell of activities by cities, regions, and companies. And it has spawned initiatives like Mission Innovation, announced last week by President Obama, President Hollande, and leaders from 18 other countries, who pledged to double their clean energy R & D over the next five years, as well as the related private initiative, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, led by Bill Gates. So, in many ways, Paris is already a success. Nevertheless, the international agreement that the Paris process is supposed to produce is also a key ingredient. If the INDCs submitted by countries aren’t bolstered by an agreement with strong provisions on transparency and ambition, then I think Paris will be a lost opportunity to show that the UN process can do more than creep – that there’s a way out of the room within which the negotiators have been locked.

Success in the Paris Climate Negotiations in Broader Context

by Hari Osofsky

[Hari Osofsky is a law professor, faculty director of the Energy Transition Lab, and director of the Joint Degree Program in Law, Science & Technology at the University of Minnesota. She is serving as chair of the American Society of International Law’s observer delegation at the 2015 Paris climate change negotiations. Any views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of either the University of Minnesota or the American Society of International Law.]

I appreciate the opportunity to guest blog with Opinio Juris while at the Paris climate change negotiations this week. I will aim in my blogs to complement Dan Bodansky’s excellent assessment of the negotiations among state parties by examining the broader context of what would be required to address climate change adequately and the activities by other key stakeholders.

From my observation of the first Comité de Paris and hallway conversations on Monday, December 7, the parties still seem on track to reach some sort of agreement in Paris, though perhaps not by the Friday deadline. While there are certainly some differences yet to be resolved, the tone appears to be unusually cooperative at this stage according to those who have attended many of these negotiations.

However, even if the agreement contains reference to the need to keep warming less than 1.5 degrees, which appears increasingly likely, the state parties are highly unlikely to actually achieve that with their current commitments. As one civil society participant from Latin America remarked to me yesterday, the key question is whether we hold warming at 3 or 4 degrees. While I certainly hope he is wrong, we are not on track, even is these negotiations successfully conclude, to mitigate at the levels that scientists say are needed. And as I have analyzed in forthcoming articles with Jackie Peel  and Hannah Wiseman, even if we can find ways to more constructively address energy partisanship in the United States, the Clean Power Plan will involve a complex integration of an environmental cooperative federalist law with a largely state- and regionally-based energy system.

So how do we bridge the gap between what negotiations among nation-states can achieve and what is needed? Two key pieces of that puzzle are subnational governments and the private sector (particularly corporations and investors), and my blogs this week will focus on some of their activities here.

In the process, I will also try to convey, for those who have not attended international negotiations like these, the concentric circles of activity taking place here, with access limitations between each ring. At the core are the nation-states negotiating, and even some of those meetings are only open to subsets of those negotiators. A key concern raised in the Comité de Paris by several state parties on Monday night was the need for more transparency and inclusion in the informal facilitated streams taking place this week to try to bridge differences. Outside of that are official observers, who can gain access to only a very limited set of the negotiations but are able to enter the “Blue Zone,” which contains the negotiating spaces and many of the high-level side events. Outside of the restricted space, a hall in Le Bourget and venues around Paris contain events open to the many people who are here without access passes.

As I move between sessions in the “Blue Zone” space, the people around me exude a sense of being rushed and busy with important tasks as they race among meetings and cluster in small groups in hallways. I am continually reminded of an observation by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the-chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, when she presented  at the climate change negotiations in 2005, the year that the Inuit submitted their petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claiming that U.S climate change policy violated their rights:

I have attended three COPs. People rush from meeting to meeting arguing about all sorts of narrow technical points. The bigger picture, the cultural picture, the human picture is being lost. Climate change is not about bureaucrats scurrying around. It is about families, parents, children, and the lives we lead in our communities in the broader environment. We have to regain this perspective if climate change is to be stopped.

While many at these negotiations clearly have that bigger-picture focus, I think that continually reminding ourselves of what all these legal conversations are really about is critical. Achieving an agreement that goes farther than anything that preceded it at Paris would certainly be a form of success, but ultimately we only succeed if we limit human suffering and ecosystem damage—and develop new opportunities—through mitigating and adapting adequately.

Crunch Issues in Paris

by Daniel Bodansky

[Dan Bodansky is the Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is in Paris for the climate change negotiations. This is the third in a series of updates both from the U.S. and from Paris. Professor Bodansky has consulted for the government of Switzerland and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) in relation to the Paris Summit. However, he is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss government or C2ES.]

In an earlier post, I expressed cautious optimism that the Paris conference will succeed in adopting a legal agreement that requires countries to formulate and submit emission reduction plans, provides for international transparency and review, and establishes a process for countries to periodically ratchet up their efforts. But although the broad outlines of the agreement have been apparent for several years, a number of important issues remain to be resolved, on which the conference could still founder.

Here’s a brief summary of the “crunch” issues:

• How to reflect the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC)?

The issue of differentiation has been one of the most controversial since the inception of the UN climate change regime, and plays out across all of the different elements of the Paris agreement: mitigation, adaptation, finance, and transparency. It’s clear that the Paris agreement will move away from the rigid differentiation between Annex I and non-Annex I countries found in the Kyoto Protocol, towards a more global approach. But will any vestige of the Annex I/non-Annex I dichotomy remain?

Developed countries mostly argue that the concept of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) implies self-differentiation and that this self-differentiation is sufficient. But many developing countries would like some continuation of the categorical, annex-based approach found in the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. The 2014 US-China joint announcement added the phrase “in light of different national circumstances” to the principle of CBDR-RC, apparently to give it a more dynamic quality. This formulation was included in the Lima Call for Action (.pdf), and will almost certainly find its way into the Paris Agreement. But a general reference to CBDR-RC will likely not be enough to satisfy developing countries, so expect to see some additional language on differentiation in particular articles, for example, those on mitigation and transparency.

I don’t see the US and other developed countries accepting a reference in the Paris agreement to the UNFCCC annexes, which they view as outmoded, but my guess is that negotiators will find some language to bridge the gap – for example, in the context of mitigation, a principle of progression, which provides that countries that have previously pledged absolute economy-wide targets should continue to do so and that all countries should aim to do so over time. This formulation, in effect, differentiates between Annex I countries (which all pledged absolute, economy wide emissions targets in Copenhagen) and non-Annex I countries, without any explicit reference to the annexes, and thus might be acceptable to both sides.

• Whether to include a long-term decarbonization goal?

In Copenhagen, states agreed to a goal of limiting climate change to no more than 2° C. There is considerable – but not universal – support for supplementing this goal with a long-term decarbonization goal, like that included in the G-8 Leaders Statement last June, to provide a signal to business and investors. Many countries would like to include a decarbonization goal in the Paris agreement itself, but if consensus cannot be reached to do so, a possible fallback would be to include the goal in the Conference of the Parties (COP) decision that adopts the Paris agreement, which would give the goal a slightly lesser political status.

• Whether to include a commitment that parties implement their nationally determined contributions (NDCs)?

A central issue in the negotiations has been what commitments to include with respect to NDCs. There is broad agreement to include procedural commitments – for example, to formulate, submit, and periodically update NDCs. And even countries that seek to make NDCs legally binding seem to accept that the agreement will not commit countries to achieve their NDCs (thus distinguishing the Paris agreement from the Kyoto Protocol). But the European Union and some developing countries wish to include a commitment relating to implementation of NDCs.

A duty to implement, as compared to a duty to achieve, is an obligation of conduct rather than result. But if the Paris agreement contained a straightforward obligation on parties to implement their NDCs, then the difference between the two approaches appears small, since, arguably, the test of whether a state has implemented its NDC is whether it has achieved its NDC. This has led to a search for softer formulations of the commitment to implement: for example, a commitment to adopt measures “aimed” or “intended” to implement a country’s NDC, or a commitment to adopt implementing measures “related to” a country’s NDC. The trick is to find some formulation that (more…)

State Department Confirms that Senators Rubio and Cotton were Right, Professors Ackerman and Golove were Wrong

by Julian Ku

I can’t resist one final post to complete an earlier discussion between myself and professors Bruce Ackerman and David Golove on the legal status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.  As several others in the blogosphere have noted, the U.S. State Department has confirmed, in a letter to Congress, the following:

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not a treaty or an executive agreement, and is not a signed document. The JPCOA reflects political commitments between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China) and the European Union. As you know, the United States has a long-standing practice of addressing sensitive problems in negotiations that culminate in political commitments.

(Thanks to Michael Ramsey at the Originalism Blog and Matthew Weybrecht at Lawfare for noting and posting this letter).

This letter confirms that, contra the argument advanced by Professors Ackerman and Golove in the Atlantic and on this blog, the JCPOA is NOT a congressional-executive agreement authorized by Congress when it passed the Iran Review Act last spring.  Rather, the entire JCPOA is a “political commitment.”

As Professor Ramsey correctly notes, this means that Senator Marco Rubio was quite right in saying that, if elected President, he could withdraw the JCPOA without violating U.S. or international law.  It also means that Senator Tom Cotton was quite right, as a practical matter, in his famous open letter saying that the next US president could withdraw the agreement.  And it means (less importantly in the grand scheme of things but important for me), that I was right in saying that the JCPOA is not a congressional-executive agreement.

The larger issue is this: If the President is going to go around making political commitments, that’s fine.  But he should be clear that this is what he is doing so that smart people like Professors Ackerman and Golove don’t get confused into thinking he is making a binding agreement..  As Dan Bodansky explains, the U.S. is going to make the Paris Agreement a political commitment (at least with regards to emissions reductions).  As I’ve been arguing here and elsewhere, the U.S. should be clear about what it is doing in Paris, and what it is not.

What Would Constitute Success in Paris?

by Daniel Bodansky

[Dan Bodansky is the Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Center for Law and Global Affairs at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He will be in Paris for the climate change negotiations. This is the first in a series of updates both from the U.S. and from Paris. Professor Bodansky has consulted for the government of Switzerland and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) in relation to the Paris Summit. However, he is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Swiss government or C2ES.]

The latest episode of the long-running drama known as the UN climate change negotiations begins this week in Paris. Commentators are touting the Paris conference as “historic”, “pivotal,” the “last chance” for the world to address the climate change problem. So what would constitute success?

For the past couple of decades, political scientists and international lawyers have debated how to measure the effectiveness of international environmental regimes. The gold standard of effectiveness is whether an agreement solves the problem that it seeks to address. That would require the Paris conference to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic climate change” – the explicit objective of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. No one is exactly sure how much global warming would be compatible with this objective; to the extent severe weather events like the 2003 Paris heat wave (.pdf) or Hurricane Sandy can be attributed to global warming, then perhaps we are already in the dangerous zone. At the Copenhagen Conference, the international community defined the goal less stringently, as warming of less than 2° C above pre-industrial levels. But some think that 2° itself would be too much, arguing for limits of 1.5° or even .

So far, the world has warmed by about 1°, according to the latest data from the UK Met Office. This might suggest that we’ve still got some headroom, measured against the 2° temperature. But the climate system has tremendous inertia, so the effects of past emissions have been only partially realized. Even if we stopped emitting completely right now, the world would still warm by another half degree or more before leveling off. And, of course, global emissions continue to go up rather than down, and peak emissions, let alone zero emissions, are still more than a decade away.

The bottom line is that there is no prospect that the Paris conference will, in itself, put us on a pathway to meeting the below-2° limit. The emission reduction goals that countries have submitted as part of the Paris process (known in climate change argot as “intended nationally determined contributions” or INDCs) instead put the world on a pathway to global warming of around 3° or 3.5°. So if we take problem-solving effectiveness as our measure of success, then we are bound to be disappointed.

But few public policies fully solve the problem that they address; by that standard, virtually every public policy falls short. In my view, the more reasonable test is whether the Paris conference results in a significant improvement over what would have happened otherwise. And by this measure, the Paris conference is likely to be successful.

How should we assess whether Paris is moving us in the right direction? I would suggest four elements:

• First, is the Paris agreement global in its coverage?
• Second, have countries pledged to make significant reductions in their emissions?
• Third, does the agreement establish mechanisms to promote transparency and accountability, so that we will know whether countries do what they say?
• Fourth, does the agreement provide a process to to ratchet up its level of ambition over time?

On the first element, the Paris process can already be counted a success. More than 150 countries, representing more than 85% of global emissions, have come forward with INDCs – that is pledges of what they’re going to do to reduce emissions. Compared to the Kyoto Protocol, which even in its prime covered only about 25% of global emissions, this a major step forward.

Second, the INDCs that countries have submitted represent a significant improvement over current policy. According to a recent analysis by the UN Climate Change Secretariat, they would reduce emissions by about 3 gigatons (GT) CO2e in 2025 and 4 GT in 2030, as compared to the business-as-usual trajectory. Although this falls well short of putting the world on a below-2° pathway, global warming of 3° C would still be better than 3.5°, and 3.5° better than 4°, and 4° better than 5°. So if Paris moves us down the scale of likely warming, then this represents progress.

Third, countries seem likely to agree to a relatively robust system of reporting and review. While transparency in itself does not ensure that countries will comply, at least it would allow the international community to assess whether countries are living up to their pledges, and to exert peer pressure if they don’t.

Finally, countries also look likely to agree to come back every five years to take stock of what’s been achieved and how that compares to the 2° goal, and to put forward new, more ambitious emission reduction plans.

So I am cautiously optimistic about the Paris conference. Of course, one shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of the UN climate change process to seize defeat from the jaws of victory. And the victory would, in any event, be only partial. But if Paris establishes a durable framework that is global in scope, provides for transparency, and pushes to strengthen ambition over time, then, for me, that would be a significant achievement and would constitute success.

International Law Does Not Prohibit Commercial Asteroid Mining. Nor Should It.

by Julian Ku

Last week, the U.S. Congress passed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 (or the “Space Act”), which will authorize private U.S. companies to own and sell resources they extract from objects in space. Supporters (and detractors) are calling this historic, because it is the first time the U.S. government has plainly authorized commercial exploitation of outer space resources.  Here is some key language from the bill, which President Obama is expected to sign.

§ 51303. Asteroid resource and space resource rights

“A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.”.

This provision has been criticized as violating U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.  Chief among those obligations is Article I of that treaty:

The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.

There is also Article II, which seems to restrict claims of sovereignty in outer space.

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
The Space Act of 2015 tries to avoid this potential conflict by limiting itself to authorizing private citizen (as opposed to “national”) exploitation, and subjecting that exploitation to “international obligations of the United States.”  The Act also goes on to “disclaim” extraterritorial sovereignty (shouldn’t that be “extraterrestrial” by the way?)

It is the sense of Congress that by the enactment of this Act, the United States does not thereby assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.

I think the law’s backers are correct that it does not violate US treaty obligations. All it does is allow private US citizens to “possess, own, transport, use, and sell” extraterrestrial resources without violating U.S. law.

On the other hand, it is also true that other spacefaring countries could allow their citizens to do the same.  Indeed, I think their government space agencies could probably also do so, als long as they are not “claiming sovereignty.”  Without an explicit international treaty regulating commercial space resource exploitation, it will ultimately be a question of each country’s domestic regulations.   Can the U.S. live with that result?

I think it can.  In my view, the UN Law of the Sea created a complicated bureaucracy for handling management of the international seabed, way before any commercial exploitation of that seabed was even possible.  We don’t know yet what types of exploitation are feasible, and we might as well let this process evolve on its own before demanding a worldwide international treaty on the subject.  There will be plenty of time for that.

A Treaty or Not a Treaty? My Senate Testimony About the Paris Climate Change Agreement

by Julian Ku

I had the honor and pleasure of testifying today before the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.  The topic of the hearing was “Examining International Climate Negotiations” and the upcoming conference in Paris. My own contribution argued that an agreement with legally binding emissions reduction obligations should be submitted to the Senate as a treaty rather than as a sole executive agreement.  I further argued that the Senate should require to the State Department to clarify which parts of a climate change agreement are legally binding, and which ones are merely non-binding political commitments.

You can watch the oral testimony and the questions below on C-SPAN (my testimony starts around the 11’40” mark. Almost all of the testimony has to do with the substantive merits of such an agreement (about which I express no opinion), as opposed to the legal aspects. So I will go ahead and declare victory for my argument by default.

The ICC Gets Its New Headquarters — and They Are Amazing

by Kevin Jon Heller

A couple of years ago, I praised the winning design for the ICC’s permanent home but acknowledged that I preferred a different one. I’m happy to report that I was wrong, at least aesthetically: the Court’s new headquarters are absolutely beautiful. Here are a few photos:

International-Criminal-Court_Hague_Schmidt-Hammer-Lassen-Architects_dezeen_1568_3

International-Criminal-Court_Hague_Schmidt-Hammer-Lassen-Architects_dezeen_936_8

International-Criminal-Court_Hague_Schmidt-Hammer-Lassen-Architects_dezeen_936_6

You can tell the Court’s staff is eager to move into their new home, because there is a large sign in the current building’s foyer that is actually counting down the time. And I don’t blame them — the complex really is an architectural masterpiece.

That said, I confess that I still find the move a bit troubling, both because of the cost — approximately €190,000,000, though the ICC website dedicated to the project is strangely silent about finances — and because the grandeur of the new headquarters far surpasses the Court’s accomplishments to date. We can only hope that the Court grows into its new home — I would hate to see such magnificence wasted on rebels like Ongwen and deposed leaders like Gbagbo. This is the kind of dock suitable for the Bushes and Blairs of the world.

PS: On Facebook, my friend and SOAS colleague Stephen Hopgood — author of the must-read The Endtimes of Human Rights — criticises the “distant, imperious and abstract concept of justice” this kind of minimalist High Modernist architecture “symbolise[s] for the peoples of the whole, diverse world.” I think that’s an excellent point.

Can You Be Pro-Free Trade and Anti-Investor State Dispute Settlement?

by Julian Ku

Simon Lester of Worldtradelaw.net and the Cato Institute offered a very interesting pro-free trade argument against the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in trade agreements like the TransPacific Partnership or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.  I disagree and we discussed and debated the issue today in a lively conversation hosted by Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Investment.

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…

Under the New “Investor-State Arbitration” in the Trans Pacific Partnership, Claimants May Have to Pay Attorneys’ Fees

by Julian Ku

The U.S. and eleven other Pacific Rim countries announced they have reached agreement on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which will more tightly integrate 40% of the world’s economy into a single regional bloc. There will be a huge fight in Congress over the TPP by progressive Democrats in the U.S. Even presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has already announced her opposition (sort of).

One area of ire for critics will certainly be the TPP’s provisions for investor-state dispute resolution (See Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s attack on this area here).  The TPP negotiators seem to have recognized that those provisions needed modifications and they seem to have focused on providing more transparency in arbitral proceedings.  But I was particularly struck by the U.S. Trade Representative’s official summary of the agreement’s provisions on investor state arbitration below.

The chapter also provides for neutral and transparent international arbitration of investment disputes, with strong safeguards to prevent abusive and frivolous claims and ensure the right of governments to regulate in the public interest, including on health, safety, and environmental protection.  The procedural safeguards include:  transparent arbitral proceedings, amicus curiae submissions, non-disputing Party submissions; expedited review of frivolous claims and possible award of attorneys’ fees; review procedure for an interim award; binding joint interpretations by TPP Parties; time limits on bringing a claim; and rules to prevent a claimant pursuing the same claim in parallel proceedings.

I find this provision on attorneys’ fees fascinating. I presume this will allow state-respondents to actually recover attorneys’ fees from investor-claimants if those claims were somehow deemed frivolous.  I didn’t realize frivolous claims were actually a huge problem in investor-state dispute resolution.  I am not aware of data showing lots of weak claims being filed with state-respondents just settling to avoid the costs of arbitration.

I am also not aware of any other kind of international dispute resolution, public or private, which has this kind of arrangement. It is worth the wait to see the details, but it is sign the TPP negotiators are getting ready to take fire on this area from folks like Sen. Warren, and have added a little armor ahead of time.

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….