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UN and other Int’l Organizations

Human Rights Hypocrisy — Special Rapporteur for Torture Edition

by Kevin Jon Heller

PassBlue published a very disturbing article yesterday about nominations for five vacant UN Special Rapporteur positions. According to the article, although the President of the Human Rights Council, South Korea’s Choi Kyonglim, has endorsed four of the selection committee’s five first choices, he has refused to endorse its first choice for Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Karim Khan QC, in favour of the committee’s second choice, Nils Melzer. There is no question Melzer is a wonderful choice — he’s an accomplished scholar, has vast practical experience with the ICRC, and is a great person. The article suggests, however, that there may be a darker reason for Choi not endorsing Khan — Khan’s defence work at various international tribunals:

Khan has worked in the prosecutor’s office of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, two courts created to try perpetrators of grave crimes in the Yugoslav wars and Rwandan genocide of the 1990s. He has also represented victims in the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia formed to prosecute culprits of the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s.

Khan also has a rich history of defending suspects of mass atrocity crimes. His current clients include William S. Ruto, deputy president of Kenya, who until April was on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, charged with crimes against humanity. Khan has also worked on the defense of Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former vice president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In June, Bemba was found guilty by the court of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

One academic critic, based in Britain, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Khan had not showed enough dedication to protecting victims, given his defense of alleged criminals. This work, the person said, could clash with Khan’s role as special rapporteur if he had been nominated by the council president, should accusations be made against Ruto or other potential clients of his. (The Ruto case was vacated because of witness interference, but could be reopened if new evidence surfaces.)

In his application for the UN role, Khan wrote that “having acted for all sides in cases where torture is alleged, not only helps demonstrate my independence and ability to be impartial, but I believe that it can lend additional credibility to my role as Special Rapporteur.”

The case involving Ruto was deeply marred by witness intimidation, according to Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and judges who heard the case. Fergal Gaynor, who represents victims in the court’s case against Uhuru M. Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, has also questioned the extent of Khan’s commitment to justice for victims of violence.

“Bribery and intimidation of witnesses can and does collapse legitimate cases,” he said. “It is fair to question whether Mr. Khan appreciates how interference with witnesses can completely deprive torture victims of the ability to know the truth about the crimes committed against them, to have the wrongfulness of the torture publicly acknowledged, and to receive fair compensation for that torture.”

In an interview in 2014, Khan said of witness problems in the case, “I’m not sure witnesses have been and are being intimidated in this case. As I said, I have prosecuted and defended and represented the victims, and every single case I’ve been involved in has been headlined by ‘This is unprecedented witness intimidation’ and ‘unprecedented’ this and that.”

John Washburn, convener of the American Non-Governmental Organizations Coalition for the International Criminal Court, based at Columbia University, said the issue was “whether Khan’s actions as Ruto’s defense counsel displayed values and judgments that reflect on his suitability as rapporteur.”

The article is careful to avoid directly attributing these ideas to Choi. But given that Khan is the only first-choice candidate Choi has refused to endorse, it seems highly likely that Khan’s defence work is the reason. If so, that’s shocking. Defending individuals accused of serious international crimes is not inconsistent with human-rights work — it is human-rights work. It’s not an accident that Art. 14 of the ICCPR protects a defendant’s right to a fair trial. After all, show trials are a hallmark of repressive states, from Bangladesh to the United States.

This should be Human Rights 101. For some reason, though, the same “human-rights activists” who condemn unfair domestic criminal trials — special courts in Bangladesh and military commissions in the United States alike — fall silent when it comes to international trials. The tacit assumption — which should embarrass anyone who claims to care about human rights — is that an effective defence is unnecessary at international trials, because investigators always do a good job, the OTP is always motivated by a profound love of justice, judges are always infallible, and defendants are always guilty. All of those things are sometimes true. Perhaps even usually true. But not always. Sometimes an international tribunal doesn’t do its job and an innocent person is prosecuted. And it is precisely the job of skilled advocates like Khan to make sure those defendants are not convicted — or convicted only for crimes they actually committed.

I would say this about any defence attorney. (And of course I’m biased, having been one myself.) But it’s particularly appalling that Khan would be vilified for doing his job — anonymously, of course, because the British academic quoted above is a coward who wants to ensure his slander has no professional consequences. (As if anyone really cares what we academics think!) Khan has a sterling reputation as a defence attorney, no matter how contentious some of his trials might have been. I have never seen anyone claim — nor is there even the slightest evidence — that Khan was involved in the Kenyan government’s misconduct in Ruto. And I say that despite being completely convinced that the Kenyan government did, in fact, commit serious misconduct. The comments by Gaynor and Washburn are thus completely misplaced — and all too typical of the tendency, possessed by people who should know better, to conveniently forget that the right to a defence is a human right. But at least Gaynor and Washburn have the courage to attach their names to their opinions!

Finally, although it shouldn’t matter, it is worth remembering — as the article points out, to its credit — that Khan had a distinguished career as an international prosecutor before moving to the other side of the courtroom. He even has experience representing victims. Does he suddenly forget the importance of victims whenever he is retained to act for a defendant? Or does he simply understand that the rights of defendants are no less important than the rights of the other parties to a criminal trial?

I have no doubt Melzer, whom I’ve had the pleasure to know for more than a decade and think the world of, will make an excellent Special Rapporteur. But Khan would have made a great one, as well — and we are left to simply speculate how skilled Khan would have been at convincing states to cooperate with him, given his rich experience defending senior government officials. I hope, despite how it appears, that Choi preferred Melzer for reasons other than Khan’s work as a defence attorney. But if that is why he bypassed Khan, anyone who cares about human rights — all human rights — should be appalled.

Russia and the DNC Hack: What Future for a Duty of Non-Intervention?

by Duncan Hollis

There are lots of important issues implicated by this morning’s above-the-fold story in the New York Times that U.S. officials and certain cybersecurity experts (e.g., Crowdstrike) have concluded Russian government agencies bear responsibility for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers and leaking internal e-mails stored on them to Wikileaks (Russian responsibility for the hack itself was alleged more than a month ago).  The domestic fall-out is already on evidence with the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz and I’m sure we’ll see other impacts here in Philadelphia at this week’s Convention (although Senator Sanders so far is not using the event to walk back his endorsement of Hillary Clinton). U.S. national security officials are treating the news as a national security and counter-intelligence issue (as they absolutely should).

But what does international law have to say about a foreign government obtaining and leaking e-mails about another country’s on-going election processes? This is obviously not a case violating Article 2(4) since that only prohibits the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” and there’s no force at work in the current distribution of data otherwise intended to remain confidential.  But alongside the Charter’s prohibition on the use of force, customary international law has long recognized a ‘duty of non-intervention’ that applies to State behavior in cases falling short of the use of force.  The question then becomes whether the duty applies to this case and if so to what end?  For my part, I see at least three distinct sets of issues:  (i) attribution; (ii) the duty’s scope; (iii) the relevance of international law more generally to cyber security incidents like this one.

1. Attribution — Did Russia do this?  Attribution has both a factual and a legal element, both of which are at issue in the DNC case.  Factually, there’s the question of who actually perpetrated these hacks — the hacker(s) named Guccifer 2.0 claims responsibility but cybersecurity investigators suggest two separate penetrations tied to two different Russian hacker groups, “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear” (international lawyers take note of how much more fun cybersecurity officials have in naming stuff than we do).  Making the factual case of who did what in hacks such as this is always difficult even as recent technological advancements have improved the ability to trace-back in certain cases. Just as importantly, however, there’s always the possibility of a ‘false flag’ where the true perpetrator goes to great lengths to make investigators think some other actor was responsible (i.e, planting evidence/code in a particular language or using coding patterns associated with a particular group of actors).  Ironically, the potential for a false flag means that a State caught red-handed can always invoke plausible deniability and suggest that they are themselves a victim as some other, unknown super-sophisticated actor is trying to frame them.  One can safely assume, for example, that Russia will make this argument in the DNC case.  Indeed, even in cases that appear clear cut like Sony Pictures, there are still those who resist FBI’s assertions of North Korean responsibility.

A second aspect of the attribution inquiry is a more legal one — namely, assuming the individual actors who perpetrated the hack can be identified, when can their actions be attributed to a State? This is not really at issue if the perpetrators are in a State’s direct employ (e.g. military officers or intelligence officials).  But what happens if the perpetrators are nonstate actors?  How much control would a State like Russia need to exercise over the DNC hack and later leak for it to bear responsibility?  That question is one that different international fora have answered differently in different contexts (the ICJ’s Nicaragua case and ICTY’s Tadic case‘s competing tests of effective versus overall control being the most famous examples).  As such, it’s difficult to say at present what relationship a State must have with nonstate hackers or hacktivists to bear responsibility for what they do.  That may not be a bad thing overall, as one can imagine how a clear line might incentive States to proliferate behavior just short of crossing the line in lieu of being chilled from acting generally if the whole area is cast as a truly grey zone.  That said, the ability to debate what international law requires in terms of the State-nonstate actor relationship complicates any application of the duty of non-intervention in individual cases.

2. Scope: What behavior violates the duty of non-intervention?  Assuming that Russia was responsible (which I should be clear at this point is just an assumption), the next question is whether its hacking and leaking of DNC data violated the duty of non-intervention?  Here again, international lawyers will encounter some uncertainty as the precise scope of the duty has never been fully resolved.  To be clear, there’s widespread consensus that a duty of non-intervention is customary international law.  The problems are more the duty’s contents.  The most famous formulation is undoubtedly that put forth by the ICJ in the Nicaragua case (para. 205), prohibiting interventions

bearing on matters in which each State is permitted, by the principle of State sovereignty, to decide freely. One of these is the choice of a political, economic, social and cultural system, and the formulation of foreign policy. Intervention is wrongful when it uses methods of coercion in regard to such choices, which must remain free ones. The element of coercion, which defines, and indeed forms the very essence of, prohibited intervention, is particularly obvious in the case of an intervention which uses force, either in the direct form of military action, or in the indirect form of support for subversive or terrorist armed activities within another State.

The ICJ’s take suggests that intervention requires methods of coercion, forcing the victim State to make different choices than it might were it free of coercive interference.  This pairs with key parts of the earlier 1970 UN General Assembly Declaration on Friendly Relations Among States:

No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. Consequently, armed intervention and all other forms of interference or attempted threats against the personality of the State or against its political, economic and cultural elements, are in violation of international law.

No State may use or encourage the use of economic political or any other type of measures to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights and to secure from it advantages of any kind. Also, no State shall organize, assist, foment, finance, incite or tolerate subversive, terrorist or armed activities directed towards the violent overthrow of the regime of another State, or interfere in civil strife in another State.

Thus, much of the debate over the duty of non-intervention has focused on identifying which coercive measures below the use of force threshold are covered by the prohibition. But, looking at the DNC hack, there’s little evidence that Russia is trying to coerce any particular result. Indeed, it’s not even clear that the goal of the hack was to support Trump’s candidacy.  The operation could have other purposes; for example, I’ve seen suggestions that it might have been a response to Russian presumptions that the United States bears responsibility for the Panama Papers, a data breach that caused some discomfort to Putin’s administration.  Given this, might we not simply write this hack-off as a particularly visible form of espionage?  Is this case equivalent, for example, to the OPM hack?  That hack, while clearly contrary to U.S. national security interests, was not terribly susceptible to claims of an international law violation given international law’s longstanding, complicated relationship with surveillance (for more see Ashley Deek’s recent article).

I’m not so sure, however, that the duty of non-intervention can be dismissed so quickly.  For starters, the hackers did not just take the data and use it to inform their own policies or behavior. They also leaked it, and did so in a way where the timing clearly sought to maximize attention (and corresponding impacts) on the U.S. domestic political campaign process.  Perhaps we need to separate out this incident into two parts — the espionage (i.e., the hack itself) and the interference in the U.S. campaign using the fruits of that espionage.  Doing so suggests the leaking might be the problematic act under a less quoted paragraph of the 1970 U.N. General Assembly Declaration’s description of the duty of non-intervention:

Every State has an inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural systems, without interference in any form by another State.

Interference in ‘any form’ is clearly a broader formulation than coercive acts, suggesting that actions designed to impact public support for not just a particular candidate, but an entire “political” party, could implicate the duty of non-intervention here.  That said, there are others who’ve been thinking much more carefully on the question of non-intervention and cyberspace than I have.  Later this year, for example, we should be able to read the fruits of Tallinn 2.0, the much-anticipated follow-up to the Tallinn Manual and its take on international law applicable to cyberwar.  Tallinn 2.0 will offer the views of an independent group of experts on how international law regulates cyberspace outside of the use of force and jus in bello contexts, including the duty of non-intervention.  I imagine I’m not alone in wanting to know whether and how its contents will speak to the current DNC crisis.

3. Remedies:  Does International Law Really Matter Here? Talking about this case in the last 24 hours, I’ve had a couple of non-lawyer friends express skepticism over international law’s relevance to the DNC hack.  Given our age, my friends hearken back to the Cold War, suggesting that Russia can and will ignore international law with impunity here (one of the more sanguine among them, also pointed out that the United States has its own history of interfering in foreign elections, a point Jack Goldsmith made earlier today at Lawfare). And, to be sure, there’s some merit to this critique.  After all, Russia’s Security Council veto ensures the inability of that body to respond to these events in any way. And U.S. resistance to the jurisdiction of international courts and tribunals precludes any real chance that a third-party would review the case.

Still, I think it’s important to raise the international legal issues for at least three reasons.  First, and perhaps most obviously, international law does provide self-help remedies in cases of state responsibility, including retorsion (otherwise legal acts done in response to unlawful behavior) and counter-measures (behavior that would otherwise be unlawful but for the fact that it is itself in response to unlawful behavior).  Thus, if Russia was responsible for the DNC hack and that hack did violate the duty of non-intervention, it would free the United States to engage in counter-measures vis-a-vis Russia that would otherwise be unlawful.  Time and space preclude me from surveying all the various counter-measure options that the United States might have, although I’d note there’s an interesting ancillary question of whether international law might limit the U.S. from pursuing certain counter-measures — such as interfering in Russia’s own domestic political process — if doing so is analogous to humanitarian obligations, which are non-derogable (i.e., you cannot violate the human rights of another State’s nationals just because they violated your nationals’ human rights).  I’d welcome reader thoughts on such limits as well as a more open discussion of the types of counter-measures that might be legally available in this case or any collective measures that could be in play.

Second, there’s the question of what happens if international law is not invoked or applied to this case? To the extent state practice can involve acts and omissions, might silence suggest that this sort of behavior (hacking and releasing political parties’ internal communications) is perceived as lawful (or at least not internationally wrongful)?  In other words, how States react to this case will have follow-on effects on future expectations of responsible State behavior, leading to new norms of behavior in cybersecurity.  This is a topic on which I’ve been spending A LOT of time lately with a forthcoming article in the American Journal of International Law that I’ve co-authored with Martha Finnemore (we’ve not posted it yet, but interested readers should e-mail me if they’d like to see a draft).

Finally, there’s an academic reason to undertake this analysis.  In recent years, scholars have debated and emphasized ways to shrink the duty of non-intervention, under the banner of things like human rights (unseating the old assumption that international law did not care what a State did vis-a-vis its own citizens in its own territory) or humanitarian intervention (the idea that responding to a State’s failure to protect those within its borders is more important than the duty of other States to stay out of domestic jurisdiction matters).  I wonder if these arguments are relevant to the current controversy?  Have they inadvertently created space for additional exceptions or otherwise shifted the scope and reach of any duty of non-intervention?  I might be wrong to worry about any such link, but I do think the issue warrants further study.

Thus, I think this is an important case that bears close attention.  I’d like to see how the United States responds publicly, if at all, to the allegations, not to mention how other States or actors view the behavior in question.  For international lawyers, moreover, I’d hope to see further discussions of how to attribute responsibility in cyber security incidents as well as more detailed analyses of how the duty of non-intervention applies in cyberspace than we have had to date.  To that end, I’d welcome reader thoughts and comments.  What have I got wrong?  What am I missing?

 

Avoiding a Rush to the Exit – Article 50 and the UK’s Withdrawal from the EU

by Larry Helfer

[Laurence R. Helfer is the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law at Duke University and a permanent visiting professor at iCourts: Center of Excellence for International Courts at the University of Copenhagen.]

As the world reacts to the shock of the Brexit referendum, international lawyers are turning their attention to the mechanics of Britain’s departure from the EU.  Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – the clause governing withdrawal – is now front page news.  A state’s decision to leave any international organization raises thorny questions of law and politics.  As I explain below, Article 50 answers some of these questions for withdrawals from the EU, but leaves many others unresolved.

The basics of Article 50

EU law was originally silent as to whether a state could leave the Union, generating debate over whether there was an implied right to exit.  Article 50(1) settles this issue, providing that “any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”

Under Article 50, the decision to quit the EU is not self-executing, nor does it have immediate effect.  Rather, the exiting country must first “notify the European Council of its intention” to leave, which triggers a process for negotiations over withdrawal.  The hope, set out in Article 50(2), is that the remaining EU members and the departing nation will “conclude an agreement … setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.”  That agreement must be approved by a “qualified majority” of the Council (20 of the 27 remaining EU members), by the European Parliament, and by the UK itself.

Article 50’s third paragraph specifies that the Lisbon Treaty (and, by implication, all other EU laws) “shall cease to apply” to the exiting state on the date the withdrawal agreement enters into force.  If no agreement is reached, EU membership ends “two years after the notification” of withdrawal – unless the Council and the UK unanimously agree to an extension.  Once the UK has officially departed, it can rejoin only by following the Lisbon Treaty procedures applicable to states seeking admission to the EU for the first time.

The least worst outcome – bargaining for an orderly withdrawal

By setting the ground rules for Britain’s withdrawal, Article 50 is already shaping talks between London and Brussels over the terms of the UK’s exit.  The effects can be roughly divided into three time periods:  the pre-notification period, the negotiations phase (what one reporter waggishly calls the UK’s departure lounge), and the post-exit relationship between the Britain and the EU.

Brexit supporters did not wake up to an EU-free Britain on the morning after the referendum.  The UK is still a fully-fledged member of the Union – and it will remain so if the British government does not formally notify the European Council of its intent to withdraw.  Article 50 says nothing about how, when or by whom such notification is to be made.  Presumably, notice would be given by the Prime Minster.  Before the vote, David Cameron stated that he would inform the European Council “straight away” after a “leave” vote.  But on Thursday he announced that notification would be given by his successor, who will take office by October 2016.

Why the change?  Having campaigned against Brexit and lost, it is not surprising that Cameron wants someone else to pull the trigger on the UK’s withdrawal and squelch any campaign to block withdrawal – a possibility raised by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.  But even fervent British sovereigntists would be advised to support some delay in notifying the Council.  So long as the UK has not fired the starting gun on the two-year exit clock, it has the upper hand in negotiations with the other 27 EU nations.  Britain keeps both the benefits and the burdens of EU membership while the terms of its departure are hammered out.  It can’t be forced to leave the Union (or can it? – see below) unless those terms are to its liking.

Once notice is given, however, the advantage shifts to the continent.  If Britain and its former EU partners do not reach a deal within 24 months – or unanimously agree to extend negotiations – the UK is out.  A divorce that is finalized while the spouses are still squabbling over custody of the children and the division of marital property is messy and painful.  The equivalent for a non-negotiated Brexit – the sudden re-imposition of barriers to free movement of capital, goods and labor – is an outcome that even diehard British nationalists should want to avoid.

How long can the UK defer notification?  Article 50 doesn’t say, but politics rather than law will almost certainly provide the answer.  Both pro-Brexit voters and EU leaders are unlikely to oppose a modest delay.  But the uncertain economic and political fallout of a protracted British withdrawal will push both sides to the bargaining table regardless of when the UK gives notice – unless the British public catches a bad case of “Regrexit.”

Contrary to what some have claimed, however, the exit negotiations need not conclusively resolve London’s status vis-à-vis Brussels.  Article 50(2) requires a withdrawal agreement that “tak[es] account of the framework for [the UK’s] future relationship with the Union.”  An deal that takes plausible steps toward defining that relationship should suffice, even if it is a modus vivendi whose principal aim is an orderly disengagement.  The details of the Britain’s post-withdrawal status can be finalized at a later date – although in the interim EU law will cease to apply to the UK.

Avoiding a rush to the Brexit

As described above, Article 50’s withdrawal rules, although incomplete, do a reasonably good job of channeling the parties toward a political settlement of the UK’s departure over the next several years.  But some in the pro-Brexit camp are calling for more precipitous action, including introducing an EU Law (Emergency Provisions) Bill in the current session of the British Parliament to revise the European Communities Act 1972.  The Bill aims to “immediately end the rogue European Court of Justice’s control over national security, allow the Government to remove EU citizens whose presence is not conducive to the public good (including terrorists and serious criminals), [and] end the growing use of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights to overrule UK law ….”

There is no doubt that Parliament has the power to adopt such a Bill.  But from an international perspective, the enactment would rightly be seen as a grave violation of EU law, which continues to bind the UK until an exit deal is finalized or, failing that, two years after a notification of withdrawal.  The Bill would surely trigger a raft of lawsuits, by the EU Commission and by private litigants, challenging its legality and seeking fines and damages.  How would British judges respond to such suits?  The Bill would force UK courts to choose between their duty to apply EU law over conflicting national law and their obligation to defer to Parliament.  The result, as Cambridge professor Kenneth Armstrong has warned, would be a constitutional conflict of the first order.

The Bill might also provoke the remaining EU members to try to force Britain out.  The EU has no expulsion clause; one was considered but ultimately left out of the Lisbon Treaty.  But as my coauthors and I explain in a recent working paper, it is unsettled whether international law recognizes an implied right to expel.  And European leaders could attempt to achieve the same result indirectly, treating the Bill as a material breach that authorizes a suspension or termination of the Lisbon Treaty vis-à-vis the UK.  In either case, the legality of any expulsion effort would almost certainly be challenged in court.

In all events, the far better course for all concerned is to avoid a precipitous unilateral break and instead to negotiate Britain’s orderly departure from the EU.

Congratulations to Duncan Hollis on His Election to the Inter-American Juridical Committee

by Chris Borgen

We at Opinio Juris are very proud that our colleague Duncan Hollis of Temple University Law School was elected on June 15 by the General Assembly of the Organization of American States to the Inter-American Juridical Committee, which

…serves the Organization as an advisory body on juridical matters of an international nature and promotes the progressive development and the codification of international law.

It also studies juridical problems related to the integration of the developing countries of the Hemisphere and, insofar as may appear desirable, the possibility of attaining uniformity in their legislation.

No two members of the Committee may be from the same state and Duncan’s term will start in January 2017, at the end of David Stewart’s three years of service. Duncan is one of three new members of the Committee.

With his wide-ranging expertise on topics ranging from the law of treaties to the challenges that new technologies pose to International Humanitarian Law, Duncan will be a great addition to the Committee.  Congratulations!

The Return of the Emoji: Flags, Emoji, and State Recognition

by Chris Borgen

I thought I had largely said what I had to say concerning emojis and international law in my previous post. SRSLY. 😉

But then John Louth, who knows of my interest in issues of recognition and non-recognition of aspirant states, pointed out this article from Wired which discusses, among other things, the issue of which national flags are awarded emoji and which are not. So let us return to the emoji for another post.

Consider the following passage for the Wired article:

…the most contentious emoji arena isn’t food, or even religion. It’s flags. From October 2010 until April 2015, there were a limited number of flag emoji, including the Israeli flag—but notably, no Palestinian flag. When the Palestinian flag was added—along with some 200 other flag emoji—it was cause for celebration.

Palestine exists in an unusual limbo in international law. It is recognized by some countries as Palestine, and by others as the Palestinian Territories.

“Technology has been used as a weapon to revolutionize the Middle East, and now it is being used as a weapon to legitimize Palestine,” wrote Palestinian columnist Yara al-Wazir at Al Arabiya earlier this year. “Introducing the Palestinian flag as an emoji is more than just a symbolic gesture.”

The article then goes on to note that some national groups, such as the Kurds, do not have flag emojis.

So, how does the Unicode Consortium, a non-state actor, decide whether to assign a symbol for the flag of an entity claiming to be a state, especially if that statehood is contested? (For more on the Unicode Consortium, please see my previous post.) The Consortium’s FAQ explains the criteria:

The Unicode Standard encodes a set of regional indicator symbols. These can be used in pairs to represent any territory that has a Unicode region subtag as defined by CLDR [Common Locale Data Repository], such as “DE” for Germany. The pairs are typically displayed as national flags: there are currently 257 such combinations. For more information, see Annex B: Flags in UTR #51.

In other words, the Consortium’s regional indicator symbols are based on the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO’s) two-letter country codes.

As described on its own website, the ISO is:

an independent, non-governmental organization made up of members from the national standards bodies of 162 countries. Our members play a vital role in how we operate, meeting once a year for a General Assembly that decides our strategic objectives.

Our Central Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, coordinates the system and runs day-to-day operations, overseen by the Secretary General.

It also describes itself as a network of national standard–setting bodies.  With its combination of a permanent secretariat as well as a bureaucratic network, the ISO has aspects of both an intergovernmental network and an international organization.  (See more on ISO governance, here.)

To receive a top-level country code from the ISO, an entity must be: (a) a United Nations member state, (b) a member of a UN specialized agency, or (c) a party to the Statute of the International Court of Justice.

Thus, the Unicode Consortium’s decision-making process to decide whether or not to assign a glyph for a country flag is based on the decision by the ISO, an organization with significant national government involvement, on whether or not a territory receives a country-code. The ISO’s decision is itself reliant on the aspirant entity’s relationship to the United Nations.

In short, the ISO has a two-letter designator for Palestine (see, for example, this ISO newsletter [.pdf]), so the Consortium by its own rules can (though does not have to) assign a code for the flag of Palestine. No ISO code for a Kurd state; no Kurdish flag emoji. And all of these stem from degrees of relationship of these entities to the UN.

In sum, a non-state consortium is basing its decisions on a state-based regulatory network (the ISO), which in turn is using criteria based on an intergovernmental organization (the UN). The result in the case of flag emojis is that the Consortium unlikely to assign a flag where the  ISO is not willing to assign a separate country code, and ISO will not assign such a code without first looking to UN practice.

Receiving a flag emoji is not the recognition of a state by another state or even by an interstate organization. Nonetheless there are many hurdles to the designation of a flag emoji. Given the significant state interest in issues of recognition, explicit or implied, this is not surprising.

And if readers find other interesting overlaps of the Unicode Consortium, emojis, and international law, please let me know!

Does the International Court of Justice Have Jurisdiction over Iran’s Claim Against the U.S? Actually, Maybe It Does

by Julian Ku

After about two months of public statements threatening to take the U.S. to the International Court of Justice over frozen Iranian assets, Iran finally instituted ICJ proceedings yesterday under the 1955 U.S.-Iran Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights.  Iran alleges in its complaint that the U.S. has violated the treaty’s obligations by taking Iranian government assets and redistributing them to families of U.S. marines killed in the 1983 Beirut bombing.  In April, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a 2012 congressional statute authorizing the seizure of Iranian government assets for distribution to the plaintiffs.

Iran argues that the U.S. government violated the 1955 Treaty in numerous ways by its failure to recognize the separate legal identity of the Iranian Central Bank and other state-owned companies and its failure to provide protection for such property as required by international law.  Iran further alleges that the U.S. conducted an expropriation of Iranian assets, while also denying access for those legal entities in US. court, while at the same time failing to respect their sovereign immunity, as well as other treaty violations.

Under paragraph 2 of Article 21 of the Treaty,

 

Any dispute between the High Contracting Parties as to the interpretation or application of the present Treaty, not satisfactorily adjusted by diplomacy, shall be submitted to the International Court of Justice, unless the High Contracting Parties agree to settlement by some other pacific means.

I have previously tweeted on more than one occasion that the ICJ would have no jurisdiction, but I had forgotten about this provision (luckily someone reminded me on Twittter).  Believe it or not, Article 21 of the U.S-Iran Friendship Treaty has already been the basis for two prior ICJ proceedings: the U.S. case against Iran’s seizure of the U.S. embassy and its personnel (1979) and the Iranian case against U.S. actions against its Iranian oil platforms in 1992.  So it is clear that Article 21(2) is a legitimate basis for jurisdiction, and the ICJ held in both prior cases that this provision conferred jurisdiction upon it.

On the other hand, Article 21 limits a party’s claim to a “dispute…as to the interpretation or application of the present Treaty.”  This means Iran will have to limit its claim to violations of the treaty, rather than violations of general international law.  This is harder than it looks.  In the 2003 Oil Platforms judgment, the ICJ found that it had jurisdiction, and that U.S. attacks on the oil platforms were not justified on self defense. The ICJ nonetheless found that Iran’s claim that U.S. attacks on its oil platforms did not breach the “freedom of commerce” between the two nations, since no such commerce in oil was occurring at that time.  So the U.S. lost on jurisdiction, but won on the merits.

So I am going to reverse my earlier views and tentatively guess that the ICJ will find that it has jurisdiction over this case.  In particular, I think Iran will have a good argument that Article IV(2), which requires the U.S. give Iranian nationals’ property “the most constant protection and security within the territories of the other High Contracting Party, in no case less than that required by international law….” (emphasis added). I am not sure Iran is right that the U.S. violated Article IV(2), but I think Iran has a plausible argument that it could have been violated. That should be enough for jurisdiction.

I nonetheless expect the U.S. government to make a big fight over jurisdiction and admissibility. Even if it loses, the U.S. can slow down these proceedings tremendously by battling over jurisdiction and narrowing which claims Iran can bring forward.  This strategy worked very well in the Oil Platforms case.  Iran filed the proceedings in 1992. The ICJ did not issue an determination on jurisdiction until 1996.  The ICJ then took another seven years to finally issue a judgment on the merits in 2003 (which the U.S. won anyway).  With any luck, the U.S. could avoid a merits judgment here until 2027.

I think this case might move along more briskly, but it will still take a while.  And I think the slow wheels of international justice might work out for both sides here. Iran’s leaders can say they are doing something, but it will not result in any immediate judgment that will put the U.S. on the spot.  The U.S. can drag this out, and it might even prevail on the merits (I have no strong opinion on that complex issue yet).

I do not expect the U.S., however, to boycott of the entire proceedings, as China has been doing in the Philippines South China Sea arbitration.  For one thing, there is really no need, as I explained above, since we could be in for a 10 year wait for a judgment. For another, the U.S. needs to show that it plays nice with international law and courts to bolster its own calls on China to abide by the South China Sea arbitration.

U.S. and India Agree to Jointly Push for the Most Important-Sounding Treaty You’ve Never Heard of

by Julian Ku

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington D.C. this week to meet with President Obama.  Buried in their joint statement, the two leaders reiterated their support for an important-sounding treaty that I, nonetheless, had never heard of:

27) The leaders affirmed their support for a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that advances and strengthens the framework for global cooperation and reinforces that no cause or grievance justifies terrorism.

The CCIT (draft text here) was proposed by India in 1996. In a nice illustration of just how slow the process of treaty making can take in the U.N. system, the treaty has languished in the 20 years since  in an “Ad Hoc Committee” and then in a “working group of the Sixth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly.”   Apparently, it continues to languish there due to disagreements over the application of its definition of terrorism to military forces and its application to “national liberation forces” (a 2014 public discussion is posted here).  Here is the definition in the draft text.

1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of the present Convention if that person, by any means, unlawfully and intentionally, causes:
(a) Death or serious bodily injury to any person; or
(b) Serious damage to public or private property, including a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system, an infrastructure facility or to the environment; or
(c) Damage to property, places, facilities or systems referred to in paragraph 1 (b) of the present article resulting or likely to result in major economic loss; when the purpose of the conduct, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.

This is a pretty bland and uncontroversial definition.  The “working group” is supposed to be close to finalizing the text, but they have been “finalizing” since 2013.  It sounds like the treaty’s definition of terrorism needs an exemption for military forces (that seems doable) and an exemption for “liberation movements resisting foreign occupation” (that seems not so doable).

I suppose it would be a big deal if a CCIT was adopted since it would commit the world to a broad single definition of terrorism.  Then again, there are already at least 19 terrorism-related conventions, and it is hard to tell how much of a difference they make. The problem doesn’t seem to be a failure to sign international anti-terrorism treaties, but compliance with them.

On the other hand, there does seem to be value in pushing this position: “no cause or grievance justifies terrorism.”  This is a view that not only the U.S. and India, but also China, Russia, and the EU can get behind.  It will be interesting to see if this coalition can overcome the opposition of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) states who seem worried only about protecting the rights of the Palestinians to “resist” the Israeli occupation.  India seems gung-ho about this treaty, so it will be interesting to see if they can push it along (with U.S. help).

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.

Why the World Cup of the Unrecognized Matters [Updated]

by Chris Borgen

States and nations are not the same thing.  A nation is a “people,” itself a difficult concept to define under international law. A state is a recognized political entity that meets certain criteria. International lawyers will tell you that the characteristics of statehood include a defined territory, a government, a permanent population, and the ability to enter into foreign relations.

State formation in the 19th century and also right after World War I often sought to build states for nations (hence the term “nation-state”) but the terms are not coterminous.

So what are the hallmarks of nationhood? Many know in their hearts that there may be no more important mark of nationhood than a national soccer team. C’mon, you know it’s true.

And sometimes, peoples would like to remind you that they are nations—if not states!—and want to be recognized as such (nations or states, it gets a little blurry).

So, pay attention, soccer fans and international lawyers, because this weekend will be the final match in the 2016 Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA) World Football Cup, sometimes referred to as the World Cup of the unrecognized.  According to this NPR report, host Abkhazia is the current favorite after Western Armenia and Kurdistan were unexpectedly eliminated.

The first ConIFA World Football Cup was played in 2014 and seems to be the successor to the VIVA World Cup, about which I had previously written.

ConIFA should not be confused with FIFA, the international federation of football associations. As I had explained in a post from a couple of years ago, membership in FIFA is not based on being a state, but rather on being a football association.  Thus, if you look at a list of FIFA member associations, as England and Wales are separate associations, they have separate World Cup teams. Nonetheless, joining FIFA can be subject at times to some of the same political tensions as the recognition of a state.

According to FIFA’s statutes (.pdf), to be eligible to become a member of FIFA, an applicant must first be a member of one of the six main football confederations: the Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the Union des Associations Européennes de Football (UEFA), the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF), the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), or the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). Without going into all the statutes of these individual confederations, it is likely that some vote among the existing member associations in a given confederation will be a first hurdle that an aspirant FIFA-member must pass. (See, for example, UEFA’s rules (.pdf).)

Thus, although membership in FIFA is technically not based on statehood, the process largely relies on statehood and state-based football organizations (but for noted exceptions, such as England and Wales). Consequently, unrecognized entities such as South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh have little chance of seeing their football associations become part of a confederation, let alone FIFA.

Now consider ConIFA’s  membership rules, which are linked not to statehood, but to “nationhood” or being a “people”:

CONIFA is made for national teams that represent a nation which is not a member of FIFA (yet). For that reason only non-members of FIFA can join CONIFA. The second requirement is that the applicant is represent of a nation. The following table explains in detail what we consider a “nation”:

1.The Football Association is a member of one of the six continental confederations of FIFA.

2. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of the IOC.

3. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of one of the member federations of ARISF.

4. The entity represented by the Football Association is in possession of an ISO 3166-1 country code.

5. The entity represented by the Football Association is a de-facto independent territory.

6. The entity represented by the Football Association is included on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories.

7. The entity represented by the Football Association is included in directory of countries and territories of the TCC.

8. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of UNPO [Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization] and/or FUEN [Federal Union of European Nationalities].

9. The entity represented by the Football Association is a minority included in the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.

10. The entity represented by the Football Association is a linguistic minority, the language of which is included on the ISO 639.2 list.

Every Football Association that fulfills at least one of the above criteria is very welcome to apply for CONIFA membership!

[Emphases and bracketed text added.]

As for the aspiration of at least some of these entities to become generally recognized as states, consider the parenthetical “(yet)” from the first sentence.

And why might a a sports tournament be important to people with much bigger issues to worry about? Because you can cheer your team, wave your flag, feel a sense of unity, sing when your winning and… yes, you can actually win. And if you don’t there’s always next year.

When you live in an unrecognized regime, you take your wins where you can get them.

Whether any of these associations become part of FIFA, let alone whether or not those entities that also seek to be recognized as states will ever achieve that goal, is a long and doubtful journey.  But in many cases that is due to reasons of military intervention, history, and/or international law. For today, there is a football to be played.

EU to Help al-Bashir Imprison Refugees

by Kevin Jon Heller

Just when I thought I was beyond being genuinely horrified, Roving Bandit called my attention to a story in Der Spiegel that almost defies words:

The ambassadors of the 28 European Union member states had agreed to secrecy. “Under no circumstances” should the public learn what was said at the talks that took place on March 23rd, the European Commission warned during the meeting of the Permanent Representatives Committee. A staff member of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini even warned that Europe’s reputation could be at stake.

Under the heading “TOP 37: Country fiches,” the leading diplomats that day discussed a plan that the EU member states had agreed to: They would work together with dictatorships around the Horn of Africa in order to stop the refugee flows to Europe — under Germany’s leadership.

When it comes to taking action to counter the root causes of flight in the region, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said, “I strongly believe that we must improve peoples’ living conditions.” The EU’s new action plan for the Horn of Africa provides the first concrete outlines: For three years, €40 million ($45 million) is to be paid out to eight African countries from the Emergency Trust Fund, including Sudan.

[snip]

The International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges relating to his alleged role in genocide and crimes against humanity in the Darfur conflict. Amnesty International also claims that the Sudanese secret service has tortured members of the opposition. And the United States accuses the country of providing financial support to terrorists.

Nevertheless, documents relating to the project indicate that Europe want to send cameras, scanners and servers for registering refugees to the Sudanese regime in addition to training their border police and assisting with the construction of two camps with detention rooms for migrants. The German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development has confirmed that action plan is binding, although no concrete decisions have yet been made regarding its implementation.

I think this is what policy wonks call a “bad idea.” Although, to be fair, al-Bashir’s government does know a thing or two about building detention camps:

In the IDP camps, where most of the target groups’ members fled, AL BASHIR has organized the destitution, insecurity and harassment of the survivors. The Ministry for Humanitarian Affairs provides no meaningful Government aid to those displaced, and consistently obstructs or blocks humanitarian assistance from the international community. The Ministry for Humanitarian Affairs blocks the publication of nutrition surveys, delays the delivery of aid, expels relief staff denouncing such acts, denies visas and travel permits, and imposes unnecessary bureaucratic requirements on aid workers. This has the effect of reducing nutrition and access to medical services for protracted periods of time.

Militia/Janjaweed, which AL BASHIR has recruited, armed and purposefully refused to disarm, are stationed in the vicinity of the camps and, with other GoS agents, they subject IDPs to abuses, including killings, rapes and other sexual violence. While the authorities argue that there are armed rebels in the camps, the evidence shows that those attacked are unarmed civilians.

The overall effect of physical attack, forced displacement, destruction of means of livelihood, and denial of humanitarian assistance was that mortality rates among civilians, including principally members of the target groups, remained at critical levels. Between April and June 2004, as deaths directly caused by violence decreased, mortality rates among displaced populations in Darfur remained elevated because of deficient humanitarian assistance. Overall, at least 100,000 civilians – mostly members of the targeted groups – have already endured “slow death” since March 2003.

These paragraphs are from the OTP’s second request for an arrest warrant for al-Bashir, which accused him — inter alia — of “genocide by deliberate infliction on members of the target groups conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part.” The Pre-Trial Chamber issued the warrant.

Little wonder the EU ambassadors wanted to make sure the public never found out about its horrific plan to help al-Bashir build detention camps for refugees. (Query: does the EU have a reputation regarding treatment of refugees left to protect?) Alas, Der Spiegel refused to play along.

But don’t worry, EU ambassadors. There is a silver lining: refugees are not a protected group under the Genocide Convention, so you can’t be accused of complicity in genocide when al-Bashir decides the best way to “solve the refugee problem” is to slowly kill them in the camps you help build.

Thoughts on Jens’s Post about the Kunduz Attack

by Kevin Jon Heller

I read with great interest Jens’s excellent post about whether the US attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz was a war crime. I agree with much of what he says, particularly about the complexity of that seemingly innocuous word “intent.” But I am not completely convinced by his argument that reading intent in the Rome Statute to include mental states other than purpose or dolus directus would necessarily collapse the distinction between the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population and the war crime of launching a disproportionate attack. Here is the crux of Jens’s argument:

In the civilian tradition, the concept of intent is a wider category that in some circumstances might include recklessness. This equation sounds odd to a common-law trained criminal lawyer, because to an American student of criminal law, intent and recklessness are fundamentally different concepts. But just for the sake of argument, what would happen if intent were given this wider meaning? Could the U.S. service members be prosecuted for intentionally directing an attack against the civilian population because “intentionally” includes lower mental states such as dolus eventualis or recklessness?

I worry about this argument. And here’s why. If intent = recklessness, then all cases of legitimate collateral damage would count as violations of the principle of distinction, because in collateral damage cases the attacker kills the civilians with knowledge that the civilians will die. And the rule against disproportionate attacks sanctions this behavior as long as the collateral damage is not disproportionate and the attack is aimed at a legitimate military target. But if intent = recklessness, then I see no reason why the attacking force in that situation couldn’t be prosecuted for the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against civilians, without the court ever addressing or analyzing the question of collateral damage. Because clearly a soldier in that hypothetical situation would “know” that the attack will kill civilians, and knowledge is certainly a higher mental state than recklessness. That result would effectively transform all cases of disproportionate collateral damage into violations of the principle of distinction and relieve the prosecutor of the burden of establishing that the damage was indeed disproportionate, which seems absurd to me.

I don’t want to focus on recklessness, because it isn’t criminalised by the Rome Statute. The lowest default mental element in Art. 30 is knowledge, which applies to consequence and circumstance elements — “awareness that a circumstance exists or a consequence will occur in the ordinary course of events.” So Jens’s real worry, it seems to me, is that reading the “intentionally” in “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” to include knowledge would mean a proportionate attack could be prosecuted as an intentional attack on a civilian population as long as the attacker was aware that civilians would be harmed “in the ordinary course of events” — a state of affairs that will almost always be the case, given that an attacker will engage in a proportionality assessment only when he knows that civilians will be incidentally affected by the planned attack on a military objective.

I’m not sure I agree. As I read it, the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” consists of two material elements: a conduct element and a circumstance element. (There is no consequence element, because the civilians do not need to be harmed.) The conduct element is directing an attack against a specific group of people. The circumstance element is the particular group of people qualifying as a civilian population. So that means, if we apply the default mental element provisions in Art. 30, that the war crime is complete when (1) a defendant “means to engage” in an attack against a specific group of people; (2) that specific group of people objectively qualifies as a civilian population; and (3) the defendant “is aware” that the specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population. Thus understood, the war crime requires not one but two mental elements: (1) intent for the prohibited conduct (understood as purpose, direct intent, or dolus directus); (2) knowledge for the necessary circumstance (understood as oblique intent or dolus indirectus).

Does this mean that an attacker who knows his attack on a military objective will incidentally but proportionately harm a group of civilians commits the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population” if he launches the attack? I don’t think so. The problematic element, it seems to me, is not the circumstance element but the conduct element: although the attacker who launches a proportionate attack on a legitimate military objective knows that his attack will harm a civilian population, he is not intentionally attacking that civilian population. The attacker means to attack only the military objective; he does not mean to attack the group of civilians. They are simply incidentally — accidentally — harmed. So although the attacker has the mental element necessary for the circumstance element of the war crime (knowledge that a specific group of people qualifies as a civilian population) he does not have the mental element necessary for its conduct element (intent to attack that specific group of people). He is thus not criminally responsible for either launching a disproportionate attack or intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.

To be sure, this analysis is probably not watertight. But I think it’s based on the best interpretation of the war crime of “intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population.” The key, in my view, is that the crime does not contain a consequence element — no harm to civilians is necessary. If the war crime was “intentionally directing attacks that cause harm to a civilian population,” the analysis would be very different: the crime would then consist of three material elements: a conduct element (intentionally directing an attack), a consequence element (harming a group of people), and a circumstance element (the harmed group of people qualifying as a civilian population).The applicable mental elements would then be quite different: the defendant would commit the war crime if he (1) intentionally launched an attack that harmed a civilian population, (2) knowing that the attack would harm a specific group of people, and (3) knowing that the harmed group of people qualified as a civilian population. And in that case, a proportionate attack on a legitimate military objective would qualify as “intentionally directing attacks that harm a civilian population” — a nonsensical outcome, for all the reason Jens mentions.

In the absence of the consequence element, however, this situation does not exist. As long as the defendant whose attack harms a civilian population meant to attack only a legitimate military objective, his knowledge that the attack would incidentally harm a civilian population would not qualify as the war crime of intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population. He would be guilty of that crime only if he meant to attack the civilian population itself.

Your thoughts, Jens?

NOTE: This post generally takes the same position Adil Haque took in a series of comments on Jens’s post.

Does the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” Violate International Law?

by Julian Ku

President Obama has threatened to veto a bill pending in the U.S. Congress that would allow private plaintiffs to sue foreign sovereigns for committing (or abetting) terrorist attacks inside the territory of the United States.  The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act has broad bipartisan support in Congress and from all of the presidential candidates (including Hillary Clinton). It would add an exception to the general rule of  immunity for foreign sovereigns in U.S. courts in cases

in which money damages are sought against a foreign state arising out of physical injury or death, or damage to or loss of property, occurring in the United States and caused by the tortious act or omission of that foreign state or of any official or employee of that foreign state while acting within the scope of the office or employment of the official or employee (regardless of where the underlying tortious act or omission occurs), including any statutory or common law tort claim arising out of an act of extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, terrorism, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act, or any claim for contribution or indemnity relating to a claim arising out of such an act...

(emphasis added).

The bill drew more attention this week when the NY Times reported that Saudi Arabia is threatening to dump $750 billion in U.S. assets in retaliation for allowing the bill to become law.  Lawsuits from September 11 victims against the Saudi government would benefit tremendously from this law.

Anything with this much bipartisan support must be wrong in some important way. I suppose one reason to be skeptical is that it would mix delicate political and diplomatic relations into judicial proceedings where private lawyers can demand discovery into a foreign government’s internal deliberations and activities.

 Another reason is that there seems little basis in international law for creating an exception to sovereign immunity for terrorist attacks, or supporting terrorist attacks.  The traditional view of sovereign immunity is that it is absolute, and that remedies against a sovereign must be sought in diplomatic or international fora.  Allowing a domestic judicial proceeding to judge the actions of a foreign sovereign would seem to undermine this basic idea.

But there are exceptions to sovereign immunity, such as for commercial activities, that much of the world accepts. It is just not clear whether a new exception can and should be created here. I am doubtful, but I am willing to be convinced.