Archive of posts for category
General

Fifth Annual Junior Faculty Forum for International Law: New York City, June 27-29, 2016

by Kevin Jon Heller

Today through Wednesday, June 27-29, 2016, the Annual Junior Faculty Forum for International Law will host its fifth edition, at the New York University School of Law. The Forum is convened by Dino Kritsiotis (Univ. of Nottingham), Anne Orford (Univ. of Melbourne), and JHH Weiler (EUI/NYU), who will be joined this year by Benedict Kingsbury (NYU) and José Alvarez (NYU) as guest convenors. The program is here.

Weekly News Wrap: Tuesday, June 28, 2016

by Jessica Dorsey

Here’s your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:

Africa

  • The United States and France supported Hissène Habré, the former Chadian dictator who was convicted of atrocity crimes on May 30, 2016, throughout his rule, Human Rights Watch said in two reports released today.
  • The Eighth Africa Carbon Forum will focus on ensuring that countries put in place polices that are conscious of environmental sustainability and climate change resilience.
  • Hundreds of gun-toting Al Shabaab fighters in pick-ups have taken back a town in Goof-Gadud area, located some 30Km north of Baidoa in Somolia on Sunday after SNA and AMISOM troops withdrew the town.

Middle East and Northern Africa

Asia

Europe

Americas

Oceania

  • During the 32nd session of the Council Plenary, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai, zeroed in on Papua.

UN/World

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.

My Response to a Recent Attack on SOAS in The Spectator

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, Adrian Hilton — a self-described “conservative academic, theologian, author and educationalist” — published a vicious hit-piece in The Spectator about SOAS. It’s entitled “A School of Anti-Semitism?”, and the name basically says it all. According to Hilton: “[p]retty much all student societies at SOAS have no choice but to conform to the Islamo-Marxist orthodoxy”; “the entire student body defines itself in terms of concentric circles of ethno–religious rhetoric, each competing for dominance”; “You can be thrown out of a meeting for being insufficiently black”; SOAS “allows students to organise themselves into warring ethno-religious factions and then sides with some and not others” — and on and on, ad nauseam.

The article is a dishonest caricature of my university, so SOAS asked The Spectator to publish a response. The magazine agreed to give me 600 words, which I greatly appreciate — but they also made me rewrite the final paragraph, claiming that my first one was unfair to Hilton. (Apparently being unfair to an entire university is fine, but being unfair to Hilton is not.) You can find my response here. And in case you are wondering, here is the final paragraph The Spectator refused to run:

Only Hilton knows why he felt the need to portray SOAS so unfairly. But his flagrant disregard for the truth seems to indicate that he is more afraid of SOAS’s multiculturalism than he is of its supposed anti-Semitism. For those who long for a whiter, more Judaeo-Christian world, the vibrancy of SOAS can be a scary sight indeed.

I hope you’ll read both the original article and my response. Comments most welcome!

Syria Dissents

by Deborah Pearlstein

There’s an interesting, if I suspect academic, discussion over at Just Security at the moment about whether the recent proposal by 51 State Department diplomats to use military force against the Assad regime directly would be lawful under domestic and/or international law. My suspicion that the discussion is at least at present academic is based on the unlikelihood that any such policy change is in the offing – particularly in this election year and, more important, in the context of the current President’s longstanding position that greater U.S. military force of this nature in Syria would be counterproductive. But academic at the moment or no, the questions are important and will certainly be faced early in the term of the administration that takes office in January 2017. And particularly on the international law side, the questions go to the heart of the larger issue of how much formal analysis one thinks international law in this area can bear. Marty Lederman and Ashely Deeks started the discussion here, Harold Koh responded here, and Charlie Savage has a good review of the way these debates unfolded in the administration considering the legality of the use of force in Libya and Syria here. So (more…)

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!

Emojis and International Law

by Chris Borgen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, as Mashable notes:

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

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

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

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

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

Emerging Voices 2016: Call for Submissions

by Jessica Dorsey

This summer we will host our Fourth Annual Emerging Voices symposium, where we invite doctoral students and early-career academics or practicing attorneys to tell Opinio Juris readers about a research project or other international law topic of interest.

If you are a doctoral student or in the early stages of your career (e.g., post-docs, junior academics or early career practitioners within the first five years of finishing your final degree) and would like to participate in the symposium, please send a draft blog post somewhere between 1000-1500 words and your CV to opiniojurisblog [at] gmail [dot] com by July 6, 2016.

Submitted posts will then be reviewed by our editors. We’ll let you know by mid-July if your post will be included. Final essays will be posted on Opinio Juris in mid July through late August.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments or send us an e-mail at the address above.

Alexander Hamilton, the New Republic, and the Law of Nations

by Chris Borgen

There’s this musical on Broadway. It’s called Hamilton.  You might have heard of it. It’s causing legal scholars to say things like “I admired Hamilton since before he could rap,” and “My Shot has a pretty good lyric but have you tried Federalist no. 6?”

Anyway, a short note on A. Ham. and the law of nations seems in order.  For the following, I am particularly indebted to  Mark Janis’ book America and the Law of Nations 1776-1939 (Oxford 2010), David Bederman’s volume The Classical Foundations of the American Constitution: Prevailing Wisdom (Cambridge 2008) and Hamilton’s Republic (The New Press 1997), a compilation of writings by Alexander Hamilton and later “Hamiltonian” writers edited and introduced by Michael Lind. These authors and others writing about Hamilton do not necessarily come to the same conclusions regarding his views on what we now call international law, but rather provide  varying perspectives on a complex man.

By way of background, the views of the founders were in part shaped by their education in classical history as well as Enlightenment philosophy.  David Bederman, in his study of classical thought and the U.S. Constitution, wrote that “[s]tarting first with classical writers in Greek, the Framing generation particularly prized the works of Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Polybius, and Plutarch, in that rising order of esteem.” (Bederman, 15.)   Thucydides’ international realism and Polybius’ conception of a “mixed constitution” combining monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy were especially influential on the founding generation. Hamilton was particularly fond of quoting Plutarch, whose biographies combine issues of public policy and state building with individual moral choice. (Bederman,16-17; 22.) Hamilton and other founders may have used “instrumental classicism,” to support their political arguments, but they also did a “reputable job in trying to make sense of antiquity,” with Hamilton among the “best” classicists. (Bederman, 228.)

Beyond classical history and philosophy, the founders were also influenced by Enlightenment philosophy and, as a group, were well-versed in the 18th century law of nations and often referred to it in their writings. Mark Janis, in the first volume of his history of the United States and international law, argued that “[n]o group of America’s leaders have ever been more mindful of the discipline[of international law] than were the Founding Fathers.” (Janis, 24.)

In relation to studies in natural law at Kings College (later, Columbia University), Alexander Hamilton suggested in 1775 a reading list of “Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui.” (Janis, 24-25.) This shows, at least, his exposure to foundational texts of international law.  However, suggesting a reading list on natural law and actual application of the law of nations in practice are two different things. So, how concerned was Alexander Hamilton with the application of the law of nations to the “young, scrappy, and hungry” republic?

Here we can see some divergence in interpretation by scholars. Janis notes that in 1795 Hamilton (more…)

I’d Like to Be Under the South China Sea in a Crewed Deep Sea Platform in the Shade

by Chris Borgen

Earlier this week, Julian and I each posted about the international legal issues of the Moon and asteroid mining plans of U.S. companies. Those projects may have sounded like something out of Space 1999 but now we hear of one of China’s near-term priorities that sounds like SeaLab 2020.

Bloomberg reports:

China is speeding up efforts to design and build a manned deep-sea platform to help it hunt for minerals in the South China Sea, one that may also serve a military purpose in the disputed waters.

Such an oceanic “space station” would be located as much as 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) below the surface…

This would be by far the deepest long-term undersea facility (as opposed to a deep sea vessel, such as a submarine). By way of context, the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations Facility (NEEMO), the “world’s only undersea research station” is anchored at a depth of 62 feet.

China’s leadership explains that, in part, this base will help with a new frontier of resource development, using rhetoric that is at times similar to the arguments some make concerning private space ventures on the Moon and asteroids:

President Xi Jinping said at a national science conference in May: “The deep sea contains treasures that remain undiscovered and undeveloped, and in order to obtain these treasures we have to control key technologies in getting into the deep sea, discovering the deep sea, and developing the deep sea.”

But, beyond looking for deep sea resources, the concern is that the base is part of China’s gambit for sovereignty over much of the South China Sea.  However, while establishing this undersea platform may become part of China’s political argument for its sovereignty claims, it does nothing to support the legal argument. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), this undersea platform would probably be treated as an “artificial island,” like an oil rig.  At the time that UNCLOS was being drafted, large undersea bases were more the province of James Bond movies than treaty negotiations, so the closest analogy in the text is what would likely be applied in this case.  (For a discussion on sea platforms, “seasteading,” and sovereignty claims by non-state actors, see this post.)

Although it is not clear where the location of this undersea lab would be, UNCLOS has similar provisions concerning artificial islands located in an Exclusive Economic Zone (article 60) or on the continental shelf (article 80, which refers back to the article 60 text, with any applicable adjustments).

The text from article 60 states:

Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.

So, in short, building this base would not change China’s territorial rights.

However, the concern is that, while it may not help the legal argument, another goal of the base may be to bolster the political argument with some military muscle. The Bloomberg article quotes the following:

“To develop the ocean is an important strategy for the Chinese government, but the deep sea space station is not designed against any country or region,” said Xu Liping, a senior researcher for Southeast Asian affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-run institute.

“China’s project will be mainly for civil use, but we can’t rule out it will carry some military functions,” Xu said. “Many countries in the world have been researching these kind of deep water projects and China is just one of those nations.”

Whether China actually builds this base–and if so, where–remains to be seen. If it does so, it will also be interesting to assess whether the base turns out to be most useful as a scientific research facility, a political gambit, or a military base.

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).