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Upcoming Event on UN Accountability

by Kristen Boon

I am pleased to announce an upcoming experts workshop on UN Accountability on October 19 at Seton Hall Law School.

This workshop will explore the liability of International Organizations for international wrongs, as well address direct, indirect or shared responsibility. It will offer a detailed examination of accountability, and what models of external and internal international dispute resolution currently exist, and should exist in the future. In light of the recent suggestion that victims of international wrongs should be made whole by charitable contributions, it will also discuss redress and compensation for victims of international wrongs.  

The keynote address will be given by Professor Philip Alston on The Strengths and Weaknesses of External Accountability.

The program will end with a book launch of the Research Handbook on UN Sanctions and International Law, edited by Professor Larissa van den Herik.

We would welcome participants interested in the subject. After the event, a group will go to the opening panel of ILW at the NYC Bar Association.

For the complete program, and to RSVP please see the webpage here.

 

Apparently Perfidy Is Not Prohibited in 2256

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have just started watching Star Trek: Discovery, the first new Star Trek series in a decade. It’s excellent — dark, well-acted, with beautiful special affects. But I have to say that it was shocking to see the Captain of a Federation starship engage in a blatantly perfidious act in the second episode. The Federation has just come out on the losing end of a major battle with the Klingons. Captain Georgiou transports a photon torpedo into the torso of a dead Klingon, the lead Klingon ship retrieves the dead Klingon for burial, and… boom, the Klingon ship is disabled, with hundreds if not thousands dead.

As I have explained in a scholarly article, it is perfidious to use a booby-trap in a manner that violates the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices. Art. 2(4) of the Protocol defines a booby-trap as “any device or material which is designed, constructed or adapted to kill or injure, and which functions unexpectedly when a person disturbs or approaches an apparently harmless object or performs an apparently safe act.” And Art. 7(1)(b) specifically provides that “it is prohibited in all circumstances to use booby-traps and other devices which are in any way attached to or associated with… sick, wounded or dead persons.” Captain Georgiou’s use of a booby-trapped dead Klingon to disable the Klingon ship was thus unequivocally perfidious.

The Star Trek universe always presents the Federation as the height of legal and moral rectitude. At least for one episode of Star Trek: Discovery, that was not the case.

A Farewell Note from Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni

by Julian Ku

As most of our readers know, Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni, a leading figure in the creation of the field of international criminal law, passed away yesterday at the age of 79. Professor Bassiouni had a large email list of friends and acquaintances, and his email account sent out one last posthumous message last night. We are posting it here for those of you who did not receive it. Please feel free to leave any notes and comments below on your memories of Professor Bassiouni or how his work affected you. 

Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro’s New Book “The Internationalists”

by Deborah Pearlstein

I have a review up at the Washington Post. A great read.

If President Trump Ends the Iran Deal, Can He Trigger the Security Council Snapback?

by Jean Galbraith

[Jean Galbraith is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School]

President Trump has reportedly made a decision about whether or not to end the Iran deal – although he won’t yet say what he’s decided.  The Iran deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is a political commitment rather than an agreement that is binding as a matter of international law.  President Trump can thus abandon the Iran deal without violating international law, although there will be plenty of other repercussions from such a step.

But abandonment will nonetheless raise at least one interesting legal question.  If the United States ends the Iran deal, can it thereby trigger the re-imposition of Security Council sanctions against Iran?

First, a bit of background (discussed more here).  Prior to the JCPOA, the Security Council had imposed various sanctions against Iran – sanctions which all countries were legally obligated to enact.  The core bargain in the Iran deal involved the lifting of sanctions, including these Security Council sanctions, in exchange for Iran’s commitments not to develop nuclear weapons and its acceptance of a monitoring regime.  But what would happen if Iran failed to honor its commitments?  In that case, would there be the votes on the Security Council to re-impose sanctions or instead might Russia or China veto such a resolution?  In order to address this concern, negotiators included innovative provisions in the JCPOA and in Security Council Resolution 2231, which was passed in July of 2015 to help implement the JCPOA.  These provisions have been referred to as the “snapback” provisions, and I have called them “trigger termination” provisions.

Summarizing a bit, Resolution 2231 provided that the pre-existing Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran are terminated, but they can be reinstated at any time during the next 10 years by any single P5 country (including the United States) or by Germany, under certain conditions.  Specifically, the country seeking reinstatement must notify the Security Council “of an issue that [it] believes constitutes significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPOA.”  If the Security Council does not pass any resolutions on this issue in the 30 days following notification, then the prior resolutions imposing sanctions are automatically reinstated.  These resolutions would not apply retroactively to contracts signed prior to their reinstatement.

If President Trump simply ends the Iran deal without trying to trigger the snapback provision, then he can only re-impose U.S. sanctions.  (He could try to persuade other countries to re-impose sanctions, but his ability to do that in practice will likely be fairly low.)  But what if instead of or in addition to announcing an “end” to the deal, President Trump states that Iran is not complying with the deal and attempts to trigger the snapback provision?  Will this be effective as a matter of law, even if President Trump’s claim of Iranian non-compliance looks like a pretext?

In a comment I wrote in the October 2015 issue of the American Journal of International Law (draft version here), I addressed the issue of a pretextual snapback.  I wrote as follows:

Resolution 2231’s trigger termination has some protections against arbitrar[y use], but not very strong ones.  The activator can be a single state – any one of the P5 [including the United States], Germany, or theoretically Iran.  The standard is that this state must ‘believe’ that there is ‘significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPOA.’  While ‘significant non-performance of commitments under the JCPOA’ is a reasonably clear criterion, the fact that the activator is only required to ‘believe’ this nonperformance to have occurred makes the standard a fairly flexible one.  But although flexible, it is not a grant of total discretion.  It must require a good faith belief in significant nonperformance, for otherwise it would be meaningless.  Indeed, if such a good faith belief is demonstrably absent, other states would have grounds for considering that the trigger termination has not been properly activated.  In that case, they could presumably treat Resolution 2231 as continuing in force and thereby have a legal basis for declining to reinstitute the prior sanctions.

If President Trump tries to trigger the snapback provision now, other countries will have reasonable grounds for disputing the legal effectiveness of such a trigger.  Of course, if the United States walks away from the Iran deal and re-imposes its own sanctions, Iran may then cease its implementation of the deal and ramp up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.  After that point, the United States will have good faith grounds to believe in Iran’s significant non-performance – but if Iranian non-compliance is clearly due to U.S. non-compliance, states might raise other arguments for doubting the legal ability of the United States to trigger the snapback.

In closing, my thanks to the editors of the Opinio Juris blog for letting me contribute this guest post.

The Drafters Knew Best: Corporate Liability and the Alien Tort Statute

by Heather Cohen

[Heather Cohen is a Legal & Policy Associate with the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), which harnesses the collective power of progressive organizations to push governments to create and enforce rules over corporations that promote human rights and reduce inequality.]

Can corporations be held accountable in the United States for violations of international law? This question is back before the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) this fall. On October 11, 2017, SCOTUS will hear oral arguments in Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC on the question of whether corporations can be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). In the case, the plaintiffs, victims of terrorism in Israel, allege that Arab Bank knowingly and willfully used its U.S. branch to provide financial services to the terrorist organizations that harmed them and their family members.

On August 21, Arab Bank filed its respondent brief in the proceedings, arguing that corporations should not be held liable for violations of international law under the ATS. This argument is inconsistent with the intent of the drafters of the Constitution who enacted the law, as well as with the legal interpretation that has followed.

An analysis of the language and historical context of the ATS demonstrates that the drafters of the Constitution intended for the ATS to be applied broadly to both individuals and legal persons, such as corporations. By placing no categorical limits on who can be sued under the legislation, it is clear that corporations can and should be held liable for violations of international law under the ATS.

The Enactment of the ATS and its Application to Legal Persons

The ATS was passed by the First Congress in 1789 to demonstrate the commitment of the new country to upholding the “law of nations,” thereby granting the United States legitimacy on the world stage. Its enactment was spurred by two incidents of offences against foreign ambassadors, but the law would also provide merchants plagued by piracy with a legal avenue to obtain remedy for the harm and losses suffered.

In passing the ATS, the First Congress chose not to limit who can be sued under the legislation:

The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.

By choosing not to exclude any particular class of defendant, the ATS places no limitation on who can be sued. This is made even more clear by the contrasting restriction on who can sue, i.e. only “aliens.”

Historical context suggests that the First Congress intended the law to hold both legal persons as well as natural ones accountable. Courts have held legal persons liable for their abuses as far back as the 1600s. A number of piracy cases provide a clear example of this. For instance, in 1666, Thomas Skinner sued the East India Company for “robbing him of a ship and goods of great value.” The U.K. House of Lords ruled in favor of Mr. Skinner and held that the company owed him compensation. Even where piracy was not committed by corporations, courts have imputed corporate form to the ships themselves. Similarly, early American courts held that ships, as entities, could be ordered to pay damages for piracy. They reasoned that it made financial sense to direct judgment against a captured ship, which had substantial value, while pirates were unlikely to pay the compensation ordered.

These piracy cases demonstrate that courts during the era of the drafters of the Constitution were not only familiar with the concept of liability for legal persons, but that they regularly imposed it for violations of international law. In light of this familiarity, the fact that the First Congress did not limit the language of the ATS suggests that it intended for legal persons, such as corporations, to be sued under the statute.

A Modern Interpretation of the ATS

This interpretation has been supported by courts in subsequent decisions. For example, the D.C. Court of Appeals, in Doe VIII v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 654 F.3d 11, 48 (D.C. Cir. 2011), vacated on other grounds, 527 F. App’x 7 (D.C. Cir. 2013) held that “[t]he notion that corporations could be held liable for their torts… would NOT have been surprising to the First Congress that enacted the ATS” [emphasis added]. For decades, corporations have been sued under the ATS “without any indication that the issue [of their liability] was in controversy, whether in ruling that ATS cases could proceed or that they could not on other grounds.

Since its passage in 1789, the ATS has remained the law of the United States for more than two hundred years, without ever being limited, narrowed, or amended by Congress. In contrast, Congress has made it abundantly clear when it does mean to exclude a particular class of defendants, namely corporations, from liability. For instance, the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) explicitly excludes suits against corporations. While one can argue that failure to amend the ATS does not necessarily mean acceptance, one cannot negate the fact that both times that the issue of corporate liability under the ATS has come before SCOTUS, the U.S. Government has argued in favor of it. The Government has made it clear that it supports the original words and meaning of the ATS.

Arab Bank’s Interpretation of the ATS

Faced with this evidence of the intent of the drafters of the Constitution, all Arab Bank can do is endeavor to chip away at little pieces of it by attempting to undermine the piracy cases raised by the petitioners and their amici. In Arab Bank’s brief, it attacks the British case by claiming that the East India Company functioned more like a sovereign than a corporation, and that the case was ultimately vacated by King Charles II.

While it is beyond the scope of this blog to offer an analysis of the differences between the East India Company and the modern day corporation, the broad power and scope of today’s multinational corporations suggest that these differences may be much smaller than they initially appear. For example, one often cited variance is the power the East India Company had to “operate its own courts and establish its own law.” However, modern corporations likewise operate their own courts through grievance mechanisms, such as that offered by Barrick Gold in response to sexual violence at its mine in Papua New Guinea. In any event, what is relevant is that “the East India Company was on any number of occasions judged by English courts to be a legal person subject to both English common and civil law.

Also problematic with Arab Bank’s critique of the British case is the weight that it places on the intervention of the monarchy, namely, the decision by King Charles II to vacate the case. This decision is simply emblematic of the politics and the central role the Monarch played at the time. Using this political dynamic to criticize the case is unpersuasive.

To undermine the American piracy cases, Arab Bank argues that a ship is not a corporation and that holding a ship liable for the acts committed by the people operating it is not equivalent to accepting the concept of corporate liability. However, this argument is purely a matter of semantics and ignores the very basic concept of corporate liability, which is to hold a legal entity liable for the acts of individuals operating within it. This is exactly what the court did when imposing liability on the ships in these piracy cases.

Conclusion

If SCOTUS rules that corporations cannot be held liable under the ATS, it will be overturning hundreds of years of legal tradition, as well as undermining the chosen words and understanding of the drafters of the Constitution. Such a ruling would similarly undercut the legal interpretation adopted by numerous courts and policymakers following the First Congress. Furthermore, Arab Bank’s arguments are not convincing and fail to undermine the evidence that the ATS was intended to apply to both legal and non-legal persons.

Will SCOTUS respect the wishes of the drafters of the Constitution by holding Arab Bank liable for providing financial services to terrorist organizations? Those of us who believe in the underlying principles of this Nation certainly hope so.

UK-Saudi Arabia Arms Trade before the High Court: Questions following the Judgment

by Riccardo Labianco

[Riccardo Labianco is a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London. His research focuses on state-to-state military assistance in times of conflict.]

On 10th July 2017, the High Court of Justice (HCJ) delivered its decision regarding the choice of the Secretary of State for International Trade not to halt the transfers of arms between the UK and Saudi Arabia (SA). The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), the claimant, requested judicial review of that choice, in light of the violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) committed by SA in the conflict in Yemen which likely occurred through UK-manufactured arms and weapons. Eventually, the judges accepted the government’s arguments and dismissed the request for judicial review. This decision was based on the fact that the UK government was the only actor able to assess the absence of a clear risk of IHL violations that could be committed with the transferred arms, due to its inside knowledge of the Saudi administration and its engagement with it. As shown below, the absence of a clear risk of IHL violations must be assessed before authorising any arms export.

Two aspects of the judgment are analysed here. First, the HCJ’s interpretation of the “Consolidated Criteria for Arms Export”, a piece of EU legislation incorporated in the UK legal system. Second, the choice to consider the UK’s “privileged position” within the Saudi administration as an essential element for the lawfulness of the arms transfers.

Response from the EIC of the Journal of the History of International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

[The following is a response from Anne Peters, the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the History of International Law]

Dear readers,

The JHIL received this letter and had agreed towards the authors in writing to publish it in the JHIL as soon as possible.

Publication in JHIL does not imply any agreement or endorsement by the editors or by the academic advisory board of the opinions expressed in an article.

The selection of articles for the journal occurs through double blind peer review on the basis of their academic quality. In the case of the article on the Jamestown Massacre, the editors were able to obtain only one peer review report.

The editor-in-chief acknowledges that there were flaws in the review process and apologizes for this.

The JHIL has recently amended the selection and review procedure in order to strengthen the process.

The new authors’ guidelines containing the description of the review process can be found on the Journal’s website.

Anne Peters

Letter to the Editors of the Journal of the History of International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

[This letter was sent to the editors of the Journal of the History of International Law on 29 August 2017. I am a signatory, not the letter’s author.]

Dear Editors,

We are writing to express our grave concern about the publication of an article entitled ‘The Forgotten Genocide in Colonial America: Reexamining the 1622 Jamestown Massacre within the Framework of the UN Genocide Convention’ in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of International Law. We find the decision to publish this article strange to understand to the extent that it combines dubious anachronisms and legal framings, problematic application of legal doctrine, selective presentation of facts and quotations, and outright contradictions and falsehoods. Notably, it is difficult, if not outright impossible, to reconcile the different parts of the argument with each other as well as with the conclusions of the article. For even if one was to ignore issues of historical accuracy and legal argumentation and accept the author’s arguments, this does not support in any way the conclusion that ‘Jamestown was radically disproportionate to any violence committed by the English, before or after 1622’ (p. 48), or that ‘a sense of self-respect, or at least … a sense of self-preservation’ (ibid) was the core or the motive of settlers’ actions and attitudes post-1622. After all, the article repeatedly emphasises the distinction between (genocidal) intent and motive only to collapse the two when it comes to justifying the acts of English settlers. In other words, this is a piece of work that fails in relation to its own terms as well as in relation to general standards of academic argumentation and rigour.

Since the said article is of considerable length and there are significant problems on virtually every page, we will only focus on a limited number of issues while emphasising that our enumeration is not exhaustive. To begin with, it is notable that even though the author argues that the Powhatan targeted the settlers indiscriminately and without respect for the distinction between ‘combatants and non-combatants’ (p.1), he also goes to great lengths to argue that no armed conflict (or ‘war’ in his own words) was taking place anyway. In any event, the existence, or not, of an armed conflict is doctrinally irrelevant for the finding of the crime of genocide. A review process exhibiting minimal familiarity both with international humanitarian law and the law of genocide would have pointed out these argumentative discontinuities. We find it impossible to find an explanation of what brings together combatants, the absence of armed conflict and the potential perpetration of genocide, since legal doctrine does not. We suspect that the author’s intention to portray the Powhatan as barbarians who embarked on senseless violence out of the blue might shed light on the structure of the article to the extent that international law fails to do so.

Moreover, we are surprised that the peer review process did not challenge the fact that at least the first part of the article is grounded on the argument that no other ‘single massacre’ (p. 5) claimed so many lives as the events in Jamestown. Since the ‘ratio of deaths per incident’ is a criterion as such unknown to international law, and hardly defensible from a moral or political perspective, this is an argumentative move worthy of serious scrutiny. The fact that this arbitrary criterion is clearly linked to an effort to ignore, underplay and eventually justify the prolonged, systematic and (alas) mostly successful process of exterminating Native Americans, dispossessing them of their land, and destroying their society and culture, should have raised even more questions. Indeed, even though Bennett focuses on English settlers, he fails to situate the events within a broader historical context of empire and colonisation as a process that did not simply encompass occasional, unconnected outbreaks of mass violence, but was specifically premised on continuous expansionism to the detriment of the existing occupiers of the land that culminated in their dispossession. The word ‘empire’ does appear twice in the article, but only in order to describe the political relations between the Powhatan and other Native Americans (p. 14, p. 17). Even if one disagrees with our assessment of imperialism and colonisation as articulated above, it would still be difficult to contest the prima facie relevance of this historical context to the discussed topic…

Open Consultation on UN GGE Recommendations on Responsible State Behavior in Cyberspace

by Jessica Dorsey

Leiden University’s The Hague Program for Cyber Norms is inviting an open consultation on how to best implement the UN Group of Governmental Experts’ (UN GGE) recommendations on responsible State behavior in cyberspace. Partner in these consultations is the ICT4Peace Foundation. The Call for commentary and implementation guidelines can be found here.

To participate, please send your questions, comments, recommendations to Mr. Walle Bos.

Background

The UN GGE’s 2015 report (U.N. Doc. A/70/174, July 22, 2015) proposed 11 voluntary, non-binding norms on cooperation, mutual assistance, information exchange, respect for Human Rights, integrity of the supply chain, and critical infrastructure protection. Since then, there has been little public debate on these norms.

In June of this year, the fifth consecutive UN GGE concluded its negotiations without producing a consensus report. In the absence of such a report to offer guidelines on the implementation of the proposed norms contained in the 2015 report, this project aims to support the UN GGE’s work by conducting open consultations in order to produce a commentary with implementation guidelines that includes a wide variety of relevant views.

MH17 Downing Suspects to be Prosecuted Before Dutch Domestic Courts – An Obstacle or an Advantage for International Justice?

by Aaron Matta

[Dr. Aaron Matta is an expert in international law with working experience at International Courts. He also recently co-founded The Hague Council on Advancing International Justice, a network for and with practitioners, academics, and policymakers in the area of international justice. I would like to thank Dr. Philip Ambach and Anda Scarlat for their feedback on earlier drafts of this commentary.The views expressed here are of the authors alone]

After nearly three years since the downing of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight, the countries comprising the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) – namely Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine – announced on 5 July their decision to initiate domestic investigations and prosecutions in the Netherlands in relation to the incident. To facilitate these procedures, a bilateral treaty on international legal cooperation between Ukraine and the Netherlands was signed on July 7. The treaty provides that those suspected of downing flight MH17 can be prosecuted in the Netherlands in respect of all 298 victims, which originate from 17 different countries. This means that all next of kin will have the same rights in the Dutch criminal proceedings regardless of their nationality.

These new developments are not surprising given that most of the victims were Dutch and the Netherlands has led the investigation and coordinated the international team of investigators thus far. This move also shows the determination of the JIT states to bring to justice those responsible, particularly after failed attempts to establish an ad hoc international MH17 Court had failed due to Russia’s veto in the United Nations Security Council. However, the recent decision to prosecute suspects in a Dutch domestic court raises challenges, particularly in view of the ongoing preliminary examination in Ukraine by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). While international law provides several legal avenues for redress for this incident, in both criminal and civil proceedings, – which I extensively analyzed in an earlier blog post – the avenues analyzed here fall under the category of individual criminal responsibility.

So why can the Netherlands exercise its criminal jurisdiction in this case, if the incident occurred in Ukraine? In principle, Ukraine would retain the primary right to investigate and prosecute those responsible according to the legal principle of territorial jurisdiction – based on where the crime was committed. The Ukrainian leadership determined, however, that it would be very difficult to carry out the investigations and prosecutions due to the ongoing conflict in the Donbass region, where the MH17 incident took place. As a result, Ukraine triggered the ICC’s jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed on its territory from 20 February 2014 onwards via two declarations under the ICC Statute, requesting the ICC Prosecutor to investigate the matter. Currently, following these requests, the ICC Prosecutor is undertaking a preliminary examination that could lead to the opening of a criminal investigation. Such investigation could potentially include the downing of the MH17 flight as an alleged war crime.

Nonetheless, the other JIT states, including the Netherlands, can also assert their domestic jurisdictions over this matter based on the legal principle of passive personality jurisdiction, due to the fact that their citizens were killed in this incident. In light of last week’s decision, the Dutch domestic criminal specialized courts will now be able to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the downing of MH17 on the basis of four main legal sources: first, as domestic crimes under the Dutch penal code, such as murder or manslaughter; second, as an international crime under the Dutch International Crimes Act of 2003; thirdly, as a crime on the basis of the 1971 Montreal Convention, which allows the domestic prosecution of any person committing unlawful acts against the safety of civil aviation; and finally, the bilateral judicial cooperation agreement recently signed with Ukraine.

However, the concurrent use of multiple criminal prosecution mechanisms, namely the Dutch domestic courts and the ICC, may cause difficulties. First, issues may arise under the basic principle of ‘ne bis in idem’, which states that no person can be tried twice for the same crime. Thus, if a Dutch court prosecutes an individual, this may prevent the ICC from prosecuting the same individual for the same crime. It is therefore essential for the JIT states to coordinate and cooperate with each other, and more importantly with the ICC, when it comes to gathering evidence, selection of suspects and conducting fair trials, to avoid duplication and wasting resources.

In addition, an investigation by the Dutch national authorities will most likely block any investigation by the ICC by virtue of the latter’s complementarity to national courts of its States Parties. According to this principle, states are primarily responsible for investigating and prosecuting international crimes. The ICC only intervenes if states parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC are unable or unwilling to prosecute individuals’ suspected/accused of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community. With this in mind, a division of labor between the different jurisdictions, and among the different actors involved, could be arranged. For example, the Netherlands could focus in prosecuting those most responsible for the MH17 incident, while the ICC concentrates its efforts and limited resources to investigating other crimes committed in the Ukrainian territory.

Other challenges that will be faced by all of the jurisdictions involved are, for example, meeting the high standards of proof required for establishing the suspects’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt. This includes notably the requirement to prove the alleged perpetrator’s ‘knowledge and intent’ to commit a war crime. Additionally, there will be several procedural obstacles when it comes to judicial cooperation and the sharing of crucial potential evidence. Clear examples of this are the thousands of intercepted telephone calls gathered by Ukrainian law enforcement and intelligence agencies. While some of this evidence can easily be shared with the JIT investigators, as well as with the Dutch and ICC prosecutors, in several instances much of this data cannot be shared due to some restrictions in the Ukrainian legal system. This is the case, for example, with evidence that may have been acquired or intercepted following special legal procedures into the downing of the MH17, such as investigations carried out in the interest of state security and the fight against terrorism.

The bilateral agreement between the Netherlands and Ukraine addresses some of these issues by reducing or simplifying some procedural hurdles. For example, the agreement tackles the issue of examination of Ukrainian defendants via video link or the transferring of enforcement of prison sentences that may be imposed, due to extradition restrictions in the Ukrainian legal system.

Finally, a major obstacle will prove to be obtaining custody of the potential suspects, particularly if they are Russian nationals and/or located on Russian territory. The Russian Federation will most likely not be willing to extradite potential Russian suspects, in spite of international pressure, in light of the current geopolitical tensions prevailing in the region. In this respect, trials in absentia (where the suspect is absent from the legal proceedings), which are provided for in the Dutch criminal code could prove to be a limited yet practical solution.

Regardless of these numerous challenges, the decision to initiate judicial proceedings in the Netherlands providing a solid avenue for legal redress for the incident should be welcomed. Such an initiative would further show that the JIT states are serious about seeking justice for the victims of this tragic incident and their relatives.

Amicus Brief in Al Bahlul Military Commission Case

by Jens David Ohlin

I have filed an amicus brief in the Al Bahlul case.  Al Bahlul was charged and convicted before a military commission for multiple offenses including conspiracy. On appeal, several of the charges were thrown out, but the conspiracy conviction remains and is the subject of his cert petition before the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the government once held the position that conspiracy is an offense under the international law of war, the government eventually switched legal theories and argued that conspiracy is a domestic law offense triable before a military commission. As should be clear from the excerpt below, my own view is that the jurisdiction of military commissions is limited to international offenses under the law of war.

Here is a summary of the brief’s argument:

In this case, petitioner Al Bahlul was convicted of multiple offenses before a military commission, including conspiracy, solicitation, and material support for terrorism. See United States v. Al Bahlul, 820 F. Supp. 2d 1141, 1167, 1183 (U.S.C.M.C.R. 2011). On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated the convictions for solicitation and material support. Al Bahlul v. United States, 767 F.3d 1, 5 (D.C. Cir. 2014). The sole remaining charge at issue in this litigation is Bahlul’s conviction for conspiracy.

In Hamdan, Justice Stevens’s four-vote plurality opinion concluded that a stand-alone conspiracy charge was not prosecutable at a military commission because it was not a violation of international law. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. 557, 604 (2006). In this case, however, the U.S. government has not relied on the classification of conspiracy as an international law offense. Instead, the government maintains that military commissions have jurisdiction to adjudicate the charge of inchoate conspiracy, despite the incongruity between that criminal offense and international law.

In proceedings below, counsel for the U.S. government has advanced various arguments for why military commissions have jurisdiction to try conspiracy – a domestic offense – even though the Supreme Court has made clear in prior decisions that the jurisdiction of military commissions is limited to the adjudication of violations of the law of war. These arguments all rely on the implausible suggestion that the “law of war” straddles the divide between international and domestic law, and that there exists a little-known domestic body of law called the American common law of war. According to the government, conspiracy is consistent with this newly re-discovered American law of war because the offence is entrenched in the common law, the legal culture of the United States, and Civil War commission practice.

This domestic “law of war” argument is problematic for multiple reasons. Although prior cases in this Court and elsewhere include references to something called the “common law of war,” see, e.g., Quirin, 317 U.S. 1, at 34, it would be legally and historically inaccurate to conclude that this phrase refers to a domestic body of law. Rather, an analysis of every mention of this phrase over the last 200 years demonstrates that the “common law of war” refers to international law – a law “common” to all mankind.

Determining the proper scope of the “law of war” in this context – i.e., whether it is international or domestic – has large implications for establishing the outer contours of the jurisdiction of military commissions. Given that military commissions operate outside of Article III, without the right to a jury trial protected by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, the resolution of this case is essential for demarcating the proper boundaries between a civilian system of criminal justice and a military system for prosecuting detainees captured pursuant to the laws of war. For these reasons, it is imperative for this Court to grant certiorari to resolve this fundamental federal question pursuant to Rule 10(c).

The full amicus brief can be found here.