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Ebola will be a Chapter VII issue

by Jens David Ohlin

Right now, the Ebola virus is spreading across the Africa, and the ability of the most affected states – Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea – to stop and contain the virus is very much in doubt. Although only a few cases have been reported in the United States and Europe, it is clear that it will be impossible to completely avoid disease transmission here.

Furthermore, it is also clear that the healthcare systems of Spain and the United States have been incapable of correctly handling cases so as to prevent transmission of the disease. In the U.S., for example, the healthcare system was unable to correctly contain an outbreak that initially started with just one patient. Imagine what would happen if the United States were facing 1000 cases of Ebola. Although clearly the U.S. has more resources to deal with such a scenario than, say, Sierra Leone or Liberia, the current cases do not inspire confidence.

One of the factors leading to the spread of Ebola is the high mobility of today’s populations. We no longer live in one city or even one country. We move around. Once Ebola changed from a rural virus to an urban disease, it became that much easier for the disease to reach epidemic levels.

The other reason the disease spread so quickly is that the governments of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea responded inappropriately to the outbreak. They did not put in place the required measures to identify and isolate potentially infected Ebola patients. Also, medical personnel did not – and in many cases still do not – have access to the necessary protective equipment to prevent them from contracting the virus and, in turn, passing it along to others. The failures here run deep and are systemic.

The outbreak will cross international borders, potentially overwhelming national healthcare systems, and causing thousands of deaths. Experts have already predicted that, absent appropriate intervention and global resources, by the end of November the outbreak could claim as many as 10,000 new infections each week. Imagine what the weekly infection rate will be in January, or next June. The infection rate increase exponentially; the numbers are truly frightening.

The media attention to the disease has been schizophrenic. On the one hand, news outlets are reveling in public hysteria over Ebola because it no doubt increases readership and viewership. At the same, the same media outlets run stories or commentaries decrying the public hysteria as irrational and disproportionate to the level of threat. The latter is incredibly unhelpful because it ignores the fact that many governments, in both Africa and even the United States, have under-reacted to the threat and therefore missed the boat with regard to early containment. I think much of the public hysteria is warranted and rational because the government has done insufficient planning for a worst-case scenario situation.

All of this adds up to a situation that may very well threaten international peace and security. The director of the W.H.O. has already said as much, although I’m not sure if she was aware of the legal consequences of this statement. In any event, I am aware of the legal consequences, and I do believe that Ebola may become a threat to international peace and security.

Once that happens, the Security Council will have the authority under Chapter VII to declare Ebola a threat to international peace and security and to authorize measures to repair the breach. Those remedies could include outside interventions in effected countries even in the absence of local government consent. The time might come when outside governments need to do more than offer assistance; they might need to take control over the response, not just because of a humanitarian obligation but also from collective self-interest. The way to defeat Ebola will be to take the fight to Africa rather than sit back and wait for it to come here.

This issue doesn’t line up as Africa versus the rest of the world. The countries with the greatest interest in seeing a more intrusive global response are the African nations that border on the outbreak but have so far remained Ebola-free. If the outbreak spreads, they will be the hardest hit and it is their interests that would be most vindicated by a global intervention. An uncontained outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea is a disaster for their African neighbors.

Outside intervention would infringe the sovereignty of the host governments, but with a Chapter VII enforcement resolution from the Security Council, those putative violations of sovereignty would be lawful and consistent with the U.N. Charter.

I hope none of this becomes necessary. I hope the Ebola outbreak is contained and eliminated next week. I hope one of the vaccines proves effective and the whole world gets the vaccine by January. But there is no rational reason for optimism. Disaster planning requires preparing for the worst. If Ebola lingers and spreads, it makes sense to think now of the appropriate global response, the role of the U.N. and the Security Council in leading that response, and the structure of a legal argument that would justify intrusive interventions.

Legal Issues at the GA This Fall

by Kristen Boon

For those interested in the 6th committee program at the General Assembly currently underway,  the schedule is available here.   Interesting topics are being discussed, including the Rule of Law, International Terrorism, Universal Jurisdiction, finalizing a draft UNCITRAL treaty on transparency in treaty based Investor-State disputes, and an update on the Responsibility of International Organizations.  The ILC’s report will be discussed between October 27 – November 5.  Documents for the sessions are available on the PaperSmart portal, and all the plenaries can be viewed by live webcast here.

In addition, on Thursday, Oct. 16, elections will take place for five non-permament Security Council seats.   Background on the seats available and the countries vying for them is available here.

 

How to Get Quirin Right When Quirin Was Wrong

by Jens David Ohlin

On Monday, the defense in the Al Bahlul case filed their reply brief. The case is important because it squarely presents the issue that was left hanging after Hamdan, i.e. whether the military commissions have jurisdiction to try inchoate conspiracy. It also raises the far deeper question of whether the jurisdiction of the military commissions is limited to offenses against the law of nations (the international law of war), or whether the military commission’s jurisdiction to try law of war offenses includes domestic offenses as well. The government has repeatedly argued in the past that historically U.S. commissions were used to try violations of the common law of war, such as conspiracy. If that argument holds water, then it does not really matter whether inchoate conspiracy is an international offense or not.

There has been a lot of commentary on this issue, and it seems to me that the heart of the dispute has to be Quirin, the German saboteurs case during World War II. In that case, the petitioners were prosecuted before a military commission after landing in the U.S., burying their uniforms, and setting afoot with orders to commit acts of sabotage against strategic installations. They were convicted by military commission and appealed to the Supreme Court.

The problem with the Quirin precedent is that the Supreme Court probably assumed that spying and sabotage were international offenses, which they are not. The proper understanding of the situation, which was correctly identified by Baxter in his famous article, was that the belligerents in Quirin were not entitled to the privilege of belligerency and therefore liable for prosecution under domestic law. But being unprivileged and subject to domestic prosecution is not the same as committing an international offense.  For what is worth, the best reading of Quirin is that the Supreme Court conflated these two situations:

By a long course of practical administrative construction by its military authorities, our Government has likewise recognized that those who during time of war pass surreptitiously from enemy territory into our own, discarding their uniforms upon entry, for the commission of hostile acts involving destruction of life or property, have the status of unlawful combatants punishable as such by military commission. This precept of the law of war has been so recognized in practice both here and abroad, and has so generally been accepted as valid by authorities on international law that we think it must be regarded as a rule or principle of the law of war recognized by this Government by its enactment of the Fifteenth Article of War.

This specification so plainly alleges violation of the law of war as to require but brief discussion of petitioners’ contentions. As we have seen, entry upon our territory in time of war by enemy belligerents, including those acting under the direction of the armed forces of the enemy, for the purpose of destroying property used or useful in prosecuting the war, is a hostile and war-like act. It subjects those who participate in it without uniform to the punishment prescribed by the law of war for unlawful belligerents. It is without significance that petitioners were not alleged to have borne conventional weapons or that their proposed hostile acts did not necessarily contemplate collision with the Armed Forces of the United States. Paragraphs 351 and 352 of the Rules of Land Warfare, already referred to, plainly contemplate that the hostile acts and purposes for which unlawful belligerents may be punished are not limited to assaults on the Armed Forces of the United States. Modern warfare is directed at the destruction of enemy war supplies and the implements of their production and transportation quite as much as at the armed forces. Every consideration which makes the unlawful belligerent punishable is equally applicable whether his objective is the one or the other. The law of war cannot rightly treat those agents of enemy armies who enter our territory, armed with explosives intended for the destruction of war industries and supplies, as any the less belligerent enemies than are agent similarly entering for the purpose of destroying fortified places or our Armed Forces. By passing our boundaries for such purposes without uniform or other emblem signifying their belligerent status, or by discarding that means of identification after entry, such enemies become unlawful belligerents subject to trial and punishment.

 

The Quirin decision is notoriously difficult to read because the court is inexact with its language. It appears to me that the Court assumed that an unprivileged belligerent who commits an offense out of uniform would be guilty of an international offense — a conclusion that does not follow. In reality, spying and related offenses are not, and were not, international offenses, but where offenses against domestic law, albeit ones that are mirrored in some way in almost every nation.

Herein lies the problem: How do you correctly interpret Quirin when Quirin‘s jurisdictional theory is built on a mistake? In my view, the correct reading is that Quirin stands for the proposition that military commissions are limited to prosecuting international offenses because that is what the Supreme Court believed spying to be. The fact that spying is a domestic offense does not, and should not, transform its holding into a much broader jurisdictional theory: that military commissions have jurisdiction over domestic offenses as well. True, the Supreme Court in Quirin upheld the military commission’s jurisdiction over spying, and spying is a domestic offense, but in reality the court was upholding the jurisdiction over spying-qua-international-offense, a category that unfortunately is a null set.

The defendant’s reply brief does not take this line. Rather, the defense makes the much simpler argument that spying was indeed an international offense, and that both the government today and Baxter got this wrong.  Here is the crucial paragraph in Al Bahlul’s brief:

Regardless of this article’s scholarly merits, Quirin is the authoritative law
in this case. And regardless of whether spying’s status changed after the Second World War, Quirin had a wealth of precedent and international legal authority
behind it in 1942. Lassa Oppenheim, International Law 2:223 (1921)
(“Oppenheim”) (“persons committing acts of espionage or war treason are – as will be shown below – considered war criminals and may be punished[.]”), Supp.App. 53; Henry Halleck, International Law 1:628-29 (1908) (“Halleck”) (“The act of spying is an offence against the laws of war alone; it is no crime in time of peace”), Supp.App. 36-37; George Davis, Outlines of International Law 241 (1887) (including spying within the “Crimes and Offences against the Laws of War” and a “crime[] at International Law[.]”), Supp.App. 13-14; Winthrop, at 770 (“By the law of nations the crime of a spy is punishable with death.”), Supp.App. 89; M. de Vattel, The Law of Nations 375 (1758) (describing spying as a form of treachery), Supp.App. 5; Military Commissions, 11 Op. Att’y Gen. 297, 312 (1865)
(“Infractions of the laws of nations are not denominated crimes, but offenses. …
[Acting as] a spy is an offense against the laws of war”); Hague Convention (IV)
Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and Its Annex, Oct. 18, 1907,
36 Stat. 2277, arts. 29-31 (regulating the punishment of spies). In fact, the very
first spying statute, passed in 1776, stated that spies should “suffer death according to the law and usage of nations.” Supp.App. 49-50.

While this is a conceptually clean argument, I don’t find it persuasive. Oppenheim’s quote simply asserts that spies are criminals without labeling the offense as domestic or international; Halleck too refers to it as an offense against the laws of war without calling it an international offense, the issue at bar here. Winthrop refers to it as a rule of the law of nations, although the quote does not say whether the offense itself is international or simply whether the law of nations dictates that spies are unprivileged (and by extension liable for punishment of domestic crimes), which is a far different matter. Vattel refers to it as treachery which again doesn’t speak to the classification issue. Finally, the Hague Convention regulates the manner in which spies will be punished, which again does not logically entail the crime’s classification as an international offense. That leaves the Davis quote as the only one that directly speaks to the international nature of the offense.

So my argument is different from the government’s argument and different from the defendant’s argument, although in result I side with Bahlul. Quirin stands for the proposition that military commissions prosecute international offenses, but not because the offenses in Quirin actually were international offenses, but simply because the Supreme Court (incorrectly) assumed that to be the case. And I think this mistake (conflating international offenses with unprivileged conduct violating domestic law) is an easy one to make and one that was more common in the past than it is today. Interpretation demands that we find the deeper principle in Quirin, and that is that military commissions prosecute international offenses.

Guest Post: The International Law Case for Democracy in Hong Kong

by Alvin Y.H. Cheung

[Alvin Y.H. Cheung is a Visiting Scholar at the US-Asia Law Institute at NYU School of Law.]

After two years of increasingly acrimonious debate over Hong Kong’s electoral reforms for 2017, the city’s pro-democracy movement has finally attracted global concern.  A consistent theme of international responses has been that Hong Kong’s democratisation should occur in accordance with the Basic Law, the city’s quasi-constitution.  The White House’s official response to a petition supporting democracy in Hong Kong was that it supported universal suffrage in Hong Kong “in accordance with the Basic Law.”  Similarly, Richard Graham MP, who heads the All Party Parliamentary Group on China, expressed the hope that further consultations would ensure a satisfactory choice that remained “within China’s Basic Law” (a misnomer that uncomfortably emphasised where the veto power over Hong Kong’s electoral reforms lay).  The implication of these statements is that the debate over how Hong Kong should choose its own leader is purely a municipal law matter.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made that point even more forcefully when his spokesperson stated that the Hong Kong protests were “a domestic matter.”  These accounts, framed purely in domestic law terms, are misleading. The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong (Joint Declaration) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – properly interpreted – both require that the Hong Kong electorate have a genuine choice in its leader.

Chief Executive Elections in Hong Kong and the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) Decision of August 31, 2014 (2014 Decision)

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is currently chosen by a 1,200-strong Election Committee, the composition of which is carefully designed to favour pro-business and pro-Beijing interests.  The “race” in which Leung himself was selected, although more competitive than previous “elections,” was heavily influenced by the Beijing Government and its representatives.  Although Article 45 of the Basic Law provided that the “ultimate aim” was for Hong Kong to elect its Chief Executive by universal suffrage, the deadline for universal suffrage has been repeatedly delayed by the NPCSC, which retains the power to interpret the Basic Law and to make decisions about the necessity of electoral reform.  The 2014 Decision ostensibly laid down the framework for universal suffrage in 2017, after months of consultation by the Hong Kong Government.  Instead, it provided the flashpoint for the student protests that in turn triggered the Umbrella Revolution. Under the 2014 Decision:

1)      The NPCSC confirmed that the Chief Executive owed responsibilities both to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and to the Beijing Government;
2)      As a result, any Chief Executive would be required to “love the country and love Hong Kong” – a phrase that, in practice, means that pro-democracy politicians will be barred from candidacy;
3)      Only 2 or 3 candidates would be permitted to run;
4)      Candidates would be chosen by a 1,200-strong Nominating Committee; and
5)      Support from at least half of the nominators would be required for candidacy.

The upshot of the 2014 Decision, and its various restrictions on nomination, is to ensure that only persons who Beijing deems politically palatable can run.  Lawrence Lessig aptly described the framework of the 2014 Decision as “Tweedism updated.”

The Joint Declaration

On its face, Article 3(4) of the Joint Declaration permits Hong Kong’s Chief Executive to be appointed after either elections, or consultations.  It contains – as Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive CY Leung wrote in the Financial Times – no specific prescriptions regarding the election or consultation process.  However, such an interpretation ignores basic principles of treaty interpretation.  The requirements under Article 31(1) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) – to which both China and the UK are parties – govern the interpretation of the Joint Declaration, yet have been routinely ignored by the Hong Kong and Beijing Governments. I argue that the Article 31(1) factors point towards an interpretation of the Joint Declaration that, contrary to Beijing’s assertions, imposes substantive requirements on how Hong Kong’s Chief Executive can be elected.

First, any interpretation of “elections” or “consultation” that permits a purely formal process in which the Hong Kong electorate “elects” a candidate pre-ordained by the Nominating Committee strips such terms of any reasonable meaning.  Second, the Joint Declaration was intended to guarantee that Hong Kong enjoyed a “high degree of autonomy,” except in foreign affairs and defence.  Giving the Hong Kong public a genuine choice in electing its Chief Executive can only be consistent with that purpose, without necessarily undermining Chinese sovereignty.  Third, to the extent that the Basic Law is acknowledged by both China and the UK to be subsequent practice in applying the Joint Declaration, there is agreement that elections should be by “universal suffrage.”  Fourth – and most importantly – the Joint Declaration also declares, in Chapter XIII of Annex I, that the provisions of the ICCPR applicable in Hong Kong shall remain in force after 1997.

The Applicability of ICCPR Article 25(b)

Under ICCPR Article 25(b), citizens enjoy the right “[to] vote and be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage…” without unreasonable restrictions.  However, the applicability of Article 25(b) to Hong Kong has long been contentious.  When the UK acceded to the ICCPR on behalf of Hong Kong, it entered a reservation to Article 25(b).  Nonetheless, the Human Rights Committee has long taken the view that the reservation ceased to apply to elections for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council once an elected legislature was established.(Human Rights Comm., Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Comm (H.K.): U.K., U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/79/Add.57 (1995), ¶ 19.) The same reasoning would apply with equal force to Chief Executive elections; once the office of Chief Executive is filled through elections, such elections must comply with Article 25(b).  Curiously, the Committee’s Concluding Observations of 2013 in respect of Hong Kong appeared to accept that the reservation remained in force, without citing its previous Concluding Observations or explaining its departure from its previous position. (Human Rights Comm., Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Comm.: H.K., China, U.N. Doc. CCPR C/CHN-HKG/CO/3 (2013), ¶ 6.)

If one accepts that ICCPR Article 25(b) applies to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive elections, limits on the right to stand for election may not be subjected to unreasonable restrictions.  General Comment 25 adds that limits on the right to stand for election may only be based on “objective and reasonable criteria.”  The Human Rights Committee has consistently rejected political affiliation as an “objective and reasonable” criterion, (Chiiko Bwalya v Zambia, Commc’n No. 314/1988, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/48/D/314/1988 (1993); Lukyanchik v Belarus, Commc’n No. 1391/05, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/97/D/1392/2005; Sudalenko v Belarus, Commc’n No. 1354/05, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/100/D/1354/2005.) including in a series of cases regarding arbitrary denial of registration to electoral candidates. (Lukyanchik and Sudalenko)  Indeed, by Beijing’s own admission, the pre-selection of candidates for political pliancy is not a criterion that could be legally defined.

Counter-Argument: The Source of Authority for the Basic Law

Shigong Qiang of Peking University has argued that Hong Kong’s “high level of autonomy” flows solely from authority from the Central Government, and that the Basic Law itself derives its authority solely from the PRC Constitution. (Shigong Qiang, 國際人權公約在香港:被誤讀的國際條約’ [The ICCPR in Hong Kong: The Misinterpreted International Treaty] Mingpao (HK, 25 Aug 2014).)  Yet this view does not appear to be universally shared even among Mainland academics.  The late Xiao Weiyun, one of the Mainland’s pre-eminent authorities on the Basic Law, conceded that the obligation to enact the Basic Law flowed from the Joint Declaration. (Xiao Weiyun, One Country Two Systems: An Account of the Drafting of the Basic Law 13(2001).  On Xiao see Jimmy Cheung, Basic Law ‘Guardian’ Dies at 78, S. China Morning Post (H.K.), Jul. 16, 2004.)  Nor does the text of the Basic Law support Qiang’s argument; the Preamble to the Basic Law states that it was enacted “to ensure the implementation of the basic policies of the [PRC] regarding Hong Kong.”  The “basic policies” referred to could only be those set out in Article 3 of, and Annex I to, the Joint Declaration.

Implications for the Electoral Reform Debate

If the Joint Declaration and ICCPR demand genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, then China has not merely a domestic law obligation to democratise Hong Kong, but an international law obligation.  This in turn empowers the UK, and potentially other parties to the ICCPR, to ensure China fulfils its obligations.  Writing in the Financial Times, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor Lord Patten of Barnes sought to remind Westminster that the United Kingdom had not merely a political and moral obligation to monitor developments in Hong Kong, but a legal obligation.  In light of ongoing developments, there is a compelling legal case for Whitehall to speak up in Hong Kong’s defence. Yet there are few signs that the United Kingdom’s long-standing policy of neglect will change.  In the wake of the 2014 Decision, the Foreign Office stated merely that the 2014 Decision would “disappoint” Hong Kong’s democrats, without any reference to the Joint Declaration.  Although Prime Minister David Cameron has now stated that he is “deeply concerned” about events in Hong Kong, it remains to be seen whether this will translate into a change in Foreign Office policy.

How to Solve the MV Limburg Mess: A Brief Exegesis on ‘Jurisdictional Facts’

by Jens David Ohlin

The Al Nashiri case before the Guantanamo military commission is currently stuck in a quagmire over the bombing of the oil tanker MV Limburg on Oct. 6, 2002, which Al Nashiri is alleged to be complicit in. Before trial, the defendant, Al Nashiri, moved to dismiss the charges related to the MV Limburg (which is just one of many charges in the case) on the grounds that the government does not have jurisdiction over the MV Limburg bombing since it was not part of the armed conflict between the United States and al-Qaeda. The MV Limburg was a French vessel (not American).

Instead of interpreting the motion as dealing with Congress’ jurisdiction to prescribe (as the defense appeared to suggest), the judge interpreted the motion as one attacking the jurisdiction of the military commission to hear the case because the attack was not connected to the hostilities between the U.S. and al-Qaeda. Since the government had not presented evidence that the attack was connected to those hostilities, the judge eventually dismissed the charges.

The U.S. government is appealing the dismissal of the MV Limburg charges, and it filed its appeal brief on September 29, 2014 to the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review. The government’s position is that the existence of hostilities (or a connection between the attack and the hostilities) is a question that goes to the merits, not jurisdiction, and therefore the government should be permitted to proceed to trial where it will demonstrate this connection. The connection between the hostilities and the attack is a merits question because the existence of hostilities is a predicate element of any war crime.  No war, no war crime.

So it is clearly a question that goes to the merits that should be decided at trial.  On this point the government is clearly correct. However, Al Nashiri is also correct that the same fact — the connection to the hostilities — is an essential ingredient of the court’s jurisdiction under the law of war. The military commission does not, and should not, have jurisdiction over crimes unrelated or unconnected to the underlying military conflict. So it is a jurisdictional question too. It is both at the same time. What the court really needs to figure out is how to treat a fact that is both jurisdictional and an element of the offense (merits) at the same time. Should it be proved at trial or does the party need to show the court, prior to trial, that it has jurisdiction over the case?

As should be clear by now, this basic problem is not unique to a military commission. It happens any time that the same factual element goes to jurisdiction and merits in the very same case. A court confronted with the twin nature of such a fact needs to determine whether to treat it as it does other jurisdictional elements (determine prior to trial) or as a merits question (determine at the conclusion of the trial).

The very best article on this subject, by Kevin Clermont, is simply titled Jurisdictional Fact, 91 Cornell L. Rev. 973 (2006). As Clermont convincingly explains, judges faced with this quandary should adopt a bifurcated approach with two standards of decision, one for the jurisdictional analysis and a second for the merits analysis:

All courts, then, should apply the prima facie standard of proof whenever a jurisdictional fact overlaps the merits. “Overlapping” here means that a factual finding in establishing … jurisdiction would also go toward proving the merits of the claim, with “merits” broadly meaning those issues that arise other than in determining the forum’s authority.

 

So, at the pre-trial phase, the court should require that the party asserting jurisdiction (which in Al Nashiri’s case would be the government prosecutors) should make a prima facie demonstration of the jurisdictional fact, and then at trial should be required to demonstrate the same fact under the higher standard, which in a civil case would be preponderance of the evidence or in a criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Most importantly, this basic scheme applies regardless of whether one interprets Al Nashiri’s motion as going to personal jurisdiction or subject matter jurisdiction. It does not matter which one we use to classify the motion. If there is a fact that is both jurisdictional and merits, the government must demonstrate it pre-trial with a prima facie case, and then at trial under the regular standard for the merits decision.  Here is how Clermont explains the basic point:

From a morass of confused cases on a procedural point of significance, there emerges a startlingly clear rule that covers jurisdictional fact, and much more. On any factual element or legal question of forum authority, from subject-matter jurisdiction to venue whenever properly challenged, the proponent of forum authority must make the usual showing of more-likely-than-not, subject to this exception: if that element or question overlaps the merits of the claim, the proponent need provide only prima facie proof to establish the forum’s authority. Depending on the particular threshold issue’s importance, “prima facie” might mean any of the standards below the more-likely-than-not standard, namely, slightest possibility, reasonable possibility, substantial possibility, or equipoise. That lower standard will allow the judge to decide efficiently but definitively whether the forum has authority to decide the merits–doing so without entailing or foreclosing any decision on the merits, a decision to which a higher standard would apply.

Applying this basic scheme to Al Nashiri’s case, here is the correct result for the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review to consider. The government is indeed required to make a factual showing of the hostilities connection prior to trial, though it need not be burdened with demonstrating it under the standard applicable at the merits phase. Instead, the government was only required to make a prima facie showing of this jurisdictional fact. That being said, the government would be wrong if it claims that it bears no burden at all until trial — that clearly is an exaggeration. The task for the appeals court is to recognize the appropriate standard for such jurisdictional facts — the prima facie showing — and then decide if the government met that burden. If the lower judge’s assessment is correct that the government made no showing whatsoever on the hostilities question, then the appeals court should conclude that the charges were properly dismissed. If, on the other hand, the appeals court concludes that the government did make this prima facie case, and can cite to particular facts in the record that are sufficient to meet the prima facie showing, then the charges should be reinstated.

One final point. The government brief seems to assert that the government’s prima facie showing is already met because Al Nashiri never contested his status as an alien unprivileged enemy belligerent (AUEB). But this goes to personal jurisdiction, not subject matter jurisdiction. The government then goes on to use personal jurisdiction to bootstrap its way into subject matter jurisdiction under the theory that subject matter jurisdiction is automatically established once the status of the individual is established. This might be the way that it works for a court martial under the UCMJ (where the status of the individual service-member is sufficient to trigger the authority of the military court), but this conflation of personal and subject matter jurisdiction is not appropriate for military commission cases trying enemy belligerents.

Unlike domestic court martial proceedings which retain plenary authority to prosecute all UCMJ offenses against service-members, military commission cases are jurisdictionally limited to offenses arising from the conflict between the parties — the very conflict that grounds the genesis of the military commission under international law. Simply put, military commissions cannot use the existence of an armed conflict as a pretext to assert plenary authority over all criminal behavior committed by the individuals who lawfully fall under their personal jurisdiction.

Can a U.S. Judge Hold the Government of Argentina in “Contempt”?

by Julian Ku

In the latest round in the never-ending battle between Argentina and its holdout bondholders, a U.S. court has found Argentina to be in “contempt” for trying to circumvent that US court’s orders. Argentina has been outraged by such an order, arguing that a  state cannot be held in “contempt” because it is an affront to its sovereign dignity (with Argentina’s president denouncing the U.S. judge as “senile“).   Indeed, the Argentine government on Monday sent a very interesting letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry setting out why it believes it cannot be subject to a “contempt” order in a domestic U.S. court.

The Argentine Republic notes that it is completely absurd for plaintiffs to argue that a local judge can hold a foreign State “in contempt”. This position can only arise from ignorance or a distorted view of the fundamental rules of international law currently in force and the peaceful coexistence of global order.

The principles on which international coexistence rests are reflected in the Charter of the United Nations. One of these principles refers to sovereign equality of all States and is expressly embodied in Article 2(1) of that Charter. This is a fundamental principle when it comes to determining what a State can or cannot do in relation to other States.

When any branch of government of a State denies “equal” status to another State, it not only manifestly violates international law but it also risks setting a precedent for the commission of similar violations of international law to its own detriment.

I think that Argentina’s argument that contempt orders and other judicial sanctions against it are violations of international law (even thought it has consented to that domestic jurisdiction) can draw some support from the statements of the U.S. government itself (which is quoted extensively in the letter).  The problem for Argentina is that the U.S. judicial system has not agreed with the U.S. government’s views on many of these questions.  So US law is no help to Argentina here (for the most part). And the U.S. government has almost no legal mechanisms to change the district court’s actions here, so the letter is largely for public consumption.

The harder question is whether (as Argentina argues) there is a generally accepted rule of international law that a court cannot hold a sovereign in contempt where that sovereign has consented to the jurisdiction of that court.  This is a tricky question and one worth thinking about further. I hope to post on that when I have had more time to digest it.

To Debate or Not to Debate in a Time of War

by Kristen Boon

John Stewart’s Sept. 29 clip “Cameron – What are you Doing?” is a must see on comparative constitutional law.   Stewart contrasts the fulsome and spirited debate in the UK on whether to authorize airstrikes against ISIL, with the absence of congressional action in the US.   Well worth watching. And quite funny.   Here is the show.

 

 

Ground Troops & the Myth of Air Power

by Jens David Ohlin

House Speaker John Boehner said in an interview on Sunday that ground troops may be necessary in order to stop the threat of ISIS. Although his comments were interwoven with lots of unnecessary talk of ISIS being barbarians, which I don’t think is terribly helpful, I do agree with his bottom-line assessment: air power and proxy ground troops won’t be enough to win this war.

This points to a frequent mistake. Politicians think they can eliminate the cost of going to war by conducting an air war. That may work in some situations, but they are a distinct minority. The NATO bombing campaign against Serbia (led by General Clark) was frustratingly slow and borderline ineffective without the introduction of ground troops to make a real difference on the ground.

Air power is effective in some situations, especially when combined with a select number of well-trained, well-equipped, and highly motivated infantry on the ground. Air power might also be appropriate to punish an international wrongdoer and deter them from violating international law in the future, in very isolated ways.

In isolation, air power cannot win a war that is designed to deprive an enemy of governmental control over a territory. An enemy facing only air power can hunker down and wait out the air assault especially when, as in this case, the President at first announced that ground troops were off the table. Obama smartly reversed course and is now issuing more ambiguous statements so as not to motivate ISIS forces to wait out the air assault (which cannot go on forever).

True, grounds troops are not entirely absent from this conflict. It is just that they are from Iraq, Turkey, and the moderate Syrian opposition. But the Iraqi Army is incredibly weak at the moment and there is little incentive for troops to show up to fight. The Syrian opposition is also disorganized. And no amount of money and weapons is going to fix that.

Boehner is right that ground troops are necessary if the US is serious about defeating ISIS. But if that happens, I don’t think the Obama Administration will be able to hang on to the fiction that the intervention is covered by the 9/11 AUMF. A new authorization, and political buy-in from Congress, will be required.

 

Weekend Roundup: September 20-26, 2014

by An Hertogen

This week on Opinio Juris, JensJennifer Trahan and Julian discussed the international legal basis for the air strikes against ISIS. Jens also analysed why Khorasan is seen as a more immediate threat to the US than ISIS. For more on the US domestic legal basis, check out Deborah’s post with a snippet from her Daily Beast article on the perennial US War Powers fight.

A guest post by Anton Moiseienko gave some insights in Russian scholarship on the legality of Crimea’s annexation under international law.

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

Many thanks to our guest contributors and have a nice weekend

The Unwilling or Unable Doctrine Comes to Life

by Jens David Ohlin

Today the U.S. launched airstrikes against ISIS and other extremist groups within Syrian territory. In the past, airstrikes were limited to Iraqi territory, which came with the consent of the Iraq government (and were thus legally uncontroversial from the perspective of jus ad bellum). Today’s airstrikes require a sophisticated legal argument to explain the intrusion on Syria’s territorial sovereignty. Samantha Power’s letter to the United Nations indicates that the Obama administration is relying on a combination of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and the “unwilling or unable” standard:

September 23, 2014

Excellency,

In Iraq’s letter to the United Nations Security Council of September 20, 2014, and other statements made by Iraq, including its letter to the United Nations Security Council of June 25, 2014, Iraq has made clear that it is facing a serious threat of continuing attacks from ISIL coming out of safe havens in Syria. These safe havens are used by ISIL for training, planning, financing, and carrying out attacks across Iraqi borders and against Iraq’s people. For these reasons, the Government of Iraq has asked that the United States lead international efforts to strike ISIL sites and military strongholds in Syria in order to end the continuing attacks on Iraq, to protect Iraqi citizens, and ultimately to enable and arm Iraqi forces to perform their task of regaining control of the Iraqi borders.

ISIL and other terrorist groups in Syria are a threat not only to Iraq, but also to many other counties, including the United States and our partners in the region and beyond. States must be able to defend themselves, in accordance with the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense, as reflected in Article 51 if the UN Charter, when, as is the case here, the government of the State where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory for such attacks. The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these safe-havens effectively itself. Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria in order to eliminate the ongoing ISIL threat to Iraq, including by protecting Iraqi citizens from further attacks and by enabling Iraqi forces to regain control of Iraq’s borders. In addition, the United States has initiated military actions against al-Qaida elements in Syria known as the Khorasan Group to address terrorist threats that they pose to the United States and our partners and allies.

I request that you circulate this letter as a document of the Security Council.

Samantha J. Power

His Excellency
Mr. Ban Ki-moon
Secretary-General of the United Nations
New York, NY

So the structure of the argument goes as follows. The right of response is originally Iraqi, and the U.S. right of intervention is parasitic upon the Iraqi claim. Iraq has been attacked by ISIS, thus triggering Iraq’s right of self-defense against ISIS. Furthermore, since Syria is apparently unable to adequately respond to the ISIS threat and prevent its forces from using Syria as a base of operations to launch attacks against Iraq, then Iraq is entitled to use military force against ISIS installations and forces in Syria, even without the consent of the Syrian government or authorization from the Security Council. In other words, this falls under the inherent right of self-defense that is carved out by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter as an exception to the general prohibition on the use of force contained in article 2 of the U.N. Charter. The U.S. is intervening militarily to vindicate Iraq’s self-defense interest as a case of individual or collective self-defense.

A few observations here:

First, this was a predictable development. I don’t see another avenue for the U.S. to legally defend the intervention, unless it wanted to rely on the even more controversial RTP doctrine, which isn’t terribly relevant here. Nor was a Security Council resolution possible (given Russian and Chinese positions on Syria).

Second, it will solidify the growing interpretation of the customary international law on self-defense as applying to attacks by non-state actors. I view this position as absolutely correct, pace the International Court of Justice and its unsupported statement that the Article 51 right of self-defense only applies to attacks by states (which is nowhere mentioned in Article 51 anyway). In addition to the Security Council resolution after the 9/11 attacks, the world community’s reaction to the armed conflict against ISIS will be highly relevant for crystallizing the correct interpretation of self-defense as applying to attacks from state and non-state actors alike.

Third, the world reaction to the conflict against ISIS in Syria will help resolve the uncertain status of the unwilling or unable standard for force against non-state actors in third-party territory. Although the status of the doctrine has in the past been in doubt, international law is very much an evolving creature, and years from now the present conflict will no doubt be an important exhibit in that debate. In other words, even if “unwilling or unable” is not the current state of the law, it may well be very soon on account of the present conflict, the U.S. legal justification for it, and the world’ community’s reaction to same.

 

ISIS versus Khorasan

by Jens David Ohlin

The United States continues to launch airstrikes against ISIS. Not only is it unclear if the airstrikes are working to dislodge ISIS from its territory, but recent press reports suggest that ISIS is not even the most important threat facing U.S. interests.

The New York Times quotes Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as saying that the militant group Khorasan poses as much threat to the United States as ISIS:

Some American officials and national security experts said the intense focus on the Islamic State had distorted the picture of the terrorism threat that has emerged from the chaos of Syria’s civil war, and that the more immediate threats still come from traditional terror groups like Khorasan and the Nusra Front, which is Al Qaeda’s designated affiliate in Syria.

Mr. Fadhli, 33, has been tracked by American intelligence agencies for at least a decade. According to the State Department, before Mr. Fadhli arrived in Syria, he had been living in Iran as part of a small group of Qaeda operatives who had fled to the country from Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. Iran’s government said the group was living under house arrest, but the exact circumstances of the Qaeda operatives were disputed for years, and many members of the group ultimately left Iran for Pakistan, Syria and other countries.

In 2012, the State Department identified Mr. Fadhli as Al Qaeda’s leader in Iran, directing “the movement of funds and operatives” through the country. A $7 million reward was offered for information leading to his capture. The same State Department release said he was working with wealthy “jihadist donors” in Kuwait, his native country, to raise money for Qaeda-allied rebels in Syria.

The argument for this assessment, I suppose, is that while ISIS controls a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, their ambitions are currently focused on territorial expansion and local control. Although they have foreign fighters with foreign passports (and thus easy access to foreign territories), they have so far demonstrated little interest in launching terror attacks in the United States. Of course, that might change in the future once ISIS consolidates control over its territory, but for now it is an accurate statement of the current state of affairs.

In contrast, Khorasan is reportedly more focused on traditional terrorist goals: launching attacks against western countries. The group is led by a former Osama Bin Laden associate named Muhsin al-Fadhli. He was allegedly responsible for, among other things, the bombing of a French oil tanker, MV Limburg, in 2002. (A military commission recently dropped charges against defendant al-Nashiri in connection with that bombing, holding that the government had introduced no evidence to show that the MV Limburg bombing was perpetrated in connection with the armed conflict against al-Qaeda, a necessary predicate for the commission to exercise jurisdiction over the case.)

Americans often ignore the internal disputes between these various organizations, producing a vastly oversimplified portrait of the local political situation. In addition to ISIS and Khorasan, each with different agents, al-Qaeda has its own syndicate in the region, the Nusra Front, which is fighting for control over Syria against both ISIS and the government regime of President Assad. One point that the Times article makes is that the U.S. military intervention against ISIS might end up helping the Nusra Front. After the US degrades the military capabilities of ISIS, the Nusra Front might consolidate its control of the anti-Assad faction and inherit any opportunistic fighters now working for ISIS. The only way to prevent this from happening is to make sure that the moderate opposition is poised to “fill the vacuum” once ISIS is weakened. However, I’m not terribly optimistic that the US can ensure that their assistance to the moderate opposition ends up in the right hands. We have enough trouble controlling government bureaucracy in our own country; doing it in war-torn Syria seems near impossible.

As for Khorasan and its relative threat-level versus ISIS, only time will tell which group is most interested in launching terror attacks in the West. Al-Fadhli’s association with Bin Laden and his alleged participation in previous terror attacks suggests that Khorasan, and the threat it represents, should be taken seriously. The fact that it does not carry the “al-Qaeda” moniker should not confuse anyone regarding the threat that it represents.

All of this suggests that US policy might be too reactive. The Obama administration only put the ISIS threat on the front burner after the beheadings generated mass outrage. The method it selected to fight ISIS (airstrikes) does not appear to be working, and ISIS continues to gain territory and execute prisoners. On top of that, greater dangers lurk in the extremist groups that have been pushed off the front pages by recent events.

On the Perennial U.S. War Powers Fight

by Deborah Pearlstein

For readers interested in the domestic U.S. law and history of how the U.S. government authorizes the use of force abroad, I had a little piece this weekend over at Daily Beast summarizing the state of play. Among other things, it laments not only the executive practice of not going to Congress as often as it should, but also the gradual loss of other checks on the war power the Constitution’s drafters expected would operate. Here’s a snippet.

The framers reasons for requiring congressional assent for engagements beyond [self defense] reflected their belief that war was “the greatest of national calamities” and should therefore require the agreement of more—not fewer—members of government. More, it was motivated by a commitment to political accountability in a democracy. Rejecting the British “new model” army of Oliver Cromwell and its associated tradition of tyranny and oppression, the framers thought our armed forces should be manned by the citizen-soldier, one incapable of being turned to oppress The People of which he was part. The People themselves would be called up to fight. The Constitution would require Congress publicly to authorize military expenditures “in the face of their constituents” every two years. And only Congress could vote to take the country into war. War would and should be impossible in a free society without The People and their representatives’ consent. Fast forward two centuries, and all these checks have long since ceased to function. The citizen-soldier gave way to national conscription, which in turn gave way to today’s all-volunteer force. The requirement that Congress publicly authorize all military funding has been weakened by today’s vast reliance on private contractors, making it easier for legislators to shield huge swaths of military-related spending from public view by lodging them in less visible appropriations for other departments…. Madison assumed individuals in power would be ambitious, would want to assert their views, and would want to use their power to affect change. Ambition in Congress would counteract ambition in the Executive, and the daily struggle would help keep all the branches in check. But ours has become a Congress lacking all ambition, preferring to hide in the shadows of presidents whose own political courage sometimes fails. Together, they have helped make it ever more possible for the American people to neither feel nor bear the costs of war.