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Friends Don’t Let Friends Torture: Comment on Youssef v. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

by Matthew Sands

[Matthew Sands is a Legal Advisor with the Geneva based NGO, Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) the full judgment on this case is available here.]

In late January, the UK Supreme Court published its judgment in the case of Youssef. In 2005, Mr. Youssef had been suspected of involvement in terrorist-related activity, and Egypt had requested the UN sanctions committee mandated under UN Security Council resolution 1267 to impose targeted sanctions on Youssef including an assets freeze and a travel ban. The UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs agreed with the designation, and this blog asks whether alternative actions by the UK would have been more consistent with international law.

One issue decided by the case was whether the UK Secretary of State should step in and intervene when other States might be relying on evidence tainted by torture, in deciding whether to add Youssef’s name to the UN Sanctions list. Though the Secretary of State had not relied on tainted evidence himself, Youssef argued the decision to support the sanctions committee’s designation effectively sanctioned or consented to the use of torture-tainted information which had likely been used by other States to influence their own decisions.

In its ruling, the UK Supreme Court restated an earlier ruling that international law empowered, but did not oblige, the Secretary of State to so intervene. Ultimately, the Court ruled that the Secretary of State may simply turn a blind eye to the possible jus cogens violations of partner States in the UN.

We should emphasise that this was a possible jus cogens violation. It was not shown that the evidence on which other States relied was definitely the result of torture. The UK Supreme Court seems willing to distinguish between this and a definitive finding of illegality, which could engage a duty to intervene. In its reasoning, the Court examined the ICJ Advisory Opinion on Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory that placed other States under an obligation “not to recognise the illegal situation resulting from construction of the wall” and “not to render aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by such construction” (ICJ, para.159). The Supreme Court reasoned that such rules “do not suggest or imply any duty on States to inquire into the possible reliance on such evidence by other States […] The obligations held to arise out of the International Court’s decision on the Palestinian wall are nothing in point. They followed a definitive finding of illegality.” [emphasis added] (at 29).

In accepting that duties likely flow from definitive knowledge of unlawful acts, but not from mere suspicion, the UK Supreme Court leaves open a gap that State actors will surely exploit. This is because it is understandably extremely difficult for anyone, whether a complainant or a State, to establish that information obtained overseas, often from victims who remain detained and who continue to be at risk of further torture, were tortured in order to get it.

Absent a definitive finding of illegality (and in these circumstances, it seems unlikely that such a finding would be made) the Youssef ruling implies no duty on the State to act in any way which stymies the possible jus cogens violations of others.

This conclusion seems at odds with the ICTY’s Furundžija judgment which was one of the authorities considered by the Court that recognised positive obligations of States “not only to prohibit and punish torture, but also to forestall its occurrence” (Furundžija, para.148). The ruling would also seem to be plainly inconsistent with settled jurisprudence of various international and regional bodies which require States to take effective measures to prevent torture and to ensure that evidence which cannot be shown to be untainted from the stain of torture is excluded in any proceeding.

The ruling in Youssef is therefore likely to frustrate the work of actors who assert that States can and should do more than passively respect the absolute prohibition if they are to actually stop torture in practice.

By failing to object to the designation placing his name on the sanctions list, Youssef argued that the Secretary of State did not fulfil an obligation to insist on respect for the prohibition against torture, which includes a duty not to rely on the fruits of torture. The UK Supreme Court recalled further passages from Furundžija that the prohibition of torture imposes on States “obligations owed to all the other members of the international community, each of which then has a correlative right. […] [A]nd every member […] then has the right to insist on fulfilment of the obligation or in any case to call for the breach to be discontinued” (Furundžija, para.151).

In recognising that the UK has the right, rather than the obligation, to insist that other States reject evidence obtained by torture, the Court retained its customary deferential position to the State in the exercise of prerogative powers. A better reading might have been to accept that the positive duty to forestall a breach of the prohibition against torture required the Secretary of State to withdraw from any decision where tainted evidence was likely being considered.

Putting law to one side for a moment, as a recognised purpose of the UN, States should cooperate towards universal respect and observance of human rights through the exercise of friendly relations. It then begs the question, what would a friend do if confronted with the possibility that others relied on evidence tainted by torture?

The responsible thing to do would be to refuse to offer support for the designation of the UN sanctions committee, avoiding injury to individuals wrongly listed and to States themselves, until the committee was in a better state to make a fair decision based on untainted evidence. This would be more consistent with the role of the Secretary of State as a person constrained by a professional and a legal duty to uphold the obligations of international law, such as those described in the Convention against Torture.

In finding that the Secretary of State did not have an obligation to intervene, the UK Supreme Court gave the UK and others just enough wiggle room to permit torture and its fruits to continue to be collected and used. There is a risk that the judgment will be relied on elsewhere to show that wilful blindness to torture committed overseas is an excuse to do nothing. It is not.

The Next UN Secretary General – Public Meetings Starting Soon

by Kristen Boon

Importantly, and for the first time, meetings will soon be held with all candidates for the post of UN Secretary General, enabling them to present their candidatures.  Member States will also have the opportunity to ask questions.   Mogen Lykketoft, president of the GA, has publicized his plans for these meetings in letters here and here.

A current list of candidates (and their accompanying documents) for the position is available here, and includes the recently announced Helen Clark of New Zealand, Antonio Guterres of Portugal, Danilo Turk of Slovenia, and Vesna Pusic of Croatia.  The informal dialogues noted below are scheduled for April 12-14, and will be webcast on UN TV:   http://webtv.un.org.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016 [Trusteeship Council]

Wednesday, 13 April 2016 [Trusteeship Council]

Thursday, 14 April 2016 [Trusteeship Council]

9 AM – 11 AM

Dr. Igor Lukšić Dr. Danilo Türk

11 AM – 1 PM

Ms. Irina Bokova Dr. Vesna Pusić  Helen Clark

3 PM – 5 PM

Mr. António Guterres Ms. Natalia Gherman Dr. Srgjan Kerim

Other organizations are also holding meetings with the candidates, such as the International Peace Institute (IPI) whose conversation with Dr. Pusic was broadcast yesterday and can be viewed here.

Despite this new process, a recent New York Times article suggests this move towards more dialogue will have little substantive effect:

In the end, the selection will be made by the five permanent members of the Security Council, who will send that person’s name to the 193-member General Assembly for approval. As in the past, the deliberations are likely to be shaped more by diplomatic jockeying between Moscow and Washington than what the candidates say or do in public hearings that start next week. The Russian ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin, made this clear to diplomats who asked him about the new pressure for transparency.

Given recent negative press about the relevance of the Organization, this possibility makes it all the more important for Member States and civil society to strategically engage the candidates, and raise agenda setting items early.   For background on the push for a new and more transparent selection process, see my post here.

Some of the issues that are being raised with the candidates include qualities of a new SG (with gender being a frequently discussed topic in the current campaign);  how the UN should respond to new threats to peace and security including asymmetrical warfare, whether we need more peacekeepers, and how their quality (training) can be maintained and improved.

Another frequent question is how the UN should respond to claims against the Organization, including the Haiti Cholera case and recent allegations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers.   To date, Danilo Turk has been most concise and convincing on this point, stating in the Times article noted above that he hoped the organization would “provide the victims with a fair process and an effective remedy.”   Dr. Pusic’s response in the IPI interview yesterday was disappointing:  she suggested more study was needed, and quickly moved on.

What questions would you like to pose to Secretary General Candidates?

The U.S. Embargo on Cuba Should Be Lifted, But It is Not a Blockade, and Perfectly Legal

by Julian Ku

Last week, I accompanied a group of Hofstra Law students on a one-week study abroad “field study” in Havana, Cuba. We visited just a week after President Obama’s historic visit and a day after an almost equally historic Rolling Stones concert.  The trip gave my students and I an opportunity see how some of the effects of President Obama’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba, and also how the U.S. embargo on Cuba is viewed bimage1y Cubans.

It also gave me a chance to think again about my earlier analysis of Cuba’s argument that the U.S. embargo violates international law.  I still think Cuba’s description of the U.S. embargo as a “blockade” is ludicrous. But I am more sympathetic to legal criticisms of the
extraterritorial effects of the U.S. embargo.

First, as the photo suggests, Cuba calls the U.S. embargo a “blockade”.  Indeed, the billboard (which faces visitors as soon as they drive in from the airport), refers to the “bloqueo” as the “longest genocide in history.”  This might be put down simply to rhetorical excess, but the Cuban government has repeatedly used the term “blockade” in public statements at the United Nations. It has demanded upwards of $80 billion in compensation for damages caused by the “blockade.”

Whatever the U.S. embargo on Cuba is, it is NOT a blockade as that term is defined under international law.  According to a U.S. definition, a blockade is a “belligerent operation to prevent vessels and/or aircraft of all nations, enemy as well as neutral, from entering or exiting specified ports, airfields, or coastal areas belonging to, occupied by, or under the control of an enemy nation.” Oppenheim had an even narrower definition, limited to naval blockades “of the approach to the enemy coast or a part of it….to intercept all intercourse and especially commercial intercourse by sea….”

It goes without saying that the U.S. is not imposing a blockade under this definition.  The U.S. embargo is not a belligerent operation using its military forces to prevent commercial intercourse with Cuba.  No military force prevents Cuba from trading with nations other than the U.S.  Calling a refusal by one country to trade with another a “blockade” is an insult to any reasonable definition of the term (or actual blockades).

The Cuban government knows that U.S. is not imposing a blockade, but it is useful for it to keep using the term at the U.N. and even win support from other nations for its characterization of the embargo.  The U.S. doesn’t even bother protesting Cuba’s use of the term anymore, which is a mistake because it grossly mischaracterizes what the U.S. embargo actually is.  Moreover, if the U.S. doesn’t fight back against the “blockade” smear, it subtles undermines the legitimacy of U.S. embargos on other (much more dangerous) countries like North Korea and Iran.

Accepting the term “blockade” uncritically also allows the Cuban government to blame the U.S. for Cuba’s various economic problems.  But while the U.S. embargo definitely is having an impact on Cuba, it is not the nearly as important as the Cuban government’s own economic policies.  It is worth noting that the international Cuban campaign against the embargo really started in the early 1990s after Cuba lost support from the Soviet Union.  Cuba did not “need” the embargo to be lifted until it lost Soviet support.  Relatedly, Cuba’s main high-value exports today are services (e.g. medical doctors and other specialists) that the U.S. probably won’t actually purchase.  There is only so much in cigars and rum that the U.S. market can absorb.  Cuba’s burgeoning tourist industry is growing, but it is hard to imagine Cuba could handle many more tourists than it is already receiving (or until at least they build a new airport).

To be sure, there is one aspect of the U.S. embargo that probably does violate international law. Under the 1996 “Helms Burton” law, the U.S. created a private cause of action against anyone trading in assets expropriated by the Cuban government, even if that person was located in a foreign country.  This, along with a measure requiring denial of visas to anyone who has traded in such expropriated assets, caused consternation in the EU and Canada.   Their pressure (and a threatened WTO case) has led to the U.S. suspending Helms Burton so that it has never actually gone into effect.

U.S. law also extends the embargo to foreign subsidiaries that are “owned or controlled” by U.S. persons.  This is also controversial because it applies U.S. law extraterritorially in violation of other countries’ sovereignty.  I think this is problematic, but this is not as settled as it might seem since the U.S. is arguably simply asserting an aggressive form of nationality jurisdiction.  But this aspect of the embargo is definitely legally questionable.

In the end of the day, I think the U.S. embargo is perfectly legitimate as a matter of international law.  But just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is a good or necessary policy.  Based in part on my trip to Cuba, I am inclined to agree with President Obama that the U.S. embargo is no longer useful, and counterproductive in many ways. Congress should probably (and will eventually) lift the embargo.  But the U.S. should not back down from defending the legality of its use of economic sanctions as a tool of statecraft.

Daesh and the Duty to Prevent Genocide

by John Heieck

[John Heieck is the Lecturer of Public International Law at the University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies.]

On 17 March 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that ‘Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions, in what it says, what it believes, and what it does.’

The US’ pronouncement is the latest in a series of such statements over the past year. On 19 March 2015, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights produced a report stating that Daesh, also known as ISIS or ISIL, may have committed genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in Iraq. In addition, on 3 February 2016, the Parliament of the European Union adopted a resolution proclaiming that ‘the so-called “ISIS/Daesh” is committing genocide against Christians and Yazidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities, who do not agree with the so-called “ISIS/Daesh” interpretation of Islam, and that this therefore entails action under the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.’

While there seems to be a growing consensus that Daesh has committed, and is committing, genocide against these ethnic and religious groups in Iraq and Syria, there appears to be disagreement over what, exactly, this designation entails under the Genocide Convention. For example, according to US State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner, ‘acknowledging that genocide or crimes against humanity have taken place in another country would not necessarily result in any particular legal obligation for the United States’. Mr. Toner’s position appears to be based on the belief that the Genocide Convention ‘creates obligations on states to prevent genocide within their territory and to punish genocide’. As evidenced by the ICJ’s holding in the Bosnian Genocide case, however, this is simply not the standard for the duty to prevent genocide under Article I of the Genocide Convention.

Article I of the Genocide Convention provides that ‘[t]he Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish’. As the International Court of Justice (ICJ or the Court) noted in the Bosnian Genocide case, the scope of the duty to prevent genocide is determined by the ‘due diligence standard’. The due diligence standard provides that, if a State has the capacity to effectively influence the genocidal actors and the knowledge that genocide is imminent or ongoing, the State has a legal duty to use its best efforts within the means available to it to prevent the genocide from occurring or continuing.

The ICJ described in detail the ‘capacity to effectively influence’ requirement in paragraph 430 of the Bosnian Genocide case. There are three aspects of this requirement that are worth highlighting. First, the requirement is not territorially limited. Instead, ‘[t]his capacity … depends, among other things, on the geographical distance of the State concerned from the scene of the events, and on the strength of the political links, as well as links of all other kinds, between the authorities of that State and the main actors in the events’. These links include political, military, and financial links between the State in question and the genocidal actors. Second, the requirement incorporates the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. As the Court noted in the case, the capacity to effectively influence ‘varies greatly from one State to another’. This means that the more a State can do to prevent genocide, the more a State must do. This, in turn, varies according to the State’s ‘legal position’ vis-à-vis the genocidal actors; meaning, if the State is in a position of influence, such as membership on the UN Security Council, the State has greater capacity to influence the actors in question than non-members because it can pass resolutions binding on all UN member States to prevent the genocide. Third, the requirement imposes a duty to cooperate on all States to bring the genocide to an end. The ICJ emphasized that ‘it is irrelevant whether the State whose responsibility is in issue claims, or even proves, that even if it had employed all means reasonably at its disposal, they would not have sufficed to prevent the commission of genocide’. According to the Court, ‘[a]s well as being generally difficult to prove, this is irrelevant to the breach of the obligation of conduct in question, the more so since the possibility remains that the combined efforts of several States, each complying with its obligation to prevent, might have achieved the result — averting the commission of genocide — which the efforts of only one State were insufficient to produce’. This form of cooperation is best suited to the UN Security Council, which, as noted above, has the power to bind all UN member States.

As for the ‘knowledge’ requirement, the ICJ noted that ‘a State’s obligation to prevent, and corresponding duty to act, arise at the instant that the State learns of, or should normally have learned of, the existence of a serious risk that genocide will be committed.’ (Bosnian Genocide case, at para. 431). The Court explained that this awareness, which triggers a State’s positive duty to act, might result from actual (subjective) or constructive (objective) knowledge of the relevant events, which should be interpreted in light of any history of hatred, especially of genocide, between the relevant groups. (See Bosnian Genocide case, at paras. 283, 285, 410, and 436). The Court then observed that, if a State has or should have had this knowledge, and ‘has available to it means likely to have a deterrent effect on those suspected of preparing genocide, or reasonably suspected of harbouring specific intent (dolus specialis), it is under a duty to make such use of these means’ to prevent the genocide. (Bosnian Genocide case, at para. 431).

Provided these two requirements of the due diligence standard are met, the State in question has a legal duty to use its ‘best efforts’ – within the means available to it – to prevent the genocide in question. According to the ICJ, ‘it is clear that the obligation in question is one of conduct and not one of result, in the sense that a State cannot be under an obligation to succeed, whatever the circumstances, in preventing the commission of genocide: the obligation of States parties is rather to employ all means reasonably available to them, so as to prevent genocide so far as possible’. (Bosnian Genocide case, at para. 430). Moreover, ‘[a] State does not incur responsibility simply because the desired result is not achieved; responsibility is however incurred if the State manifestly failed to take all measures to prevent genocide which were within its power, and which might have contributed to preventing the genocide’. (Bosnian Genocide case, at para. 430).

In applying this due diligence standard to the facts of the case, it is clear that the US and others have a legal duty to prevent further genocide by Daesh against the Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria. The question is whether the efforts made thus far have satisfied the due diligence standard. US- and Russian-led coalitions have been pounding Daesh with airstrikes since mid-2014; however, Daesh’s genocidal campaign continues. In addition, according to reports, other States within the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have continued aiding and assisting radical groups in Iraq and Syria with arms and munitions despite the genocide against the Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Under the due diligence standard, this military aid and assistance must stop. But what more can – and must – the US and others do?

The US, Russia, China, France, and the UK are the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5). In light of their veto rights under Article 27(3) of the UN Charter, these five States have the power to discharge, or disable, the Security Council’s considerable capacity to effectively influence genocidal actors wherever they may be found. In light of the due diligence standard, the P5 must use their best efforts within the means available to them – including their means within the Security Council – to prevent further genocide in Iraq and Syria. This means that the P5, along with the ten non-permanent members of the Security Council, should pass binding resolutions under Chapter VII, which, inter alia, refer the situations in Iraq and Syria to the International Criminal Court, impose arms embargos on Daesh and related groups, and authorize the deployment of a UN peace-enforcing force to the areas in which Daesh is operating. By engaging in such actions, the US and the other members of the P5 will truly be doing everything within their power to prevent genocide in accordance with the due diligence standard.

Weekly News Wrap: Tuesday, March 29, 2016

by Jessica Dorsey

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

Africa

Middle East and Northern Africa

Asia

Europe

Americas

Oceania

UN/World

US House of Representatives Overwhelmingly Calls for War Crimes Tribunal for Syria (with Jurisdiction to Try Americans, Apparently)

by Patrick Wall

[Patrick Wall is studying for an LL.M. in International Law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, as the Sir Ninian Stephen Menzies Scholar in International Law.]

Last Monday, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed—by 392 votes to 3—a resolution ‘[e]xpressing the sense of the Congress condemning the gross violations of international law amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict in Syria, and asking the President to direct his Ambassador at the United Nations to promote the establishment of a war crimes tribunal where these crimes could be addressed’. Information on the resolution can be found here, and the full text as passed can be found here.

The resolution was sponsored by Rep Chris Smith, a Republican of New Jersey, and was co-sponsored by one Democrat and three other Republicans. This is something of a personal victory for Smith, who has been advocating for a war crimes tribunal for Syria since at least September 2013 (this Google search links to all articles on his website concerning his advocacy on the issue).

After recalling some of the horrendous violations of international law that have doubtless occurred in Syria—and specifically pointing the finger at the Government of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, ‘Iran’s terrorist proxies including Hezbollah’, the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front—the House:

  • strongly condemns the continued use of unlawful and indiscriminate violence against civilian populations by the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict;
  • urges the United States and its partners to continue to demand and work toward the cessation of attacks on Syrian civilians by the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict;
  • urges the Administration to establish additional mechanisms for the protection of civilians and to ensure consistent and equitable access to humanitarian aid for vulnerable populations;
  • urges the United States to continue its support for efforts to collect and analyze documentation related to ongoing violations of human rights in Syria, and to prioritize the collection of evidence that can be used to support future prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict;
  • urges the President to direct the United States representative to the United Nations to use the voice and vote of the United States to immediately promote the establishment of a Syrian war crimes tribunal, a regional or international hybrid court to prosecute the perpetrators of grave crimes committed by the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict; and
  • urges other nations to apprehend and deliver into the custody of such a Syrian war crimes tribunal persons indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide in Syria, and to provide information pertaining to such crimes to the tribunal.

During his speech in the House urging lawmakers to vote in favour of the resolution, Smith pleaded that ‘the atrocities committed against Syria’s population demand accountability and demand justice’. At a press conference after the vote, he argued that the tribunal would need to be ‘aggressive, transparent, [and] go after all sides’.

There are a few notable elements about the development.

The first is the position of the International Criminal Court in all of this. The preamble to the resolution notes that ‘Syria is not a state-party to the Rome Statute and is not a member of the International Criminal Court’. Smith had the following to say during the post-vote press conference:

An ad hoc or regional court has significant advantages over the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a venue for justice. For starters, neither Syria nor the United States is a member of the ICC, although mechanisms exist to push prosecutions there. The ICC has operated since 2002 but boasts only two convictions. By way of contrast, the Yugoslavia court convicted 80 people; Rwanda, 61; and Sierra Leone, 9. Moreover, a singularly focused Syrian tribunal that provides Syrians with a degree of ownership could significantly enhance its effectiveness.

Although there are certainly no suggestions that Smith is in favour of the United States becoming a member of the ICC, his dispassionate analysis of the possible venues for international criminal trials does stand in stark contrast to the Congress’ well-known hostility towards the ICC.

The second item of note is Smith’s optimism about the possibility of the Security Council actually voting to establish an international criminal tribunal for Syria. Pointing to the fact that Russia did not stand in the way of the creation of the ICTY—despite being a supporter of Slobodan Milošević—Smith argues that a ‘serious and sustained push by the United States and other interested parties’ would result in the passage of a Security Council Resolution creating the tribunal.

This would seem to be unrealistically optimistic. Although there were suggestions during the Balkan conflict that Russia would deploy troops in support of Serbia, this never occurred, so there was never any possibility that the ICTY would investigate or prosecute Russian personnel. In Syria, Russia has become an active participant. Indeed, the very preamble to Rep Smith’s resolution alleges that ‘the Russian Federation…has committed its own violations of international law by leading deliberate bombing campaigns on civilian targets including bakeries, hospitals, markets, and schools’. Smith has not, to my knowledge, explained why Russia wouldn’t veto a resolution that would expose its own troops to prosecution.

Which brings us to the most curious part of the whole saga: the fact that American troops and those of her allies would also fall within the jurisdiction of the proposed tribunal. The proposed tribunal’s rationae personae is said to be ‘the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict’ and Smith said in the post-vote press conference that ‘no one on any side…would be precluded from prosecution’; it would ‘go after all sides’.

As we know, the United States, the United Kingdom and France have conducted strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and are, thus, ‘parties to the conflict’. Given that the Congress has previously authorised the use of military force to liberate any citizen of the United States or an allied country held by the ICC, it is at least passing strange that the House has so overwhelmingly urged the creation of a new international criminal tribunal that would be empowered to prosecute, for example, an American pilot accused of bombing civilian targets within Syria.

Comment on this possibility has been sought from Rep Smith, but a response has not yet been forthcoming.

Responding to Steve Vladeck and Charlie Savage on Garland

by Deborah Pearlstein

Thanks to Steve Vladeck for the thoughtful post over at Just Security about his take on Garland’s record on Guantanamo cases and related matters. Steve, like Charlie Savage in the Times, is in one sense far more critical of Garland than I. I say “in one sense” because, before jumping back into the details here, it seems apparent we’re all applying somewhat different metrics here in assessing that record, some I fear more problematic than others. (more…)

Worried About Garland’s National Security Law Record? Don’t Be.

by Deborah Pearlstein

On the hopeful assumption the Senate will come to its senses and consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court on its merits, I wanted to respond to what appears to be some skepticism among progressives that Garland is indeed a good choice for the Court. The Huffington Post, for instance, published an article following the nomination headlined (ominously) that Garland once sided with the Bush Administration on Guantanamo. I was curious, so I decided to look up the cases.
(more…)

When A.I. Met R.O.I.

by Chris Borgen

Over the years a few of us have written issues concerning battlefield robots. (See, for example: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)  Sometimes, we had links to remarkable videos of quadruped robots stomping through forests. Those robots and videos were made by Boston Dynamics, a company that started from an MIT research group.

Besides its designing quadruped robots, Boston Dynamics gained further renown when, in 2013, it was acquired by Google as part of that company’s broad push into robotics. Just last month, one of Boston Dynamics’ new videos wen viral; it highlighted its two-legged Atlas robot walking indoors, on snowy hillsides, lifting and stacking boxes, and being pushed by a human (and righting itself). Yesterday, Google announced that it was selling Boston Dynamics. Why? And what does this say about all the prognostications about the rise of the robots, either on the battlefield or in the workplace?

At its most basic level, the story here seems to be as much about the difficulties of post-acquisition integration of business cultures and goals as it is about robotics. An article in Bloomberg Business notes:

Executives at Google parent Alphabet Inc., absorbed with making sure all the various companies under its corporate umbrella have plans to generate real revenue, concluded that Boston Dynamics isn’t likely to produce a marketable product in the next few years and have put the unit up for sale, according to two people familiar with the company’s plans.

After Boston Dynamics’ 2013 acquisition, it was made part of Google’s broader robotics initiative, called Replicant. (Query whether naming the division after the murderous androids of Philip K.Dick’s dystopian classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which became the movie Blade Runner, was a good idea.) Bloomberg Business explains:

At the heart of Replicant’s trouble, said a person familiar with the group, was a reluctance by Boston Dynamics executives to work with Google’s other robot engineers in California and Tokyo and the unit’s failure to come up with products that could be released in the near term.

While the issue inside of Google was less about the technology of artificial intelligence (AI) than about the return on the investment (ROI) of the robotics company acquisitions, according to Bloomberg Business the Atlas video did cause concern among some of the public relations folks at Google over whether humanoid robots  would be perceived as taking jobs from real human. Plus, as one PR person put it, some people found the robot “terrifying.” (Yeah, that “Replicant” name-choice seems increasingly like a bad idea. At least they didn’t call the business unit the “Terminator Division.”)

Many  have spent time writing and talking about the legal issues related to the use of remotely controlled or autonomous battlefield robots. The immediate issues stemmed from the use aerial drones, of course, but on the horizon has been the possibility of robots being deployed in ground combat (as opposed to in bomb demolition, or other areas where remotely controlled units are already deployed). I am all for lawyers anticipating issues caused by technological change. But before we get there, there are a host of legal issues concerning the transactions that will support the R&D that will develop this technology. With the potential sale of Boston Dynamics to Toyota, it bears noting that the immediate legal issues may have to do more with international business transactions than international humanitarian law.

An Obama-Trudeau Agreement Conceding Canada’s Claim to the Waters of the Northwest Passage?

by Craig H. Allen

[Craig H. Allen is the Judson Falknor Professor of Law at the University of Washington, where he directs the university’s Arctic Law and Policy Institute.]

In a March 10, 2016, op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Canadian professor Michael Byers (along with U.S. co-author Scott Borgerson), reprises an earlier suggestion aimed at bringing legitimacy to Canada’s claim of sovereignty over the waters of the Northwest Passage through a bilateral agreement between Canada and the United States. The article, titled The Arctic Front in the Battle to Contain Russia, leads with a photograph of Russian President Vladimir Putin and closes with the warning that the United States and Canada must reach agreement on the status of the waters “before it is too late,” because “there is little to stop an increasingly assertive Russia from sending a warship through” the passage. To Professor Byer’s disappointment, the suggestion is unlikely to attract any support in Washington, D.C.

The “Northwest Passage” refers to the sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the top of North America, via waterways through the islands lying between Canada’s northern continental coastline and the Arctic Ocean (displayed in red below). The Canadian government asserts that the Northwest Passage is part of Canada’s internal waters, and subject to the nation’s full sovereignty. In fact, in 2009 the Canadian Parliament renamed the waterways the “Canadian Northwest Passage.” Under Canada’s view, no other nation has the right to navigate in or fly over those waters unless Canada consents.

Arctic

[Image courtesy of geology.com]

Canada’s Claim: In contrast to the conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea, there is no dispute regarding Canada’s sovereignty over the principal islands along the Northwest Passage (the only exception is Hans Island, a tiny uninhabited knoll in upper Baffin Bay near Greenland, which is claimed by both Canada and Denmark). The dispute concerns the status of some of the waterways surrounding the Canadian islands, and whether other nations enjoy navigation rights in those waters. Over the years, Canadian officials and commentators have relied on a variety of theories to support Canada’s claim that the waters of the Northwest Passage are internal waters. They include a claim to historic title over the waters, announced in 1973; a claim based on straight baselines, first established in 1986 (soon after the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea transited the passage); and occupation of the covering ice by Canada’s Inuit people “from time immemorial.”

In a paper prepared by Canada’s Library of Parliament, the Canadian government author cited Donat Pharand, whom the Library’s author describes as “perhaps the most authoritative Canadian legal expert on the question,” for the conclusion that Canada’s historical title argument is weak. By contrast, the author continues, Pharand concluded that the claim based on straight baselines around the offshore islands (a move that Pharand himself advocated in a 1984 article) is Canada’s “best” claim, and “strong enough” in international law. Other states disagree. The United States protested Canada’s claim to straight baselines in the Arctic immediately after the claim was to go into effect on January 1, 1986 (U.S. Department of State, Limits in the Seas: United States Responses to Excessive Maritime Claims, No. 112). That same year, the member-states of what was then the European Community similarly protested that they could not “acknowledge the legality” of Canada’s straight baseline claim (Id.).

In his most recent attempt to provide a legal basis for Canada’s claim to the waters of the Northwest Passage, Byers sidesteps weaknesses in Canada’s claims under existing international law, and advocates instead that President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau negotiate a bilateral agreement by which the United States would acquiesce in Canada’s claims, in order to address the two nations’ “shared vulnerability to naval vessels from Russia and other unfriendly nations.”

Byers’ use of a Russian threat to encourage U.S. acquiescence is curious, given his recent statements elsewhere that dismiss, as “hypothetical,” security concerns about Russia raised by others. For example, in a late February 2016 interview by Radio Canada International, Professor Byers argued that Russia has “shown no sign of any inclination towards aggression in the Arctic”; a far cry from the “battle front” posed by an “increasingly assertive Russia” characterization he now offers to spook the U.S. into an agreement.

The Consistent U.S. Position: Recent White House statements make clear that the United States is not going to acquiesce in Canada’s claims to sovereignty over the waters of the Northwest Passage. As reaffirmed in the 2009 U.S. Arctic Region Policy presidential directive, the United States’ position vis-à-vis the status of the Northwest Passage has been clear:

Freedom of the seas is a top national priority. The Northwest Passage is a strait used for international navigation…; the regime of transit passage applies to passage through those straits. Preserving the rights and duties relating to navigation and overflight in the Arctic region supports our ability to exercise these rights throughout the world, including through strategic straits.

Far from signaling a willingness to retreat from its objection to Canada’s excessive maritime claims in the Arctic, U.S. objections to the claims were recently reiterated. Just last week, the Obama White House expressed what might be seen as impatience with excessive maritime claims in the Arctic. In the March 2016 Implementation Framework for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, the Obama Administration laid out a plan to “promote international law and the freedom of the seas” in the Arctic. The Framework asserts that in the Arctic “the United States will exercise internationally recognized navigation and overflight rights, including transit passage through international straits, innocent passage through territorial seas, and conduct routine operations on, over, and under foreign exclusive economic zones, as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention” (emphasis added). The Obama Framework goes on to pledge specific steps in the coming years that will include conducting routine Arctic maritime exercises, operations and transits consistent with international law; documenting related U.S. diplomatic communications and Department of Defense freedom of navigation operations; and delivering strategic communications at appropriate opportunities “to reflect U.S. objections to unlawful restrictions in the Arctic on the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace recognized under international law; and to promote the global mobility of vessels and aircraft throughout the Arctic region consistent with international law.”

It should also be noted that the kind of bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Canada Byers advocates would have no effect the legal status of the waters under UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As a party to UNCLOS, Canada is strictly limited by Article 311 of the Convention in the extent to which it can attempt to alter the effect of UNCLOS by bilateral treaties. Any attempt to do so would have no effect on the navigation rights of Russia, the EU member-states, or any other state. Moreover, any such bilateral agreement would likely be viewed by the other coastal state members of the Arctic Council as inconsistent with the spirit of the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, in which both Canada and the United States agreed that the “law of the sea,” not bilateral side agreements, provides the relevant rules regarding freedom of navigation in the Arctic.

Ironically, in arguing that a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Canada is needed to bring legitimacy to Canada’s Northwest Passage claims and provide a legal basis for preventing Russia from sending warships through the passage, Professor Byers has implicitly acknowledged the weakness in Canada’s claim absent such an agreement, while at the same time undermining his otherwise consistent position that Russia poses no threat to security in the Arctic.

Seeking the Regulatory High Ground: the International Civil Aviation Organization and Commercial Spaceflight

by Chris Borgen

In 1958, Air Force Chief of Staff Thomas D. White wrote: “For all practical purposes air and space merge, form a continuous and indivisible field of operations.” White later coined the term “aerospace” and used it in a Congressional hearing. Later it was used in policy papers to explain why the U.S. Air Force would also have the responsibility for space issues. (William Burrows, The New Ocean, 248.)

The International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the UN, has just made a similar giant leap from air into space. Agence France Press reports that in a March 15 speech at the Second Annual Aerospace Symposium (there’s that word again) co-sponsored by ICAO and the UN Office on Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said:

The International Civil Aviation Organization “recognizes that sub-orbital and outer space flights will foster new tourism and transport markets, and that investments in related research and development remain at a very healthy level,”…

“Personally, as an engineer, I am very excited to see the dream and theory of normalized space flight now becoming such a tangible reality,” he told an aerospace symposium in Abu Dhabi.

In making its case, the agency noted an uptick in the number of spacecraft designs that have made the leap from concept to reality, saying more will follow.

As SpaceNews put it: ICAO is “spreading its wings into commercial spaceflight.” Thinking holistically about the continuum of air and space activities does make sense. Virgin Galactic’s space planes and SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s returnable, reusable rockets will have significant activities within the atmosphere as well as in space. And, so, we see domestic and international organizations adapting.

That adaptation is itself an interesting story. ICAO’s mandate is focused on aviation. Its vision statement is to “[a]chieve the sustainable growth of the global civil aviation system.” Even its 2014- 2016 strategic objectives make no mention on of space– or aerospace. However, Agence France Press reports that at the ICAO/ UNOOSA conference, the ICAO leadership stated that:

Rules must be put in place soon to ensure safety and security in space, as well as prevent the creation of a patchwork of regulations by individual states..

The agency suggested adapting the existing regulatory framework for aviation, for which the ICAO and national governments are responsible.

ICAO, as it stands, does not have enforcement authority. It studies,  fosters coordination and  develops policies and standards.

While there has been a focus on certain potential future space activities, such as asteroid mining, and their relation to the Outer Space Treaty, is there a need for a new treaty covering launches and activities such as space tourism? In the U.S., there seems to be a concern that too much regulation of the space tourism and orbital launch services could stifle the nascent industry. According to R&D:

Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the recently passed commercial-space competitiveness legislation from the U.S. Congress keep their distance from regulating space tourism, “as long as passengers receive explicit warnings about the hazards and the vehicles have basic safeguards,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

And so there are likely two discussions that will be taking place in the coming months. The first will concern the an institutional question: should ICAO become a norm-setter in regards to space activities? The second will address a set of regulatory issues: do we need a new treaty on aerospace activities, space tourism, and launch activities? Could consultation and coordination among national regulators be enough?

Stay tuned…

Transcript of Haiti Cholera Appeal Hearing

by Kristen Boon

A transcript is now available for the Haiti Cholera Appeal:    Georges, et al. v. UN Oral Argument_ActiveUS(153242982)_ActiveUS(1)-Final

In addition, the audio recording is available here.

Of particular note were questions from the judges that addressed (i) whether domestic courts should have the right to determine the adequacy of remedies in tort actions involving the UN, (ii) why states parties have not done more to insist the UN create the mechanism envisioned by Art. 29 of the CPIUN, (iii) how this would be dealt with in the US if it had been the US army that had introduced cholera; and (iv) whether an ICJ advisory opinion is possible.

For my take on this case and the scope of UN immunities in mass torts cases, see  The UN As Good Samaritan:  Immunity and Responsibility,  in the most recent volume of the Chicago Journal of International Law.