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Is the Crimea Crisis a Factual or Legal Disagreement?

by Julian Ku

University of Memphis law professor Boris Mamlyuk criticizes most U.S. international law commentary on the Crimea/Ukraine crisis for failing to take seriously the Russian point of view. I’ve noticed several commenters here have also complained about our pro-Western bias.  Part of the problem is that there is a dearth of international law commentators writing in English in favor of the Russian legal position. Even Prof. Mamlyuk’s short essay doesn’t try to defend or explain Russia’s legal position, except to point out that Ukraine may have committed some minor violations of its own.  But let me try to at least explore Russia’s position in more detail. The best defense I can come up with is that Russia is arguing the “facts” and not the “law.”

During today’s Security Council debate, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin appears to have given a fuller defense of Russia’s legal position, at least vis-a-vis the upcoming Crimea referendum.

“Some dispute the legality of such a referendum, but it is unacceptable to manipulate individual principles and norms of international law, randomly pulling them out of context not only of the international law, but the specific political circumstances and historical aspects,” Churkin said.

In each case, the envoy believes, one should “balance between the principles of territorial integrity and the right for self-determination.”

“It is clear that the implementation of the right of self-determination in the form of separation from the existing state is an extraordinary measure. In Crimea such a case apparently arose as a result of a legal vacuum, which emerged as a result of unconstitutional, violent coup d’état carried out in Kiev by radical nationalists, as well as direct threats by the latter to impose their order on the whole territory of Ukraine.”

I am pretty surprised that Russia is  endorsing this expansive view of self-determination, which I think could be fairly invoked by certain parts of Russia itself (Hello, Chechnya!).  But I suppose the dispute here with the West could be understood as factual rather than legal.  Most scholars would accept the idea that self-determination is appropriate in certain exceptional circumstances, such as decolonization or when facing the threat of genocide or other mass killings. No one west of the Ukraine border seems to think Crimea qualifies (except the good folks at RT) because none of us think that the new Ukrainian government has threatened Crimea in any tangible way.  But Russia could be understood to be arguing the facts (see, Crimea really is threatened by the fascists in Kiev) rather than the law.  I think it is a pretty ludicrous factual argument, but there it is.

Russia’s position on the use of military force is also factual rather than legal.  It argues that there are no Russian forces in Crimea other than the naval forces that are stationed there by treaty right. It simply denies that the forces in control in Crimea are official Russian troops.  This appears to be an even more ludicrous factual claim, but it also would mean that Russia accepts that open displays of military force would be a violation of the Charter.

Russia’s shift to factual rather than legal arguments is smart because it parries US and EU criticisms about the “violation of international law.”  It doesn’t rebut those charges terribly well, mind you, but perhaps the argument is just strong enough to convince those who want to find ways to accept the legality of Russia’s actions.

Winding-Up the Ukraine Insta-Symposium

by Chris Borgen and Roger Alford

Our thanks to all who have contributed to the conversation here on Opinio Juris about the many legal issues related to the situation in Ukraine.

Over the past week we have had guest posts on topics such as Russian rule-breaking as power politics, the use of force under international law, the international humanitarian law issues involved in the Crimean crisis, the limits of intervention by invitation (1, 2), the law of self-determination, lessons from the Aaland Islands dispute, the Russian/ Ukrainian Black Sea status of forces agreement, and transitional justice in Ukraine and Russia.

And, that is not to mention all the posts by the regular Opinio Juris bloggers on topics such as the Crimean referendum (1, 2), Russia’s “citizenship power play,”  the Presidential authority for visa restrictions, whether Yanukovich could request Russian intervention, and the efficacy-or lack thereof-of international law (1, 2, 3).

Further, still, in addition to the main posts, we have dozens of reader comments that have been interesting, enlightening, and informative. Thank you!

At this point,  if there are any more submissions for potential posts, we need to receive them by 3:00 pm Friday (US Eastern Time) so that those selected can be posted this weekend.

Although this symposium is drawing to a close, we at Opinio Juris will continue writing about the ongoing issues in Ukraine.

Once again, thank you, everyone, for participating in this discussion and contributing to our understanding of the situation in Ukraine.

We hope you will continue to participate as we continue exploring the international legal issues in the conflict over Ukraine’s future.

Developments in the Haiti Cholera Case: US supports absolute immunity of UN and two new suits filed

by Kristen Boon

There have been some interesting developments this past week regarding the legal proceedings against the UN following the outbreak of cholera in Haiti in 2010.  For background on this tragic and politically sensitive case see my prior posts here, here, here and here.

Readers will recall that efforts to obtain compensation for the victims moved to US courts in October 2013, when the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti initiated a law suit, Georges et al v. UN in the Southern District of New York.

On Friday, March 7, 2014, the United States filed an 18 page “statement of interest” in the case (at the request of the Court) in support of the UN’s absolute immunity from process.  The full document is available here.   It argues that all defendants, including the UN and MINUSTAH, are immune from suit, absent an express waiver.   Citing three cases on treaty interpretation, the statement of interest also asserts that if there is any alternative reading of the General Convention’s text, the Court should defer to the Executive Branch’s interpretation.

Another important development is that within the last week, two new suits have been filed against the UN, which seem to borrow from and overlap with the class of plaintiffs proposed in Georges et al. v. United Nations.    On March 6, Petit Homme Jean-Robert  et. al. v UN was filed by Emmanual Coffy, a Haitian American lawyer.

The case filed on Tuesday, Laventure v. UN, is another class action, and the press release states the attorneys involved have had experience in national tobacco lawsuits, the national BP gulf oil spill, and recent Goldman Sachs aluminum antitrust litigation.  The latter suit is of particular interest because the central argument is that the UN expressly waived its sovereign immunity in its 2004 agreement Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in Haiti.  The basis of this argument is para. 54 of the SOFA which states:  “Third-Party claims for…. Injury, illness or death arising from or directly attributed to (Stablization Agreement) shall be settled by the United Nations …. And the United Nations shall pay compensation.”

What should we make of all these developments?

There is no question that the UN’s immunity is extremely broad.   Privileges and Immunities are meant to protect the UN’s independent functioning and shield it from vexatious litigation.  Nonetheless, the position that the UN’s immunity is absolute deserves careful examination.

Section 2 of the General Convention protects the UN from any form of Process, while Section 29 of the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the UN requires the United Nations to “make provisions for appropriate modes of settlement of […] disputes arising out of contracts or other disputes of a private law character to which the United Nations is a party.”   This has not happened in this case.  I argued in an earlier post that Article 29 mitigates the absolute de facto immunity of the United Nations, and August Reinisch has argued that the rationale of Section 29 is to ensure due process of law and to protect fundamental human rights.

Courts have been willing to limit the immunities of IOs when no dispute resolution mechanism has been provided.  Following the 1997 cases of Waite and Kennedy, an employment dispute involving the European Space Agency, European courts have often linked immunities to “reasonable alternative means.”  To date, US courts have not followed this trend.  In a 2010 employment case in the Southern District of New York, Brzak v. UN, the Court found that the UN possessed absolute immunity.  Nonetheless, it is possible that the facts of the Haiti cases are such that the Courts will revisit this approach.

Another noteworthy contextual factor is that the US Government is acting defensively in supporting the UN’s absolute immunity.   If a state disregards an international organization’s immunity, it might give rise to allegations of international responsibility on the part of the forum state, which wrongly asserts jurisdiction over an international organization.  (See August Reinisch, International Organizations Before National Courts, 2000).   Moreover, the US is home to a number of important organizations, and the failure to uphold immunity would have consequences far beyond this case.  Nonetheless, the US Government’s position is to be contrasted with the efforts of individual congress members who have urged the UN to settle with victims.

If the UN has in fact waived its immunity, as the lawyers in the new case Laventure are attempting to prove, it provides a strong basis for these cases to proceed.  But I don’t read Art. 54 of the SOFA as a waiver of immunity.   It certainly does not expressly waive immunity.  Instead, this provision, like GA A/RES/52/247, the other instrument on which they rely, addresses limitations on UN liability, which is quite a different beast.

It has become apparent that this case is not going away.   It is very unlikely a US court will read down the UN’s immunity and permit the cases to proceed, and yet, there are different ways to dismiss a case, particularly given the facts here. Its also clear, however, that the victims have not yet had a satisfactory response from the UN, and that ultimately resolution must come from the UN itself.

Guest Post: Mapping Environmental Human Rights

by John Knox

[John H. Knox is the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment, and the Henry C. Lauerman Professor of International Law at Wake Forest University School of Law.]

In 2012, the Human Rights Council appointed me to be its first Independent Expert on human rights and the environment, and asked me to clarify the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a healthy environment.  To that end, I oversaw an extensive research project that surveyed a very wide range of sources, including the major human rights treaties (as interpreted by their treaty bodies), regional human rights tribunals, UN Special Rapporteurs, and international environmental instruments.

Today, I present the results of this mapping project to the Council.  The sources surveyed have reached remarkably coherent conclusions about the application of human rights norms to environmental issues, making it easy to summarize the principal conclusions.

First, there is no longer any serious question that environmental harm can interfere with the enjoyment of human rights:  not only the right to a healthy environment, which is widely but not universally accepted, but also human rights that are universally accepted, such as rights to life, health, food,  and water.

Second, the sources agree that States must adopt certain procedural safeguards in order to protect against environmental harm to these rights.  In particular, they must assess environmental impacts on human rights and make environmental information public, facilitate participation in environmental decision-making, and provide access to effective remedies.  The obligation to facilitate public participation includes duties to safeguard environmental defenders’ rights to freedom of expression and association against threats, harassment, and violence.

Third, States must adopt legal and institutional frameworks that provide substantive protections as well as procedural ones.  Although States have discretion to strike a balance between environmental protection and other legitimate societal interests, the balance cannot be unreasonable or result in unjustified, foreseeable infringements of human rights.  And States must protect against harm caused by corporations and other non-State actors.

Finally, States have a cross-cutting requirement of non-discrimination in the application of environmental laws, and additional obligations to members of groups particularly vulnerable to environmental harm, including in particular women, children, and indigenous peoples.

The report concludes:

Human rights obligations relating to the environment are continuing to be developed in many forums, and the Independent Expert urges States to support their further development and clarification.  But the obligations are already clear enough to provide guidance to States and all those interested in promoting and protecting human rights and environmental protection.  His main recommendation, therefore, is that States and others take these human rights obligations into account in the development and implementation of their environmental policies.

I now turn to identifying and compiling good practices in the use of human rights obligations for environmental protection.  I would be interested to hear any thoughts or questions you might have on that, or on the conclusions of the mapping report!

Ukraine Insta-Symposium: Russia’s Rule-breaking as Power Politics

by Alexander Cooley

[Alexander Cooley is Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York and author of Great Games, Local Rules: the New Great Power Contest for Central Asia (Oxford 2012).]

Among the many political layers of the crisis in Ukraine, I am especially interested in how these unfolding events are part of a broader attempt by Russia to confront the West’s broadly “liberal world order.” By the term I mean not only its most visible organizations such as NATO or the EU, but also the broader system of international rules, organizations, non-governmental advocates, and normative assumptions that have underpinned Western political engagement with the post-Communist space since the Soviet collapse. In Ukraine, we are now seeing this order in open conflict with Russia’s revisionist “great power” legal and normative grammars, as Chris Borgen has described them, though Moscow’s brazen response in Crimea is more of an act of international desperation than we might initially realize.

From the outset of the 1990s, US policy has been to promote the “sovereignty and independence” of the post-Soviet states. These remain code words for extricating them from Soviet era legacies and ties to Russia, and integrating them into new international organizations, laws, infrastructures and governance institutions. The more advanced reformers applied for membership in the European Union and NATO, but throughout the region Western economic and legal advisors instructed governments in reform, while non-governmental organizations and regional bodies such as the OSCE assumed that a common normative space would be forged on the values of the Helsinki Accords themselves.

Vladimir Putin’s ascendency to the power in 1999 initiated a renewed bid to consolidate a hollowed out state power at home and elevate Russia’s global status by forging new forms of security ties to its former republics. After a brief period of cooperation following the events of 9/11, US-Russia relations steadily deteriorated in the 2000s as interests came into open conflict on important issues such as the US plans to deploy a missile defense system, NATO expansion, and the Iraq War.

But it was the so-called Color Revolutions in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) that redefined the scope and terms of this new power politics within Eurasia itself…

(Continue Reading)

Russia’s Citizenship Power-Play in Ukraine is Pretty Weak

by Peter Spiro

Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev yesterday announced a legislative initiative to fast-track citizenship for non-resident native Russian speakers. He didn’t single out ethnic Russians in Ukraine, but the context says it all. The citizenship shift (variations of which have been floated since the Maidan erupted last month) would allow Russia to amplify its protective justification for the action in Crimea. It wouldn’t just be protecting co-ethnics, it would be protecting fellow citizens. Russia similarly put citizenship policy to use in the South Ossetia action in 2008.

Three thoughts:

1. The citizenship policy would be consistent with international law. The only constraint on the extension of citizenship after birth is that it be volitional on the part of the individual. Russia couldn’t simply impose Russian citizenship on Ukrainians en masse, for example. Otherwise, citizenship policies can be as relaxed as a country wants them to be (it’s when they are too tough that international norms come into play). Russia certainly has a closer link to Russian speakers in Ukraine than, for instance, most Sephardic Jews do to Spain, and yet nobody is complaining about the latter.

2. Protecting citizens abroad does not justify uses of force or other acts of aggression. Putin is working from the 19th/20th century playbook in framing military action in protective terms. That’s the irksome part: integrating citizenship policy into expansionist designs. (Spain is not going to use the pretext of protecting Sephardim as the basis for military operations in France.) Traditional international law accepted the use of force to protect nationals against foreign depredations — the U.S. justified scores of military actions on that basis (presidents still do, as a matter of domestic constitutional law, for purposes of constitutionally legitimating the use of force in the absence of congressional approval). Leaving aside narrow exceptions — military deployments should be consistent with international law where necessary to safely evacuate citizens from trouble zones — that’s no longer okay. In other words, the presence of even a large number of Russian citizens in Ukraine adds no weight to Russia’s case for military intervention.

3. Ukraine’s threatened criminalization of dual citizenship is more problematic. Ukraine prohibits dual citizenship, though the ban is apparently underenforced. By way of a counter-move to the Russian proposal, a bill before the Ukraine parliament would impose fines on dual citizens. Dual citizen voting and office-holding would be subject to prison sentences of up to 10 years. Other countries bar dual citizens from officeholding (many through constitutional bars); none bars dual citizen voting. Prison sentences for either would be without precedent. Ukraine would be on firmer ground stripping the citizenship of those having or acquiring Russian citizenship. But that move would create problems of its own, and would hand Russia an additional argument in the (largely false) narrative that Russians are being oppressed in Ukraine.

The bottom line: this is a nothing-burger. Probably the most important consequence of the new Russian policy would be to open the door for newly minted citizens to move to Russia. If Russia’s happy having them, that’s its business, not ours.

Can Crimea Secede by Referendum?

by Chris Borgen

As Julian mentioned, the Crimean parliament is attempting to achieve the secession of Crimea through the use of a parliamentary vote and a referendum. More legal rhetoric in the midst of political crisis. Back in 2007 and 2008, Russia, the U.S. and the EU used quasi-legal arguments to try to explain why one could support the independence of Kosovo, but not South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or vice versa. It looks like a new iteration of this debate is starting. According to CNN:

lawmakers in Crimea voted in favor of leaving the country for Russia and putting it to a regional vote in 10 days.

It’s an act that drew widespread condemnation, with Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk calling the effort to hold such a referendum “an illegitimate decision.”

“Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine,” he said.

The legal issue here is really one of Ukrainian Constitutional law more than of international law, because, as it is generally understood, there is no right to secede under international law. Under international law, a secession is neither a right nor necessarily illegal. It is treated as a fact: a secession either was successful, it was not, or it is still being contested.

There is, however, a right to self-determination, which is understood to be, for communities that are not colonies and are within existing states, meaningful political participation and the pursuit of economic, social and cultural development under the auspices of that existing state, in this case Ukraine.  This conception of internal self-determination makes self-determination closely related to the respect of minority rights and it does not include a right to dismember an existing state. Furthermore, modern views of self-determination also recognize the “federalist” option of allowing a certain level of cultural or political autonomy as a means to satisfy the norm of self-determination. Crimea is already an autonomous republic within Ukraine; more on that in a minute.

Nor does the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence under international law recognize an international right of secession. It side-stepped the question of whether there is a right to secede under international law and framed the legal issue as one of domestic law. It was an advisory opinion that gave very little advice.

If the recent ICJ opinion does not provide much guidance, the tradition of state practice over the longer term does. The international community has not given much legal weight to referenda such as these. Back in the interwar period the Aaland Islands attempted to use a referendum to secede from Finland. In that case, an international commission of jurists brought in to assess the situation for the League of Nations found that there is no right of national groups to separate by the simple expression of a wish. And, particularly relevant today, the ability to choose secession by plebiscite must be granted by the state itself, that is, Ukraine. Otherwise, such a formulation would infringe upon the sovereign right of states. (See the Report of the International Committee of Jurists Entrusted by the Council of the League of Nations with the Task of Giving an Advisory Opinion upon the Legal Aspects of the Aaland Islands Question, League of Nations Off. J., Spec. Supp, No. 3, at 5-10 (1920)).

We have seen more recent examples of referenda, such as when Transnistria tried to use a plebiscite to claim independence from Moldova and possible unification with Russia. It received no support from the international community for that claim. (This tactical use of referenda seems to be used time and again by secessionist groups supported by Russia.)

It is important to keep in mind that the whole population of Ukraine has a right of self-determination, as well, and that includes the right not to have their country be torn asunder either by a local referendum and/or external military intervention.

The only place that could confer a right to Crimea to leave by referendum is the Ukrainian Constitution. As far as I can see, there is nothing there conferring the power to secede by referendum. Title X of the Ukrainian Constitution (revised link) concerns the Autonomous Republic of Crimea; there is no mention of secession by act of regional parliament or by local referendum.

Even the Constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea defers to the Ukrainian Constitution. Article 1 of the Crimean Constitution states:

The Autonomous Republic of Crimea shall be an integral part of Ukraine and it shall solve, within the powers conferred upon it by the Constitution of Ukraine, any and all matters coming within its terms of reference.

The Autonomous Republic of Crimea shall also exercise any and all powers as may be delegated to it by Ukrainian laws pursuant to the Constitution of Ukraine.

By the way, as I understand it (and, again, I invite any readers with particular knowledge in this area to comment), the term “autonomous republic” had a specific meaning in the old Soviet constitutional law.  Under the Soviet constitution, there were “union republics” and “autonomous republics.” Union republics had the highest form of sovereignty within the USSR. When the USSR dissolved, the Union republics such as Russia, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine became new sovereign states. The autonomous republics did not have that level of sovereignty; they were subsidiary entities.

I note that Russia has within it its own autonomous regions and republics. Yet, I see nothing indicating that they believe those entities can voluntarily secede from Russia.

Words like “self-determination” are rhetorically persuasive when kept vague but they also have actual legal meaning. One needs to be careful about setting up unreasonable expectations by claiming certain results (such as secession) as a matter of right, when no such right exists.

Such use of legal rhetoric does not help resolve conflicts; it only makes some people more intransigent and the conflict more intractable.

Presidential Authority for Visa Restrictions (for Ukraine and Otherwise)

by Peter Spiro

President Obama issued an executive order this morning imposing entry bans on those responsible for actions that “undermine democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine,” “threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine,” or involve “misappropriation of state assets of Ukraine or of an economically significant entity in Ukraine.”

Sec. 2. I hereby find that the unrestricted immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens determined to meet one or more of the criteria in subsection 1(a) of this order would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and I hereby suspend entry into the United States, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, of such persons. Such persons shall be treated as persons covered by section 1 of Proclamation 8693 of July 24, 2011 (Suspension of Entry of Aliens Subject to United Nations Security Council Travel Bans and International Emergency Economic Powers Act Sanctions).

The power to specify covered individuals is delegated to the Secretary of State.

Obama is acting under section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which gives the President a blank check when it comes to imposing entry restrictions:

 Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.

Obama has used this power at least twice, both in the summer of 2011. He used the authority to ban the entry of serious human rights abusers with this proclamation. In the proclamation referenced in today’s executive order, he banned the entry of individuals subject to UN sanctions regimes. The latter is particularly interesting insofar as it appears to delegate immigration policy to an international organization, directly incorporating UN decisions into US law. In any case, the use of the 212(f) power is consistent with Obama’s orientation to maximally exploit delegated powers.

Insta-Symposium on the Crisis in Ukraine

by Chris Borgen and Roger Alford

We have invited several academic luminaries to post here at Opinio Juris over the next few days about the crisis in Ukraine, with particular emphasis on Russian intervention in Crimea. As we have done in the past with other symposiums, we also welcome young academics to submit guests posts for possible publication. We can’t guarantee we will publish every post submitted, but we would love to broaden the discussion to include new voices. So if you want to write a guest post for Opinio Juris about Ukraine of approximately 500 to 1500 words, please do so in the next couple days and send it to Jessica Dorsey and An Hertogen (their emails are linked to the right). Our editorial team will review the posts and publish those selected.

Who Speaks for Ukraine?

by Chris Borgen

[Expanding and moving this up from the comments section of my previous post.]

In a comment to the previous post, reader “Non liquet” noted that:

The UN Security Council Meeting was interesting in this regard today. Reportedly, the Russian Ambassador to the UN stated he received a letter from the former President of Ukraine dated 1 March requesting intervention of the Russian army in Ukraine.
It seems that the Russians believe they need to frame their own arguments regarding intervention with at least a fig leaf of international law.

“Non liquet” also linked to this Yahoo News article, which reported that:

“The country has plunged into chaos and anarchy,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin read from an unofficial translation of the letter while speaking to reporters after an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. “The country is in the grip of outright terror and violence driven by the West.”

“People are persecuted on political and language grounds,” he read. “In this context, I appeal to the President of Russia Vladimir V. Putin to use the armed forces of the Russian Federation to re-establish the rule of law, peace, order, stability and to protect the people of Ukraine.”

“Non liquet” makes a good point that this is an attempt at a legal fig leaf: arguing that any Russian intervention is not an invasion, but rather a lawful response to a request for assistance by a  government.

But this is predicated on the idea that Yanukovich was empowered to ask for Russian assistance and military intervention. And thus we have the question of where is the actual government of Ukraine and the related legal issue of the recognition of governments.

In a U.S. State Department press conference this past Friday, the spokesperson said:

We are in the same place we have been in, which is that we don’t – we believe that Yanukovych has lost his legitimacy as he abdicated his responsibilities. As you know, he left Ukraine – or left Kyiv, and he has left a vacuum of leadership. So we continue to believe that he’s lost legitimacy and our focus remains on the path forward.

I take that as an indication that the the U.S. government would not take any further statements or actions by Yanukovich as being actions of the government of Ukraine, in part because the Yanukovich regime has fled and no longer has effective control of the country.

Russia, clearly, disagrees… (Continue reading)

The Crimea, Compliance, and the Constraint of International Law

by Chris Borgen

[I ended my previous post stating that I would next consider the options available to Russia, Ukraine, the EU, and the U.S. But then this conversation started… I’ll come back to the “next steps” question in a following post.]

Julian, Eric Posner, and others look to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its takeover of Crimea and see the limits of international law.  But, even in this case, international law and legal rhetoric play a broader, and perhaps more subtle, role in foreign policy than being a brick wall blocking invading armies. (And nowadays brick walls don’t work too well, either.)

Yes, there are the ongoing difficulties of enforcement in a pluralist international community (and, as Peter notes, there are also significant enforcement and compliance problems in domestic societies). But international law and legal discourse also frame expectations and viable policy options in such a way that can have greater long-term constraints on state practice than may be appreciated by international legal skeptics. However, even for this constraint to work, there still needs to be political will to enforce legal rules. And here I think we are all in agreement.

As I mentioned in my previous post, and in various other posts, Russia (and states, in general) cloaks its actions in “law talk” to foster a reputations of being a lawful actor, even-or perhaps especially-when it is not. (Andrew Guzman has written extensively on the role of reputation as a prod towards compliance to international rules. See Andrew T. Guzman, ‘Reputation and International Law,’ 34 Ga J Intl & Comp L 379 (2006).)  How states and other actors use language—what are the bounds of “self-defense,” when may a state legally intervene, what is “self-determination,” and so on—plays an essential role in defining expectations of how states and others will act.  How they use these terms inform other actors as to which arguments may or may not be made legitimately.

This is especially powerful in international law. Regardless as to whether Russia (or any other state) uses legal rhetoric, but especially when it does, it becomes bound-up by the expectation of legal compliance in general.  Invoke the law, get bound by the law.

Yet, just as the lack of a single sovereign means that enforcement is difficult, the pluralist nature of international law means that in most cases there is no final interpreter of what law is. Moreso than the ICJ, the most important interpreters of international law are the states themselves. Their interpretations are in part based on their short-term interests, but also on their long term concerns. These interpretations, in turn, affect international relations. Politics affects international law, which then affects politics, and so on.

International law has thus become a consensual vocabulary and grammar for how states talk about international relations. In short, how we talk about terms like “self-defense” can affect legal substance of what “self-defense” is. Legal rhetoric can frame policy options.

While Eric and Julian focused on the inability of international law to stop Russia from sending troops into Crimea, it is important to keep in mind that the use of force issue is embedded in a much bigger dialogue about the future of Ukraine… (Continue Reading)

Why Won’t the United States Call China Killings a Terrorist Attack?

by Julian Ku

While Russia was stealing all the attention over the weekend, a small group of assailants wielding knives killed at least 33 people and injured over a hundred in the main railway station of Kunming, China.  China’s government has called these “terrorist attacks,” and has hinted it is linked with Uighur separatists in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province.  But the failure of the U.S. State Department to use the term “terrorist” has drawn outrage in Chinese social media.

I understand the U.S. government’s reluctance to endorse the Chinese government’s description of these attacks, but I still think the term “terrorist” is perfectly appropriate for this situation.  The attackers indiscriminately killed and injured civilians in a train station, and there seems plenty of evidence that it is motivated by politics and ideology.  To be sure, the international definition of terrorism remains contested, but the US law definition seems applicable.

the term “international terrorism” means activities that—

(A) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State;(B) appear to be intended—

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping;
Look, I get that this definition is quite broad, and is controversial in many countries. And I get that the Uighurs have real grievances. But the US government is already on the record in favor of the broad definition. So why hold back from using the term for an act the US already calls unjustifiable?