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Thoughts on Scott Turow’s ICC Novel, TESTIMONY

by Kevin Jon Heller

I have just finished reading the novel, in which a burned-out former US Attorney joins the ICC to investigate the disappearance, and presumed murder, of 400 Roma in Bosnia. I have always been a huge Scott Turow fan; I’ve read every book he’s ever written, most more than once, and the best one — the classic PRESUMED INNOCENT — five or six times. And there are many good things in TESTIMONY, such as the investigative scenes in Bosnia. In general, the various twists in turns in the story are vintage Turow, with fingers being pointed in all directions and the ending coming as a suitably-foreshadowed surprise.

It is also worth noting that Turow’s decision to set the book at the ICC instead of the ICTY is actually quite clever. We are not in CROSSING LINES territory here. Bosnia is a member of the Court and the Roma massacre took place in 2004, so the ICC clearly has jurisdiction. More importantly, Turow is on firm ground when he explains that the ICTY considered the case but ultimately decided it did not have jurisdiction over it. As ICL nerds know, the ICTY Statute requires crimes against humanity to be connected to armed conflict — the nexus requirement first adopted by the IMT. The Roma massacre lacks the requisite nexus, because there was no armed conflict in Bosnia in 2004.

Unfortunately, that is the legal high point of the book. The rest is replete with errors about the ICC and international criminal law in general. Some of those errors are fundamental, while others are minor but frustrating for how easily they could have been avoided.

The initial error is a doozy: Turow has the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) authorise the investigation into the Roma massacre, despite the fact that Bosnia self-referred the situation to the ICC. The book even contains a mock decision pursuant to Art. 15, the proprio motu provision! That is, of course, completely wrong: because Bosnia self-referred, the PTC did not have to authorise the investigation. The OTP was free to investigate the massacre on its own. And that error, in turn, undermines the entire setup of the book, which opens with a scene in which the sole survivor of the Roma massacre testifies before the PTC. The hearing is not only “unprecedented,” as Turow says — it’s pointless, because the OTP could have simply interviewed the witness itself.

Many of the other errors concern the functioning of the ICC. Here they are, in order they appear in the book. Sorry for the lack of page numbers — I was reading on my iPad with the text resized:

[1] It is not at all surprising to find a US prosecutor at the ICC, despite what Turow says. There have always been Americans working at the Court, including some very senior prosecutors like Christine Chung. (As an aside, Turow never bothers to explain why the ICC was willing to hire Bill Ten Boom to investigate the Roma massacre. All he says is that the US wanted an American prosecutor on the case, because the US Army might have been involved — a fact that would obviously have worked against hiring an American.)

[2] An ICC judge would never ask a prosecutor for permission to question a witness. Questioning by the judges is routine and expected.

[3] Dick Cheney did not support unsigning the Rome Statute because he was afraid of being prosecuted for waterboarding. The unsigning took place in May 2002 — before the US had waterboarded anyone. 

[4] The Cambodia and Sierra Leone tribunals are not located in the Hague.

[5] It’s the Jurisdiction, Complementarity, and Cooperation Division, not the “Complementarity Section.”

[6] The principle of complementarity doesn’t require the Court to wait 30 days for a state to act before pursuing an investigation.

[7] The ICC’s judges select the President of the Court, not the Court’s member states.

[8] Not all NATO states have joined the ICC. (Turkey has not.)

[9] The ICC could not sue the US at the ICJ to force it to disclose records. The ICC is not a state and the US does not accept the ICJ’s compulsory jurisdiction.

[10] There is no legal reason why the ICC could not use documents the US produced in (ostensible) violation of the American Service-Members Protection Act (ASPA).

[11] Neither the President of the Court nor the Registrar has any say in how the OTP allocates funds to investigations. (Turow consistently has both involved in the OTP’s decision to exhume the cave in which the Roma massacre supposedly took place.) That’s a serious mistake.

[12] Nothing in the ASPA makes it illegal for a member of the Court to investigate in the US. (Another claim Turow makes again and again.)

[13] The forcible transfer and massacre of the Roma are not war crimes, because there is no armed conflict. If they were committed during an armed conflict, the ICTY would have — and should have — prosecuted those acts.

I’m surprised that the New York Times described TESTIMONY as “well-researched,” because unfortunately it’s not. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Turow did his research but didn’t learn from it. According to the Author’s Note, Turow spoke to multiple officials at the ICC — including Judge Tarfusser, Fatou Bensouda, and the Registrar, Herman von Hebel — as well as to ICC experts like my friend Alex Whiting. I’m pretty sure all of those individuals know that the PTC doesn’t have to approve an investigation pursuant to a state referral.

Finally, a note about verisimilitude. It’s easy to dismiss errors like these as irrelevant in a work of fiction. As someone who spent a few years writing television in Hollywood, I have a degree of sympathy for that position. I think it’s fine to fudge the truth when it’s dramaturgically necessary to do so. But there is no excuse for fundamental mistakes like the PTC authorisation — especially when those mistakes can be so easily solved. All Turow had to do was delete the sentence that says Bosnia referred the situation to the ICC. Moreover, there is no point in making simple mistakes that are in no way necessary for the story; that’s just sloppy writing.

Let’s face it: many Americans will learn about the Court for the first time from this book. And they will come away with some basic misunderstandings about how the Court operates.

Taiwan’s Constitutional Court Rules in Favor of Same-Sex Marriage, and Cites U.S. Supreme Court (But Not For Law)

by Julian Ku

Grand Justices of the Constitutional Court, Judiciary Yuan, Republic of China – Taiwan

In a first for Asia, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ruled today (with two dissents) that Taiwanese law limiting marriage to a man and a woman violated the Republic of China’s constitutional guarantee of “equality before the law.” (Taiwan is home to the exiled Republic of China government, and its constitution is an amended version of one adopted on Mainland China back in 1946).
I don’t claim to be an expert on the Taiwan-ROC Constitution.*  I also haven’t read the decision very carefully, and do not purport to offer any deep analysis of the decision here.  But to build off Anthea’s great post from Monday, I will note that the decision (in Chinese here)  cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.**  But it doesn’t cite Obergefell’s legal analysis on the relationship between same-sex marriage and equality, which actually is quite on point.  Rather, the Taiwan court cites Obergefell in footnote 1 as one of several sources for the proposition that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic. (In a somewhat ironic note, the decision also cite findings of the World Health Organization, whose governing body just recently excluded Taiwan from participating as an observer).

I think there are many good reasons to cite, or not cite, foreign court decisions when interpreting a domestic constitution. I can see the Taiwan-ROC Constitutional Court, which is still a relatively new institution, wanting to cite foreign authority to bolster the legitimacy of its decision.  But I can also see that the Court would want to make this decision as domestic as possible to ward off the very substantial domestic criticisms that are already being made of the results of this decision.  The Taiwan-ROC Court made a reasonable choice to cite the U.S. Supreme Court in a limited and non-legal way.  I don’t fault it (or the U.S. Supreme Court) for avoiding foreign and international legal authority.  No doubt there was a jurisprudential influence from the U.S. and other jurisdictions in this decision, but I wonder if it was in any way decisive.

There are, of course, international relations implications from this decision.  Taiwan, under the current sort-of-anti-China governing party, is carving an international image for itself as a socially progressive haven in a relatively socially conservative Asia.  This can’t hurt Taiwan as it continues to seek ways to maintain its separate identity from China in the eyes of U.S. and European elites. The mainland has a similar “equality before the law” provision in Article 33 of its Constitution as the one that is the main basis for the Taiwan court decision, but I wouldn’t count on any action on that front in the near future.

*But I did have noodles in Taipei with a member of the Taiwan Constitutional Court not two weeks ago and he gave me no clues about this pending decision.

**My original post actually got this wrong, claiming there was no citation at all. Sorry for the confusion. But my larger point stands.

Pledging American Exceptionalism: US Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch on International Law

by Anthea Roberts

[Anthea Roberts is an Associate Professor at the School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University.]

American exceptionalism is nothing new. Nor are debates about whether it is appropriate for US courts to look to foreign or international law, particularly when interpreting the US Constitution. Yet now-Justice Gorsuch’s recent testimony on the issue during his confirmation hearing still took my breath away. You can hear the question posed and his answer here (the exchange is also transcribed below). I think that every international lawyer should watch this clip. It’s exceptional …

Question by Sasse: As a sitting Supreme Court justice tasked with upholding the US Constitution, is it ever appropriate to cite international law and, if so, why?

Answer by Gorsuch: It’s not categorically improper. There are some circumstances when it is not just proper but necessary. You’re interpreting a contract with a choice of law provision that may adopt a foreign law. That’s an appropriate time to look at any choice of law provision by any party in any contract. Treaties sometimes require you to look at international law by their terms.

But if we’re talking about interpreting the Constitution of the United States, we have our own tradition and own history. And I don’t know why we would look to the experience of other countries rather than to our own when everybody else looks to us. For all the imperfections of our rule of law, it is still the shining example in the world. That’s not to say we should sweep our problems under the rug or pretend that we’ve solved all of the problems in our culture, in our society, in our civic discourse. But it is to say that we have our history and our Constitution and its by “we the people.”

And so, as a general matter, Senator, I would say it is improper to look abroad when interpreting the Constitution — as a general matter.

So what do I find remarkable about this interaction?

First, the conflation of international law and foreign law is disconcerting. When asked about whether it is appropriate to cite to international law, Gorsuch immediately turns to choice of law provisions in contracts. But that is typically a question of foreign law, not international law. Certainly, both are non-American law. Yet the two of them raise distinct questions, particularly given that the United States contributes to the formation of international law, is bound by international law, and has hooks in its Constitution for looking to international law. As for when Gorsuch says that treaties sometimes require you to look at international law … I feel like telling him that, actually, treaties are international law. I have been critical elsewhere of how the US Supreme Court can interpret a treaty without even referencing the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

Second, the statement “I don’t know why we would look to the experience of other countries rather than to our own when everybody else looks to us” is particularly striking. On a descriptive level, there is something to what Gorsuch says. Academics and courts in many states regularly look to US case law, but the same is much less true in reverse. I find clear evidence of this asymmetry in my forthcoming book Is International Law International? (OUP, 2017) where international textbooks from around the world look to US case law while US international law textbooks look to … US case law.

But on a normative level, I find this statement troubling. Why look at the experience of other states? For me the answer is simple: because you might learn something. You don’t have to be bound by what you find, but it might be instructive given that other states have often faced similar issues and the United States does not have a monopoly on good ideas. I fully accept that judges in a state can privilege that state’s own history and tradition when interpreting the law and that this might be particularly appropriate when interpreting that state’s constitution. But I don’t think that this requires them to ignore the histories and traditions of everyone else.

The double standard implicit in what he is saying is also grating. Instead of taking the position that “all states should look to their own history and tradition,” Gorsuch instead endorses the idea that other states not only do look to the United States (descriptive claim), but that they should look to the United States (normative claim), even though the US courts should not reciprocate. What is good for the goose is certainly not good for the gander.

Third, the next sentence is the kicker for me: “For all the imperfections of our rule of law, it is still the shining example in the world.” I find this exceptionalist rhetoric hard to stomach. It is also deeply ironic given that the whole world currently is looking at the United States and the Trump administration, but no one would say that this is because the United States represents the “shining example” of the “rule of law” in the world. In fact, the United States comes in 18th out of 113 countries in the World Justice Project’s rule of law rankings, and the Economist recently downgraded the United States to being a flawed democracy, partly because of a loss of faith in democracy in the United States, particularly by the younger generation.

Of course, I am not the intended audience for Gorsuch’s remarks. He is clearly playing to a domestic, political audience, not a foreign, internationalist one. To my ears, Gorsuch sounds like he is pledging a fraternity, but the institution to which he is pledging is American exceptionalism. Although this topic is contentious in the United States, the idea that it might be appropriate or useful to cite to international or foreign law is uncontroversial in many other states. I can’t imagine many judges in other common law jurisdictions, like Australia, Canada or the United Kingdom, feeling the need to make this sort of pledge. Nor am I am aware of judges in civil law states, like France and Germany, making similar such pledges.

Even though Gorsuch is not addressing his comments to people like me, the nature of the internet means that I form part of his audience nonetheless. And I suspect that many foreign internationalists would have a similar reaction to me. This failure to value the practice of others and to engage in a dialogue is one of the explanations that David Law and Mila Versteeg give about their empirical finding of the declining influence of the United States in comparative constitutional law (another is that constitutions around the world are increasingly departing from, rather than following, the US model). This finding also contrasts with the rising influence of the courts of some other states that regularly engage in this sort of discourse, like Canada, Germany, India, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Whatever your views on this clip, I think that this exchange would make a great classroom teaching tool because it succinctly sets out a particular perspective and provides a useful starting point for debate. I would be interested if anyone has a good counterpoint clip that pithily sets out the opposite perspective as the two would be great to pair. In the end, part of what we need to take away from this sort of exchange is just how different people’s starting points of analysis can be when it comes to this question and how these differences may vary considerably across states.

American Law Institute Approves First Portions of Restatement on Foreign Relations Law (Fourth)

by Julian Ku

Big news (for international law nerds)! The full membership of the American Law Institute has approved the first three sections of the new Restatement of U.S. Foreign Relations Law (Fourth).  This is the first official change to the venerable Restatement (Third) that was approved by the ALI back in 1987.  Summaries of the changes to the newly approved sections on Jurisdiction, Treaties, and Sovereign Immunity are linked here.

The Restatements are supposed to “restate” the law in the United States.  But it is influential in shaping the law, especially in this area, since U.S. courts frequently cite the Restatement on questions of international law.  It is an important statement of where U.S. courts are, and will likely go, on questions of foreign relations and international law in the near future. As such, the Restatement should be interesting to non-US scholars as well.

The Restatement (Third) has been subjected to some pretty tough academic criticism over the years, but (from what I can recall), these three topics have not  been particularly controversial.  I am a member of the ALI and I have attended some of the meetings during this drafting process, but I haven’t been paying as much attention as I should have.

I will say that one general trend I have noticed in the new sections has been to cut back on statements in the comments of Restatement (Third) that may have gone beyond the caselaw at the time or no longer reflect current caselaw.  For instance, the new Restatement eliminates a comment in Restatement (Third) that suggested there are no subject-matter limitations on the treaty power (which itself departed from the Restatement (Second).  The Fourth Restatement says nothing about this point, which is probably the smart thing given there has been really no caselaw on this one way or the other from the Supreme Court or lower courts.

Having said that, I will note that Georgetown law professor Carlos Vazquez has already published a criticism of the newly approved sections on the self-execution doctrine.  I won’t go into his criticisms here, but they do suggest the new Restatement is unlikely to completely settle the continuing debate over the nature of this tricky doctrine.

There is a lot here to digest. At this point, I will simply salute the scholars who have made this project happen, all of whom I think we can count as prior contributors to and friends of the blog: Sarah Cleveland, Paul Stephan, Bill Dodge, Anthea Roberts, David Stewart, Ingrid Wuerth, Curt Bradley, and Ed Swaine. Of course, Duncan was also involved and I am sure other members of the OJ community.  There is more to do, of course, but what has been completed so far is a great achievement and one that will last for at least another thirty years, if we are lucky.

Evening Panel on International Law and National Security

by Deborah Pearlstein

Hope our New York-area friends will be around for this one – Cardozo Law School and the ICRC are hosting an evening panel discussion: “A View from Abroad on Current Trends in Targeting, Detention and Trials.” The panel will be at Cardozo Law School, 55 Fifth Avenue in New York, May 18, 6:00-7:30p.m., and features OJ’s own Kevin Jon Heller, along with Marko Milanovic, Noam Lubell, and Joanna Harrington — all moderated by the superb (and currently visiting Stanford professor of human rights) Beth van Schaack. RSVP here.

Nuremberg Prosecutor Ben Ferencz Profiled on 60 Minutes

by Chris Borgen

A great profile of an incredible man. When some people call his tireless work pursuit of the rule of law idealism, he responds that he is a realist who sees the actual progress we have made and that… shouldn’t– you know– be despairing because it’s never happened before. Nothing new ever happened before.

The video and text are available via this link.

Congratulations, thanks to International Law Reporter

by Edward Swaine

Most readers are probably keenly familiar with International Law Reporter, the brainchild of Professor Jacob Katz Cogan (Cincinnati).  For those not aware, ILR provides notices of scholarship, conferences, calls for papers, and the like — and it’s available in RSS feeds and via Twitter.  (There’s even a tip jar!)  It’s invaluable for anyone in international law and, I expect, anyone entering the discipline or considering doing so. It’s a broad field, it’s fair to say, and given the diversity of subjects, sources, and places of origin (and, sometimes, limited university budgets), it’s really easy to overlook what others are up to . . . which is one reason ILR is so useful.

Next week brings us May and, in addition to May flowers, what I happened to notice is the 10th anniversary of ILR.  This represents quite an accomplishment and, I expect, a tremendous amount of effort. (Did I mention the tip jar?) Congratulations and thanks!

Two Visions of the UN Charter

by Jens David Ohlin

As I write this, the ASIL annual meeting is conducting a well-timed, previously unannounced panel discussion about the legality of the missile strikes against Assad’s airbase in Syria. In addition to Harold Koh (Yale Law School), who has argued in support of humanitarian intervention, the speakers include moderator Catherine Powell (Fordham Law School), Jennifer Daskal (AU Washington College of Law), Steve Pomper (US Holocaust Memorial Museum), and Saikrishna Prakash (UVA School of Law).  I’m sure that it is/was a terrific panel and I’m sorry to have missed it.

I want to take this opportunity to step back and collect some thoughts about why I disagree with so many of the arguments against humanitarian intervention. I have already articulated the specific legal arguments about article 51 here, but there is a deeper issue about the nature of the UN Charter and the goal of international law itself.

Many writers speaking out against humanitarian intervention have noted, as one piece of their argument, that humanitarian interventions will weaken the prohibition on the use of force and will likely lead to more international conflict. They view humanitarian intervention as a destabilizing force.

In these arguments, the goal of reducing international conflict, or reducing the number of cross-border military interventions, is elevated to the most important principle in the UN Charter and the international legal system as a whole. The goal is, in other words, to eliminate or reduce war as much as possible.

On deeper inspection, however, this asserted goal is really about reducing only one kind of war, international armed conflicts. The Charter regime on the use of force (article 2 combined with Chapter VII and article 51) is designed to reduce or eliminate the number of sovereignty violations caused by international war.

This articulated goal has deep roots in World War II. Indeed, one could point to Nuremberg and the tribunal’s conclusion that crimes against peace (aggression) were the supreme international crime because they contained within them the seeds of the other international crimes. The lesson, apparently, is that stopping international conflicts is the most important goal of the international legal system.

Unfortunately, I think this principle, which is just one principle among many, has been taken to an extreme level, and fetishized to the point where other noteworthy principles are devalued.

We should never forget that preserving international peace has mostly instrumental value. Protecting the integrity of states and their domestic arrangements has little value in and of itself.  If the states and their domestic arrangements are fundamentally unjust, then preserving international peace is merely protecting those unjust arrangements.

To make my point, consider a “perfect” world without a single article 2(4) violation. Every state respects the borders of all other states and never launches a military assault against them.  Each state is inwardly directed.  But internally, each state is viciously repressing and killing its own civilians and subjecting them to unimaginable horror.  Would this be a “perfect” world from the perspective of the UN Charter or from the perspective of international law generally? From the sole perspective of article 2(4), this world is indeed perfect.  But it is far from perfect — it is a disaster.  Protecting the sovereignty of each state has instrumental value because it allows states to flourish.  But if sovereignty is simply preserving injustice, we need to consider that there are other values at stake, other values that are promoted by international law.

My point is that many of these other values or principles are embodied in the UN Charter.  When I read the Charter, I see a document that cares about preserving international peace, but it also cares about international security--which is something far broader.  And I don’t think that international security is promoted and enhanced when we give a free pass to allow governments to mistreat their own citizens, and treat this as a “lesser problem”–subject only to non-military measures– than the problem of international conflict, which is subject to unilateral military measures.

It may be time to rethink the Nuremberg “assumption” that crimes against the peace are the supreme international crime. World War II was the era of the IAC, which was responsible for most of the evils of the world.  We now live in a different era, the era of the NIAC, which are responsible for most of the evils in the world. This second vision of the UN Charter recognizes that NIACs pose a greater threat to international security.

The UN Charter must do more than simply ensure that soldiers do not cross international borders. Even when every soldier stays within their own state, all is not well in the world.

More on the Inherent Right of Self-Defense

by Jens David Ohlin

In a comment to my earlier post on humanitarian intervention and natural rights, Adil Haque asks me the following question:

Can States voluntarily make binding agreements that curtail their natural rights of legitimate defense for the sake of greater collective security?

Here’s my answer. The positive law can expand the natural right but cannot curtail it.  To explain my answer, let’s think a little bit more about domestic law.

Consider the right of self-defense under domestic criminal law.  Suppose a state decided to repeal its criminal law defenses of self-defense and defense of others. Imagine that the state had an extensive policy discussion about it and determined that the police should be the exclusive vehicle for the deployment of protective force, in order to maintain security within the state.  Here is the explicit consequence of that legal decision: if an attacker comes to your door and starts attacking, you are required to notify the police so that they may come to exercise protective force on your behalf. If the police refuse to come, or do not come in time, you are not legally permitted to exercise defensive force on your own behalf.

Now suppose that the attack occurs, and you exercise personal defense in order to save yourself from the unlawful assault.  However, self-defense was repealed. So the public prosecutor charges you with murder. You clearly committed a killing and the defense was repealed. You are facing a mandatory sentence of life in prison or the death penalty.

Now imagine that you are the trial judge hearing this case as a bench trial.  What to do?  If you convict the defendant, you are sending him to jail for the rest of his life–or worse yet condemning him to execution.

I think the correct answer to this puzzle is that the defender has an inherent right to defensive force, and the positive law cannot curtail this right.  I would acquit the defendant on that basis.  What would you do?  If you say, well, the positive law has eliminated self-defense, so the defendant must be convicted — my only response is that I hope I don’t get you as a judge if I’m ever in this situation.

One possibility to resolve this quandary is to think of it as a case of civil disobedience.  As Marko Milanovic and others have noted, the classic theory of civil disobedience (Gandhi, Thoreau, King) requires that the disobedient actor accept his or her punishment. I find this avenue most convincing when the disobedience is an act of protest and when the punishment is relatively modest. In the case I am describing, neither of these is true.  The punishment is draconian, and the crime was not an act of protest —  it was an act of survival.

Now you might say that the situation that I have described is fanciful and not likely to happen.  True.  But I think it yields two insights. There may be situations when the positive law runs out, and natural law begins. The second insight is that this only happens in truly extreme cases–cases that are at the margins of the law and rationality and sanity.

But if you think about it, the situation of humanitarian intervention is not all that different — it’s a truly extreme situation, where the positive law runs out and recourse to the inherent rights of defensive force ought to apply.  I think that as international lawyers, from the safe distance of the ivory tower, we are often too likely to see such horrible dilemmas as “normal” problems of international law. But if we imagine it from the other side, i.e. the victim of the Rwandan genocide pleading for outside assistance to repel a murderous rampage, you come to realize that the dilemma of humanitarian intervention is perhaps just as extreme a situation as my hypothetical criminal law case described above. Indeed, I think it is not radical to suggest that a genocide is, in fact, far more extreme than my hypothetical, which only involved the fate of a single homeowner struggling to defend himself against an unlawful attack. Multiply that dozens, hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of times, and you get the real dilemma of humanitarian intervention for modern international law.

I agree with Harold Koh

by Jens David Ohlin

Everyone seems to have lined up against humanitarian intervention this week.  I’m not sure if the proponents of intervention have changed their mind, or if they are keeping quiet, or if they never existed in the first place. Either way, I want to be clear — if it isn’t obvious already from my prior scholarship — that I support a limited right of humanitarian intervention in certain contexts. So far, the few that have supported humanitarian intervention recently include Harold Koh, as well as Charlie Dunlap. (In the past, others have argued for it as well.) By my account, the Syrian situation can and should qualify as a lawful humanitarian intervention.

However, as I indicated in a series of tweets today, I think it is a mistake to focus humanitarian intervention arguments on so-called exceptions to the UN Charter regime on the use of force–exceptions flowing from customary international law. All of these arguments run into the same problem: how does custom amend the UN Charter? It makes the argument vulnerable to the objection that the customary exception is really a backdoor way of amending the Charter without going through the difficult process of amending the Charter.

A far better and more fruitful exercise is to examine article 51 of the UN Charter more closely. Article 51 preserves the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense, or what the French-language version of the Charter refers to as the droit naturel de legitimate defense. The right to legitimate defense (which covers both self- and other-defense) is a natural law right. It isn’t created by the UN Charter or by positive law at all. It is inherent because it flows from natural law, and article 51 simply refers to it.

Modern lawyers are not accustomed to answering uncomfortable questions about where natural or inherent rights come from.  They can’t come from the positive law, otherwise they wouldn’t be inherent.  The whole point of being inherent is that even if the positive law denied them, they would still exist. That’s what inherent means. In other words, there’s an area of the law that endures after the positive law runs out.  You might find this truth to be inconvenient or annoying or quaint — but it is right there in article 51. So even lawyers committed to positivism and the text of article 51 should admit that some rights under international law are so fundamental that they flow from beyond the positive law.  The positive law could try to take them away but the right would still endure.

(I should add that the concept of inherent rights was fundamental to the founding of America. One of the reasons the U.S. declared its independence from England was because England was violating the inherent rights of Americans. In the grand tradition of Locke and other social contract theorists, the colonists believed that the sovereign had a fiduciary obligation to its subjects and when that obligation was betrayed, the colonists could exercise a right of rebellion in order to ensure their inherent rights.)

Another piece of the puzzle is that international lawyers are too focused on state sovereignty to the exclusion of any other legal categories. Peoples have rights too under international law, and their most primary right is the right to self-preservation, a right that is protected not only by the concept of self-determination but also the right to be free from genocide and crimes against humanity. Nothing in the positive law can take away the right of the Syrian people, under natural law, to resist their own annihilation.  I’m not sure that anything in Article 51 automatically prioritizes the Syrian government’s claim to state sovereignty over the right of the Syrian people to self-preservation and the right of other states to exercise legitimate defense on their behalf.

I should also note that there are other avenues to explore in the Syrian case.  Assad only controls half of the country, so I don’t know why even under a strict “sovereignty” approach he should have a monopoly on deciding who gets to intervene in Syria. He only controls half of his country.  (Once you take into account ISIS controlled territory, it might be even less than half). So I don’t know why international law should privilege his speaking for the Syrian people when his de facto control over its territory is so degraded and he is gassing his own citizens.  It seems equally plausible to say that the Syrian rebels, given their control over territory and their exercising of inherently governmental functions, should be able to speak for themselves.

Of course, it would help the U.S. argument if it recognized the Syrian rebels as the legitimate government of Syria and then pursued a consent-based argument. This approach would no doubt anger Assad and the Russians, but launching Tomahawk missiles has already angered Russia, so that doesn’t appear to be a political or diplomatic constraint at this point in time.  I wish the State Department would pursue this initiative. I imagine that other states would welcome the approach and would follow our lead in recognizing the Syrian rebels as a legitimate government.

(A final approach would be to argue for partition and suggest that the Syrian rebels have created a de facto state, which could be recognized under international law, effectively transforming the Syrian conflict into an IAC. I understand that this option is disfavored for several reasons, in part because it concedes that Assad would remain in control of the legacy Syrian state).

Let me make a final point. All things considered, we should interpret the law to make sense. Interpreting article 51 to require everyone to sit on their hands while a dictator commits genocide or wipes out every last member of a protected ethnic group just doesn’t make sense.  And that’s the reading of article 51 that opponents of humanitarian intervention are advancing. International law disfavors existential annihilation.  Lawyers shouldn’t fetishize state sovereignty and elevate it to the exclusion of all other principles.  If the Syrian people have the right to resist their own destruction, we have the right to assist them.

Almost Everyone Agrees that the U.S. Strikes Against Syria are Illegal, Except for Most Governments

by Julian Ku

The blogosphere is now so fast that we can get an enormous sampling of expert opinion in a very short time. So within 24 hours of President Trump’s military strikes on Syria, we have already heard from former Bush State Department Legal Advisor John Bellinger, former Obama State Department Legal Advisors Harold Koh and Brian Egan, former DOJ officials and law profs Jack Goldsmith and Ryan Goodman, as well as numerous law profs and other experts including our very own Deborah Pearlstein and Edward Swaine. The bottom line: Almost everyone (except for Harold Koh) thinks the strikes violate the U.N. Charter and many think it also violates the U.S. Constitution.

Most of what I have to say I said in 2012-13 on this issue, but I am struck by one group of important actors who seem relatively untroubled by the “illegality” of the U.S. strikes under the UN Charter: states.  With the notable exception of the Russian government, very few states have come out to criticize the U.S. strikes as a violation of international law. No one is saying it is illegal, but it is striking how few are willing to say it is illegal.  I’ve gathered a few statements and links below.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

Q: Does China consider the missile strike on the Syrian airbase to be within the scope of international law? Or do you think it violates existing rules about intervention in other country’s sovereign territory?

A: The Chinese side has always stood for a political settlement of the Syrian issue. Under the current circumstances, we hope all parties can keep calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalating the tension.

The latest developments in Syria highlight once again the urgency of resolving the Syrian issue through political means. We call on all parties not to walk away from the process of political settlement.


France and Germany (President and Chancellor):

The joint statement by Mr Hollande and the German chancellor Angela Merkel said that “President Assad alone carries responsibility for these developments” with his “repeated use of chemical weapons and his crimes against his own people.”

United Kingdom Defence Minister:

The UK says it “fully supports” the US missile strike in Syria and has urged Russia to put more pressure on the Assad regime to end the civil war.

The US targeted an air base it says was responsible for a chemical attack which killed dozens of civilians.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the UK was not asked to take part but backed the “wholly appropriate” strike.

European Union, President of European Council:

“US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria.

Turkey, Deputy Foreign Minister:

TURKEY: NATO ally Turkey, which is a key player in the Syria conflict and has endured choppy relations with Washington recently, welcomed the strikes as “positive.” The deputy foreign minister added: “We believe that the Assad regime must be punished completely in the international arena.”

Turkey called for a no-fly zone in Syria in the wake of the US strike.

Japan, Prime Minister

JAPAN: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan “supports the US government’s resolve that it will never tolerate the spread and use of chemical weapons.”

This survey is not comprehensive and some large players, like India, have yet to weigh in.  But it seems only Russia and Iran have condemned the strikes vigorously.  The general support for the attacks in Europe, the Middle East, along withChina’s acquiescence, seems to show that many states are not very troubled by the violation of Article 2(4) most scholars think has occurred here.  Is this because it is a one-off attack? Or does it suggest Article 2(4) has very little pull with many foreign governments these days?

On the domestic US law front, FiveThirtyEight has counted 69 senators have already issued statements supporting the Syria Strikes and while there are critics on constitutional grounds, it doesn’t seem like close to a majority in Congress.

Of course, none of this means that the experts are wrong on the law. But it is at least worth noting the limited impact of the law so far on governmental actors, as the debate on the legality of the Syria Strikes continues.

Initial Takes on Syria: International-Domestic Synergies

by Edward Swaine

There are lots of initial takes on the legality of the Syria strike.  (I see, just now, a great compendium of short takes at Just Security.)  Some ask for a legal justification, and other experts are holding (for a bit) until one is proffered.  As the posts below by Deborah Pearlstein and Julian Ku helpfully indicate, one thing to watch for is assumed or disputed equivalencies between the positions of the United States as it contemplated these questions in 2013 and as it now confronts them. Other unfolding differences, naturally, include the reactions of other states and of the U.S. Congress.

In addition, watch for explicit or implicit claims about the relationship between international law and U.S. domestic law.  International lawyers are free to ignore the latter.  Thus, for example, Marko Milanovic (via EJIL:Talk!) concludes that the strike was “clearly illegal” under international law, but ventures no particular position on U.S. law.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with the rest of the analysis, focusing on this one question is entirely proper, since a violation of international use of force principles does not depend on whether domestic law is satisfied (and it would be very bad if it did).  Maybe, but only maybe, constitutional lawyers can reciprocate by ignoring international law.  For example, Jack Goldsmith (via Lawfare) largely does, though in his case it could be because he confines himself to looking at the issue of constitutionality through the lens of the Office of Legal Counsel’s 2011 Libya opinion, which did not even use the term “international law” at all.  (It did define promoting the credibility and effectiveness of Security Council resolutions as part of the “national interest” inquiry, but that related only indirectly and partially to international law.)  However, as indicated below, and unlike the international law perspective, this runs the risk of offering an incomplete analysis even as to the domestic law perspective.

For those opining about both international law and U.S. domestic law, the ground is treacherous. The safer course, usually, is simply to assume for purposes of discussion that the legal constraints are independent and potentially sufficient.  Thus, for example, John Bellinger (via Lawfare) states that legality under U.S. law is dependent on the scope of Article II, and that as a matter of international law, the United States was lacking “clear authority.”  In contrast, however, Marty Lederman (via Just Security) concludes that the United States is “probably” violating international law, and “therefore” violating U.S. law.  Both have expertise and views that go far beyond these posts.  But one thing that stands out is how they hedge on legality, relative at least to non-U.S. views.  I don’t think that’s due to nationality.  It also reflects complicating assumptions about the right analytical approach entailed by grappling with the two questions, as might too a more recent post by Harold Koh (via Just Security).