Archive of posts for category

Guest Post: How Many International Law Books are Published in a Year?

by John Louth

[John Louth is Editor-in-Chief of Academic Law at Oxford University Press.]

I make it 401, but more of that below.

A few years ago when we carried out some research into law scholars’ habits we found many were telling us that there was so much being published that they didn’t even try to keep up anymore. I decided to try and see how difficult it would be to get a snapshot of just the books that published in one 12 month period – April 2014 to March 2015. The dates reflect two important cycles in my life: it matches OUP’s financial year and it marks the time between annual meetings of the American Society of International Law, the largest annual gathering of international lawyers (in the English speaking world at least).

The starting point for collecting titles was Jacob Katz Cogan’s invaluable International Law Reporter blog but due to the slightly different criteria for inclusion that I was applying I also went through publishers’ websites systematically. The result was 401 books published in English, French, and German.  No judgements about the quality of the scholarship were made – if it published in print, it was included. The full list in spreadsheet form and an explanation of the criteria for inclusion are available here. There is naturally a lot of room for debate about what I deemed to be “international” and what I deemed to be “law”. For each title I recorded the author/editor, language of publication, the publisher, and the subject area.

Statistical Overview

The top four publishers by number of titles were

  1. 1. CUP (72)

  2. 2. OUP (69)

  3. 3. Brill-Nijhoff (56)

  4. 4. Routledge (44).

Further behind we then have

  1. 5. Nomos (25)

  2. 6. Springer (24, or 27 if you include the 3 Asser Press titles they distribute)

  3. 7. Edward Elgar (20)

  4. 8. Pedone (19)

  5. 9. Hart (18)

  6. 10. Bruylant (11) and then a number of presses with between one and four titles in the list.

The linguistic split is 340 English, 36 French, 19 German, 5 French and English, and 1 German and English. The ratio of authored to edited books was 246 to 155.

Every title was assigned either one or two broad subject areas that it covered. The total figure for numbers of titles by subject therefore is greater than 401. Economic law broadly speaking (encompassing those titles on international economic law generally, plus those specifically on trade or investment law) accounts for the largest number (67), then human rights (53) and then war/peace/use of force issues (51).

The two institutions that had the most attention were the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court which were the subject of 7 books each. Breaking the coverage down geographically there were more books about China (8) than anywhere else, followed by the Polar regions (6).

“Hot” Topics?

There were

  • 13 titles addressing issues of transitional or post-conflict justice
  • 7 each on terrorism and cyber issues
  • 6 each on corruption and economic/social/cultural rights, and
  • 5 on climate change.

Book publishing obviously lags behind current events which might explain why there are still quite a few books on piracy (4) in the list but not yet anything specifically on Syria or ISIS. In terms of genres the big one is clearly the “Handbook” with 13 in the list spread between Routledge, Elgar, and OUP, but the second is the evergreen Festschrift with 12 having published in this period. Special mention should be made of a liber amicorum for Serge Sur published by Pedone which is not on the list as it appears to have only been available as a subscription item and doesn’t seem to be available any more. That is a great shame as it concludes with a chapter about the glories of hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise, for many years an inexplicable lacuna in international legal scholarship.

Why Do Such a Survey?

I did this to step back from my role as an OUP editor and see what is going on outside of my list but also to assess what kind of a burden is being placed on those who are trying to stay abreast of scholarship in their field. For scholars and librarians I hope that it is simply useful to see a reasonably comprehensive list and make sure you haven’t missed anything. Beyond that though it is probably helfpul to reflect on the quantity of output, the languages, and the subject areas/topics that are being published on. What areas are over-saturated and which are in need of greater coverage? Is it a concern that such a high proportion of the single-authored books are based on doctorates or is that a healthy sign of new thinkers entering the field?

If there is interest we could try to make this an annual survey, hopefully including publications from more than the three languages covered (helpers would be needed though as my language skills are limited to English, French, and German).

To get a fuller picture we need to look at journals and the many hybrid forms of scholarly output (such as working papers or reports produced for international organizations) but that will take some more time due to the vastly greater quantity of material to be sifted through.  For now I hope that this inaugural survey is food for thought.

Book Symposium: Is there Existential Interpretation in International Law?

by Duncan Hollis

I want to start off our conversation about the larger project Bianchi, Peat and Windsor have undertaken with their new book before introducing my own contribution to it.  For years, the concept of interpretation has had a fairly narrow focus within the international legal landscape.  It has almost uniformly been associated with a discrete set of objects — treaties. From Grotius to Oppenheim, let alone McNair to Gardiner, when international lawyers have thought about interpretation, there has been a strong push to do so almost entirely with respect to treaty instruments.  Moreover, for several decades now the vehicle for interpretation has been widely accepted in the rules of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.  Although there was a time when the issue of how to interpret treaties garnered a really diverse range of views, modern discourse has largely devolved into claiming that the VCLT approach gives priority to (or at least endorses inclusion of) different methods of interpretation (e.g., intentional, textual, teleological). Now, to be clear, these are tremendously important issues given the role of treaties in international law today; scholarship on these topics has been, and remains, an important part of international legal discourse.  Nevertheless, what I like about the Bianchi, Peat and Windsor book (putting aside my own contribution) is the editors’ willingness to deal with the traditional games of treaty interpretation while also expanding the discourse to frame interpretation as a much larger project within the international legal order.  It is an important move, and one I hope to see continued in future scholarship as international lawyers begin to recognize all the ways interpretation operates within every nook and cranny of the field.

As for my own chapter (which is still up on SSRN, although you should really buy the book), its inspiration lay in one other aspect of the conventional approach to interpretation — defining interpretation simply as a process of giving meaning to treaty texts.  I’ve always thought that this approach under-claimed the functions interpretation can serve.  Certainly, interpretation has an expository function where its processes help interpreters ascertain what meaning to assign some treaty provision or other aspect of international law.  But, interpretation can have other functions as well.  For example, although still controversial in some circles, there is the idea that interpretation has an inventive or creative function where instead of simply “finding” meaning, interpreters craft one for the circumstances presented.  Alternatively, interpretation may serve a relational role in delimiting not what specific things mean, but how they relate to one another (i.e. whether one treaty provision supersedes another, whether some international humanitarian law rule takes priority over a human right guarantee, etc.).

My contribution to this functional analysis is to highlight the existential potential of interpretation.  My chapter explores how, in ascertaining meaning, interpretation operates to confirm—or even establish—the existence of the subject interpreted within (or outside) the corpus of international law.  I argue that all interpretations have existential effects as they create, confirm, or deny the existence of the subject of interpretation. At the same time, I identify a particular structure of interpretative argument – what I call “existential interpretation” – by which interpreters ascertain the existence of their subjects.  Interpreters can foreground or background existential interpretations depending on whether the existence of the subject-matter is accepted or disputed. Moreover, I find existential interpretations are not limited to the treaty-context.  Rather, they are visible at all levels of international legal discourse, including which particular (i) authorities, (ii) evidence, (iii) rules, or (iv) sources exist for purposes of international law.

Some of these existential interpretations are quite prominent and should actually be familiar to most international lawyers even if not previously couched in such terms.  Does the U.N. Human Rights Committee have authority to sever reservations as inconsistent with the object and purpose of the ICCPR?  For purposes of identifying customary international law, is evidence of “State practice” only comprised of what States “do” or can it also count what States “say”?   Is there an “unwilling or unable” test in the jus ad bellum in response to non-State actor attacks?  Is R2P now a part of international law?  Is the new Iran Deal a treaty or not? Are decisions of international organizations a separate source of international law?   These are all examples of existential interpretative inquiries.

My chapter seeks to illuminate the existential function of interpretation and illustrate such interpretations in all the various aspects of the international legal system.  But my paper is not simply an exercise in interpretative taxonomy — identifying different frames for interpretative questions.  Rather, I seek to illuminate the consequences that the presence or absence of an existential interpretation may have in terms of international legal (a) discourse, (b) doctrine, and (c) theories of international law.  For starters, existential interpretations delineate the boundaries for interpretative discourse, narrowing it in cases of consensus on the existence of the interpreted subject, and broadening it in cases of dispute. Where interpretative resolutions of existential questions are possible, they may impact the content of international law doctrine, either directly or indirectly. And, where resolution is not possible, existential interpretations may operate as proxies for theoretical disagreement about the nature or purpose of international law (e.g., positivists may insist interpreters exclude from their toolbox the same soft law sources that naturalists insist require effectiveness as a matter of right).

I conclude my paper by calling for further study of existential interpretation for practical and theoretical reasons.  As a practical matter, it would be useful to know more about when and how actors actually foreground existential interpretations.  Obviously, there may be cases where an interpreter does so in good faith, but I suspect existential interpretations might also be deployed instrumentally.  Consider the possibilities when a State (or other actor) objects to an interpreter X claiming that Rule Y means Z.  Of course, the State might simply disagree that Z is the correct meaning of Rule Y. But a State could expand the scope of the interpretative dispute by also questioning whether X has authority to interpret, the evidence on which Rule Y rests as well as the source of international law it is derived from. The objecting State may thus complicate the dispute by expanding its scope.  In doing so, moreover, the objecting State may change the nature of the dispute itself, shifting a discussion away from the initial question (e.g., protecting victims of a humanitarian crisis) to issues of authority or procedure (does international law contain a rule requiring such protection and who has authority to invoke its mantel).

As a theoretical matter, existential interpretations can serve as a new lens for mapping the unity and fragmentation of the international legal order itself. Instead of examining fragmentation along a single axis (eg norms), mapping existential arguments offers a way to gauge the extent of unity versus fragmentation along multiple axes.  Since existential interpretations are manifest throughout international legal discourse, questions of unity or fragmentation can be examined in terms of authority, the sources of international law, the rules of international law and the evidence on which they are based, the actors who may participate, or the remedies international law affords.  In each area, the number and depth of existential debates offer a rough gauge for mapping unity versus fragmentation.  Where existential inquiries are absent or where a consensus exists on the answers, unity may be presumed.  Conversely, where there are existential disputes, they indicate a fragmentation of the legal system.

In sum, as much as I love treaties, I believe that there is significant value in thinking about interpretation as more than a process of giving treaty provisions meaning.  My introduction of the concept of existential interpretation is an effort to show just how broadly interpretative processes reach and structure the international legal order.  In doing so, I hope to illustrate — as the book itself does — the importance of thinking about interpretation as its own field within international law.

[An introductory post to the book symposium can be found here.]

The Iran Deal as a Political Commitment

by Duncan Hollis

I have to teach in 5 minutes so I just wanted to post a quick link and one comment on the Iran deal reached earlier today.  Those who want to read the joint statement itself — you can read it here.  My first reaction, based on my primer of a few weeks ago, is that it sure looks like the deal is taking the (widely anticipated) political commitment form, supplemented with the idea that a subsequent UN Security Council resolution will provide international legal force to it and the further details to be elaborated in the coming weeks.

My one comment is that this deal reflects an interesting development in US treaty/political commitment practice.  It signals (I think) the death knell of the old “will” vs. “shall” debate in determining whether a commitment was intended to have legal force or not.  For years, countries like the UK insisted that the verb “will” (which they frequently deploy in MOUs) per se reflected a lack of legal intention as opposed to the verb “shall”, which they believed was indicative of a treaty commitment.  In contrast, the United States took the position that “will” in many instances seemed indistinguishable from “shall” and thus the mere shift in wording could not, by itself, provide sufficient evidence of whether a treaty or political commitment was intended.  As a result, the United States regularly sought to avoid using both “will” and “shall” in its political commitments. Many hours and negotiating nights were, if you can believe it, spent wrestling over this issue.

Well, looking at the deal reached today, I count quite a few uses of the verb “will”.  Thus, it seems to me (unless I’m missing something, which is entirely possible), the United States may have finally conceded to the simplicity of the Queen’s English and allowed that using will, as in this deal, can be a way to signal to readers the parties intend a political commitment and not a treaty.

For those who want more, Dan Joyner has a more substantive take over at his blog.

Research Bleg!

by Kevin Jon Heller

Does anyone out there in OJ-land know of a good book about the re-establishment of diplomatic relations? Ideally it would focus on the US (such as with Vietnam in 1995), but one discussing any country will do. I’m particularly interested in a book that describes the nuts and bolts of re-engagement: how the decision was made, how they selected the location of the new embassy, what the Ambassador and his staff did when they first arrived in-country, etc.

Any suggestions would be most appreciated…

M. Cherif Bassiouni Weighs In on the Amanda Knox Extradition, and Gets It Wrong

by Julian Ku

I have been feeling a little guilty for blogging about the Amanda Knox case since it is more of a People Magazine topic than an Opinio Juris one.  But just today, I realized that even someone as respected in the international law field as M. Cherif Bassiouni has opined on her extraditability in this OUP blog post from last April.  So maybe it’s OK after all, especially since Bassiouni’s view that she is not extraditable is (in my view) flatly wrong.

Bassiouni, a giant in the field of international criminal law and the author of the leading treatise on the international law of extradition, argues that Amanda Knox is not extraditable to Italy because of the admittedly unusual Italian criminal procedure that seems to subject defendants to convictions, acquittals, and then conviction again in violation of the rule of ne bis in idem (double jeopardy).

As I have explained, no US court has held that the double jeopardy protection of the Fifth Amendment would prevent an extradition because no U.S. court has applied that Fifth Amendment protection to actions by a foreign government.  In other words, no U.S. has held that a U.S. citizen can invoke the Fifth Amendment against the prosecution of a foreign government.  It is possible a court might do so, but there has been no signs of that so far.

But what really bothers me is that Bassiouni makes the same mistake that many other (far lesser in stature) legal commentators have made when he suggests that Article VI of the US-Italy Extradition treaty imposes a double-jeopardy requirement on the Italian government.

The 1983 U.S.–Italy Extradition Treaty states in article VI that extradition is not available in cases where the requested person has been acquitted or convicted of the “same acts” (in the English text) and the “same facts” (in the Italian text).

With all due respect to Professor Bassiouni, this is not quite right. I point him and others to my first post on this subject and I re-do the discussion below.   Here is Article VI:

Non Bis in Idem

Extradition shall not be granted when the person sought has been convicted, acquitted or pardoned, or has served the sentence imposed, by the Requested Party for the same acts for which extradition is requested.

(Emphasis added.)

I don’t think it is possible to read this language as imposing a non bis in idem requirement on Italy, since Italy is not the “Requested Party” in the Amanda Knox case.  The only way Amanda Knox could invoke Article VI is if she has been “convicted, acquitted or pardoned,or has served the sentence imposed” by the United States, which is the “Requested Party.”  But Knox has not been charged or punished for this crime in the United States, so she can’t invoke Article VI.

As Bassiouni points out, the complexity of Italy’s criminal procedure could possibly violate the prohibition on non bis in idem contained in the European Convention on Human Rights.  I don’t know enough about Italy’s criminal procedure or the ECHR’s jurisprudence in this area to know if he is right, but I do know that this issue is not something that would be considered in the “extraditability” analysis by a U.S. court.  Knox could (and probably has) raised this argument in Italian courts, or directly before the ECHR. But it should not affect her extraditability.

Because of Bassiouni’s stature, his blogpost will be (and already has been) repeated by media reports for the proposition that Knox has a credible double-jeopardy defense to extradition.  But although they are right to cite Bassiouni as a leading authority on international extradition, he’s wrong on this one.

Is Ted Cruz a “Natural Born Citizen”?

by Peter Spiro

cruz imageShort answer: yes. Ted Cruz is constitutionally eligible to run for President. As he moves to announce his candidacy tomorrow, the question is sure to flare up again. As most will know, Cruz was born in Canada. He had U.S. citizenship at birth through his mother and the forerunner to section 301(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. He also had Canadian citizenship until he formally renounced it only last year.

The constitutional terrain is covered in this 2013 post and an essay of mine in the online Michigan Law Review on the question as presented in the context of John McCain’s Canal Zone birth. This is a terrific case study for demonstrating constitutional evolutions outside the courts. No court will ever touch the question at the same time that particular cases show us where the law is.

One recent addition to the mix: Neil Katyal and Paul Clement have this piece on the Harvard Law Review Forum arguing that Ted Cruz qualifies as “natural born”. If Katyal and Clement say he is natural born, then he is natural born, merits aside. Bipartisan pronouncements from legal policy elites become a source of the law. The Katyal-Clement offering echoes a similar effort by Larry Tribe and Ted Olson with respect to McCain’s eligibility, which was also the subject of a consensus U.S. Senate resolution.

Who can’t love that the question is being raised? Birthers who have challenged Barack Obama’s constitutional eligibility (on the basis of a fictitious birth in Kenya or a lame claim that he is a dual citizen) will have to eat their words now that they have a candidate whose foreign birth/dual citizenship is documented fact. But those ironies shouldn’t distort the answer. There are lots of reasons to oppose a Ted Cruz candidacy, but his citizenship status isn’t one of them.

Events and Announcements: March 15, 2015

by An Hertogen

Calls for Papers

  • TDM is calling for papers for a special issue on Latin-America. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Latin America has sought the proper response to international disputes. That effort has been complicated by the opportunities and realities of globalization and its relation to its effects on local economies and government policy. While new export markets have driven growth in certain sectors, the desire to utilize local resources for internal development has presented significant challenges, both economic and political. We invite submissions for a TDM Special Issue on Latin America that seeks to dive in to these issues and the tension resulting from them, both from a theoretical and practical perspective. The topics to be discussed include the following: * Disputes Involving States and State Parties; * Control of Local Laws and Courts over International Transactions; * Changes in Dispute Resolution Methods; * Implications of Investment by “Multi-Latinas” and Access to Changing Markets; * Regional and National Disputes. Proposals for papers (e.g. abstracts) should be submitted to the editors Dr. Ignacio Torterola (Brown Rudnick LLP) and Quinn Smith  (Gomm & Smith). Intended publication date: final quarter of 2015.
  • Jessie Hohmann (Queen Mary) and Daniel Joyce (UNSW) invite contributions to an edited volume on International Law’s Objects: Emergence, Encounter and Erasure through Object and Image. The project interrogates international law’s material culture and everyday life.   Motivating this project are three questions: First, what might studying international law through objects reveal? What might objects, rather than texts, tell us about sources, recognition of states, construction of territory, law of the sea, or international human rights law? Second, what might this scholarly undertaking reveal about the objects – as aims or projects – of international law? How do objects reveal, or perhaps mask, these aims, and what does this tell us about the reasons some (physical or material) objects are foregrounded, and others hidden or ignored? Third, which objects will be selected? We anticipate a no doubt eclectic but illuminating collection, which points to objects made central, but also objects disclaimed, by international law. Moreover, the project will result in a fascinating artefact (itself an object) of the preoccupations of the profession at this moment in time. Further information, including the timeline for submissions, can be found in the call for papers which closes on April 18, 2015.


  • Registration is now open for the 4th annual conference of the Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law (CJICL) to be held at the University of Cambridge on 8 and 9 May 2015. The conference theme is Developing Democracy: Conversations on Democratic Governance in International, European and Comparative Law. You can find the conference programme and the registration form on the conference website.

Our previous events and announcements post can be found here. If you would like to post an announcement on Opinio Juris, please contact us with a one-paragraph description of your announcement along with hyperlinks to more information. 

Dealing with Iran: A Primer on the President’s Options for a Nuclear Agreement

by Duncan Hollis

Without weighing in on the merits of any deal with Iran on nuclear matters, I’ll express some frustration over the rhetoric used in the current firestorm between the White House, 47 Senators (plus Governors Perry and Jindal), Iran’s Foreign Minister, and the 4th Estate on what kind of deal the United States might conclude with Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany).  There seems to be a great deal of confusion and conflation of issues in terms of the legal logistics of concluding any deal.  Now, maybe some of that is willful — obfuscation in service of each side’s political goals.  But, on the chance that some of those weighing in are under-informed on the actual issues and options available, I thought I’d offer a (brief) primer on what the actual options are in this case and how those options may limit/shape U.S. behavior.

For starters, it’s critical to differentiate the question of how nation states can reach agreement from the question of how a domestic legal system authorizes a State to enter into agreements (let alone what effect it gives them).  As such, I think the conversation needs to split off the question of (1) what kind of international deal this will be; from asking (2) what authority does the United States have (or will it need) to conclude such a deal as a matter of U.S. law.  Let’s take each angle separately.

International Commitments

When it comes to nation States entering into an agreement (that is, a mutual commitment of shared expectations as to future behavior), there are actually three basic options States can choose: (a) a treaty; (b) a contract; or (c) a political commitment.

(a) a treaty:  The treaty is a (relatively) well understood vehicle that rests on international law for its authority and effects.  Article 2(a) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) defines a treaty as

an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation

There’s some nuance to this definition, which I’ve explained in the Defining Treaties chapter of my book.  But for our purposes, it suffices to note that the VCLT lays out who has authority to make a treaty (i.e., heads of state and government, foreign ministers and those with full powers) and how they can do so (i.e., by signature, ratification, accession, acceptance, approval or any other agreed means).  Once formed, a treaty is subject to the general (and fundamental) principle of pacta sunt servanda — treaties are “binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.” Domestic legal obligations are not recognized as a basis for breaching treaty commitments, with one exception.  Article 46 provides that

1. A State may not invoke the fact that its consent to be bound by a treaty has been expressed in violation of a provision of its internal law regarding competence to conclude treaties as invalidating its consent unless that violation was manifest and concerned a rule of its internal law of fundamental importance. 2. A violation is manifest if it would be objectively evident to any State conducting itself in the matter in accordance with normal practice and in good faith.

Article 46, however, has proven relatively limited in its availability to States as an exit option; the one time it got raised before the ICJ, the Court suggested that States are not obliged to keep track of other states’ legislative and constitutional regulations on treaty-making and that a violation could not be manifest “unless at least properly publicized.”   Given the varied ways the U.S. authorizes treaties (discussed in more detail below), it’s hard to imagine a later Administration being able to invoke Article 46.  Indeed, if U.S. foreign relations scholars can’t agree on the ground rules for when specific treaty-making procedures are required (or prohibited), I’m hard pressed to say other countries should be able to identify a manifest violation in a case where the Executive branch pursues one specific procedure over others.

(b) a contract:  Interstate commitments can also be contracts instead of treaties. Contracts, like treaties, are considered legally binding, but differ from them in that contracts rely on domestic law as the source of their “bindingness” instead of being governed by international law as treaties are. Still, governments from time to time will do deals (e.g., one State selling helicopters to another) where the agreement specifically indicates its terms are governed by, say, the “law of New York.” This doesn’t seem to be on the table with Iran though, so I’ll reserve to a latter date more detailed analysis of how contracts and treaties differ. 

(c) a political commitment:  The third — and final — option for agreements among States is a “political commitment.”  Some scholars prefer to call it “soft law,” but for reasons Josh Newcomer and I elaborated in our article on political commitments, I think that term is a bit of a misnomer. The basic idea is simple — states can make agreements where the basis of their commitment does not rest on law, but “political” (or perhaps “moral”) forces.  In a political commitment, the fact of the promise itself motivates compliance rather than importing the sanctity of law and its legitimacy to do so. Non-legally binding commitments have now been a feature of international relations for more than a century, and include some pretty high-profile agreements, including the Shanghai Communique, the Helsinki Accords, the recent US-China Deal on Climate Change, and the Comprehensive Joint Plan that started this whole set of negotiations with Iran.  Moreover, as Josh and my article details, these commitments exhibit a tremendous diversity in terms of the form they take, the substantive commitments they contain, the extent to which they establish or implicate institutions, not to mention their varied relationships to other legal and non-legal commitments.

Traditionally, political commitments are seen as distinct from treaties in terms of being (i) more flexible; (ii) less credible because exit options are easier; with (iii) greater opportunities for confidentiality; and (iv) fewer domestic legal hurdles to their formation.  The actual variation in political commitments suggests, however, that these differences may be over-stated — today’s practice suggests that there is some significant overlap in what political commitments and treaties do.  For example, it may have been true at one time that treaties were necessarily less flexible than political commitments, but with the advent of tacit amendment procedures, treaties have gained in flexibility, while some political commitments have become more highly structured and inflexible in terms of the precision or normativity of their contents or the institutional structure in which they operate.  The one area where political commitments appear to hold a distinct advantage (or disadvantage depending on your perspective) is with the relatively weak domestic law attention they receive.  As Josh and I concluded in our article — a point reiterated earlier today by Jack Goldsmith and Marty Lederman, states like the United States have imposed few (if any) legal restrictions on the Executive’s ability to enter into political commitments.

Domestic Authorities to Commit the United States Internationally

In Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution, the President has the “power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”  If one were to take up the issue de novo, you might think this text requires that all treaties the United States wishes to conclude under international law have to proceed to the Senate.  In practice, however, Senate Advice and Consent has become one of only four ways the United States may gain authority to enter into a treaty (in the international law sense of that term).  Add in the possibility that the Iran deal might be a political commitment, and there are actually five options for how U.S. law might authorize a deal with Iran: (i) Senate Advice and Consent; (ii) a Congressional-Executive agreement; (iii) via an existing Senate Advice and Consent treaty; (iv) a sole Executive Agreement; or (v) a political commitment.

(i) Senate Advice and Consent Treaty.  If the United States concludes a treaty (in the international law sense of the term) with Iran and the P5+1, President Obama could send that treaty to the Senate for advice and consent, and, assuming the Senate agreed (with or without reservations, understandings or declarations), the President would then clearly have constitutional authority to consent to the deal.  Senate advice and consent is much less used compared to the past (less than 10% of modern treaties go through the Senate), although it should be noted that almost all past arms control agreements have received Senate advice and consent.  Still, given the general stalemate that has pervaded the Senate’s role in treaty-making the last few years, this seems a complete non-starter as a path forward, particularly with 47 Senators on record against virtually any deal involving Iran.

(ii) Congressional-Executive Agreement:  The President could gain authority to conclude a treaty (again, in the international law sense of that term) with Iran and the P5+1 via Congress instead of the Senate alone.  A simply majority vote of both Houses could enact a bill that with the President’s signature would become federal law and thus create legal authority for the United States to conclude (and perform) an Iranian treaty.  As a practical matter, congressional consent can be ex ante or ex post, but again, domestic politics in this case countenances against this being a likely option (even though today the vast, vast majority of U.S. treaty commitments under international law rely on one or more statutory authorities for their formation).

(iii) via an Existing Senate Advice and Consent Treaty:  Article VI of the Constitution treats both statutes and treaties (i.e., those receiving Senate advice and consent) as the “supreme law of the land.” Thus, just as a statute could authorize President Obama to conclude an international agreement with Iran, so too could a pre-existing Senate advice and consent treaty.  So far, I’m not aware of any nominations for an existing U.S. treaty that could do this (but someone might want to carefully parse the 1955 Treaty of Amity and Peace with Iran if it’s still in force (it’s not listed in Treaties in Force)).   Or, this might be a way forward if, as Marty and Jack hint, the Executive branch concluded the deal with Iran as a political commitment, but then had it endorsed by the U.N. Security Council pursuant to its Chapter VII authorities.  In that case, legal authority to conclude the deal might reside in the U.N. Charter itself since the Senate long ago gave consent, subject to a U.S. veto, to Security Council measures to preserve international peace and security.  As such, I don’t think we can dismiss this option as much as it might seem inapplicable at first glance.

(iv) Sole Executive Agreement:  The President may rely on his own Constitutional powers (e.g., as commander in chief) to authorize a U.S. treaty commitment.  In practice, this is rarely done as the State Department will usually try to also locate authority in at least one federal statute (even something as bland as Congress’ authorization of State Department responsibility for foreign affairs).  That said, the Supreme Court has endorsed the President’s ability to conclude certain treaties as sole executive agreements, although often in the face of congressional acquiescence, not outright opposition.  So, one might imagine this option would generate some inter-branch litigation if the Republican-controlled Congress rejects reading the president’s powers to include whatever sort of commitments are contained in any agreement the United States concludes with Iran.  Still, if the deal is to be a treaty under international law, this seems the most likely basis for authorizing it under U.S. law.  As Fred Kaplan noted yesterday, and Secretary Kerry apparently suggested a few hours ago, all the attention on treaties may have been misplaced and an entirely different deal might be at work here, namely a political one.

(v) Political Commitment;  It’s possible that the White House is looking for a political commitment with Iran and the P5+1.  If so, then all the machinations about forming a treaty under international law, and, just as importantly, the relatively robust set of domestic approval options for treaty-making, are inapplicable.  Although Josh and I argued that functional similarities between treaties and political commitments should require a Congressional role in the formation of at least some political commitments, I concede that Marty and Jack are correct that at present it’s hard to say this is the law of the United States.  On the contrary, today, it still appears that political commitments by their very nature do not implicate any of the domestic legal, procedural hurdles associated with treaties and thus may be a path forward for the United States to do a deal with Iran without worrying about the views of either the Senate or Congress as a whole.

That said, if the United States is actually going to argue it is concluding a political commitment with Iran and not a treaty, I want to conclude with two important caveats on the international and domestic aspects of such a deal that I’ve not seen mentioned previously.

First, a political commitment must be a political commitment for all sides, not just one side.  There’s much ambiguity in the U.S. and Iranian statements surrounding some of the negotiations, and it’s possible to read some of yesterday’s press briefing to suggest a deal where the United States would have only a political commitment while Iran was legally bound to perform its promises (see, for example, the carefully worded “verifiable and enforceable commitments” language used). That, however, is not an available option in international law.  Either the agreement is a treaty for all parties or its a political commitment for all participants.  I am unaware of any case where the nature of the agreement varies for the parties to it (that is it was a treaty for one state and a political commitment for everyone else).  Certainly, there have been disputes in the past as to the status of a particular agreement, with the ICJ and international arbiters called upon to weigh in on whether the deal struck gave rise to international legal obligations or not.  And it’s also possible for a treaty to contain not just legally binding commitments but also political ones (see, e.g., Article 1 of the Algiers Accords).  But, a stand-alone political commitment is, by definition, mutually exclusive from the international legal commitment that defines a treaty.  As such, once an agreement contains at least one commitment intended to be governed by international law, it’s a treaty not a political commitment.  Indeed, unlike contracts, treaties do not require consideration.  Thus, a treaty can exist where only one side (e.g., Iran) makes all the promises to do (or not do) certain things. Taken together, this suggests that, unless the United States is making some new, novel move to unsettle the existing forms of international commitment, its suggestion that it is pursuing a political commitment with Iran should mean that none of the commitments will give rise to any international legal obligations in and of themselves (there may be separate estoppel arguments, but let’s save those for another post).

Second, turning to the U.S. domestic context, it may be true that the Constitution does not require any particular approval procedure for political commitments, but it is also true that the Senate retains significant political power to pressure the President to pursue a treaty over a political commitment or even to insist on having a treaty submitted for Senate advice and consent in lieu of simply relying on Executive Power.  For example, before it became the Senate-approved Moscow Treaty, President Bush had apparently considered the possibility of doing the deal with Russia as either a political commitment or a Sole Executive Agreement.  But the Senate objected; and in a bipartisan push succeeded in having the deal submitted for its advice and consent.  Thus, one could imagine that if the Senate (or I suppose Congress as a whole) wanted to deploy their political checks on Executive power (think appropriations or ambassadorial/cabinet approvals), the White House might have to recalculate whether and how it wants to proceed with Iran here.  Nor is this entirely a U.S. problem; reports suggest that when the United States was looking to craft a strategic framework with Iraq a few years back, the Iraqis ended up concluding that the deal had to be done as a treaty (in the international law sense) since their Parliament was insisting on approving it in lieu of going to more streamlined political commitment route.  Simply put, just because there may be no extant constitutional constraints on the President’s ability to conclude a political commitment with Iran does not mean that there won’t be domestic negotiations over whether and how the United States concludes any deal involving Iran and nuclear matters.

So . . . now that I have that all off my chest, I’ll get out of the way and let the various actors continue to negotiate and debate the merits of the appropriate way(s) forward here.  I just hope that folks will do so with more attention to what the existing international and domestic law has to say (or not say) on these questions.


GOP Iran Letter Might Be Unconstitutional. Is It Also Criminal?

by Peter Spiro

I’ll one-up Julian’s post below on Tom Cotton’s letter to the leaders of Iran admonishing them that any agreement entered into today could be reversed by Obama’s successor. It appears unprecedented for a group of opposition members of Congress to engage in such a communication.

It may also be criminal. The 1799 Logan Act provides that:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

Most putative Logan Act violations violate the spirit and structural foundations of the Logan Act (John Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu supplying a recent example). This one seems to squarely satisfy its elements. We have:

  • a correspondence with a foreign government (whether direct or indirect, in the form of an “open letter”, matters not),
  • without the authority of the United States (it enjoys no imprimatur from the executive branch nor, for that matter, from Congress as an institution),
  • with the pretty clear intent “to influence the measures or conduct of” the government of Iran in relation to a controversy with the United States.

Some might debate the last prong, but what other motivation could the letter have than to persuade Iranian leaders to back off a deal for fear that it will hardly be worth the paper it’s written on?

Now I know as well as the next guy that there’s been no Logan Act prosecution in the modern era. I also understand that in the wake of globalization national legislators routinely interact with foreign government officials. Iran is probably sophisticated enough about US constitutional law to the point that the letter’s substance isn’t news to them. But an initiative like the Cotton letter seems to cross a line, and perhaps it should be slapped back. How will contested foreign policy initiatives ever get off the ground if whoever’s out of the White House can meddle so brazenly? We have clearly left the era in which politics stopped at the water’s edge.

UPDATE: Steve Vladeck has this post up at Lawfare arguing against the Logan Act’s viability in this context. I take the point on desuetude. A law that lies around unused for a protracted period at some point becomes not-law (think jaywalking). Steve also argues that as a legislator, Cotton may have been acting with the “authority of the United States.” I can’t agree on that point. If anything, Cotton’s status as a senator makes the offense a greater one, because it’s more likely to be taken seriously and do real damage to national foreign relations.

As for the First Amendment, there are certainly First Amendment implications here. The Cotton letter involves speech that would be fully protected in the ordinary domestic context. But the Constitution in general and the First Amendment in particular are seen through different lens when it comes to foreign relations.  Does that mean that the Logan Act would withstand a First Amendment defense? Not necessarily. But the answer is not so clear cut as it would otherwise seem.

None of this is to say that there will or even should be a Logan Act claims against Cotton and his collaborators, and the factors that Steve highlights plainly contribute to non-prosecution as a prudential matter. But the above-the-fold attention given to the Cotton letter shows that there is something out of the ordinary going on here. If he had said the same things on CNN no one would have paid any attention; it would have been business as usual. Not so as addressed to the Iranian leadership.

Iran Nuke Review Act Does Not Actually “Require” a Vote of Congress

by Julian Ku

According to the WSJ,  the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act”  that I discussed earlier this week may already have 64 declared supporters in the Senate.  This means that supporters are only 3 votes shy of enough to override President Obama’s veto of this bill.

Since the bill might actually become law, it is worth reminding supporters of the bill that it does NOT guarantee that Congress will vote on the Iran nuke deal.  This might be confusing, but as I argued earlier this week, the proposed law would only suspend the lifting of sanctions for 60 days.  During that 60-day period, Congress could vote on the bill, or it could choose not to do so.  Silence would allow the sanctions to be lifted after the 60 days.  So it is not quite right to say, as the WSJ does, that the proposed law would “require a vote of Congress.”  Still, it is quite likely that Congress would vote, and at least this bill would give them the opportunity to do so.

If the bill passes, and a veto fight breaks out, it will be worth considering whether President Obama invokes any constitutional arguments to justify his position.  I believe that President Obama’s threatened veto reflects a robust and unilateralist conception of the President’s power to make sole executive agreements without Congressional approval.  It will be interesting to see if he defends his veto on constitutional grounds.

President Obama Goes Unilateralist; Threatens to Veto Bill Requiring Congressional Review of Iran Agreement

by Julian Ku

As Washington continues to digest Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s (possibly unconstitutional) address to the U.S. Congress criticizing a pending nuclear arms deal with Iran, a constitutional and political fight is brewing over the scope of the President’s powers to make such an agreement and Congress’s power to limit or overturn his agreement. A group of Senators re-introduced a bill last Friday to require President Obama to submit any agreement with Iran to Congress.  President Obama has already threatened to veto this bill, even though, in my humble opinion, it is a pretty modest effort by Congress to oversee the President’s power to make international agreements since it does not actually force the President to seek their approval of the agreement.  It is thus striking that even this modest law has drawn a veto threat.

The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 would require the president to submit to Congress the “(1) the text of the agreement, (2) a verification assessment on Iranian compliance, and (3) a certification that the agreement meets U.S. non-proliferation objectives and does not jeopardize U.S. national security, including not allowing Iran to pursue nuclear-related military activities” (according the website of the bill’s sponsor, Senator Bob Corker).

Here’s the key provision: the bill would suspend for 60 days the President’s ability to waive or lift any sanctions on Iran.  Congress would have a chance to permanently suspend his power to waive or lift sanctions via a joint resolution of both houses of Congress.  But if Congress does not act at all, or simply approves the agreement, the President can go forward and lift whatever sanctions he otherwise has the authority to lift.

Crucially, congressional silence would (after 60 days) allow the president to go forward and implement the agreement. In political terms, it is therefore possible that a filibuster of a joint resolution in the Senate could result in the necessary silence needed to allow President Obama to implement any agreement after 60 days.

Gentle as this oversight is, it is still too much for the administration. Not only was there an immediate veto threat, but Secretary Kerry stated, ““I believe this falls squarely within the executive power of the president of the United States in the execution of American foreign policy,”    This might be correct, but it is only correct if you have a pretty robust conception of the President’s powers to make international agreements outside of the Constitution’s Treaty Clause.  While scholars have generally agreed that the President has such independent powers, the type of agreements he can make and the subjects of those agreements remain deeply uncertain and contested.

President Obama may be creating another important precedent here in favor of unilateral presidential power to make non-treaty agreements (to go along with his precedents in favor of unilateral presidential powers to use military force for humanitarian reasons).  Let’s just say he will not go down in history as a president that was deferential or respectful of congressional participation in foreign affairs.

Does Promoting Democracy in Hong Kong Violate the Principle of Non-Interference in Domestic Affairs?

by Julian Ku

A bipartisan group of US lawmakers proposed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last week.  The proposed law would “would enhance U.S. monitoring of Hong Kong’s autonomy and human rights and ensure that these issues remain a cornerstone of U.S. policy,” according to the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Chris Smith.

Reactions in Hong Kong and China are already pretty negative.

“We don’t want foreign governments or foreigners to intervene in affairs that can be handled by ourselves,” [Hong Kong Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung] said, adding that the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, Hongkongers themselves and the city’s lawmakers were the only stakeholders in the city’s political reform.”

If the bill gets closer to passage, one can imagine China will invoke the principle of “non-interference” in domestic affairs and sovereignty as an international law argument against the bill.  So this could set up an interesting contrast in views on how this principle is understood and interpreted.

In fact, the proposed bill is quite limited in scope.  All it requires is for the U.S. Secretary of State to annually certify “whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous to justify separate treatment different from that accorded the People’s Republic of China in any new laws, agreements, treaties, or arrangements entered into between the United States and Hong Kong after the date of the enactment of such Act.”

It does not even threaten to change existing laws and treaties (such as the visa waiver provision for HK residents or the extradition agreement with HK).  It just threatens to limit “any new laws, agreements..treaties” (emphasis added). Nor does the proposed law actually require “genuine” democratic suffrage or compliance with the UK-China Joint Agreement or any other hard metric that the recent protests in Hong Kong had argued for.  Certification can be made as long as HK remains “sufficiently autonomous” in the opinion of the US Secretary of State and as long as he “considers” the Joint Agreement’s requirements in his certifcation.

Moreover, even this pretty easy requirement can be waived by the Secretary of State is in US national interests.  For this reason, I would be surprised if this bill becomes controversial within Congress or opposed by the State Department.

Nonetheless, it is worth asking: Is it a violation of the principle of non-interference to condition new agreements and arrangements with Hong Kong on the progress of domestic arrangements in China?  I don’t think most US international lawyers would find this gentle prodding to be a credible violation of the non-interference principle (see this useful summary of the principle from Princeton here), but I am fairly sure many Chinese international lawyers would see things differently.  If the bill progresses, we may find out.