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US Diplomacy and National Security

The Fog of Technology and International Law

by Duncan Hollis

[Note: This piece is cross-posted to the SIDIblog, the blog of the Italian Society of International Law, which was kind enough to ask for my views on these topics; for those interested in their other posts (in multiple languages), see here.]

 

  • War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.

Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege (1832), Bk. 1, Ch. 3.

  • It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur.  But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes. 

U.S. President Barack Obama, April 23, 2015

I arrived in Rome for a month-long visit at LUISS Universita Guido Carli to find a country wrestling with the tragic news of the death of one of its own – Giovanni Lo Porto.  As President Obama himself announced, the United States inadvertently killed Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein, a USAID contractor, as part of a January drone strike targeting an al Qaeda compound in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.   Both aid workers were Al Qaeda hostages; Lo Porto had been kidnapped in 2012, while Weinstein was abducted in 2011.

The story made global headlines for Obama’s apology that the United States had not realized these hostages were hidden on-site, and thus their deaths were a tragic mistake:

As President and as Commander-in-Chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni.  I profoundly regret what happened.  On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.

President Obama directed a “full review” of the strike, and there are calls for other investigations as well, including here in Italy.

Amidst this tragedy – and some of the apparent missteps by the U.S. (not to mention Pakistani) governments (painfully noted by Mr. Weinstein’s family) — there is something remarkable in the Obama statement.  Unlike so many other reports of U.S. errors or controversial programs in recent years (think Wikileaks or this guy), here was the U.S. Government, on its own, declassifying and disclosing the facts surrounding a drone strike that by all accounts appears to have included a major mistake in its execution.  For lawyers, moreover, such disclosures are critical – without them we are left with what I’d call the “fog of technology” which precludes the application of the rule of law in an open and transparent way.

Clausewitz’s concept of the “fog of war” is simple, and well known:  it describes the situational uncertainty that military actors face, their lack of perfect information about an adversaries’ intentions and capabilities (not to mention incomplete knowledge of their allies’ intentions and capabilities).   What looks good on paper before an armed conflict may prove unworkable as the conditions of war – physical hardship, the need for immediate decision-making, emotional strains, etc. – complicate decision-making, and with it, the achievement of military objectives.

I use the term “fog of technology” to identify a similar situational uncertainty that lawyers face when confronting the deployment of new technology.  Simply put, new technology can cloud how lawyers understand the content of law.  Of course, lawyers can assess new technology and find it analogous to prior cases, allowing for what I call “law by analogy”, where the nature or function of a new technology is regulated according to how an analogous technology or function has been regulated in the past.  But the more novel the technology – the more it can function in non-analogous ways, or with effects previously unimagined – the more lawyers may (or at least should) struggle with interpreting and applying the law to it.

Now, the fog of technology can emerge in all sorts of legal systems and all sorts of contexts from 3D printing to nanotechnology to driverless cars.  But President Obama’s explicit reference to Clausewitz makes me think about it in the particular context of warfare itself.  We are very much in a fog of technology when it comes to applying law to modern conflicts, whether it’s the remotely-piloted drone that killed Lo Porto and Weinstein, Stuxnet, or rumors of truly autonomous weapon systems (or “killer robots”).  Which domestic and international legal frameworks regulate the deployment of these technologies?  Does international humanitarian law (IHL) govern these operations, and, if so, does it do so exclusively, or do other regimes like international human rights apply as well?  To the extent a specific regime applies – IHL – how do its rules on things like distinction or neutrality apply to technologies and operations that may have no prior analogues?  More specifically, how does the law treat specific cases – was the killing of Lo Porto and Weinstein, tragic but legal, or was it an internationally wrongful act?

Of course, technology is not the only reason we have such questions.  Indeed, several scholars (most notably Michael Glennon) have identified the idea of a “fog of law.”  The rise of new types of non-state actors such as Al Qaeda continue to generate legal uncertainty; more than a decade after September 11, debates persist over whether and when U.S. counter-terrorism operations fall within a criminal law framework, or, as the U.S. insists, within the laws of armed conflict.   Similarly, when the United States targets and kills a U.S. citizen abroad (such as Ahmed Farouq, the American affiliated with Al Qaeda, who died in the same strike that killed Lo Porto and Weinstein), the question is not so much how the technology did this, but whether the U.S. Constitution regulates such killing.

Still, I think there are features of technology itself that make lawyering in this context significantly more difficult.  My co-blogger Ken Anderson recently summarized a few of the most important aspects in a recent post at the Hoover Institution.  He identifies several commonalities among cyberweapons, drones, and killer robots:  (i) their ability to operate remotely; (ii) their capacity for extreme precision (at least when compared to earlier weapons); and (iii) the diminished ease of attribution.  Of these, I think the problem of attribution is foundational; law will have little to say if legal interpreters and decision-makers do not know how the technology has been deployed, let alone how it functions or even that it exists in the first place.   In such cases, the fog of technology is tangible.

Consider the story of drones and international law. (more…)

Wherein I Defend Jeb Bush (Really!)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Both the liberal media and the conservative media are pulling out the fainting couches over something Jeb Bush said to Megyn Kelly during an interview on Fox News. In response to a question about whether he would have invaded Iraq in 2003 if he knew what we know now about WMDs and the like, Jeb supposedly said yes — he would still invade. That’s how both Josh Marshall and Byron York (polar opposites, they!) read Jeb’s answer. (And Kevin Drum. And Ed Kilgore.)

But that’s not what Jeb said. Here is the exchange, taken from York’s post:

Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked Bush a straightforward, concise question: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” Bush’s answer was an unhesitating yes.

“I would have, and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” Bush said, “and so would have almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.”

“You don’t think it was a mistake?” asked Kelly.

“In retrospect, the intelligence that everybody saw, that the world saw, not just the United States, was faulty,” Bush answered.

Jeb now says that he misunderstood the question. And that does, in fact, seem to be the case. Note the verb tenses in his first answer: he “would have” invaded Iraq, as “would have” Hillary Clinton and anyone else who had seen the intelligence “they got.” He didn’t say he or Hillary or anyone else “would” invade Iraq given the intelligence “they have now.” The tenses thus clearly indicate that Jeb was answering a different question — namely, whether he would have invaded Iraq given what decision-makers knew at the time. That reading is then confirmed by his second answer, in which he acknowledges that “in retrospect” — ie, based on what we now know — the invasion was a mistake.

To be sure, Jeb deserves some criticism for his answer. A number of important people opposed the invasion of Iraq even in the face of the faulty intelligence George Bush and Hillary Clinton received. And, of course, if Jeb wants to be president, he should probably pay attention to the questions journalists ask him in televised interviews.

But Jeb didn’t say he would have invaded Iraq knowing what we know now. He just didn’t.

Does Investor-State Arbitration “Weaken[] the Rule of Law”? Judith Resnik and Larry Tribe Seem to Think So

by Julian Ku

I have not been surprised by the swelling opposition in the U.S. (mostly from the progressive left) against proposed trade agreements with Pacific and European nations (TPP and TTIP).  But I am mildly surprised by the way in which TPP and TTIP opponents have zeroed in on the inclusion of investor-state arbitration mechanisms as a rallying point for their opposition.  Not only has former Harvard lawprof (and now U.S. Senator) Elizabeth Warren come out against the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement (or ISDS), but yesterday, Yale law prof Judith Resnik and Harvard lawprof Lawrence Tribe, along with Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and a few others released a letter outlining their concerns with (really, their opposition to)  ISDS.  This letter is much more sophisticated and persuasive than an earlier lawprof letter Roger criticized here.  Indeed, its critique is far broader and echoes “sovereigntist” critiques that many on the political right have often applied to international tribunals.  Here is one snippet of their argument.

ISDS weakens the rule of law by removing the procedural protections of the legal system and using a system of adjudication with limited accountability and review. It is antithetical to the fair, public, and effective legal system that all Americans expect and deserve.

The letter valorizes U.S. courts and Article III judges, as well as the importance of democracy, and contrasts those institutions and values with the secretive ISDS process.  The main complaint, which is quite true, is that ISDS gives foreign investors a “separate legal system” to which others, including US citizens and corporations, cannot access. ISDS is not subject to any serious review by either courts or other arbitral tribunals.

None of the statements in the letter are inaccurate or incorrect. But they do leave out the basic assumption and rationale behind ISDS provisions. Foreign investors are presumed to be more likely to face disadvantages in a foreign legal system, which is why they are presumed to need “extra” protections from ISDS.  I think the rationale for ISDS is weaker for trade agreements between the US and Europe or the US and other developed industrialized countries.  But it is still probably true that there is a greater risk of discrimination against foreigners from a local legal system than against local companies.

I am not convinced of the necessity of ISDS in these trade agreements, but I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to include them either. I do recognize that these systems of dispute settlement do create non-trivial tensions with the domestic legal systems of member countries. In other contexts (law of the sea, ICJ/death penalty, etc), raising concerns about these tensions has been associated with the political right. So it is interesting to see progressives borrow sovereigntist arguments in their campaign against ISDS.

 

Why We Should Listen to President Obama Rather than Candidate Obama on Unilateral Presidential War Powers

by Julian Ku

I had the pleasure of participating on a panel a couple of weeks ago on Presidential War Powers, in light of the recent proposal to authorize the use of force against ISIS.  The panel was hosted by the New York City Bar Association and chaired by Prof.Jonathan Hafetz of Seton Hall. It included Prof. Ryan Goodman of NYU and Prof. (Lt. Col.) Walter Narramore of West Point.  C-Span aired it last night and the video can be found here.

To give you a sense of my talk (which starts at 36:00), here is a brief summary.

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama stated that he believed the President cannot constitutionally use military force absent congressional authorization except in response to an imminent attack or threat.  But since he has taken office, the President has abandoned this view, most notably in a legal memo from his Justice Department justifying military intervention into Libya.   In my view, this shift provides strong evidence that the strict congressionalist view of presidential war powers is untenable.   I concede that there may be other limits on unilateral presidential use of force (e.g. congressional prohibitions, long-term interventions amounting to a “war”, etc.) but we should no longer take seriously the strict congressionalist position articulated by Candidate Obama in 2008.  

 

Am I Missing Something or Does the New Trade Promotion Authority Bill Violate the U.S. Constitution?

by Julian Ku

I am slammed with a couple of projects right now, but I can’t help throwing this question out to the legal blogosphere.  Does the new “Bipartisan Trade Priorities and Accountability Act” recently introduced by leading U.S. Senators violate the U.S. Constitution’s bicameralism and presentment requirements as stated by the U.S. Supreme Court in INS v. Chadha?

The BTPAA seems crucial as the U.S. enters the final stages of its negotiations over the “Trans Pacific Partnership” (TPP) with Asia and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe because it allows the President to submit his negotiated trade agreements for a “fast-track” up and down vote that Congress cannot amend.

Because of congressional opposition, the new trade promotion bill has a provision that looks a lot like a “legislative veto” that allows a resolution passed by a majority vote by one House of Congress to withdraw the “fast-track” authority.   Here seems to be the key language.

(A) IN GENERAL.—The trade authorities procedures shall not apply to any implementing bill submitted with respect to a trade agreement or trade agreements entered into under section 3(b) if during the 60-day period beginning on the date that one House of Congress agrees to a procedural disapproval resolution for lack of notice or consultations with respect to such trade agreement or agreements, the other House separately agrees to a procedural disapproval resolution with respect to such trade agreement or agreements.

(B) PROCEDURAL DISAPPROVAL RESOLUTION.—(i) For purposes of this paragraph, the term ‘‘procedural disapproval resolution’’ means a resolution of either House of Congress, the sole matter after the resolving clause of which is as follows: ‘‘That the President has failed or refused to notify or consult in accordance with the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 on negotiations with respect to ____ and, therefore, the trade authorities procedures under that Act shall not apply to any implementing bill submitted with respect to such trade agreement or agreements.’’, with the blank space being filled with a description of the trade agreement or agreements with respect to which the President is considered to have failed or refused to notify or consult.

Am I missing something? Even if (as the provision seems to say), a resolution of both houses is needed to withdraw fast track authority, the joint resolution doesn’t satisfy the presentment (to the President) requirement in the Constitution that the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld in cases like INS v. Chadha and Clinton v. City of New York.  Unless the President has an opportunity to veto the “procedural disapproval resolution,” I doubt this law is constitutional.  I think the only saving grace is that the resolutions  withdrawing fast track can only be invoked if the President fails to notify or consult rather than on the merits.  But I am still very doubtful this difference matters. I haven’t carefully examined all of the legislation’s provisions, but this does strike me as an issue worth discussing.  Comments welcome!

NYU Petitioners Do Harold Koh — and Themselves — a Grave Disservice

by Kevin Jon Heller

Newsweek published a long article today about a petition organized by NYU students, alumni, and non-law faculty claiming that it would be “unacceptable” for Harold Koh to teach international human-rights law at the law school. Here is a snippet:

While working for the Obama administration, Koh was the most public legal defender of the president’s drone strike program. Last month, a petition was circulated at NYU Law—one of the top law schools in the country—that called Koh’s teaching of international human rights law for the 2014-1015 academic year “unacceptable.”

“Given Mr. Koh’s role in crafting and defending what objectively amounts to an illegal and inhumane program of extrajudicial assassinations and potential war crimes, we find his presence at NYU Law and, in particular, as a professor of International Human Rights Law, to be unacceptable,” the petition reads.

The petition has drawn around 200 signatures, but it has stirred a much bigger controversy on campus than the numbers might suggest.

I do not think scholars should get a free pass for their ideas simply because they were government officials when they embraced them. I continue to believe that it’s a terrible idea for serious scholars to go into government — this kerfuffle being Exhibit A. And I have very serious disagreements with Koh about the legality of the Obama administration’s drone program; indeed, I’ve discussed them with him.

That said, I find the petition appalling. Koh is one of the great international human-rights scholars of his generation — and he has personally taught or mentored most of the great international human-rights scholars of the current one. He is brilliant, compassionate, kind, and profoundly ethical. No one who knows him even a little (and although I know him, I can’t say I know him well) could possibly believe that he did not bring all of those qualities to his role as the State Department’s legal advisor. Does that mean he was always right? Of course not. As I said, I don’t share his view of the drone program. On the contrary, I think the program is abhorrent and quite often illegal. (And have said as much in my scholarship.)  But I would bet my last dollar that Koh never went against his beliefs while working at State — and that he did everything he could, within the confines of his position, to make the drone program comply with international law as he understood it.

Those of us on the left — and readers know just how far left I am — need to stop viewing US administrations as monoliths. Not all government officials are bad. Even terrible administrations have good people in them who work behind the scenes to minimise their terribleness. John Bellinger III falls into that category in the Bush administration; commenters on the blog have done him a disservice by lumping him together with people like John Yoo. And the NYU students, alumni, and faculty who have signed this petition have done Harold Koh an even worse disservice by accusing him — publicly — of being unfit to teach international human-rights law. On the contrary, NYU would be lucky to have him.

John Bellinger’s Op-Ed on ISIS and the ICC (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

The op-ed, which appears in today’s New York Times, argues that the ICC is the most appropriate venue for prosecuting ISIS’s many international crimes. I have great respect for John, who is unique among former high-ranking US government officials in his willingness to defend the ICC, but the op-ed makes a number of arguments that deserve comment.

It certainly makes more sense for the court’s prosecutor to investigate the Islamic State than to investigate the United States or Britain for treatment of detainees or Israel for its handling of last year’s Gaza conflict, as some activists have called for.

There is no question that ISIS is responsible for horrific international crimes that deserve to be prosecuted. But does it “certainly make more sense” for the ICC to prosecute those crimes than British torture in Iraq, US torture in Afghanistan, and Israel’s vast array of crimes against Palestinian civilians in Gaza? That’s not self-evident. Readers know my skepticism toward the ICC investigating the situation in Palestine, but the expressive value of prosecuting UK or US military commanders and political leaders for torture would be incalculable — it would get the ICC out of Africa; it would affirm that torture, a crime that rarely involves a large numbers of victims, is unacceptable and deserving of prosecution; and — of course — it would demonstrate that no state, no matter how powerful, is immune from international criminal justice.

At a minimum, the Security Council should ask the court to investigate the numerous offenses committed by the Islamic State that fall within the court’s mandate.

[snip]

A Security Council request would be necessary because Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State is operating, are not parties to the Rome Statute (the treaty that created the court) and are not otherwise subject to the court’s jurisdiction.

A Security Council referral is not actually necessary, because the ICC’s jurisdiction is not simply territorial. The Court can also prosecute any international crime committed by a national of a state that has ratified the Rome Statute. Many ISIS leaders are nationals of ICC member-states — including Jihadi John, who is a UK national. So the ICC could prosecute those leaders tomorrow if it had them in custody. Indeed, Fatou Bensouda has already mentioned the possibility of such nationality-based prosecutions.

Moreover, a Security Council referral may be more trouble than it’s worth. John himself notes a major problem: if the territorial parameters of any such referral exposed members of the Syrian government to ICC jurisdiction, Russia and/or China would almost certainly veto the referral. And what if the referral exposed Syrian rebels to ICC jurisdiction? I can’t imagine the US, France, and the UK would be too keen about that — not least because it would provide the ICC with a backdoor to prosecuting their nationals for aiding and abetting rebel crimes.

The United States has reason to be concerned about inappropriate and politicized investigations of the United States and Israel.

I don’t see why, given that the ICC has not opened a formal investigation in Afghanistan despite having examined the situation for eight years and has only had jurisdiction over Israel’s crimes for a few months. Moreover, John never explains why any ICC investigation of the US or Israel would necessarily be “inappropriate and politicized,” given that both states have quite obviously committed crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction. Why should the ICC only prosecute the US’s enemies — never its friends, and certainly never the US itself? Americans and Israelis might like that idea, but I imagine few others would accept it.

[B]ut the International Criminal Court still has an important role to play in investigating and prosecuting acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — all of which have reportedly been committed by the Islamic State.

I’m not so sure, at least in the context of ISIS — and this is my basic issue with John’s op-ed. Does the ICC really need yet another situation to investigate, given its already overtaxed resources? And do we really want the Security Council to refer the ISIS situation, given that there is almost no chance it will finance the resulting investigation? (See, for example, the failed Syria resolution.) Moreover, why should the ICC prosecute ISIS leaders when states like the US, the UK, and Japan (and Germany, and France, and…) are just as capable of prosecuting those leaders themselves — if not more so? They have investigative and prosecutorial resources the ICC can only dream of. So why should the ICC do their work for them?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we need to stop assuming that the ICC is always the best venue for prosecuting international crimes. It’s not. It’s a weak Court with more failures than successes on its ledger. Even under ideal circumstances — unlikely to exist — it would never be able to prosecute more than a handful of ISIS leaders. And if past cases are any indication, there is no guarantee those prosecutions would lead to convictions. So if states really want to bring ISIS to justice, the solution is there for all to see.

They should do the job themselves.

NOTE: I am not implying that John invented the idea that the ICC should investigate ISIS crimes. As he notes in his op-ed, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has previously suggested the same thing. But that in no way changes my position — and I think it’s unfortunate that High Commissioners see the ICC as the first resort instead of the last, even in situations (such as ISIS) where, unlike states, the ICC has no ability to effectively investigate. The previous High Commissioner exhibited the same problematic tendency, calling on the Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC despite the fact that the Court would be powerless to investigate Syrian and rebel crimes as long as the conflict continues. Security Council referrals only make sense after a conflict has ended — and not even there, unless the Security Council is willing to give its referrals teeth by funding the subsequent investigation and punishing states for not cooperating with the ICC, which it has shown no interest whatsoever in doing. Do we really need more failed ICC investigations like the one in Darfur?

Responding to Rogier Bartels About Perfidy at Just Security

by Kevin Jon Heller

My friend Rogier Bartels published two excellent posts at Just Security over the past few days (here and here) in which he argues that it is inherently perfidious to launch an attack from a military object disguised as a civilian object. Just Security has just posted my lengthy response. Here is how I conclude the post:

At the risk of sounding like an armchair psychologist, I’d like to suggest an explanation for why an excellent scholar like Rogier adopts a theory of perfidy that, in my view, cannot be correct. The problem, I think, is the nature of the attack that gave rise to our lively debate: a bomb placed in a privately-owned car in the middle of a generally peaceful city. Such an attack simply doesn’t seem fair; of course a “combatant” — even a high-ranking member of Hezbollah — is entitled to feel safe walking by a car on “a quiet nighttime street in Damascus after dinner at a nearby restaurant,” as the Washington Post put it. Indeed, like Rogier, I am skeptical that IHL even applied to the bombing.

But just as hard cases make bad law, unusual situations generate problematic rules. Once we try to apply Rogier’s theory of perfidy to the “normal” combat situation, its plausibility falls apart. Although the same military/civilian distinctions apply, those distinctions take on a very different sheen during street-by-street, house-by-house fighting in a city virtually destroyed by armed conflict. You expect to be able to walk by a Mercedes in a Damascus suburb without being blown up, even if you are a soldier; but if you are a soldier in downtown Fallujah, the last thing you are going to do is walk casually past that burned out, overturned Mazda sitting in the middle of the city’s main road. Yet that Mazda is no less a civilian object than the Mercedes, and as long as IHL applies there is no legal difference between planting a bomb in the Mazda and planting a bomb in the Mercedes. Either both car bombs are perfidious or neither of them is. And it is very difficult to argue that planting a bomb in a burned-out, overturned Mazda in downtown Fallujah — or placing an ambush behind it, or using it for cover, or blending into it with camouflage, or placing a landmine near it — is an act of perfidy.

I share Rogier’s concern with the Israel/US operation that killed the Hezbollah leader, and I understand his unease — from a civilian protection standpoint — with many of the kinds of attacks I’ve discussed in this post. Any proposal to expand the definition of perfidy, however, must acknowledge the (ugly) reality of combat, particularly in urban areas. The general distinction between perfidy and ruses of war is a sensible one, even if we can — and should — debate precisely where the line between the two is drawn.

I hope readers will wander over to Just Security and read all three posts — as well as the original discussion that led to them.

The Security Council Workaround: How the Iran Deal Can Become Legally Binding Via a UN Security Council Resolution

by Julian Ku

Since the United States has made clear that its “deal” with Iran will NOT be a binding legal commitment under international law, one wonders what all the fuss over the Iran Letter from US Senators was about. As Duncan explains in his great post below, there is little doubt that the President can enter into a nonbinding “political commitment” and withdraw from it without violating international law.  Confusingly, though, Iran keeps talking as if there is going to be a binding international legal commitment.

The answer to this confusion appears to be that the US government plans to make a non-binding political commitment, and then take this commitment to the UN Security Council to get it “carved into marble” as a Security Council resolution that would be binding under international law.  Jack Goldsmith explains in detail at Lawfare how this might happen, and why this is constitutional (if also kind of sneaky).  The President gets to both avoid going to Congress AND get a binding legal obligation on Iran.

Of course, a future President could choose to withdraw or defy the UN Security Council resolution, but the legal and diplomatic costs would be much higher than withdrawing from a mere political commitment.  Congress could also, unquestionably, override any domestic legal effects of a UN Security Council Resolution by passing a statute refusing to lift sanctions on Iran, or stopping the President from doing so.  Diggs v. Shultz makes clear that a statute passed by Congress later in time than a Security Council resolution will have the force of law by operation of the last in time rule.  But the legal and diplomatic costs for doing so would also be higher than for a mere political commitment or even a bilateral executive agreement.

So the Administration has a plan to avoid Congress and get its deal sanctified by international law.  Pretty clever lawyering, although I (like Goldsmith) expect some serious political blowback from Congress.

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.

 

Mea Culpa Regarding Israel’s Attacks on Hezbollah in 2006

by Kevin Jon Heller

In a number of posts (see, for example, here and here), I have claimed that the League of Arab States (LAS) formally rejected the “unwilling or unable” test in the context of Israel’s 2006 attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thanks to comments by Ori and Tom Ruys on the most recent post, I now realize I have been guilty of the same kind of methodological sloppiness that characterizes most scholarly work in defence of the test. If you read the statement by the LAS — you can find it here — there is no way to determine whether the it denounced Israel’s attack because it rejected the “unwilling or unable” test or — and this actually seems more likely — because it simply rejected Israel’s claim that it was acting in self-defence. (I disagree with Ori that the statement can be read as an indictment of Israel solely for using disproportionate force in self-defence.) And if we cannot determine the precise reason why LAS rejected Israel’s self-defence claim, that rejection obviously cannot provide opinio juris against the “unwilling or unable” test.

That said, loathe though I am to disagree with Tom, I don’t see the international response to Israel’s attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon as supporting the “unwilling or unable” test. Most obviously, Israel claimed that Hezbollah’s actions were attributable to Lebanon — it did not invoke the test at all. Moreover, no state specifically invoked “unwilling or unable” during the Security Council debate over Israel’s actions — some expressed concern over Lebanon’s failure to exercise effective control over the entirety its territory, but a number of those states attributed that failure to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, not to Hezbollah’s actions. So I agree with Olivier Corten that “these standpoints are highly ambiguous and so it seems a very difficult business to deduce from them any opinio juris.”

My thanks to Ori and Tom for weighing in — and to Ori for providing links to the relevant documents. Apologies to readers for being so sloppy. I just hope my lack of care will not distract from my basic point, which is that scholars who claim that the “unwilling or unable” test represents customary international law have failed to identify (anywhere near) sufficient significant state practice or opinio juris in defense of their position.

47 US Senators Send Iran’s Leader an Unnecessary(?) Primer on How US Constitution Works

by Julian Ku

Most of the US Senate’s Republican membership has signed an open letter to Iran’s leaders “informing” them about the nature of the U.S. constitutional system with respect to international agreements.   It is actually a very accurate statement of US foreign relations law, even if it is a little strange and potentially intrusive into the President’s foreign affairs power. It may also concede more than the Senators may have wanted to on the constitutionality of the proposed Iran deal.

Here are the key paragraphs in the letter;

[U]nder our Constitution, while the president negotiates international agreements, Congress plays a significant role in ratifying them.  In the case of a treaty, the Senate must ratify by a two-thirds vote.  A so-called congressional-executive agreement requires a majority vote in both the House and the Senate….Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement.

What these two constitutional provisions mean is that we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.

OK, there is nothing here that is incorrect, as a matter of law, and this is not surprising since the letter was apparently drafted by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a very smart and knowledgeable constitutional lawyer. The letter does raise a couple of important constitutional issues.

First, a letter sent directly to a foreign leader on a matter which is currently under negotiations with the U.S. could be criticized as an unconstitutional interference in the President’s inherent  power to conduct foreign affairs.  Certainly, it is very unusual.  Imagine if the U.S. Senate had sent a letter to the Iraqi leaders in 2007-8 that Congress was going to have to approve any US-Iraqi alliance or defense cooperation treaty.

In any event, I actually think this letter skirts, but manages to avoid, any unconstitutional interference.  Phrased merely as a letter “bringing attention” to the U.S. constitutional system, the letter does not state U.S. policy, nor does it make any statement on the question of policy.

The most troubling line of the letter is: “The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.  ” But this is indisputably correct as a matter of law.

Maybe the strongest criticism of the letter is simply that it need not have been sent.  The only possible purpose of sending the letter is to discourage the Iranians from actually concluding an agreement, since presumably the Iranians can read US foreign relations law textbooks (or even blogs) without the help of the US Senate.  But then again, maybe they don’t. If the Iranians are somehow deluded into thinking a sole executive agreement could survive a Republican president in 2016, it is probably best for all concerned that they know the truth now.

Second, and on the other hand, I do wonder if the senators here may have conceded more than they wanted to here.  There is still a plausible constitutional argument out there that President must submit the Iran nuke agreement to either the Senate (as a treaty) or to Congress as a whole.  The letter all but concedes that the President can indeed conclude a sole executive agreement with Iran on this matter.  Doesn’t this undercut the Senators’ argument that they should, indeed, must have their say on this deal?  (also, they only got 47 votes! There are 55 Republican senators, plus some Democrats who also oppose the Iran deal. Do they not agree with this statement of law?).

In any event, I can’t recall a letter of this sort from recent (or even older) U.S. history.  Readers should feel free to add examples in the comments.  I wonder if the Iranians will send a letter back?