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US Diplomacy and National Security

The Reprieve Drone Strike Communication I — Jurisdiction

by Kevin Jon Heller

Reprieve, the excellent British human-rights organisation, has submitted a communication to the ICC asking it to investigate NATO personnel involved in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. Here is Reprieve’s press release:

Drone victims are today lodging a complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) accusing NATO member states of war crimes over their role in facilitating the US’s covert drone programme in Pakistan.

It has been revealed in recent months that the UK, Germany, Australia, and other NATO partners support US drone strikes through intelligence-sharing. Because all these countries are signatories to the Rome Statute, they fall under The ICC’s jurisdiction and can therefore be investigated for war crimes. Kareem Khan - whose civilian brother and son were killed in a 2009 drone strike – is at The Hague with his lawyers from the human rights charity Reprieve and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights who have filed the complaint on his behalf.

The CIA has launched more than 300 missiles at North Waziristan since its covert drone programme began and it is estimated that between 2004 and 2013, thousands of people have been killed, many of them civilians including children.

The US has immunised itself from legal accountability over drone strikes and the UK has closed its domestic courts to foreign drone victims. In a recent decision, the Court of Appeal in London ruled that it would not opine on the legality of British agents’ involvement in the US drone war in Pakistan, for fear of causing embarrassment to its closest ally.

The communication is a fascinating document to read, and it is quite damning concerning the effects of the CIA’s drone strikes. My interest in the communication, however, focuses on two critical legal issues: (1) whether the ICC would have jurisdiction over NATO personnel involved in the CIA’s strikes; and (2) whether it can be persuasively argued that those personnel have been complicit in the strikes. I’ll discuss the jurisdictional issue in this post and the substantive complicity issue in my next post.

As the communication acknowledges, neither Pakistan (where the drone strikes took place) nor the US (which launched the drone strikes) has ratified the Rome Statute. Reprieve nevertheless asserts that the ICC would have jurisdiction over NATO personnel involved in the drone strikes — particularly individuals from the UK, Germany, and Australia — on two different grounds (para. 7):

The Court’s jurisdiction over the crimes committed as a result of drone strikes in Pakistan arises in two ways. The first is (subjective) territorial jurisdiction on grounds that the attacks were launched from a State Party (e.g. Afghanistan), while the second is nationality (on grounds that there is a reasonable basis for concluding that the nationals of States Parties to the Rome Statute may have participated in crimes under the Statute.

It may seem odd that the communication spends time trying to establish that Art. 12(2)(a) of the Rome Statute, the territorial jurisdiction provision, includes subjective territoriality. Why not just invoke nationality jurisdiction, given that Reprieve is only asking the ICC to investigate “nationals of States Parties”? In fact, the communication’s move is actually quite clever — and necessary.

To see why, consider what Art. 25(3) says, in relevant part (emphasis mine): “In accordance with this Statute, a person shall be criminally responsible and liable for punishment for a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court if that person…” The italicized language is critical, because the communication does not claim that the NATO personnel committed the war crimes themselves. On the contrary, Reprieve views those individuals as accessories to war crimes allegedly committed by CIA drone operators (para. 13; emphasis mine):…

Ukraine: Background, Sanctions, and the Sword of Damocles

by Chris Borgen

The BBC is reporting that dozens of people have died today in new fighting between police and protestors in Ukraine.  For a background to what is underlying the protests, see these posts concerning the struggle over the norms that will define Ukraine,  how Ukraine’s domestic disputes interact with Russian and European regional strategies, and the significance of the eastward spread of the protests and Russia’s technique of push-back against the norm-based arguments of the EU.

Some of these themes are echoed in the BBC report:

Ukraine seems be caught in a modern “Great Game”. Vladimir Putin wants to make Russia a global economic player, rivalling China, the US and EU. To that end he is creating a customs union with other countries and sees Ukraine as a vital and natural element in that – not least because of the countries’ deep cultural and historical ties.

The EU says assimilation and eventual membership could be worth billions of euros to Ukraine, modernising its economy and giving it access to the single market. It also wants to reverse what it sees as damaging infringements on democracy and human rights in Ukraine.

Many Ukrainians in the east, working in heavy industry that supplies Russian markets, are fearful of losing their jobs if Kiev throws in its lot with Brussels. But many in the west want the prosperity and the rule of law they believe the EU would bring. They point out that while Ukraine had a bigger GDP than Poland in 1990, Poland’s economy is now nearly three times larger.

While the immediate issue in the streets of Kiev is an end to the violence, the medium-term Western response may be sanctions against Ukraine, particularly targeting the assets of President Yanukovich and his allies.

But, hanging over all of this like the sword of Damocles is the concern over the stability of the Ukrainian state. The previous Opinio Juris posts, the BBC report linked-to above, and others have noted the sharp electoral and linguistic (Ukraine-speaking/ Russian speaking) divide between western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine. Some have voiced concern that Ukraine faces a possible civil war or a break-up of the country.  Edward Lucas of The Economist has written in an op-ed in today’s (February 20) Telegraph:

Perhaps the authorities will decide that they cannot crush the protesters and will draw back, meaning months of tension, jitters and uncertainty. Even then, Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been shattered, perhaps fatally. In the west, government buildings have been set ablaze. The region – the old Austro-Hungarian Galicia – was the site of a decade-long insurrection post-war against Soviet rule. If pro-Moscow authorities in Kiev try to crack down there, civil war looms…

Equally worrying is Crimea – site of the Charge of the Light Brigade 160 years ago – which could now be the flashpoint for another conflict with Russia, with far more devastating effects. The region is on the verge of declaring independence from Kiev (a move likely to prompt Russian intervention to protect the separatist statelet).

The BBC report sounds a more hopeful note:

Some commentators suggest this shows the country is liable to split violently across the middle. But others say this is unlikely – and that many in the east still identify as Ukrainians, even if they speak Russian.

As I mentioned in my previous post on Ukraine, the answer to the question of whether or not there is civil war or secession, depends in part on what the protestors in the eastern part of the country are protesting about.  If they are willing to continue on the path to closer integration with the EU and set aside closer integration with Russia, then the strand of hair keeps the sword suspended. If the Ukrainians in the east just want Yanukovich out, but still want to avert integration with the EU and increase integration with Russia, then the strand doesn’t necessarily break, but it does fray, as the normative conflict over the future of Ukraine will persist.

But while the question of civil war and secession depends in part on the severity of normative friction in Ukraine, that is not the only determinant. Also important is what role Russia will play in either further exacerbating the conflict or finding a peaceful solution. In September, Russia raised the specter of secessionism in Ukraine, specifically linking it to Ukraine’s signing the EU Association Agreement. Russia actively supports secessionist movements in Moldova and Georgia, two other countries seeking closer relations with the EU. Whether President Putin believes that preventing Ukraine from  signing an Association Agreement with the EU is important enough to push that country to war remains to be seen.

The issue for today is ending the violence in the streets of Kiev. But that is the first step in a long road to finding stability in Ukraine.

Schabas on the OTP’s Attempt to Reconsider Perisic

by Kevin Jon Heller

It’s an excellent post, well worth reading in its entirety. I just want to flag two particularly important points. The first concerns whether, in light of Šainović, Perišić can really be considered fundamentally flawed. Schabas compellingly argues no:

But the Prosecutor is not claiming that any ‘new fact’ has been discovered. Rather, the Prosecutor is arguing that the law has changed as a result of the legal basis of the acquittal of Perišić being ‘unequivocally overturned’. But was it?

First, there was a dissenting opinion in Šainović. Under the circumstances, the word ‘unequivocal’ is probably not appropriate. Second, Judge Ramaroson, who sat in both Perišić and Šainović agreed with the majority judgment in both cases. I would not use the word ‘unequivocal’ to describe such a strange situation. Judge Ramaroson might have enlightened us with a separate opinion to explain the change of heart. Third, the Appeals Chamber cannot ‘overturn’ the Appeals Chamber. It may seem paradoxical, but by refusing to follow the finding in Perišić the judges in Šainović may inadvertently have undermined the authority of their own judgment. Who is to say that yet another five-judge panel of the Appeals Chamber will not ‘overturn’ Šainović, perhaps restoring Perišić or possibily setting out a third vision of aiding and abetting? It seems more accurate to describe what has happened is that four judges of the Appeals Chamber disagree with four other judges of the Appeals Chamber (really, three judges, because one of them disagrees with herself).

The second point concerns the human-rights implications of “reconsidering” Perišić’s acquittal 11 months after it became final. I considered mentioning the issue in my previous post, but ultimately didn’t. Here is what Schabas says:

The real problem with the Prosecutor’s motion concerns the rights of the accused. According to article 14(7) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ‘No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.’ The same rule is formulated slightly differently in article 4 of Protocol No. 7 to the European Convention on Human Rights:

1. No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again in criminal proceedings under the jurisdiction of the same State for an offence for which he has already been finally acquitted or convicted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of the State.

2. The provisions of the preceding paragraph shall not prevent the re-opening of the case in accordance with the law and penal procedure of the State concerned, if there is evidence of new or newly discovered facts, or if there has been a fundamental defect in the previous proceedings, which could affect the outcome of the case.

3. No derogation from this Article shall be made under Article 15 of the Convention.

Can the Prosecutor argue that when Perišić was acquitted by the Appeals Chamber there was ‘a fundamental defect in the proceedings’? There is not much in the way of judicial interpretation on this expression. Recently a Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held that there was such a ‘fundamental defect’ where an acquittal was based upon an amnesty (Marguš v. Croatia, no. 4455/10, § 74, 13 November 2012). The case is currently pending before the Grand Chamber. But four judges disagreeing with four judges cannot be described as a ‘fundamental defect in the proceedings’.

The rule against double jeopardy (ne bis in idem) is part of a larger norm known by the term res judicata. It is almost certainly a general principle of law in the sense this expression is employed by article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice. There is something profoundly troublesome about reconsideration of a final acquittal because a new judicial finding concerning legal interpretation is at variance with an earlier one.

I have nothing to add to Schabas’s points. I completely agree with them. We can only hope, for the sake of the ICTY’s legitimacy, that the Appeals Chamber does as well.

For the First Time, U.S. Says China’s South China Sea Nine Dash Line is Inconsistent with International Law

by Julian Ku

As Jeffrey Bader of Brookings notes, the U.S. government has, for the first time, publicly rejected the legality of China’s “Nine Dash Line” claim in the South China Sea (for a little background on the unusual Nine Dash Line, see an earlier post here). This is a semi-big deal as it shows how the US is going to use international law as a sword to challenge China’s actions in this region.

During testimony before Congress, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel stated:

Under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features. Any use of the ‘nine-dash line’ by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law. The international community would welcome China to clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea.

It is actually surprising that the U.S. government has never actually publicly stated this argument before, since the Russel statement fits comfortably within the U.S. government’s long-standing positions on the nature of maritime territorial claims.  And China could not have been unaware of US views on its 9-dash-line claim. But the U.S. also likes to repeat that it takes no position on any sovereignty disputes, and since the Nine Dash Line is sort of a sovereignty claim, it has always been a little unclear whether the US was neutral on the Nine-Dash Line as well.

Russel’s statement ends this ambiguity, and also offers more explanation on how the US “neutrality” in sovereignty disputes does not mean that it has no view on how those disputes would be resolved.

I think it is imperative that we be clear about what we mean when the United States says that we take no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in the East China and South China Seas. First of all, we do take a strong position with regard to behavior in connection with any claims: we firmly oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or force to assert a territorial claim. Second, we do take a strong position that maritime claims must accord with customary international law.

Again, I can’t imagine this is a new US government position, but it is useful to make it clear publicly.

By tying itself to customary international law, the U.S. is challenging China to try to fit its Nine Dash Line into the legal framework created by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  Even some clarification from China as to the legal basis for its Nine Dash Line would be helpful, since it would shift the burden on China to explain its legal position.

Moreover, the US government is also offering a legal roadmap for other countries that are not claimants in the region. It is hardly a controversial legal position, and should be fairly easy for the EU, Canada, or Australia to adopt (assuming they don’t mind tweaking China).

Having wedded itself to international law, the US will now have to see whether China will start making non-legal claims or even noises about withdrawing from UNCLOS.  The law definitely is not on China’s side here, but that doesn’t mean that China is going to back down in the SCS.

Talk About the Imperial Presidency!

by Kevin Jon Heller

President Obama has issued the following memorandum concerning US participation in the UN’s Mali stabilisation mission:

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, and consistent with section 2005 of the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act of 2002 (22 U.S.C. 7424), concerning the participation of members of the Armed Forces of the United States in certain United Nations peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations, I hereby certify that members of the U.S. Armed Forces participating in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali are without risk of criminal prosecution or other assertion of jurisdiction by the International Criminal Court (ICC) because the Republic of Mali has entered into an agreement in accordance with Article 98 of the Rome Statute preventing the ICC from proceeding against members of the Armed Forces of the United States present in that country.

This is, of course, completely wrong. At most, the Article 98 agreement between the US and Mali would prohibit the ICC from asking Mali to surrender a US soldier wanted for war crimes. It would not in any way prohibit the Court from prosecuting a US soldier it managed to get its hands on without Mali’s help. (Or even if Mali decided its obligation under the Rome Statute took precedence over its Article 98 agreement with the US and handed a US soldier over despite the agreement.)

I realize Obama is a communist/marxist/fascist/socialist dictator, but he has not yet been crowned King of the ICC. Until he has, the Rome Statute remains more important than his presidential memoranda.

Hackers’ Bazaar: the President’s NSA Speech and the Market for Zero-Day Exploits

by Chris Borgen

All Things Considered ran an interview this past Monday with Alex Fowler, the chief privacy officer of Mozilla (developer of the Firefox web browser), stemming from a blog post Fowler had written critiquing President Obama’s speech last week concerning NSA activities. When asked about the “most glaring reform needs” that were not addressed in the President’s speech, Fowler said:

right now, we have a policy approach in Washington which is focused on not closing security holes but actually [on] hoarding information about security backdoors and holes in our public security standards and using those then to exploit them for intelligence needs. In our perspective, and I think certainly those of your listeners – as you think about the news related to Target data breaches and breaches with Snapchat and other common tools that we use every day – that what we really need is to actually focus on securing those communications platforms so that we can rely on them. And that we know that they are essentially protecting the communications that we’re engaged with.

This relates to the market for so-called “zero-day exploits,”  where the U.S. government pays hackers for information about holes in software security that its intelligence and law enforcement agencies can then use for surveillance. (The market for zero-day exploits is described in greater detail in this previous post.) The U.S. also pays the sellers of these exploits to keep the holes secret, not even warning the company that has the security hole, so that the exploit may remain useful to the U.S. government for as long as possible. Unfortunately, this also means it will remain open for criminal hackers who have also discovered the hole.

The injection of U.S. government funds has transformed a formerly loose, reputation-based, market into a lucrative global bazaar with governments driving up prices and the formation of firms with business models based on finding and selling exploits to the U.S. and other governments. Although cash-rich companies like Microsoft are responding by trying to out-bid state actors for information about zero day exploits in their own products, the money in the market has shifted from rewarding security into incentivizing insecurity

(Continue Reading)

U.S. Funds Effort to Gather Evidence For Syrian War Crimes Prosecutions That Will Probably Never Happen

by Julian Ku

Jess Bravin has an interesting report out in Thursday’s WSJ (subscrip. req’d)  detailing U.S., UK, and EU support (and funding) for a team of investigators to gather evidence of war crimes by Syrian government and military officials.

For nearly two years, dozens of investigators funded by the U.S. and its allies have been infiltrating Syria to collect evidence of suspected war crimes, sometimes risking their lives to back up promises by Western leaders to hold the guilty accountable.

As Bravin notes, the U.S. government has issued several high profile statements warning that any war crimes committed in Syria would be punished and Syrian government officials and army commanders would be held accountable.  Gathering this evidence fulfills part of this pledge to hold war criminals accountable.

What is sad about this exercise, however, is that there is little evidence that the threat of eventual criminal prosecution (issued back in 2011 by Hillary Clinton) has deterred the commission of serious atrocities by the Syrian government.  The WSJ report suggest that the evidence being gathered is growing at depressingly fast rates (and this NYT report adds more horrific detail). Frankly, the threat of prosecution is either not credible, or less threatening to the Syrian army and government leaders than defeat in this increasingly desperate civil war.  (Professor Jide Nzelibe and I predicted this pattern of behavior by desperate dictators long ago in this article).

Moreover, as Bravin also notes, several diplomats have suggested that amnesty for some or all of the Syrian government’s leaders would have to be considered for any successful peace deal.  Since the U.S. military option to remove the current government is off the table, and since the civil war seems headed for a stalemate, it would be irresponsible of the U.S. to demand full accountability for war crimes as a condition of any peace deal.  To do so might just lead to more atrocities, and still no punishment.

Which means that there is not much chance that the evidence gathered by these brave and dedicated individuals described by Bravin will ever be used in a criminal prosecution.  Sure, it will be leverage during peace talks, but not much more than that.

Guest Post: Ghodoosi–Comprehensive Solution to an Agreement: How the New Iran Deal Is Framed Under Iranian Law?

by Farshad Ghodoosi

[Farshad Ghodoosi is a JSD candidate at Yale Law School.]

In continuation of the discussion about the New Iranian Deal started by Duncan Hollis, I decided to take a stab at clarifying the Iranian side of the story.  The new deal, the so-called Geneva Agreement (24 Nov. 2013) and the ensuing implementation agreement (that took effect on Jan 20th, 2014), between Iran and the 5 plus 1 group seems to be more than a joint plan of action. Practically, it attenuates some of the bites of the previous Security Council Resolutions on the Iran Nuclear Program and will create tit-for-tat commitments on both sides. Whether the agreements reached thus far create binding obligations under international law is beyond the scope of this piece and requires further details on the recent –yet unpublished – implementation agreement. However, the drafters of the agreement of Nov. 24th deftly avoided the term “agreement” and instead employed the term “comprehensive solution”.

This choice of term might have been to avoid the formalities of treaty law internationally but also domestically vis-à-vis Iran.  Naming might make a difference under Iranian Law. Generally speaking, the Iranian Constitution seeds skepticism towards international agreements and contracts in the present Iranian legal system. Article 77 declares, “international protocols, treaties, contracts and agreements should be ratified by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis)”. The Article is very broad and all encompassing. Those hardliners unhappy about the deal in Iran’s parliament are pressing on implementing this article, stating that the agreement needs to be ratified domestically, otherwise it is void of effects. On the other hand, supporters in parliament categorize it as a “preliminary agreement” not requiring parliament approval.

I believe a preliminary agreement is still an agreement and is subject to Article 77 of the Iranian Constitution. If I were in the shoes of the supporters of the deal in the Parliament, I would emphasize the word “comprehensive solution” as it is reflected in the text. The term “comprehensive solution” is not listed in the Article 77 of the Iranian Constitution and therefore would arguably not need parliament approval.

Another hurdle for international agreements is Article 125 of the Iranian Constitution. This Article stipulates that “signing international treaties, protocols, agreements and contracts of the Iranian states with other states and also signing conventions pertaining to international organizations, subsequent to Islamic Consultative Assembly approval, is vested in the President or his legal representative.” The Council of Guardians, the body responsible for interpreting the Constitution, restricts this Article to instances where the international instrument contains “an obligation” or “a contract” (decision March 13, 1983). It handed down its decision in a situation where “a letter of intent” for cooperation was signed between Iran and India while there were doubts whether parliament had to approve it.

Despite the language in the Iranian Constitution, I believe, it is not certain that Articles 77 and 125 make the Iranian legal system a dualist system. In dualist systems, international instruments are devoid of any status in domestic law until ratified through the legislative process. I posit that the matter should be clear in the language of the Constitution. Under Article 77, however, the sanction for non-compliance with the provision is unclear. It does not mention whether non-compliance renders the international agreements ineffectual, or makes them of lower status (similar to regulations) in relation to other domestic laws. Alternatively, it could be simply a ground for impeachment or question from the President. Article 125 also seems only to vest the signing authority on the President to render the international instruments official, and not necessarily dictate their binding nature.  It might sound like a long shot, but I believe, notwithstanding the requirement of parliamentary approval, international agreements could still be invoked and enforced in Iranian domestic law—at least as a contractual agreement between parties. This interpretation makes international agreements and contracts with Iran, most of which are not ratified by parliament, valid and effective under Iranian Law.

I would like to end this post with a separate comment — the absence of any dispute resolution mechanism in the deal. It is indeed not a very smart idea to omit any form of dispute resolution mechanisms. Considering the lack of trust and the history of contention between both sides (especially Iran and the US), any minor disagreement might lead to dismantling the entire agreement and the new rapprochement (as was apparently close to happening in the implementation the Joint Action Plan). There are several potential reasons parties avoided incorporating any dispute resolution mechanism. First and foremost, they probably disliked the idea of handing over such a highly political matter to a judicial body of any sort. Another potential reason was to avoid making the agreement seem like a treaty subject to international law or otherwise a binding instrument. Nonetheless, I believe disagreements over implementing the agreement could have been vested to an arbitral body or a mediation panel at least in an advisory capacity.

Trial Chamber Conditionally Excuses Ruto from Continuous Presence

by Kevin Jon Heller

The decision was given orally, and no written decision is available yet. But here is what The Standard‘s online platform is reporting:

The International Criminal Court has conditionally excused Deputy President William Ruto from continuos presence at trial but with some conditions.

The judges outlined nine conditions during the Wednesday ruling. ICC Presiding Judge Eboe-Osuji in the oral ruling said: “The Chamber hereby conditionally excuses Mr Ruto from continuous presence at trial on the following conditions: As indicated in the new rule 134, a waiver must be filed. That’s one condition. The further conditions are these: in the case, two, when victims present their views and concerns in person, three, the entirety of the delivery of the judgement in the  case, four, the entirety of the sentencing hearing, if  applicable, five, the entirety of the sentencing, if applicable, six, the entirety of the victim impact hearings, if applicable, seven, the entirety of the reparation hearings, if applicable, seven, the first five days of  hearing starting after a judicial recess as set out in regulation 19 B I S of the regulations of the Court, and nine, any other attendance directed by the Chamber either/or other request of a party or participant as decided by the Chamber. The Chamber considers that the attendance of Mr Ruto pursuant to the requirement indicated in condition number  eight, being attendance and first five days of hearing  starting after a judicial recess, will require him to be present for today’s hearing and the next — sorry — starting  tomorrow and the next five days. However, in view of the need for Mr Ruto to deputise for the president of the Republic of Kenya during his absence from the country from the 16 of January 2014, Mr Ruto is excused from presence at  trial on the 16th and the 17th of January 2014. Mr Ruto shall, however, be present for the remainder of  the period indicated under condition number eight”.

Kenya shouldn’t get too excited about the Trial Chamber’s ruling. Remember: the Appeals Chamber reversed the Trial Chamber’s previous decision concerning Ruto’s presence and articulated a very different, and much narrower, interpretation of Art. 63(1) of the Rome Statute. The OTP was never going to win at the trial level; the Appeals Chamber is much more likely to take seriously the differences between Rule 134quater and the multi-part test it previously articulated and to consider whether the Rule is ultra vires.

We shall see.

NOTE: For more on the ruling, please see Alexander’s comment to my previous post. He raises the spectre — skeptically, to be sure — of the Trial Chamber refusing to grant leave to appeal. I agree that’s unlikely, but even the possibility foregrounds the irrationality of permitting a Trial Chamber to decide whether a party can appeal the Trial Chamber’s own adverse decision. Trial Chambers have routinely abused that power, particularly in the context of the legal recharacterization of facts under Regulation 55. I discuss a number of such instances in this essay.

Will Ratifying UNCLOS Help the U.S. Manage China? I Doubt It

by Julian Ku

A subcommittee of the  U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee held a much-needed hearing to educate themselves on China’s recent activity in the East and South China Seas.  Professor Peter Dutton of the Naval War College, along with two other experts on Asian affairs, gave interesting and useful testimony on the nature of China’s maritime disputes with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Asian countries.

There is a lot of interesting stuff here, but my attention was particularly caught by Professor Dutton’s recommendation (seconded by Bonnie Glaeser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies) that the U.S. ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as part of a multifaceted strategy to manage China’s sort-of-aggressive strategy to expand its power and influence in the region.  Here is Professor Dutton’s argument:

Accordingly, to ensure its future position in East Asia, the United States should take specific actions to defend the international legal architecture pertaining to the maritime and aerial commons. Acceding to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and once again exercising direct leadership over the development of its rules and norms is the first and most critical step. The Department of State should also re-energize its Limits in the Seas series to publicly and repeatedly reinforce international law related to sea and airspace. A good place to begin the new series would be with a detailed assessment of why international law explicitly rejects China’s U-shaped line in the South China Sea as the basis for Chinese jurisdiction there. Others could be written to describe why China’s East China Sea continental shelf claim misapplies international law and why China’s ADIZ unlawfully asserts jurisdiction in the airspace. My sense is that East Asian states, indeed many states around the world, are desperate for active American leadership over the norms and laws that govern legitimate international action.

I understand the force of this argument. The U.S. already adheres the key principles in UNCLOS, so joining UNCLOS will allow the U.S. to push back more effectively against China’s aggressive and expansionary activities.

But is there really any evidence that formal accession would change China’s view of the U.S. position on UNCLOS issues?  China is already a member of UNCLOS and other countries (like Japan and the Philippines) are also members of UNCLOS. But I don’t think UNCLOS has really bolstered their effectiveness in pushing back against China.  Moreover, as Professor Dutton explains, China has a radically different interpretation of its authority to regulate foreign ships and aircraft in its Exclusive Economic Zone under UNCLOS.  How will joining UNCLOS help the U.S. change China’s interpretation of UNCLOS?

As a practical matter, UNCLOS does have a way of compelling member states to conform their interpretations: mandatory dispute settlement in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or in Annex VII arbitration.  But as China and Russia have demonstrated in recent years, these mechanisms are not likely to be a serious constraint, especially on questions that touch sovereignty (which is how China frames most of its activities).  I suppose if the U.S. joins UNCLOS, and subjects itself to UNCLOS dispute settlement, that might make a difference.  But I don’t think it would be a very large one (after all, Japan, China, and the Philippines are all already subject to UNCLOS dispute settlement, which has accomplished little so far).

I should add that the U.S. joining UNCLOS is hardly the most prominent of Professor Dutton’s recommendations.  His (and his co-panelists) had lots of good strategic policy recommendations.  I think the law may be important here, but I am skeptical that it will be as effective as he (and many analysts) are hoping.

Is the New Iranian Nuclear Deal a Secret Treaty?

by Duncan Hollis

Well, it’s not exactly a secret treaty in the sense that yesterday, the news wires were abuzz about the fact that the United States, Iran and five other world powers concluded an agreement to implement Iran’s earlier November deal on its nuclear program.  But, what’s being held back is the actual text of the deal.  There’s not many details (the only story I found on this was here). Still, at this point it’s not clear whether or not yesterday’s implementing agreement is actually a treaty or just another political commitment like the deal last November?  Assuming it is legally binding, it’s also unclear as to why the text is not being released?  Is this just a temporary delay pending a good scrub by treaty lawyers of the final text and any language/translation issues?  Or, is it that some of the implementation agreements’ contents are being treated as classified by one or more of the participants/parties such that they have no intention of ever releasing the text?

Now, as I’ve written in the past, there’s a tendency among students of international relations to assume that secret treaties died with Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points of light speech and its admonition for “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind.”  That view was codified, first in Article 18 of the Treaty of Versailles, and later (in a looser form) in Article 102 of the U.N. Charter (requiring Member States to register and allow to be published ”[e]very treaty and every international agreement” they make with the understanding that unregistered treaties may not be invoked before any organ of the United Nations).  But, as far as international law is concerned, reports of the extinction of secret treaties appear exaggerated.  As D.N. Hutchinson noted here back in 1993, Article 102 is most often honored in the breach, and has little relevance today to determining the legal status of an agreement (the ICJ appears to agree given its holdings in the jurisdictional phase of Qatar v. Bahrain).  Thus, I’m not terribly surprised by the idea that the text of the deal may be secret even if its existence is not (particularly given the ‘nuclear’ subject-matter).  Moreover, I don’t think the fact that Iran and these other States concluded it without making the text publicly available will deny it the status of a treaty under international law.

A more important question may be, given the reality of some significant Congressional hostility to the deal, whether keeping its text secret will prove problematic under U.S. law or the domestic law of any of the other State participants?  I can’t speak to the domestic law of other States, but on the U.S. front, I have my doubts. There are obvious questions as to what legal authority the United States has to conclude this implementation agreement (i.e. is it a sole executive agreement, or does the Obama Administration view some existing legislative authority as sufficient to treat it as a congressional-executive agreement?).  Assuming legal authority to conclude an implementation agreement, however, there is statutory authority for it to be done in secret provided the Executive Branch follows the appropriate procedures under the 1972 Case-Zablocki Act:

The Secretary of State shall transmit to the Congress the text of any international agreement (including the text of any oral international agreement, which agreement shall be reduced to writing), other than a treaty, to which the United States is a party as soon as practicable after such agreement has entered into force with respect to the United States but in no event later than sixty days thereafter. However, any such agreement the immediate public disclosure of which would, in the opinion of the President, be prejudicial to the national security of the United States shall not be so transmitted to the Congress but shall be transmitted to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives under an appropriate injunction of secrecy to be removed only upon due notice from the President. Any department or agency of the United States Government which enters into any international agreement on behalf of the United States shall transmit to the Department of State the text of such agreement not later than twenty days after such agreement has been signed. (emphasis added)

Simply put, U.S. law accepts and regulates secret treaties and other international agreements. Thus, I don’t think the fact of its secrecy will sway proponents (or opponents) of this deal one way or another.  Even so, I’m curious to know more about the Iranian implementation agreement.  Is it intended to be legally binding or a political commitment?  And, if it’s a treaty, what’s the Executive Branch view as to the legal authority to conclude it short of getting new legislation or going to the Senate under Article II of the Constitution?  I’d welcome comments from readers who know more details here than I do.

Hat Tip:  Orde Kittrie

Why the U.S. State Department Deserves an “F” on their Handling of the Indian Consul Flap

by Julian Ku

It looks like the U.S. and India have worked out a sort-of deal to end the battle over visa-fraud charges brought against India’s deputy consul-general in New York Devyani Khobragade.  Yesterday, a U.S. grand jury indicted Khobragade on the visa-fraud charges, and shortly thereafter, Khobragade was allowed to leave the U.S. for India.  India is now retaliating by demanding the U.S. withdraw a U.S. diplomat from India.

From a purely legal perspective, this is a smart move by the U.S. since even if it had continued with the prosecution, Khobragade would be able to raise a variety of defenses based on her possible status as a diplomat accredited at India’s UN Mission at the time of her arrest, or at least her status at the Mission now.  I think those defenses are decent (though hardly slam-dunk) and, if rejected, would further inflame India as well as create unwelcome precedents for US consuls and diplomats abroad.

Of course, from a diplomatic perspective, it seems clear to me that this prosecution should never have been brought, or at least there should never have been an “arrest” (much less the strip-search).  Why couldn’t the U.S. have indicted her without arresting her, or even just demanded her withdrawal without indicting her?  That is effectively what has happened anyway, except that we also get a crisis in US-India relations like we haven’t had in decades.

I’m putting the blame here almost completely on the U.S. State Department. They (supposedly) had notice that this arrest was going to happen, and they did not take steps to head off a pretty serious diplomatic incident.  Dealing with foreign diplomats is at the heart of what they do.  And they couldn’t have predicted what happened here?  C’mon Secretary Kerry, hold someone responsible!

I’ve just finished my grades from last semester (yes I know, I’m late!).  But I have no problem giving the U.S. State Department an “F” here.