Archive of posts for category
US Diplomacy and National Security

The New Iran Deal Doesn’t Look Legally Binding. Does it Matter?

by Duncan Hollis

A flurry of news today over the announcement that Iran has cut a deal with six major world powers — the Permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council — the US, Russia, China, France and the UK — plus Germany.  The text of the ‘Joint Plan of Action’ is also widely available (see here or here).

My first reaction on looking at this ‘deal’ is that it’s not legally binding under international law.  Look at how the Preamble begins:

The goal for these negotiations is to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons….

The ‘goal’ implies something aspirational rather than required.  The big-ticket commitment that Iran won’t seek or develop nuclear weapons is also referenced as a ‘reaffirmation’ rather than an affirmative commitment via this text.

Similarly, the operative paragraphs maintain an emphasis on avoiding language of legal intent:

Elements of a first step

The first step would be time-bound, with a duration of 6 months, and renewable by mutual consent, during which all parties will work to maintain a constructive atmosphere for negotiations in good faith.

Iran would undertake the following voluntary measures:

  • From the existing uranium enriched to 20%, retain half as working stock of 20% oxide for fabrication of fuel for the TRR. Dilute the remaining 20% UF6 to no more than 5%. No reconversion line
  • Iran announces that it will not enrich uranium over 5% for the duration of the 6 months. . . . .

In return, the E3/EU+3 would undertake the following voluntary measures:

  • Pause efforts to further reduce Iran’s crude oil sales, enabling Iran’s current customers to  purchase their current average amounts of crude oil. Enable the repatriation of an agreed amount of revenue held abroad. For such oil sales, suspend the EU and U.S. sanctions on associated insurance and transportation services.
  • Suspend U.S. and EU sanctions on:
    • Iran’s petrochemical exports, as well as sanctions on associated services.5
    • Gold and precious metals, as well as sanctions on associated services.
  • · Suspend U.S. sanctions on Iran’s auto industry, as well as sanctions on associated services . . .

(emphasis added)

Note the operative verb in these paragraphs is ‘would’ not ‘shall’ (which everyone would agree connotes an intention to be legally bound) or even ‘will’ (which the United States often uses to convey a legal intent even through the British and several other countries insist signals an agreement meant to have political, in lieu of legal, force).

To further emphasize the political and non-legally binding nature of this agreement, note the two sides emphasize that the measures listed are ‘voluntary’.  Moreover, the document is unsigned and lacks final clauses.  So, the bottom line for me . . . this isn’t binding under international law.  It’s a political commitment, not a legal one.

OK.  Say I’m right?  Why does it matter if this is not a treaty?  To be clear, there’s nothing entirely novel about concluding a major political document in a non-legal form — from the Atlantic Charter, to the Shanghai Communique to the Helsinki Accords, there are plenty of ‘big ticket’ precedents for doing major deals in legally non-binding texts.  Nor is it that political commitments are devoid of content — to be sure they can contain much that is aspirational or even puffery.  But, many political commitments can contain significant expectations of changes to future behavior and, at first glance, I’d say the Joint Plan of Action falls in the latter category.  The text is chock full of commitments both sides indicate they’ll be taking in the next six months on the path to a comprehensive settlement with respect to the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

That said, I think there are at least three significant implications of the choice of a non-treaty form for this deal.  First, I think it offers all sides flexibility – all seven parties are cloaking their expectations of what’s going to happen now behind terms that allow them to turn on a dime as necessary, either to back away from their ‘voluntary measures’ or to adjust them as all involved carefully monitor the other side’s performance.  Indeed, I expect that such flexibility was a key criterion for the sort of cooperation this deal envisages.  Second, by choosing a political deal rather than a legal one, I think the results are less credible than if they’d been done via a more august instrument like a treaty.  The treaty signals a level of commitment that just isn’t available with respect to an unsigned ‘joint plan’.   Now, maybe a major legal text wasn’t possible in the time frame all sides were working under, but I’d be surprised if any subsequent, final deal isn’t coached in a legal form given the greater credibility that accompanies those sorts of promises.

For the United States, though, I think the third, and most significant, implication of this deal taking a political form is the fact that the Obama Administration doesn’t have to get the Senate or the Congress as a whole to approve it.  Legally binding treaties and international agreements require the conclusion of specific domestic approval procedures.  The Constitution contemplates the Senate giving advice and consent by a 2/3rd majority to Treaties (and most arms control agreements are done as Treaties).  Modern practice meanwhile more regularly favors ‘congressional-executive’ agreements where Congress approves of the conclusion of the agreement before or after the deal is done.  In other cases, the President may invoke his sole executive powers to authorize the conclusion of a deal by himself.  But, when it comes to political commitments, there are no constitutional precedents requiring that Congress as a whole or the Senate authorize the commitment’s conclusion.  Now, together with Josh Newcomer, I’ve argued previously that this status quo is constitutionally problematic where political commitments can function in much the same way as treaties.  I fear political commitments may function as a loop-hole for the Executive to do deals that he could not do if he had to go to Congress or the Senate.  I’m not sure that this is such a case, but it’s certainly worth thinking about the consequences of having the United States pursue this major foreign policy shift where the U.S. legislature has so little say in the matter (at least until such time as any deal requires changes to U.S. law itself).

What do others think?  Am I right the Joint Plan of Action is not intended to be a treaty or an international agreement?  And do you agree that it was a means for the United States to conclude a deal without involving a Congress, at least some portion of which has been overtly hostile to any negotiations with Iran?

[Update: over at Lawfare, Ingrid Wuerth rightly calls me to task for my earlier title -- referencing a 'U.S.-Iran' deal when there are 7 States involved -- en route to discussing whether this text would've required congressional or Senate approval IF it was legally binding.  I've fixed the title accordingly and recommend readers check out Ingrid's post.]

Why Is the New Agreement Between P5+1 and Iran Not Void?

by Kevin Jon Heller

A few days ago, in response to reports of an imminent deal between P5+1 and Iran concerning Iran’s uranium enrichment, Tyler Cullis and Ryan Goodman debated whether Iran has a “right” to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes. Tyler argued that Iran does, citing (inter alia) Art. IV of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT):

Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty.

Ryan disagreed, arguing that any such “right” in the NPT has been superceded by a series of Security Council resolutions — beginning with Res. 1696 in 2006 — demanding that Iran cease its enrichment activities. In defense of his position, Ryan cited a number of eminent non-proliferation scholars, such as Larry D. Johnson, a former Assistant-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs at the United Nations:

While Iran claims that it has a right to enrich uranium as part of its peaceful nuclear energy program, the IAEA Board of Governors found that there had been a history of concealment and failure to declare certain activities to the agency, and therefore reported the matter to the Security Council. The Council has decided that over and above its obligations under NPT and the safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Iran was required, under Chapter VII of the Charter, to suspend all proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities, including all enrichment-related and all reprocessing activities, as confidence-building measures.

I think Ryan are Johnson are right that the “inalienable right” guaranteed by Iran’s ratification of the NPT is nullified — at least for now — by the various Security Council resolutions. So here is my question: why is the just-announced agreement between P5+1 and Iran not void ab initio for the same reason? SC Res. 1737 categorically prohibits Iranian uranium enrichment (emphasis mine)…

Proposals for RPE 134 — and an Unsuccessful Defence of Trial By Skype

by Kevin Jon Heller

A couple of days ago, I blogged about proposals that will soon be debated at the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties (ASP) to excuse Kenyatta and Ruto from having to be physically present at trial. Colum Lynch has kindly posted the text of the two proposals, both of which would amend Rule 134 of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence (RPE). Here is the first one — which the Chair’s Compilation document does not attribute to a particular delegation, but is almost certainly Kenya’s:

4.      Notwithstanding paragraphs 1 to 3 above, if the accused is a sitting Head of State or Government, or a person entitled to act in such capacity, has prior to the commencement of the trial submitted to the jurisdiction of the Court (discussed alternative: “who is subject to a summons to appear”), appearance by such person throughout the trial may, if he or she so wishes, be by counsel, provided a notice in writing has been filed with the Court stating that the accused has explicitly waived his or her right to be present at the trial and the trial chamber is satisfied that the rights of the accused will be fully ensured in his or her absence.

There are two problems with this proposal. The primary one is that, as I explained in my previous post, it is inconsistent with Art. 63(1) of the Rome Statute, which requires the accused to be physically present at trial. Art. 51(4) of the Rome Statue provides that “[t]he Rules of Procedure and Evidence, amendments thereto, and any provisional Rule shall be consistent with this Statute,” while Art. 51(5) provides that “[i]n the event of conflict between the Statute and the Rules of Procedure and Evidence, the Statute shall prevail.” Permitting the accused to be “present” at trial through his counsel, therefore, requires amending Art. 63(1), not Rule 134.

The other problem with the proposal is that it does not even purport to generally redefine the meaning of presence in Art. 63(1). Even if presence could be redefined through the RPE, there would be no justification for excusing only sitting heads of state from physical presence at trial. There is thus little doubt that the proposal is nothing more than an instrumental attempt by Kenya to get around Art. 63(1).

The second proposed amendment to Rule 134 is more interesting…

Why It’s Not Surprising Syria Is Destroying Its Chemical Weapons

by Kevin Jon Heller

A couple of weeks ago, Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum said he was surprised that Syria has, by all accounts, voluntarily given up its chemical-weapons capability:

I don’t really have any comment about this, except to express a bit of puzzlement. As near as I can tell, Bashar al-Assad is really and truly sincere about destroying his chemical weapons stocks.1 But why? I very much doubt it’s because he fears retaliation from the United States. And given his past behavior, it’s hardly likely that it’s driven by feelings of moral revulsion.

So what’s his motivation? For reasons of his own, he must have decided that he was better off without chemical weapons than with them. Perhaps it has to do with the internal political situation in Syria. Or maybe Russia got fed up for some reason. But it’s a bit of a mystery, and not one that I’ve seen any plausible explanations for.

I don’t think it’s a mystery at all. Here is the explanation:

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have firmly seized the momentum in the country’s civil war in recent weeks, capturing one rebel stronghold after another and triumphantly planting the two-starred Syrian government flag amid shattered buildings and rubble-strewn streets.

Despite global outrage over the use of chemical weapons, Assad’s government is successfully exploiting divisions among the opposition, dwindling foreign help for the rebel cause and significant local support, all linked to the same thing: discomfort with the Islamic extremists who have become a major part of the rebellion.

The battlefield gains would strengthen the government’s hand in peace talks sought by the world community.

Both the Syrian government and the opposition have said they are ready to attend a proposed peace conference in Geneva that the U.S. and Russia are trying to convene, although it remains unclear whether the meeting will indeed take place. The Western-backed opposition in exile, which has little support among rebel fighters inside Syria and even less control over them, has set several conditions for its participation, chief among them that Assad must not be part of a transitional government — a notion Damascus has roundly rejected.

“President Bashar Assad will be heading any transitional stage in Syria, like it or not,” Omar Ossi, a member of Syria’s parliament, told The Associated Press.

The government’s recent gains on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, and in the north outside the country’s largest city, Aleppo, have reinforced Assad’s position. And the more the government advances, the easier it is to dismiss the weak and fractious opposition’s demands.

As I have pointed out before, the US’s obsession with chemical weapons was manna from heaven for Assad. There is still no hard evidence that Assad personally ordered the Syrian military to use chemical weapons, and it would have been suicide for anyone associated with the Syrian government to risk US military intervention by using them again. Assad thus essentially traded his strategically useless chemical-weapons capability for the right to wage a ruthless counter-insurgency with impunity. That trade has obviously worked — there is almost no chance at this point that the rebels will overthrow Assad’s government, and it is equally unlikely that Assad will ever step down as part of some kind of negotiated peace agreement. Why would he? He is winning the war, and the West has essentially lost interest in the mass atrocities he has committed, and continues to commit, against innocent Syrian civilians. Indeed, the Syrian military is now routinely using incendiary weapons to kill civilians, yet the West remains silent.

But at least Assad no longer has chemical weapons. Success, right?

New Book: Hidden Histories of War Crimes Trials (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

9780199671144_140I am delighted to announce the publication of a new book that I co-edited with my colleague and dear friend Gerry Simpson, The Hidden Histories of War Crimes Trials. As the title indicates, the book contains a number of essays that discuss little-known trials (such as the Franco-Siamese Mixed Court)  or re-narrate better known but misunderstood trials (such as the trial of Peter von Hagenbach). Here is the table of contents:


1: Gerry Simpson: Introduction

Part 1: Pre-Histories: From Von Hagenbach to The Armenian Genocide
2: Gregory S. Gordon: The trial of Peter von Hagenbach: Reconciling history, historiography, and international criminal law
3: Benjamin Brockman-Hawe: A supranational criminal tribunal for the colonial era: the Franco-Siamese Mixed Court
4: Jennifer Balint: The Ottoman state special military tribunal for the Genocide of the Armenians: ‘Doing government business’

Part 2: European Histories I: Prosecuting Atrocity
5: Rosa Ana Alija-Fernández: Justice for no-land’s men? United States military trials against Spanish Kapos in Mauthausen and universal jurisdiction
6: Dov Jacobs: A narrative of justice and the (re)writing of history: French trials after World War II
7: Frédéric Mégret: The Bordeaux Trial: Prosecuting the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre

Part 3: European Histories II: Americans in Europe
8: Grietje Baars: Capitalism’s victor’s justice? Prosecution of industrialists post WWII
9: Stephen Vladeck: Eisentrager’s (Forgotten) Merits: Military commissions and collateral review

Part 4: European Histories III: Contemporary Trials
10: Benedetta Faedi Duramy: Making peace with the past: Federal Republic of Germany’s accountability for World War II massacres before the Italian Supreme Court
11: Tamás Hoffman: Trying communism through international criminal law? The experiences of the Hungarian historical justice trials
12: Rain Liivoja: Competing histories: Soviet war crimes in the Baltic States
13: Julia Selman-Ayetey: Universal jurisdiction: Conflict and contoversy in Norway

Part 5: African Histories
14: Jackson Maogoto: Reading the shadows of history: The bridges between Turkish and Ethiopian ‘internationalised’ domestic crime trials
15: Firew Kebede Tiba: Mass trials and modes of responsibility for international crimes: Ethiopia

Part 6: Southern Histories
16: Georgina Fitzpatrick: War crimes trials, victor’s justice, and Australian military justice in the aftermath of the second world war
17: Narrelle Morris: Justice for ‘Asian’ victims: Australian war crimes trials of the Japanese 1945-51
18: Peter Rush: Dirty War crimes: Jurisdictions of memory and international criminal law

Part 7: Histories of a Type: Excavating the Crime of Aggression
21: Roger Clark: The crime of aggression: From the trial of Takashi Sakai in August 1946 to the Kampala Review Conference in 2010
22: Mark Drumbl: ‘Germans are the lords and Poles are the servants’: The trial of Arthur Greiser in Poland, 1946
23: Immi Tallgren: The Finnish war-responsibility trial in 1945-56: Flawed justice, anxious peace?

You can purchase a hard copy of the book at the OUP website here. You can also — as part of an experimental OUP initiative — download a complete PDF of the book for free at either or If you cannot afford the £70.00, by all means download the PDF.

UPDATE: The free open-access version of the book is now available on the webpage linked to above.

Doesn’t the U.S. Senate Care about Mercury?

by Duncan Hollis

On November 6, the United States signed the Minamata Convention on Mercury and deposited an instrument of acceptance indicating its consent to be bound by the treaty on its entry into force, making it the first nation to do so.  Here’s how UNEP summarizes the Convention:

The Minamata Convention for Mercury is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. It was agreed at the fifth and final session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in Geneva, Switzerland at 7 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, 19 January 2013.

The major highlights of the Minamata Convention on Mercury include a ban on new mercury mines, the phase-out of existing ones, control measures on air emissions and the international regulation of the informal sector for artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

The treaty certainly seems to address an important environmental problem with significant momentum from State participants — although opened for signature only a month ago, it has already garnered 93 signatories (of course, everyone most people know that those signatures are not the same as consent, which is why the United States took the additional step of depositing an instrument of acceptance).  The treaty will enter into force on the deposit of the 50th instrument of ratification, accession, acceptance or approval.   

What interests me about the Mercury treaty though is not just its contents — which are the latest iteration of multilateral environmental governance — but the process for U.S. acceptance.  Here’s how the State Department describes it:

The Minamata Convention represents a global step forward to reduce exposure to mercury, a toxic chemical with significant health effects on the brain and nervous system. The United States has already taken significant steps to reduce the amount of mercury we generate and release to the environment, and can implement Convention obligations under existing legislative and regulatory authority. The Minamata Convention complements domestic measures by addressing the transnational nature of the problem.

Three questions.  First, is the Administration considering this a congressional executive agreement? If so, shouldn’t they be a bit more specific about which U.S. laws authorize U.S. participation in this treaty.  In particular, it would be interesting to know if the legislation authorizes not just the regulation of mercury but U.S. participation in an international legal regime regulating mercury (I’m guessing it doesn’t).  That’s a big distinction, especially since the Obama Administration has already gotten into quite a dust-up over how it reads statutes with respect to authorizing U.S. consent to treaties (e.g., ACTA).  And if there’s no statutory authority to join the Minamata Convention, doesn’t that mean it must be a sole executive agreement?

Second, where’s the U.S. Senate in all this? As Oona Hathaway has explained there are few, if any, ways to rationally explain why certain international agreements go to the U.S. Senate for advice and consent versus those that Congress approves via ex ante or ex post legislation (let alone those that are done under the President’s sole executive powers).  Rationality aside, however, there is a long history of the Senate exercising its prerogatives over certain subject areas when it comes to giving advice and consent to treaties.  Thus, when President Bush suggested he’d not send the Moscow Treaty on arms control with Russia to the Senate, the Senate issued a non-partisan threat request that he do so . . . and the Administration changed course and obliged the Senate by sending it there.  I’d always understood multilateral environmental agreements to warrant similar treatment.  With one notable exception — the 1976 Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution Convention and its various protocols —  I believe multilateral environmental agreements have always gone through the Senate advice and consent process . . . until now.

This raises a third and final question:  Why did the Administration decide to bypass the Senate in consenting to the Minamata Convention? Perhaps the Senate indicated to the Obama Administration that they would not object to having this treaty concluded as an executive agreement?  Or, maybe the statutory authority (would love further details on what it is) is more robust than in the ACTA context.  Alternatively, I wonder, if this isn’t the Obama Administration response to the Senate’s repeated intransigence lately to approve any of the Administration’s major treaty priorities; from the Disabilities Convention to UNCLOS, the Senate’s been pretty deadlocked of late. Maybe the idea here was to send a warning shot to demonstrate that the Administration no longer feels bound to adhere to past practice when it comes to reserving certain treaty subjects for Senate attention and/or that the Administration wants to remind the Senate that it has other ways to pursue its international agenda if the Senate continues to delay or deny consent to the treaties it receives from the White House.

I’d welcome comments, especially from any readers who know more of the back story on this Convention or the U.S. approach to consenting to it.


The Misleading Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Reports on U.S. Drones

by Michael W. Lewis

[Michael W. Lewis is a Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University. He is a former Navy aviator and Topgun graduate.]

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released reports last week criticizing the use of drones in Yemen and Pakistan.  Both reports have significant flaws in the way the factual information was presented and in how they characterize international law and US policy.

The HRW report is misleading from the outset. Entitled “Between a Drone and al Qaeda,” the report describes HRW’s investigation of six strikes in Yemen.  Yet the strike that caused the vast majority of the civilian casualties described in the report occurred 4 years ago and was not even carried out by a drone. The cruise missile strike on al-Majalah has been covered extensively in the media for years, and was the result of Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from a US warship.

The most pernicious part of injecting the civilian casualties caused by this cruise missile strike into a report critical of drones and US targeted killing policy is the fact that this very strike had a profound impact on US policy four years ago.  Daniel Klaidman’s book “Kill or Capture” details the Obama Administration’s reaction to the al-Majalah strike.  The administration elevated the level of authority required to approve such strikes to the National Command Authority (direct oversight by the cabinet/joint chiefs/president).  It also provided impetus for the shifting in weapons systems away from large weapons like cruise missiles that weigh 3,000 lbs. and carry a 1,000 lb. warhead to weapons like the Hellfire missile (the weapon most often employed by drones) that weighs only 100 lbs. and carries a 20 lb. warhead.  The implication that the al-Majalah strike represents current US targeted killing policy is simply false

HRW’s report also claims that the administration’s policy on targeted killings as outlined in President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University in May embraces a law enforcement approach to the conflict with AQAP rather an armed conflict approach. It comes to that conclusion by cherry-picking a quote from that speech stating that the US only targets individuals who pose an “imminent threat to the American people,” which closely resembles a law enforcement standard. The report neglects to include the two words preceding that quote.  President Obama actually said that the US targets terrorists that pose a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.”  This difference is significant.

In the context of the rest of President Obama’s address and those of other administration officials before him it is clear that the United States’ position is that it is involved in an armed conflict with al Qaeda and its associated forces.  The President says as much later in the same speech: “the conflict with al Qaeda, like all armed conflicts, invites tragedy.”  An earlier speech by John Brennan, then Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, was even clearer on this point…

(Continue Reading)

A Friendly Request for Paul Clement, the Solicitor General, and the Supreme Court — Please read up on what it means to sign a treaty!

by Duncan Hollis

Lots of commentary today here and elsewhere on yesterday’s oral arguments in Bond v. United States, with vote-counters quick to predict the Court will retreat from Missouri v. Holland and the question is only how much.  I have views on the merits, but, frankly I’m having trouble getting passed the fact that two Supreme Court justices, the Solicitor General, and one of his predecessor’s, Paul Clement, seem to not understand how treaty-making works.

Simply put, throughout the argument, there were statements indicating a real misunderstanding of what it means for the United States to sign a treaty like the Chemical Weapons Convention.  To be clear, sometimes U.S. signature of a treaty can have immediate legal effect — what’s known as definitive signature — which is most often witnessed in bilateral agreements on topics within the President’s executive powers.  But for centuries now (actually as a byproduct of the U.S. revolution itself), the general rule for multilateral treaties is that a State signing a treaty does not bind the State to the treaty’s provisions; a further act of ratification is required.  It is the State’s deposit of this instrument of ratification for a treaty that’s in force which triggers the obligation to comply with the treaty’s requirements.  Signing treaties subject to ratification — what is known as “simple signature” serves several useful purposes — it signals the conclusion of negotiations, the signing State’s intention to commence domestic procedures to join the treaty, and the identify of those who can participate in preparatory meetings.  But it does not obligate the State to implement, observe or otherwise comply with any, let alone all, of the treaty’s articles.  The only international legal obligation a signatory State assumes is one not to defeat the treaty’s object and purpose pending its consent to the treaty (in which case it is bound to comply with it) or an indication that it does not intend to ratify the treaty.

But no one yesterday showed any sign that they understood the way treaty signature operates. Take Chief Justice Roberts opening inquiry to Solicitor General Verrilli (see transcript p. 27):

General, let’s suppose there’s a multilateral treaty, the — the international convention to ensure that national legislatures have full authority to carry out their obligations, i.e., that the national legislature has the police power.  And Congress passes a statute saying we have the authority to prosecute local crimes pursuant to this international convention that the President has signed.  Any problem with that?  (emphasis added)

Well, yes.  If the President had merely signed the treaty and not actually ratified it, the treaty power would not afford any basis for Congress’ legislation and this would be a straight-forward Article I case.  Indeed, it would be like Congress deciding to pass legislation implementing the Kyoto Protocol or the Rome Statute to the International Criminal Court — two treaties a U.S. President has signed — without any further approval by the Senate, let alone ratification by the President (a ratification which, I’d note, the President is not required to do even if the Senate gives its advice and consent to ratification).

Of course, the Chief Justice probably meant a treaty that the President had “ratified” — and Verrilli certainly took the question that way.  But I’m worried that both were a bit oblivious to the distinction. I can only imagine what people would say if a Supreme Court Justice has posed a hypo that confused a bill with a statute during an oral argument.  And if that’s not OK, why is it OK to make such a simple mistake about treaty-making?

Now, if this were an isolated incident, I’d be willing to write it off as simply a shorthand-error that both sides ducked around to get at the real — and certainly important — issues at the heart of the Bond case.  But, this wasn’t the only misuse of treaty signature yesterday. More details, after the jump . . .

Autonomous Weapons and a Campaign for a Treaty Ban

by Kenneth Anderson

The debate over autonomous weapons is not so visible in the United States, but the ban campaign launched by Human Rights Watch a year ago – an international NGO coalition called the “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots” – has been quite active in Europe and at the UN, where a number of countries raised the issue in their statements to the General Assembly’s First Committee (disarmament issues).  Matthew Waxman and I have been writing about this issue for several years; we have a short policy paper on the topic available at SSRN, “Law and Ethics for Autonomous Weapon Systems,” and we’re pleased to note our op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Monday (November 4), “Killer Robots and Laws of War.”  We argue against a ban, on a number of grounds (it can be found open access at RealClearPolitics, here).  Here are a couple of grafs from midway through the piece (later on I’ll add links to the ban campaign and some other resources; must go teach class!):

[A] ban is unlikely to work, especially in constraining states or actors most inclined to abuse these weapons. Those actors will not respect such an agreement, and the technological elements of highly automated weapons will proliferate.  Moreover, because the automation of weapons will happen gradually, it would be nearly impossible to design or enforce such a ban. Because the same system might be operable with or without effective human control or oversight, the line between legal weapons and illegal autonomous ones will not be clear-cut.

If the goal is to reduce suffering and protect human lives, a ban could prove counterproductive. In addition to the self-protective advantages to military forces that use them, autonomous machines may reduce risks to civilians by improving the precision of targeting decisions and better controlling decisions to fire. We know that humans are limited in their capacity to make sound decisions on the battlefield: Anger, panic, fatigue all contribute to mistakes or violations of rules. Autonomous weapons systems have the potential to address these human shortcomings. No one can say with certainty how much automated capabilities might gradually reduce the harm of warfare, but it would be wrong not to pursue such gains, and it would be especially pernicious to ban research into such technologies.

That said, autonomous weapons warrant careful regulation. Each step toward automation needs to be reviewed carefully to ensure that the weapon complies with the laws of war in its design and permissible uses. Drawing on long-standing international legal rules requiring that weapons be capable of being used in a discriminating manner that limits collateral damage, the U.S. should set very high standards for assessing legally and ethically any research and development programs in this area. Standards should also be set for how these systems are to be used and in what combat environments.

A Quick Reaction to Oral Argument in Bond v. U.S.: Missouri v. Holland is in Real Trouble

by Julian Ku

Lyle Denniston is first out of the gate with his take on the oral argument in the much-anticipated U.S. Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Bond.  His general take:

The argument in Bond v. U.S. (docket 12-158) reached the grand constitutional scale that has been its potential all along.   At the end of an hour-long hearing, it appeared that the government might just have to hope that it loses the case on narrow grounds, because it might lose it in a sweeping way.  Some of the Justices openly canvassed ways to cut back, perhaps sharply, on the national government’s power to negotiate or to implement global treaties — the very thing that U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., was trying so hard to head off.

For my own part, I was also struck by how none of the justices seemed impressed with the U.S. Solicitor General’s pleas for deference to the Executive Branch in the interpretation and administration of the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Several justices seemed to almost scoff at this argument at times, noting that it was not emphasized in the briefs.  The one exception, a reference to the brief filed by John Bellinger and former U.S. State Department Legal Advisors, was brushed aside fairly easily at argument.

So I think the case will turn out to be a straight-up domestic American federalism debate, with few foreign affairs concerns implicated in either the majority or the dissent.  If I’m right about this, then there seems little reason to doubt that we are headed toward a 5-4 decision in favor of the petitioner. The frequent use of the phrase “police power” is a bad sign for the government, since that is the one thing the Court doesn’t want to acknowledge giving to the federal government.  Moreover, the facts of this case, involving the federal prosecution of what is very close to a plain vanilla domestic dispute, should be enough to tie together a pro-federalism majority on the court.

Indeed, I think the unusual Nick Rosencranz inspired argument which separates the constitutionality of the treaty-implementation power from the treaty power  actually makes the federalism argument easier to swallow.  The pro-federalism justices can simply hold that constitutional limits the domestic implementation power does not necessarily limit the treaty power itself.   The President should not feel constrained to enter into treaties since this ruling does not reach the treaty power. Justice Scalia repeatedly embraced this argument, and even conceded that there are no similar limitations on a self-executing treaty.    It is a bit of an odd argument, since it does imply that a self-executing treaty could accomplish here what the statute could not, but that case would at least be left for another day.

I am also struck that there was not much fealty to Justice Holmes’ opinion in Missouri v. Holland. The US government did not rely on the authority of that decision very much, and Bond’s counsel came up with a way to distinguish it that no justice bothered to challenge.  So fealty to precedent does not appear to be much on their minds either.

Without national security or precedent, the Government’s argument is much weaker, and I agree with Denniston that its best outcome is a very narrow construction of the statute (which Justice Breyer seemed to be leaning toward with his emphasis on the statute’s exception for a “peaceful purpose” and which he repeatedly urged the US government to do as well). I think one could get 8 votes for a narrow construction of the relevant statute.  But I think there is appetite on the Court to go farther. Will they?

U.S. Treaty Practice Does Not Have to Be a Zero-Sum Game!

by Duncan Hollis

November 5, 2013 is U.S. National Treaty Day.  Well, not really, but it might as well be given how much treaties are going to be in the news tomorrow.  For starters, the United States Supreme Court hears oral argument in the case of Bond v. United States (for the pleadings, see SCOTUS blog’s as-always-excellent round-up).  As we’ve blogged previously (a lot), the case challenges the scope of the U.S. treaty power as the basis for implementing legislation in areas where Congress otherwise could not legislate.  In this case, there’s some salacious facts leading to a rather unlikely prosecution under the implementing legislation for the Chemical Weapons Convention (let’s just say the case is a far cry from the scenario that won the OPCW this year’s Nobel Peace Prize).  In the process, Bond questions the continued precedential value of one of the most discussed (and read) cases in U.S. foreign relations law — Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion in Missouri v. Holland.

Then, in the afternoon, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes up the UN Disabilities Convention . . .  again (here’s the line-up for those testifying).  The Convention got a lot of attention the last time it reached the Senate floor, with Senate Republicans voting it down despite the poignant appearance of former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, who came to support advice and consent to the treaty. U.S. Senators John McCain and Robert Menendez have an op-ed in USA Today taking their case for Senate advice and consent to the general public.

Of course, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Disabilities Convention are not the only two treaties to have garnered media attention in recent weeks.  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s signature of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty promoted a rather furious domestic back-lash about whether the United States should join that treaty (At present, it sure looks like there’s easily enough Senate votes to oppose it).  And, that’s not to mention the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  It continues to be supported by a large majority of business and national security interests but remains stymied by Senate opposition from a very vocal minority who fear the loss of “sovereignty” that would come with U.S. consent.

I could easily write one (or more posts) on each of these treaty issues.  For now, though, I want to call attention to a common theme that runs through all the on-going debates.  In each case, the treaty fight ends up being framed as a fight between those who would situate U.S. treaties (and with them, U.S. law) within a larger community — international communitarians if you will — versus those I’d call autonomists — who seek autonomy from any international regulation whether in defense of national law, states’ rights, or individual liberties.  Thus, opponents to UNCLOS want the U.S. to be able to regulate its own maritime environment just as those who oppose the Disabilities Convention oppose its potential to go beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Of course, the Disabilities Convention also raises the specter of further intrusions into U.S. state regulations akin to the fears of internationally-based prosecutions that lie at the heart of the Bond case.  And all of this is not to mention the NRA and their (rather unrealistic) charges that the Arms Trade Treaty would require the United States to violate the Second Amendment and the constitutional liberties individuals enjoy to bear arms.

This division between communitarians and autonomists helps explain how treaty debates are now almost always framed in all-or-nothing terms. The decisions on whether to join or enforce U.S. treaty commitments become zero-sum games; only one side can win and the other must lose. That narrative certainly makes for good media stories.  But, I wonder if playing the game this way is truly in the nation’s interests.  It seems we end up with some examples where communitarians can claim complete victory (see, e.g., the new START treaty or the gold standard of an international engagement — the Montreal Protocol) while autonomists have equally compelling winning claims on their side (see, e.g., Medellin). Citing such divergent results, however, only seems to inflame the passions of the “losing” side and risk entrenching no-compromise strategies that seem a recipe for disaster (see, e.g., this October in Washington).

So as the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Disabilities Convention take center stage, I’d like to flag a simple point: U.S. treaty-making and implementation is a much more flexible and nuanced practice than the existing debates suggest.  There are not just some, but many, potential outcomes in these cases that would not require the definitive death of the treaty power OR states’ rights.  Indeed, as Peter’s most recent post suggests and as I’ve written previously, looking at the history of U.S. treaty-making post Missouri v. Holland, it’s pretty clear that the United States regularly accommodates state interests/rights in entering and implementing U.S. treaty commitments.  Thus, a win for the United States in Bond is unlikely to mean states rights get overridden by all future treaty-making.  Similarly, there are ways for Ms. Bond to win this case (think, creative statutory interpretation) that don’t necessarily mean we all get to stop reading Holmes’ opinion.  One could make a similar point about the Disabilities Convention.  The Senate doesn’t have to give unconditional advice and consent — it has a long history of RUDs (reservations, understandings, and declarations) that might be used to mitigate the scope of U.S. commitments to that treaty regime.  Even federalism interests writ large can be protected (see, e.g., the RUDs included in U.S. ratification of the Organized Crime Convention or the UN Corruption Convention).

Now, there will be those who say RUDs are inadmissible and run counter to the object and purpose of one or more of these treaties, just as there will be those who say joining any treaty will lead to some impermissible sacrifice of U.S. “sovereignty.”  My point (hope) is that Senators (and Supreme Court Justices) don’t have to always accept these cases as they are characterized at the poles. There are plenty of precedents that may be brought to bear balancing competing interests such as federalism and international engagements at the same time.  We’ll see if any such hybrid results appear possible in the coming days.  I’d hope so, but given current trends in American politics, I’m not sure I’d bet on it.

Is David Miranda a Terrorist? Legally, It’s Close — Which Is Precisely the Problem

by Kevin Jon Heller

In my previous post, I mocked Scotland Yard’s assertion that David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, committed an act of terrorism by transporting documents stolen from the US government by Edward Snowden. Mockery remains the appropriate response, given the vast chasm that separates Miranda’s actions from any defensible conception of terrorism — such as the one I quoted from UN General Assembly Resolution 49/60, “[c]riminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons, or particular persons for political purposes.” Yet it is important to avoid focusing solely on Scotland Yard’s abuse of its power, because the real problem lies not with those who apply the law — whose good faith we should never assume — but with the law itself. Simply put, the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000 is so overbroad that, in fact, Miranda’s actions come perilously close to qualifying as terrorism under it. Here is the Act’s definition of terrorism:

1.—(1) In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action
(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to
intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political,
religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it—
(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person
committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a
section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an
electronic system.

Let’s examine each of these elements. First, is transporting Snowden documents “to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public”? Not to intimidate, surely. But transporting the documents is designed to facilitate their release, and the release of the documents is indeed “designed to influence the government” — namely, to convince Britain to abandon its mass surveillance of its citizens and the citizens of other European countries. That is a noble design, but it is a design nonetheless. And the Terrorism Act 2000 does not limit terrorism to acts that seek to influence the government to adopt bad policies. That’s one of its problems.

Second, is transporting Snowden documents done “for the purpose of advancing a political,
religious or ideological cause”? Yes, of course it is — releasing the documents is designed to promote greater transparency in government and to minimize unwarranted interference with people’s privacy. That is a noble political or ideological cause, but it is still a political or ideological cause. And once again, nothing in the Act says that actions in the service of a noble political or ideological cause cannot qualify as terrorism. That’s another problem.

Third, and finally, does transporting Snowden documents “fall within subsection (2)”? It clearly does not involve “serious violence against a person” or “serious damage to property.” But the other three categories of harm are a much closer call. I do not believe that releasing the Snowden documents endangers a person’s life, creates a serious risk to the safety of the public, or is designed to seriously disrupt an electronic system. But it is very easy to imagine an overzealous prosecutor arguing that their release would do any or all of those things — particularly the final one, because the surveillance abuses revealed by the documents are all the product of electronic systems. And given that UK courts have not exactly covered themselves with glory in the terrorism context, it is also all too easy to imagine a court buying that overzealous prosecutor’s argument.

That’s it. That’s all the Terrorism Act 2000 requires. It does not require a violent act. It does not require the intent to cause terror. It does not exclude peaceful acts designed to promote progressive policy change. It does not exclude pacifist or humanist causes. It simply requires the accused commit an act that is designed to influence the government for political or ideological reasons and that directly or indirectly endangers a person, the public, or a computer system.

To be clear: I do not think that David Miranda’s actions qualify as terrorism — even under the woefully overbroad Terrorism Act 2000. In particular, I think the mere act of transporting documents is too causally removed from endangering a person, the public, or a computer system to satisfy subsection (2) of the Act. But Miranda’s actions are far too close for comfort, given the Act’s definition of terrorism — and the actions of a person who actually releases Snowden documents, such as my friend Glenn Greenwald himself, are closer still. Indeed, I find it all too easy to imagine Glenn or one of his former colleagues at the Guardian being successfully prosecuted for terrorism under the Act.

And that, ultimately, is my point. It is a serious problem that Scotland Yard believes Miranda is a terrorist. But the more significant problem is that, viewed solely in terms of the law, its position is anything but absurd. Under the indefensible Terrorism Act 2000, many actions qualify as terrorism that are not, in fact, even remotely terrorist. Perhaps even Miranda’s.