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US Diplomacy and National Security

Did You Know Hazarding a Vessel Was a War Crime? Me Neither.

by Kevin Jon Heller

We have a new challenger in the competition for worst decision by a military commission ever! Judge Pohl has now issued an order in al-Nashiri concluding that Charge IX, Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft, states a violation of the international laws of war. Here is the definition of that “war crime,” 10 U.S.C. § 950t(23):

(23) Hijacking or hazarding a vessel or aircraft.— Any person subject to this chapter who intentionally seizes, exercises unauthorized control over, or endangers the safe navigation of a vessel or aircraft that is not a legitimate military objective shall be punished, if death results to one or more of the victims, by death or such other punishment as a military commission under this chapter may direct, and, if death does not result to any of the victims, by such punishment, other than death, as a military commission under this chapter may direct.

Hijacking or hazarding a vessel is not a grave breach of either the Geneva Conventions or the First Additional Protocol. The Rome Statute does not criminalise hijacking or hazarding a vessel. No international tribunal has ever prosecuted the hijacking or hazarding a vessel as a war crime — not the IMT, not the ad hocs, not the ICC. The ICRC’s study of customary IHL does not mention hijacking or hazarding a vessel — although it does note that both the US Naval Handbook (Vol. II, p. 3893)  and The Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States (Vol. II, p. 3938) specifically distinguish between hijacking and war crimes. And so on.

How, then, does Judge Pohl somehow conclude that hijacking or hazarding a vessel is a war crime — as opposed to attacking civilians or civilian objects, both of which are war crimes and are both of which are also detailed in al-Nashiri’s charge sheet? By citing the widespread ratification of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.

Seriously. By citing the widespread ratification of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.

Here is what Judge Pohl says (emphasis mine):

The M.C.A. prohibits conduct that “endangers the safe navigation of a vessel.” The similarity between the M.C.A. and the SUA Convention is plain and unambiguous. The SUA Convention proscribes the same conduct the M.C.A. proscribes and of which the Accused is charged… The Commission finds by a preponderance of the evidence the Prosecution has demonstrated the crime of Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft is based on norms firmly grounded in international law and can be plainly drawn from established precedent. Therefore, the Commission concludes the offense of Hijacking or Hazarding a Vessel or Aircraft was an international law of war crime at the time the Accused allegedly engaged in the conduct, thus conferring jurisdiction over the offense.

That’s it. That’s Judge Pohl’s entire argument. Never mind that the SUA Convention says nothing about the laws of war, applying equally in armed conflict and peacetime. Never mind that the SUA Convention does not even purport to create an international crime — it is, of course, a suppression convention that simply obligates States Parties to domestically criminalise certain acts. Never mind that, even if it is possible to argue that the widespread ratification of the SUA Convention somehow creates a customary rule prohibiting hijacking or hazarding a vessel (difficult in itself), such a customary rule would still not create “an international law of war crime.”

I hope I don’t need to explain in more detail why the widespread ratification of a suppression convention doesn’t create a war crime. But let’s take Judge Pohl’s methodology seriously. Want to know what other kinds of acts are also war crimes prosecutable in a military commission?

  • Nuclear proliferation (NPT — 190 ratifications)
  • Threatening civilian aviation (Safety of Civilian Aviation Convention – 188 ratifications)
  • Drug trafficking (Illicit Traffic in Narcotics Convention – 188 ratifications)
  • Manufacturing hallucinogenic drugs (Psychotropic Substances Convention – 182 ratifications)
  • Using child labor (Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention – 177 ratifications)
  • Transnational organised crime (Transnational Organized Crime Convention – 176 ratifications)
  • Kidnapping diplomats (Internationally Protected Persons Convention – 176 ratifications)
  • Corruption (Anti-Corruption Convention – 167 ratifications)
All of those conventions are suppression conventions — and each has been much more widely ratified than the SUA Convention. According to Judge Pohl’s logic, therefore, all of those acts are also violations of the international laws of war.In the off chance you needed additional proof that the military commissions are a joke, Judge Pohl’s decision is Exhibit A.

No, the Attack on the USS Cole Did Not Take Place in Armed Conflict

by Kevin Jon Heller

I argued more than three years ago that the US decision to prosecute Abd al-Rahim Abdul al-Nashiri in a military commission was illegitimate, because the attack on the USS Cole did not take place during an armed conflict. (I also pointed out that al-Nashiri was systematically tortured, including through the use of mock executions and waterboarding.) Peter Margulies takes a whack at the contrary position today at Lawfare, and the results aren’t pretty. Here, for example, is what he says about the Tadic test:

Under international law, the existence of a noninternational armed conflict depends on the intensity and duration of violence and the existence of an organized armed group (OAG) responsible for the violence. The OAG criterion is readily met: “core” Al Qaeda ordered the Cole attack and used it as a basis for recruiting more terrorists. The geographic distance between Yemen and Afghanistan is irrelevant given the centrality of Al Qaeda’s planning, which placed Osama bin Laden and Al-Nashiri in the same OAG.

The duration and hostility factors also break against Al-Nashiri. In the MCA, Congress gave military commissions jurisdiction over acts committed before September 11, recognizing that Al Qaeda’s military efforts against the US predated that event. The conduct of the US prior to the Cole bombing buttresses Congress’s finding. In August, 1998, President Clinton responded to the Al Qaeda-planned East African Embassy bombings, which killed over 250 persons, with a wave of Cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan. That sounds pretty intense to me, although the intensity seems lost on Al-Nashiri’s advocates.

Margulies gets the NIAC test right, and he is even likely right that al-Nashiri was part of “core” al-Qaeda at the time of the attack on the USS Cole. But his discussion of the duration and intensity factors is deeply flawed. To begin with, as I have pointed out before (numerous times), the existence of a NIAC is a purely objective question, one determined by the facts on the ground, irrespective of the subjective perception of the parties to the hostilities. The MCA’s jurisdictional provisions are thus irrelevant to whether the US was involved in a NIAC with core al-Qaeda when the USS Cole was attacked.

More importantly, it is clear that no such NIAC existed at the time of the attack…

The End of Treaties? The End of History?

by Duncan Hollis

AJIL Unbound, the new on-line companion to the American Journal of International Law, has begun to publish short essays this week for its on-line Agora, The End of Treaties? (see the original call for papers here). So far, they have posts up by Tim Meyer (‘Collective Decision-making in International Governance‘) — and Joel Trachtman (‘Reports of the Death of Treaty Are Premature, but Customary International Law May Have Outlived Its Usefulness‘).  Additional posts will be rolled out over the course of the week here.

As for me, I regard this ‘End of Treaties?’ idea as analogous to Francis Fukuyama’s famous End of History thesis.  Like Fukuyama’s piece, I think the idea here is more an argument about the future of treaties as opposed to either an historical or empirical claim that treaties no longer matter much to international law.  Just as it’s hard to argue that history ended with the Cold War, it’s hard to make the case that we’re now witnessing the end of treaties.  On the contrary, there are more treaties in force today than ever before in human history. The United States has more than 10,000 treaties in force and the UN Treaty Office has registered more than 64,000 treaties (this notwithstanding widespread noncompliance by States with their obligation to register treaty commitments).  The breadth and depth of these treaty commitments is equally striking — one is hard pressed to find an international law issue today where there is not some treaty that speaks, directly or indirectly, to the question.  

Perhaps the “End of Treaties” idea should emphasize the decline in treaty-making as opposed to treaties themselves?  Again though, I’m not sure there’s evidence to support the claim.  True, the number of major multilateral treaty negotiations has fallen off in recent years (at least when compared to the late- and immediate- post Cold War periods) while other negotiations appear stalled. But it’s not clear to me that we’re heading to some definitive end-point of obsolescence rather than witnessing an oscillation over time in terms of when and how treaty-making gets done. Nor am I persuaded by the Senate’s recent recalcitrance on treaty-making.  For starters, it’s actually a pretty small piece of U.S. treaty-making; I believe Senate advice and consent treaties in recent decades constitute only about 7% of the international agreements concluded by the United States. And, it’s not like the Senate has refused to give advice and consent entirely; 2013 saw 4 treaties get through.  This is not to say that the Senate process is working well right now — it’s clear not — but rather to suggest it may not yet be time to write that process off completely.

Finally, I do not think one has to find that treaties as a form of international commitment are necessarily weakened by the emergence in recent years of all these new forms of what Tim calls ‘collective decision-making’.  I don’t accept the idea that we’re in a zero-sum game where every time we use a political commitment or code of conduct, there’s one less treaty going forward.  Instead, I wonder if the proverbial pie may be expanding with the expansion in forms of international cooperation; the future (or indeed, even the present) may bear witness to more treaties AND more political commitments, international institutional norm-making, soft law or what have you.  Thus, Tim and I may part ways a bit here as a descriptive matter since he’s inclined to think there’s been some decline in treaty usage.  I’d concede though that there’s research that we could do to settle the trade-off questions.

In the end, I may not be in agreement with the Agora’s theme, but I applaud its attention to the treaty topic.  For me, treaties deserve more attention, not because they are in some form of decline, but rather because of how critical they have become to the functioning of the modern international legal order.  So, I am looking forward to thinking more about Meyer and Trachtman’s posts and reading the remaining contributions later this week.  I trust it’s the start of a great conversation.

PTC II to Defence Attorneys: You Are All Criminals

by Kevin Jon Heller

I’ve been remiss in my blogging lately for a variety of reasons, but I can’t let pass two interrelated decisions by Pre-Trial Chamber II (sitting as a single judge) in the criminal proceedings against Aimé Kilolo Musamba and Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo — Bemba’s lead defence attorney and case manager, respectively. The two men, who are currently in custody, are accused of tampering with witnesses and manufacturing evidence.

The decisions in question concern the requests by Kilolo and Mangenda for release pending trial. To justify denying a suspect pre-trial release, the PTC must find (1) that there are reasonable grounds to believe the suspect committed the crimes alleged by the OTP, and (2) that ongoing detention is necessary for one of the reasons set forth in Art. 58(1)(b) of the Rome Statute — namely, to ensure that the suspect appears at trial, to prevent the suspect from obstructing the OTP’s investigation, or to prevent the suspect from continuing to commit crimes.

In both cases, and essentially on exactly the same grounds, the PTC found that continued detention was warranted. I’m willing to accept the PTC’s conclusion regarding the first limb of the detention test; although I’m skeptical the OTP can prove the allegations at trial for a variety of substantive and procedural reasons, a judge could find that there are reasonable grounds to believe Kilolo and Mangenda tampered with witnesses and/or manufactured evidence. But I am appalled by the PTC’s approach to the second limb of the detention test, where it concludes that Kilolo and Mangenda are both flight risks and are likely to obstruct the OTP’s investigation. The PTC’s reasoning exhibits a truly breathtaking contempt for the role that defence attorneys and case managers play at the ICC. Here is what the PTC says about Kilolo being a flight risk (and the PTC makes the same argument for Mangenda) (emphasis added):

22. Whilst acknowledging the handing over of Mr Kilolo’s passport to the authorities of the Detention Centre, the Single Judge observes that this does not detract from the risks of flight which are inherent in the very connection of Aimé Kilolo to the network of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo and to the ensuing likelihood that he might be made available resources enabling him to abscond from the jurisdiction of the Court. Furthermore, it is to be noted that Mr Kilolo requests to be released in Belgium, i.e. in a country within the Schengen area, where travel is to a great extent possible without the need that identity documents be shown or relied upon.

[snip]

24. The Single Judge is likewise not persuaded that Aimé Kilolo’s withdrawal from his role as lead counsel for Jean-Pierre Bemba in the Main Case entails per se the severance of all of his ties to the latter’s vast network and hence to the concrete risk that resources be made available to him for the purpose of evading justice. The fact that “depuis le 6 décembre 2013, le requérant n’a plus de contacts privilégiés avec M. Bemba” (emphasis added) does not mean that the long-established relationship between Mr Bemba and Mr Kilolo by virtue of the latter’s role as lead counsel in the Main Case has ceased to exist. Contrary to what stated by the Defence the absence of documents witnessing to the existence of a “relation personnelle” between the two cannot be considered as mitigating or otherwise affecting this conclusion. Similarly, if it is true that assets pertaining to Mr Bemba and Mr Babala have been seized by way of implementation of the Chamber’s order, such assets obviously form but a small part of the assets which are or might be made available to the network as a whole, which comprises a number of individuals by far exceeding the suspects in this case.

Notice what the PTC is claiming here: Kilolo is part of Bemba’s “network” simply because he served as Bemba’s defence attorney. Kilolo is thus “inherently” a flight risk, despite not having been convicted of any crime — presumably the presumption of innocence still applies to the pending charges — because he has access to the vast resources of Bemba’s criminal organisation. In short: Bemba’s defence attorney is no different than Bemba’s henchmen and enforcers. He just plays a different role in Bemba’s organisation.

The PTC’s argument is disturbingly reminiscent of the post-9/11 demonisation of defence attorneys in the US who had the temerity to represent individuals accused of terrorism. Marc Thiessen, for example, (in)famously claimed that “[t]he habeas lawyers were not doing their constitutional duty to defend unpopular criminal defendants. They were using the federal courts as a tool to undermine our military’s ability to keep dangerous enemy combatants off the battlefield in a time of war.” Such despicable claims led to significant pushback from both progressives and (to their credit) many conservatives — and rightfully so. Yet now we witness the unseemly spectacle of an international judge engaging in precisely the same kind of demonisation.

Nor is that all. The PTC’s explanation of why Mangenda is likely to obstruct the OTP’s investigation is just as offensive (emphasis added):

As stated by the Prosecutor, Mangenda’s former role as case manager for Jean-Pierre Bemba entails that he is likely to know the identity of most of the potential witnesses; moreover, given the precise information disclosed to him, now he is even in a better position to obstruct or endanger the investigations. As regards the fact that the Prosecutor’s investigation is close to completion, it cannot be reasonably excluded that additional action might be taken, in respect of other evidentiary items which might still be outstanding, whether in relation to the Main Case or to these proceedings, in spite of the fact that some pieces of evidence are indeed in the possession of the Court or of the relevant national authorities and as such beyond the suspects’ reach.

Is it possible to imagine greater contempt for the role — absolutely critical, as any defence attorney knows — of a case manager? Of course Mangenda will obstruct the OTP’s investigation (now the presumption of innocence is jettisoned completely); after all, what member of Bemba’s “network” would be better placed to do so than his case manager, who has access to all kinds of insider information?

Again, the PTC’s contempt for the defence function is truly shocking. Unfortunately, it seems to be a pattern at the ICC — let’s not forget how the Court essentially abandoned and apologized for Melinda Taylor when Libya imprisoned her on the basis of truly ludicrous allegations. Defence attorneys and case managers, even those accused of serious crimes, deserve better.

NETmundial, Borders in Cyberspace, and a Duty to Hack

by Duncan Hollis

Last week’s NETmundial conference serves as a reminder of just how much the nature of cyberspace remains (at least theoretically) undetermined.  We still can’t agree on what kind of resource cyberspace “is”:  Is it a global public good as Sir Tim Berners Lee proclaimed (i.e., a res communis) or just a collection of technology subject to sovereignty regulation like so many other resources?  This theoretical divide may help explain the continuing back and forth between multi-stakeholder governance (which includes, but does not privilege, a role for States) versus the multilateral governance project (which most certainly does).  NETmundial may have been a net plus for multi-stakeholder proponents, but I’m much less sanguine that it represents an end to claims that cyberspace can — and should — be regulated primarily by government controls over internet resources (for more on the details of NETmundial and its final statement see Milton Mueller’s take-away here).

My skepticism about how international law will draw borders for cyberspace governance leads me to think about other roles borders can play in cyberspace — that is, using international law to draw lines separating acceptable from unacceptable behavior, permitted conduct from required conduct, etc.  I’ve drafted a new chapter that, in the context of cyber war, examines both the ways we draw law from borders and borders from law in cyberspace.  I critique the status quo on both theoretical and functional grounds, concluding that we should seek to start a new process not just for constructing governance regimes, but normative ones as well.  Consistent with the book’s central focus on cyber war, I proffer a case-study for such an approach with respect to armed conflicts, arguing international humanitarian law should adopt a Duty to Hack.  My idea is that, even though it does so only occasionally now, international law should regularly require States to use cyber-operations in their military operations whenever they are the least harmful means available for achieving military objectives.  You can download a copy of the paper here on SSRN.

For those looking for more details, here’s the abstract:

Warfare and boundaries have a symbiotic relationship. Whether as its cause or effect, States historically used war to delineate the borders that divided them. Laws and borders have a similar relationship. Sometimes laws are the product of borders as when national boundaries delineate the reach of States’ authorities. But borders may also be the product of law; laws regularly draw lines between permitted and prohibited conduct or bound off required acts from permissible ones. Both logics are on display in debates over international law in cyberspace. Some characterize cyberspace as a unique, self-governing ‘space’ that requires its own borders and the drawing of tailor-made rules therein. For others, cyberspace is merely a technological medium that States can govern via traditional territorial borders with rules drawn ‘by analogy’ from pre-existing legal regimes.

This chapter critiques current formulations drawing law from boundaries and boundaries from law in cyberspace with respect to (a) its governance; (b) the use of force; and (c) international humanitarian law (IHL). In each area, I identify theoretical problems that exist in the absence of any uniform theory for why cyberspace needs boundaries. At the same time, I elaborate functional problems with existing boundary claims – particularly by analogy – in terms of their (i) accuracy, (ii) effectiveness and (iii) completeness. These prevailing difficulties on whether, where, and why borders are needed in cyberspace suggests the time is ripe for re-appraising the landscape.

This chapter seeks to launch such a re-thinking project by proposing a new rule of IHL – a Duty to Hack. The Duty to Hack would require States to use cyber-operations in their military operations whenever they are the least harmful means available for achieving military objectives. Thus, if a State can achieve the same military objective by bombing a factory or using a cyber-operation to take it off-line temporarily, the Duty to Hack requires that State to pursue the latter course. Although novel, I submit the Duty to Hack more accurately and effectively accounts for IHL’s fundamental principles and cyberspace’s unique attributes than existing efforts to foist legal boundaries upon State cyber-operations by analogy. Moreover, adopting the Duty to Hack could constitute a necessary first step to resolving the larger theoretical and functional challenges currently associated with law’s boundaries in cyberspace.

 

Thoughts on the Ukraine Ad Hoc Self-Referral

by Kevin Jon Heller

As readers no doubt know, Ukraine has accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis for acts committed between 21 November 2013 and 22 February 2014. The self-referral has already led to a good deal of intelligent commentary — see, for example, Mark Leon Goldberg’s discussion of the politics of an ICC investigation here and Mark Kersten’s convincing argument that Russia may not be particularly opposed to an ICC investigation here. I just want to add a few additional thoughts.

To begin with, I remain troubled by the insistence of Ukraine’s Constitutional Court that Ukraine cannot delegate its adjudicative jurisdiction to an international court. As it said in 2001:

Article 124 of the Ukrainian Constitution states that the administration of justice is the exclusive competence of the courts and that judicial functions cannot be delegated to other bodies or officials. The Constitutional Court noted that the jurisdiction of the ICC under the Rome Statute is complementary to national judicial systems. However, under Article 4(2) of the Rome Statute, the ICC may exercise its functions and powers on the territory of any State party, and under Article 17, the ICC may find a case to be admissible if the State is unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation or prosecution. The Court concluded that jurisdiction supplementary to the national system was not contemplated by the Ukrainian Constitution. Hence, the amendment of the Constitution is required before the Statute can be ratified.

Parliament’s acceptance of the ICC’s jurisdiction, even on an ad hoc basis, seems specifically foreclosed by the Constitutional Court’s judgment. Ukraine’s President and Parliament clearly don’t care about that inconvenient fact; will the ICC? Martin Holtermann may be right — the ICC may simply defer to Ukraine’s President and Parliament. But I can help but think it would be unseemly for an international court like the ICC to simply ignore a clear judgment issued by the highest court in a state purporting to accept its jurisdiction. At the very least, Fatou Bensouda should take the Ukraine’s internal conflict into account when she decides whether to open a formal investigation — you can bet that any suspect wanted by the ICC would challenge the legality of the self-referral in Ukraine’s domestic courts, litigation that could make it very difficult for ICC proceedings to go forward.

Relatedly, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that Ukraine’s self-referral does not mean the OTP will open a formal investigation into the situation. Diane Amann writes today that the self-referral shows “Europe is on [the] ICC docket.” That’s true — but only in the formal sense. As Mark Kersten noted in February, Europe has been on the ICC docket for a long time in terms of preliminary investigations. After all, the OTP announced the Georgia investigation in August 2008 — nearly six years ago. (Its Afghanistan investigation has been plodding along even longer, since 2007.) That hasn’t quelled the voices that have been complaining — with justification — that the ICC has been overly obsessed with Africa. So unless and until the OTP decides to open a formal investigation into the situation in Ukraine, the country’s self-referral is unlikely to have any positive effect whatsoever on the Court’s African reputation.

Finally, a brief thought on the temporal limits of the self-referral. I don’t think the ICC will reject the referral on the ground that it is too carefully tailored to ensure only one side of the conflict. (A major problem with Comoros’s Mavi Marmara state referral.) The temporal limits, however narrow, make some sense — the referral begins when Yanukovych announced Ukraine was abandoning the agreement with the European Union and ends when Yanukovych fled the country. Should Ukraine have accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction for a longer period — most notably, to include Russia’s invasion of Crimea? I had an interesting twitter debate earlier today on that issue with a bunch of smart Court-watchers, including Ryan Goodman, Eugene Kontorovich, Mark Kersten, Martin Holtermann, and David Kaye. I pointed out that it’s difficult to see what international crimes Russia committed during the invasion, other than the non-prosecutable crime of aggression. Ryan replied that a longer self-referral could give the ICC an opportunity to address important issues in the law of occupation. (See also his post here.) That’s absolutely true — but only if Russia actually violates the law of occupation, which seems unlikely given the popularity (certainly not uniform) of the invasion and annexation within Crimea itself. The wildcard is the crime that Eugene mentioned during our discussion — the transfer of civilians into occupied territory. I have no idea whether Russia intends to directly or indirectly transfer Russians into Crimea; Eugene seems to think it does, and I will defer to his greater knowledge of the situation. But my position with regard to that possibility is the same as my position on Israel’s transfer of civilians into the West Bank: whatever the merits of the allegations, the war crime is legally uncertain and factually difficult to prove, especially when the transfer is indirect instead of direct — which it is in the West Bank and would almost certainly be in Crimea. In the absence of other violations of the law of occupation, therefore, I am not sure the OTP would get involved.

I imagine we will have much more to discuss concerning the ICC and Ukraine in the weeks to come!

The Case That Won’t Die: U.S. Court Revives South Africa Apartheid Alien Tort Statute Lawsuit

by Julian Ku

So maybe the use of the Alien Tort Statute against corporations for overseas activities isn’t fully dead. Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has revived In re South Africa Apartheid Litigation, a twelve-year-old litigation that just won’t die. A copy of the opinion can be found here.

Most of the opinion deals with whether a corporation may be sued under the Alien Tort Statute, an issue most thought was settled within the Second Circuit (the federal appeals circuit that includes New York). As a lower court within that circuit, the district court should have been bound to follow that court’s 2010 opinion Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell, which held that corporations cannot be sued under the ATS.  The lower court judge, Shira Scheindlin, decided that since the Supreme Court had ended up dismissing the Kiobel plaintiffs on other grounds (e.g. extraterritoriality), the Court had sub silentio reversed the original Kiobel decision’s ruling on corporate liability.  That is quite a stretch, and appears based almost solely on the Supreme Court’s reference to “mere corporate presence” as being insufficient to overcome the statutory presumption against extraterritoriality.  This language, and the Supreme Court’s decision not to otherwise mention the corporate liability issue, was enough for Judge Scheindlin to revisit the corporate liability issue.  I don’t really buy this sub silentio interpretation of Kiobel, but to give credit where credit is due, this argument was previewed in our Kiobel insta-symposium by Jordan Wells, a third year law student.  Let’s just say Judge Scheindlin really went out of her way to re-open this question.  

My views on the corporate liability issue haven’t changed since I published my full length attack on it back in 2010.  In my view, the Supreme Court’s decision in Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, finding that the Torture Victim Protection Act does not allow torture claims against corporate defendants, provides an unappreciated boost to the policy rationale for limiting these kinds of lawsuits to natural persons.  But other circuits, and apparently Judge Scheindlin, refuse to agree with me (I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true).

Putting aside the corporate liability issue, it is perhaps more surprising that Judge Scheindlin did not simply dismiss all of the defendants on Kiobel extraterritoriality grounds.  The Second Circuit appeals panel in this case held that all of the defendants (U.S. and foreign) should be dismissed because all of the alleged relevant conduct occurred in South Africa.  The U.S. corporate defendants (Ford and IBM) did not overcome the Kiobel presumption because the complaints only allege vicarious liability as parent corporations to their South African subsidiaries.   Yet Judge Scheindlin only dismissed the foreign defendants and will allow the plaintiffs to re-file their complaints against the US defendants to overcome the new Kiobel extraterritoriality presumption.  This means that she is willing to explore in greater detail the Kiobel requirement that plaintiffs’ claims “touch and concern” the territory of the U.S. with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritoriality.  Will knowledge by the US parent of the subsidiaries’ activities in South Africa be enough? Will receiving profits from the subsidiaries be enough? I assume that is the best the plaintiffs will be able to plead is knowledge by the U.S. parent.

I assume this is going back to the appeals panel in this case, and we should expect some rather testy reactions. Judge Jose Cabranes (the author of the appeals court panel decision) and Judge Scheindlin have recently tangled over a local NY case against aggressive police tactics resulting in the controversial removal of Judge Scheindlin from that case (Judge Cabranes was one of three judges involved in that removal order).  This latest Scheindlin order seems a double-insult at Judge Cabranes.  It “reverses” his earlier Kiobel decision on corporate liability (from a lower court no less!), and then it ignores his subsequent opinion holding that all defendants should be dismissed via a motion for judgment on the pleadings.   A little tension brewing at 40 Foley Square, perhaps?

There Is No General “Security Exception” in the UNHQ Agreement Act

by Kevin Jon Heller

I fully concur with Julian’s recent post about the United Nations Headquarters Agreement. There is no question that the US decision to deny Aboutalebi a visa violates the Agreement itself. But I’ve seen suggestions, most notably by my friend John Bellinger, that the US is not violating domestic US law because the 1947 United Nations Headquarters Agreement Act (scroll down) contains a “security exception” to the visa requirement. Here is what John said, according to Bloomberg:

President Barack Obama has authority to deny a visa to Iran’s newest choice as envoy to the UN, yet doing so would open up risks for U.S. foreign policy.

The decision in the case of Hamid Aboutalebi, who was part of the group that took over the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, is being made at a delicate point in U.S.-led negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Under the United Nations Headquarters Agreement Act approved by Congress in 1947, the president has authority to deny visas to individuals deemed to pose a security threat to the U.S., said John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser who is now partner at Arnold and Porter LLP in Washington.

If Obama decides a person is a threat “then we’re not required to give that person a visa, and that would be consistent with our obligations under the headquarters agreement,” Bellinger said. “Whether that’s good policy or not that would be up to others to decide.”

“The short answer is, it’s complicated,” he said.

I disagree. With respect to John, nothing in the Headquarters Agreement Act permits the US to deny a visa to anyone it considers a “security threat.” The relevant provision is section 6, which Julian did not quote in full in his post (emphasis mine):

Nothing in the agreement shall be construed as in any way diminishing, abridging, or weakening the right of the United States to safeguard its own security and completely to control the entrance of aliens into any territory of the United States other than the headquarters district and its immediate vicinity, as to be defined and fixed in a supplementary agreement between the Government of the United States and the United Nations in pursuance of section 13 (3) (e) of the agreement, and such areas as it is reasonably necessary to traverse in transit between the same and foreign countries. Moreover, nothing in section 14 of the agreement with respect to facilitating entrance into the United States by persons who wish to visit the headquarters district and do not enjoy the right of entry provided in section 11 of the agreement shall be construed to amend or suspend in any way the immigration laws of the United States or to commit the United States in any way to effect any amendment or suspension of such laws.

Section 6 contains two separate provisions. Provision 1 permits the US to prohibit individuals who have a right of entry under the Headquarters Agreement but are considered a security threat from traveling anywhere other than other than “the [UN] headquarters district and its immediate vicinity.” Provision 2 then permits the US to deny entry completely to anyone who does not have a right of entry under the Headquarters Agreement. Section 6 thus does not permit the US to deny entry completely to someone who has a right of entry.

I think this is the only plausible reading of section 6. To find a general “security exception,” we have to read “safeguard its own security” (1) in isolation from the rest of the sentence in which it is placed (in which case we must still infer that the US is entitled to deny entry completely to individuals who are security threats, because Provision 1 does not specify any remedy other than limitation to the UN area), and (2) in isolation from Provision 2, which does explicitly permit denying entry completely but limits that remedy to individuals who do not have a right of entry under the Headquarters Agreement. Moreover, as Julian notes, it is extremely unlikely the UN would have accepted a general security exception if that had been Congress’s intent, because such an exception would have effectively rendered section 11 of the Headquarters Agreement moot.

Thanks to Tyler Cullis for calling the “security exception” problem to my attention.

Can the U.S. Legally Deny Iran’s New U.N. Ambassador a Visa to New York? Nope.

by Julian Ku

According to Reuters, the U.S. is thinking hard about denying a visa to Iran’s new U.N. Ambassador, thus preventing him from taking up his post in New York. The new ambassador, Hamid Abutalebi, apparently participated in the Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran back in 1979. Although nothing is official yet, it looks like the U.S. is going to invoke its “security exception” to the U.N. Headquarters Agreement to deny Abutalebi a visa.   As in the case involving President Bashir of Sudan, denying a visa to Iran’s ambassador would almost certainly violate the Headquarters Agreement.  Let’s take a look at Section 11:

The federal, state or local authorities of the United States shall not impose any impediments to transit to or from the headquarters district of (1) representatives of Members or officials of the United Nations…

Iran’s ambassador is clearly covered by this language. The only U.S. argument flows from the “security” exception attached to the Headquarters Agreement upon its approval by the U.S. Congress.

Nothing in the agreement shall be construed as in any way diminishing, abridging, or weakening the right of the United States to safeguard its own security and completely to control the entrance of aliens into any territory of the United States….

As a matter of international law, I do not think the United Nations ever officially accepted this amendment to the original Headquarters Agreement, and certainly it has never accepted the rather broad U.S. interpretation of this provision.  A deal was struck in the past to allow the U.S. to give very limited visas that kept visitors within 15 miles of UN Headquarters.

In any event, the U.N. has battled with the U.S. several times in the past over the use of this clause to deny visas to the PLO, or even to close down PLO observer missions at the U.N.  The U.N. even sought arbitration (as provided by the Headquarters Agreement) as well as an advisory opinion from the ICJ when the US went after the PLO back in the late 1980s.

Does this mean the U.S. cannot deny the visa? I think under domestic U.S. law, there is certainly a plausible basis for denial given Abutalebi’s past connections and U.S. practice in this area.  But the U.N. would be well within its rights to claim a violation of the Headquarters Agreement and to demand an arbitration that it would have a good chance of winning.   I don’t get why the U.S. wants to pick this fight at this time. I’d prefer it hang tough on its demand that Iran eliminate its nuclear weapons program rather than deny a visa over actions taken by a guy 35 years ago.  But it looks like we are going to have this fight, so stay tuned.

Should the U.S. Use “Lawfare” Against Russia?

by Julian Ku

Back in 2007, Messrs David Rivkin and Lee Casey’s Wall Street Journal op-ed helped popularize the term “lawfare” among U.S. conservatives, who have used the term to decry legal tactics that challenged US policy in the war on terrorism.   As they defined it then:

The term “lawfare” describes the growing use of international law claims, usually factually or legally meritless, as a tool of war. The goal is to gain a moral advantage over your enemy in the court of world opinion, and potentially a legal advantage in national and international tribunals.

So it is somewhat surprising that the duo, both very influential commentators among U.S. conservatives, is advocating a lawfareish approach to combatting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its threats against Ukraine. Here is some of their advice in today’s WSJ.

As a start, the Obama administration should seek a U.N. General Assembly resolution requesting the International Court of Justice’s opinion on the legality of the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The U.S. and its allies should also challenge the legality of Russia’s actions in every conceivable legal venue, whether domestic or international.

Nongovernmental organizations, which cast themselves as guardians of the international order, have a role to play in condemning and challenging in courts of law and in public opinion Russia’s actions against Ukraine

In other words, the authors want to use “lawfare” against Russia.  I agree that the US has good legal arguments against Russia on this issue, and that the US also had good (but not unassailable) legal arguments for its war on terrorism policies. But I don’t think that the US invocation of international law, nor its employment of “lawfare” to highlight international law, will be very successful against Russia.  Lawfare’s main impact against the U.S. was to tie up many of its policies in domestic U.S. litigation. I don’t see that as an avenue against Russia.

Moreover, the employment of lawfareish pressure tactics could easily be used as an excuse to avoid taking more strenuous or effective actions (e.g. tougher sanctions, increased military aid, etc.).  I am not sure US conservatives should be eager to jump on this lawfare bandwagon, no matter how good the cause.

Could Moreno-Ocampo Represent LRA Victims at the ICC?

by Kevin Jon Heller

John Louth at OUP passes along the latest potential twist in Moreno-Ocampo’s career path:

The former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Mr Luis Moreno Ocampo, has offered to represent the victims of Barlonyo Massacre in the court.Barlonyo village in Agweng Sub-county, Lira District is where more than 400 people were massacred by suspected Lord’s Resistance Army rebels on February 21, 2004. A total of 301 people are buried at the memorial site in a mass grave.

However, more people are believed to have been killed in the attack as 11,000 people were in the camp at the time. “I have something to offer you, I want to be your lawyer,” Mr Ocampo told the survivors who gathered at Barlonyo to welcome him on Friday.

He then asked those in the crowd who lost relatives in Barlonyo massacre to raise their hands and all did. He then offered to represent them in court. Mr Ocampo said initially, it was thought only 200 were killed in Barlonyo but now he knows more people were killed.

“We can document that. The killing, abduction and the looting and we can present this to the ICC. We can request to expand the arrest warrant, the number of victims and the number of crimes and document well what happened here,” he said.

“We can present this to the ICC we can request to expand the arrest warrant we can expand the number of victims and number of crimes.” Mr Ocampo was invited to Lango region by Children of Peace, an NGO supporting the vulnerable and victims of the Barlonyo in Lira District

I have no idea whether Moreno-Ocampo actually intends to represent Barlonyo victims at the ICC, but it’s worth thinking about some of the potential ethical issues that such representation would involve. Like all counsel who are involved with the Court, Moreno-Ocampo would be subject to the Code of Professional Conduct for Counsel. The most relevant provision is Art. 12, “Impediments to representation”:

1. Counsel shall not represent a client in a case:

(a) If the case is the same as or substantially related to another case in which counsel or his or her associates represents or formerly represented another client and the interests of the client are incompatible with the interests of the former client, unless the client and the former client consent after consultation; or

(b) In which counsel was involved or was privy to confidential information as a staff member of the Court relating to the case in which counsel seeks to appear. The lifting of this impediment may, however, at counsel’s request, be ordered by the Court if deemed justified in the interests of justice. Counsel shall still be bound by the duties of confidentiality stemming from his or her former position as a staff member of the Court.

I don’t think Art. 12(1)(a) would apply, because the OTP doesn’t have “clients” in the sense of private counsel — especially given that the victims of crimes have their own counsel, making clear that they are not represented by the OTP. But it would be interesting to see the OTP’s position, because it could at least plausibly argue that the provision would require Moreno-Ocampo to get its permission to represent the Barlonyo victims. There is no question that the Barlonyo case is “substantially related” to Moreno-Ocampo’s previous work on the LRA cases; after all, the OTP pursued those cases on his watch and Moreno-Ocampo was responsible for opening the Uganda investigation in the first place. And although the interests of the OTP and the victims often align, that is certainly not necessarily the case — see, e.g., the Lubanga controversy over sexual violence. So I could see Bensouda worrying that Moreno-Ocampo might pursue a strategy for the Barlonyo victims that was inconsistent with his previous work on the LRA cases.

Which leads to Art. 12(1)(b), the confidentiality provision. That provision could easily be fatal to Moreno-Ocampo’s potential representation of the Barlonyo victims, even if the OTP didn’t oppose it. No former member of the OTP could have had greater access to confidential information than Moreno-Ocampo; after all, he was the Prosecutor for eight years. Could he represent the victims without in any way revealing or relying on confidential information he had access to while he was the Prosecutor? I’m willing to give Moreno-Ocampo the benefit of the doubt that he would take his confidentiality obligation seriously, but I’m skeptical that he — or anyone in a similar position — could maintain the mental “Chinese wall” necessary to avoid information bleed. So I could very easily see the Court deciding that it would not be in the “interests of justice” — or in the interests of the victims themselves — to permit Moreno-Ocamo to represent the Barlonyo victims given his previous role in the Court.

I have no problem with Moreno-Ocampo using his clout and visibility to promote the interests of the Barlonyo victims. But I’m not sure whether he should actually represent them at the ICC. In my view, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Moreno-Ocampo to navigate the exceptionally complicated confidentiality issues that would be involved in working on behalf of victims in a situation he was once responsible for investigating. We’ll see what happens.

Did the U.S. Infiltration of Chinese Company Huawei Violate International Law?

by Julian Ku

Just in time for Michelle Obama’s speech in Beijing extolling the benefits of free speech and a President Obama/President Xi summit, the NY Times published an article detailing how the U.S National Security Agency infiltrated the systems of Chinese telecom infrastructure giant Huawei.  According to documents the Times obtained from the Edward Snowden leak, the NSA “obtained information about the workings of the giant routers and complex digital switches that Huawei boasts connect a third of the world’s population, and monitored communications of the company’s top executives.”

From a legal perspective, there is no doubt that this is a violation of Chinese laws and an example of how the U.S. government is doing what it is alleging the Chinese government is doing to U.S. companies. There also seems little doubt that this action is clearly legal under U.S. laws, as the U.S. government has broad and largely unchecked authority to conduct surveillance of foreign nationals in foreign countries.  But is the action illegal under any international laws?

I am doubtful that such snooping could violate any international right to privacy, even if such a right existed.  The ICCPR might provide such a right, but it may or may not apply extraterritorially, and even if it did, it probably doesn’t restrict this kind of activity.

This essay in the Global Times, a hawkish Chinese-state-affiliated newspaper, suggests that such activity could also constitute an attack for the purposes of the law of war.  The author, a U.S.-based writer, argues that “launching attacks under another nation’s flag has long been seen as illegal under both codified law and international custom. In such a case, Chinese nationals would face financial and possibly physical risk, especially if US involvement remained undetected.”

I think this would be a stretch under the laws of war. Is snooping around in Huawei’s servers an “act of violence” within the meaning of the Geneva Convention? I don’t think walking into Huawei’s offices and ruffling through their papers is an act of violence. Taking down their servers, or planting viruses to disable those servers or related activities might be an act of violence, but even that seems a bit of  stretch under current international laws.

So the U.S. may have spied, but it cannot be said to have “attacked” China, in its reported Huawei infiltration.  As a matter of international law, the reported actions appear to be legal, even if they were unwise or hypocritical.