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Don’t Blame IHL for Attacks on “Hospital Shields”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Just Security published a very interesting post yesterday entitled “Military Attacks on ‘Hospital Shields’: The Law Itself is Partly to Blame,” which seeks to explain why deliberate attacks on hospitals are becoming increasingly common — in Syria, in Yemen, and elsewhere. The authors acknowledge that deliberate attacks on hospitals are almost always unlawful under IHL, because they violate the principle of distinction. But they nevertheless insist that “[t]he tragic irony is that international humanitarian law itself offers the legal toolkit for these regimes to justify the bombing of hospitals.”

The argument is provocative, but it is also misguided. And the authors’ solution is, I think, worse than the problem.

Let’s take a look at the how the authors believe IHL itself helps justify the bombing of hospitals. They cite two interrelated rules. Here is the first:

First, the logic of the human shields clauses can, it seems, quite easily be transferred to medical facilities. International law prohibits the use of civilians as human shields to protect military targets, but it also permits the attacking forces to kill human shields as long as they abide by the principle of proportionality. In this instance, then, international law ceases to protect civilians and actually becomes a weapon of the strong, protecting those who kill non-combatants. By extension, if hospitals are used as shields, they too can be bombed provided the principle of proportionality is not breached.

This argument is absolutely correct. Yes, human shields can be killed as long as they are not directly targeted and as long as an attack on the legitimate military objective they are shielding does not kill them disproportionately. And yes, the same goes for civilians objects, including hospitals, that are being used to shield military targets. But it is not clear what is problematic about either of those IHL rules, which are straightforward expressions of distinction and proportionality — unless you think that combatants should be able to render themselves completely immune from attack by hiding in hospitals. (Which is precisely what the authors think, as discussed below.) You don’t have to be soft on the military to suggest that combatants should not be able to use the protection IHL offers hospitals to gain a military advantage over their enemy.

Moreover, the authors fail to note that even though IHL permits “hospital shields” to be attacked, it imposes significant restrictions on such attacks. Most importantly, Art.19 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that hospitals being misused lose their protection against attack “only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit and after such warning has remained unheeded.” Assuming that the attacking military complies with Art. 19 (and it is hardly IHL’s fault if it doesn’t), no hospital will be attacked that has not had an opportunity to expel the military objective it is shielding. IHL thus puts so much emphasis on protecting hospitals that it would rather require an attacker to let the enemy escape unharmed rather than apply the normal targeting regime of distinction and proportionality.

A similar problem undermines the authors’ argument concerning the second rule:

Second, international law affirms that the protection to which hospitals are entitled is revoked when they are “used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy.” This extremely vague formulation lends itself to those who target hospitals. Unlike IHL clauses prohibiting torture, which are absolute, applying at all times and in all circumstances, the articles relating to the bombardment of hospitals are conditional. Therefore, in certain “exceptional” situations medical facilities do lose their protected status.

This argument is vastly overstated. Is the “acts harmful to the enemy” formulation “extremely vague”? Sometimes, perhaps. But certainly not always. Art. 19 makes clear, for example, that “[t]he fact that sick or wounded members of the armed forces are nursed in these hospitals, or the presence of small arms and ammunition taken from such combatants and not yet been handed to the proper service, shall not be considered to be acts harmful to the enemy.” IHL can thus hardly be blamed when a military justifies attacking a hospital by claiming that the hospital was treating enemy soldiers. (A claim made by Afghanistan regarding the MSF hospital in Kunduz.)  Any such attack categorically violates IHL.

There is also widespread agreement about what kinds of acts do qualify as “acts harmful to the enemy.”  The ICRC’s commentary to Art. 21 of the First Geneva Convention is typical:

Such harmful acts would, for example, include the use of a hospital as a shelter for able-bodied combatants or fugitives, as an arms or ammunition dump, or as a military observation post; another instance would be the deliberate siting of a medical unit in a position where it would impede an enemy attack.

It is possible to criticise this understanding of harmful acts as being overbroad and in need of revision. I, for one, have a problem with the idea that a hospital can be attacked simply because combatants are using it as “an arms or ammunition dump.” Given the importance IHL puts on protecting medical units, that doesn’t strike me as enough to justify a hospital forfeiting its protected status. I might even be convinced that the mere presence of unwounded combatants in a hospital shouldn’t justify a deliberate attack.

But the authors are not arguing for a tightening of the rules that govern when hospitals can be deliberately attacked. No: because they believe it is too easy for an attacker to claim that a hospital is shielding a military objective (permitting attack after a warning), they want a categorical rule that prohibits attacking hospitals no matter how they are being used:

The only way to overcome this travesty is if IHL clauses pertaining to the protection of hospitals are reformulated in a way that categorically prohibits the use of lethal force against them. Currently, IHL provides the necessary protections for hospitals, and all that is really needed is to erase the clauses stipulating exceptions since these in essence hand out militaries a license to bomb medical facilities.

In other words, the authors believe that a hospital should be immune from attack even when combatants are using it to attack the enemy. What the attacked forces are supposed to do in such a situation, the authors never explain. Apparently, they are simply supposed to either tolerate casualties or somehow avoid coming within the hospital’s field of fire. (Which may well be impossible, depending on the kinds of weapons the holed-up combatants possess.)

That will never happen, of course. Not even the most professional military will tolerate being fired upon from a civilian hospital — or at least it won’t tolerate it indefinitely, which is what the authors expect. IHL recognises this basic reality of combat, which is why it attempts to strike a balance between humanitarian concerns and military necessity by permitting a hospital that is being used as a shield to be deliberately attacked, but requiring a warning and a reasonable time to comply.

As with the definition of “acts harmful to the enemy,” it is possible to quibble with the procedural requirements for attacking a hospital that is being used as a shield. Perhaps IHL should avoid using a mushy “reasonableness” test for the length of the warning a military must give before attacking a hospital, imposing a minimum amount of time instead. I’d be open to that. But again: the authors are not trying to strike an appropriate balance between humanity and necessity. They simply want a categorical ban on attacking hospitals — even those that are genuinely being used to shield military objectives.

I understand (and am sympathetic to) the reasoning behind the authors’ position. They don’t want innocent civilians, especially medical personnel and the wounded, to pay the price for the actions of combatants who have no respect for IHL. Hospitals don’t choose to be misused by combatants, and there will almost certainly be situations where combatants simply refuse to leave a hospital that has been warned of an impending attack. So hospitals may well find themselves in an impossible situation: subject to attack because their premises are being misused, but unable to do anything about it.

The answer, however, is not to categorically prohibit attacking hospitals. As noted, militaries would never comply with such a prohibition. And, of course, such a prohibition would ensure that combatants who don’t respect IHL will use hospitals as a shield as often as possible. The authors begrudgingly acknowledge that possibility, writing that “[s]ome might argue that such norms will produce the perverse incentive among certain belligerents to use hospitals as shields.” But that is a serious understatement. Some might argue? What IHL scholar wouldn’t? Why would a military that doesn’t respect IHL not use a well-placed hospital as a shield if doing so renders its forces absolutely immune from attack?

The authors are correct that anything short of a categorical prohibition on attacking hospitals will leave open the possibility of militaries inventing facts to justify attacks. That is the nature of IHL rules that are not categorical — and a reflection of the fact that IHL is neither purely humanitarian nor purely war-enabling. The authors’ solution, however, is worse than the problem. A categorical prohibition will not prevent IHL from being misused; it will simply ensure that IHL is ignored — resulting in far more “incidental” deaths than under the current IHL rules. The better solution (absent a tightening of the rules as discussed above) is to searchingly examine the legitimacy of each and every attack on a hospital and hold militaries to account when they use the concept of the “hospital shield” to justify an unlawful attack.

And that, of course, is exactly what IHL requires.

New (And Better) Eligibility Rules for the Lieber Prize

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last year, I criticised ASIL for limiting its very prestigious Lieber Prize to academics under 35. I described that limit as “ageist,” noting that in today’s academic world there are many law professors over 35 who, because they joined academia late, should rightfully be considered junior scholars. So I am delighted to note that ASIL has changed the eligibility criteria for the 2017 Lieber Prize:

Anyone may apply for the article or book prize. For those in academia or research institutions, the prize is open to those who are up to 8 years post-PhD or JD or those with up to 8 years in academic teaching or research position. Membership in the American Society of International Law is not required. Multi-authored works may be submitted if all the authors are eligible to enter the competition. Submissions from outside the United States are welcomed.

This is a much better approach to eligibility. Kudos to ASIL for the change.

Trump Advocates World War III

by Kevin Jon Heller

I know pointing out stupid things Donald Trump says is a fool’s errand — pretty much everything Donald Trump says is stupid. (Note to non-hack conservative friends: I genuinely feel sorry for you.) But I’m struck by how little attention pundits have paid to this gem:

I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.Because you look at some of these countries, you look at North Korea, we’re doing nothing there. China should solve that problem for us. China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.

There are, shall we say, a couple of problems with this suggestion. First, Trump is openly advocating China invading North Korea without provocation. You don’t have to be a Kim Jong-un apologist to suggest that international law might look rather unkindly at that. Second, although China is no doubt “totally powerful” compared to North Korea, North Korea has something of an equalizer — nuclear weapons. (The topic Trump had been asked to discuss.) Does anyone doubt that Kim Jong-un would use them against China if, as Trump wants, China tried to wipe North Korea off the face of the earth?

PS: I’m being good and not pointing out that Trump was openly advocating genocide…

What’s the Right Comity Tool in Vitamin C?

by William S. Dodge

[William S. Dodge is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law at the UC Davis School of Law, where he specializes in international law, international transactions, and international dispute resolution.]

American law has many doctrines based on international comity—doctrines that help mediate the relationship between the U.S. legal system and those of other nations. The Second Circuit’s decision last week in the Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation case correctly identified an international comity issue. But did it choose the right comity tool to address that issue?

Plaintiffs alleged that defendants, two Chinese companies, participated in a cartel to fix the price of vitamin C exported to the United States in violation of U.S. antitrust law. Defendants did not deny the allegations, but argued that Chinese law required them to coordinate export prices. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce backed the defendants in an amicus brief explaining Chinese law. The district court, however, declined to defer to the Ministry’s interpretation of Chinese law, awarding the plaintiffs $147 million in damages and permanently enjoining the defendants from further violations of U.S. antitrust laws.

On appeal, defendants argued that the district court should have dismissed on grounds of foreign state compulsion, international comity, act of state, and political question. While the political question doctrine rests on separation of powers, the other three grounds are all doctrines of prescriptive comity. As I have explained in a recent article, American law is full of international comity doctrines, each with its own specific requirements.

To avoid confusion, it is worth noting at the outset that although the Second Circuit repeatedly framed the question as whether the district court should “abstain from exercising jurisdiction,” Vitamin C was clearly not an international comity abstention case. International comity abstention is a doctrine of adjudicative comity, or deference to foreign courts. The Second Circuit has held that it is available only if parallel proceedings are pending in a foreign court. See Royal & Sun Alliance Ins. Co. of Canada v. Century Intern. Arms, Inc., 466 F.3d 88, 93-94 (2d Cir. 2006). The same is true in most other circuits that have adopted the doctrine (the cases are collected here at pp. 2112-14). The main exception is the Ninth Circuit, whose decision in Mujica v. Airscan Inc., 771 F.3d 580 (9th Cir. 2014), applied a broad and uncertain comity abstention doctrine that conflicts with its own precedents, those of other circuits, and even the Supreme Court’s. Because no parallel antitrust claims against these defendants were pending in Chinese courts, international comity abstention would not have been an appropriate ground on which to dismiss this case.

Instead, the Second Circuit properly viewed the Vitamin C case as raising questions of prescriptive comity—deference to foreign lawmakers—which U.S. law has developed a number of different doctrines to address (for discussion see here at pp. 2099-2105). The court relied particularly on an interest-balancing, comity doctrine commonly associated with Timberlane Lumber Co. v. Bank of America, 549 F.2d 597 (9th Cir. 1976), Mannington Mills, Inc. v. Congoleum Corp., 595 F.2d 1287 (3d Cir. 1979), and Section 403 of the Restatement (Third) of Foreign Relations Law. In the court’s view, this doctrine authorized it to “balance the interests in adjudicating antitrust violations alleged to have harmed those within our jurisdiction with the official acts and interests of a foreign sovereign in respect to economic regulation within its borders” (slip op. at 4). The idea that U.S. courts are institutionally capable of balancing the interests of foreign governments against our own has the subject of significant criticism over the past three decades.

Moreover, it is hard to see how this particular prescriptive comity doctrine survives the Supreme Court’s later decisions in Hartford Fire Insurance Co. v. California, 509 U.S. 764 (1993), and F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. v. Empagran, S.A., 542 U.S. 155 (2004), both of which declined to apply a multi-factor balancing approach in antitrust cases. The Second Circuit read Hartford “narrowly” (slip op. at 20) not to preclude such an approach, particularly when compliance with both U.S. and foreign law was impossible. But the Second Circuit did not even mention Empagran, which expressly rejected case-by-case balancing as “too complex to prove workable.” Empagran recognized that ambiguous statutes should be construed “to avoid unreasonable interference with the sovereign authority of other nations,” but it also said in no uncertain terms that “application of our antitrust laws to foreign anticompetitive conduct is nonetheless reasonable, and hence consistent with principles of prescriptive comity, insofar as they reflect a legislative effort to redress domestic antitrust injury that foreign anticompetitive conduct has caused.” Plaintiffs unquestionably alleged domestic antitrust injury in Vitamin C, making the application of U.S. law reasonable and consistent with prescriptive comity, at least has the Supreme Court has understood these concepts in the antitrust context.

The act of state doctrine is a separate and distinct manifestation of international comity, requiring that the acts of foreign sovereigns performed within their own territories be deemed valid. But the Supreme Court has made clear that the act of state doctrine applies only when a U.S. court must “declare invalid, and thus ineffective as ‘a rule of decision for the courts of this country,’ the official act of a foreign sovereign.” W.S. Kirkpatrick & Co. v. Environmental Tectonics Corp., International, 493 U.S. 400, 405 (1990). To find that the defendants fixed the price of vitamin C, the district court did not have to find any part of Chinese law invalid or even to evaluate the conduct of the Chinese government. It only had to find that Chinese law did not immunize the defendants’ own conduct from liability under U.S. law.

The best fitting tool to address the prescriptive comity issue in Vitamin C would seem to be the doctrine of foreign state compulsion (also known as foreign sovereign compulsion), which sometimes allows a U.S. court to excuse violations of U.S. law on the ground that the violations were compelled by foreign law. That is precisely what defendants had argued in this case. Although the exact contours of this doctrine are uncertain, the U.S. government has recognized it as a defense in antitrust cases. See Antitrust Enforcement Guidelines for International Operations ¶ 3.32 (1995). China represented that its law compelled the defendants to coordinate export prices for vitamin C, and the Second Circuit considered itself bound by China’s interpretation of its own laws (slip op. at 30), which seems reasonable at least in these circumstances.

Unfortunately for the defendants, there are at least two potential problems with foreign state compulsion in this case. First, it appears that defendants may have asked the Chinese government to mandate their price fixing. See slip op. at 36-37. At least some authority suggests that a defendant wishing to claim foreign state compulsion as a defense must try in good faith to obtain relief from the compulsion from the foreign state. See, e.g., Societe Internationale v. Rogers, 357 U.S. 197, 208-09, 213 (1958). Second, it appears that defendants may have fixed prices at levels higher than those mandated by the Chinese government. See slip op. 38. The Second Circuit found this irrelevant to its “comity” analysis but seemed to acknowledge that such facts would preclude a foreign compulsion defense. See id.

U.S. courts have many tools at their disposal to address international comity issues. But sometimes no tool fits. “International comity” is not a universal wrench offering unlimited judicial discretion to dismiss cases that seem problematic. It is a principle underlying specific doctrines, with specific requirements, developed over many years to keep judicial discretion within bounds.

Preparing for Trumpxit: Could a President Trump Withdraw the U.S. from International Treaties and Agreements?

by Julian Ku

As we face the first U.S. presidential debate tonight (on my home campus of Hofstra University!),  the possibility of a President Trump seems more and more real.  Although U.S. election analysts all make Hillary Clinton the favorite, most of them continue to give Trump a very realistic chance of winning on November 8.  I am not a Trump supporter, but I think it would be irresponsible not to think seriously about the legal policy consequences of his election to the presidency.  In particular, candidate Trump has promised or threatened to withdraw the U.S. from numerous international treaties and agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization, NATO, the U.S.- Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and the Iran Nuclear Deal (I am sure I am missing a few more).  Unlike our friends in Britain who weren’t really planning for Brexit, I think those of us here in the U.S. should start planning, before it happens, for “Trumpxit.”

As an initial matter, we should consider to what extent a President Trump could unilaterally withdraw the U.S. from international treaties and agreements.  I notice that most commentary, including this scary piece by Eric Posner in the NYT from this past spring, assume the President has this unilateral power. But I do not think this issue is not entirely settled as a matter of U.S. constitutional law.

In the 1979 decision Goldwater v. Carter, the U.S. Supreme Court dodged the question of whether a President could unilaterally terminate the U.S.-Republic of China (Taiwan) mutual defense treaty without consulting or getting the approval of the U.S. Senate by invoking the political question doctrine and (in a concurrence) the judicial ripeness doctrine.  No U.S. court has, as far as I am aware, reached the merits of this question.  I think scholars are somewhat divided, and historical practice is mixed.

President George W. Bush did set a precedent in favor of presidentialism, however, by withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 without getting the approval of the Senate and President Carter did likewise in the 1979 Taiwan defense treaty.    It seems likely that the president does have unilateral authority to withdraw the U.S. from treaties which specify terms for withdrawal and which don’t require further alterations or changes to domestic U.S. law.

Defense Treaties/Military Alliances

This suggests that a President Trump could terminate NATO and the US-Japan Defense Treaty pursuant to those treaties’ withdrawal provisions.  Interestingly, the NATO Treaty Article 13 specifies that “Any Party” can terminate their membership with one year’s notice.  That notice must be sent to the U.S. Government. So I guess a President Trump could give himself a one year’s notice?

Because the issue has not been settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, another Goldwater v. Carter type lawsuit could be brought.  It seems less likely that such a case would be dismissed on political question grounds given recent Supreme Court jurisprudence, but I think the smart money would be on a President Trump prevailing on the merits on a challenge to a presidential NATO or US-Japan Defense Treaty termination.

Nonbinding/Sole Executive Agreements

On the other end of the spectrum, I think there is no legal problem with a President Trump  unilaterally withdrawing from the Paris Agreement or the  JCPOA (aka the Iran Nuclear Deal).  As I have argued in the past (here and here), both agreements are likely to be “nonbinding” political agreements, and can be terminated at the new President’s sole discretion.   This would be true, even if the agreements were treated as binding international agreements, since both agreements have withdrawal provisions.  Since the Senate or Congress never approved either agreement, there is no need to ask them for approval to terminate it either.

Trade Agreements 

The hardest question here has to do with trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO.  Most commentary, including this paper by Gary Hufbauer, have assumed a President Trump could unilaterally terminate all trade agreements (see some dissenting views from Rob Howse here).  Unlike the Paris agreement or the JCPOA, these are unquestionably binding agreements that are approved by Congress.  But unlike a traditional arms control treaty like NATO, withdrawing from NAFTA or the WTO could require some meaningful changes to U.S. domestic law.  Moreover, unlike a traditional treaty, the President engages in trade agreement negotiations under the “trade promotion” authority enacted by Congress prior to the conclusion of any trade agreement.  In other words, the President could be understood to be negotiating pursuant to a delegated congressional power as opposed to under his inherent constitutional powers.

For instance, in the most recent version of the “fast track” enacted by Congress to allow President Obama to finalize the TPP, Section 103(b) states:

“[w]henever the President determines that one or more existing duties or other import restrictions of any foreign country or the United States are unduly burdening and restricting the foreign trade of the United States and that the purposes, policies, priorities, and objectives of this title will be promoted thereby, the President

(A) may enter into trade agreements with foreign countries before— (i) July 1, 2018…

(Emphasis added).  This language means that there is at least a colorable argument in favor of requiring a President Trump to seek congressional approval before withdrawing from a trade agreement like NAFTA or the WTO.  To be sure, both trade agreements have specific withdrawal provisions similar to those found in the NATO treaty. But the fact that the president is acting pursuant to his congressional authorized “trade promotion authority” suggests that Congress did not necessarily delegate the power of termination to the President alone.

Moreover, the implementing legislation for some trade agreements further suggests Congress has reserved some residual “termination” power.  In Section 125 of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, for instance, Congress may terminate U.S. participation in the WTO with a joint resolution of both Houses.  This does not necessarily mean the U.S. is automatically out, but since the President can’t (under the terms of the law) join the WTO until Congress approves, presumably withdrawing that approval terminates U.S. participation.  It is all somewhat uncertain, but again, I think there is colorable argument that a President Trump could not unilaterally withdraw the U.S. from the WTO,  NAFTA and other trade agreements.


None of this may matter, of course, if we get a President Clinton instead.  But as the possibility of a President Trump gets closer to reality, we need to start thinking about the legal authority he would have to fulfill his campaign promises, and the limits (if any) on that authority,


Iran’s Nuclear Program and International Law: From Confrontation to Accord

by Dan Joyner

[Dan Joyner is Professor of Law and Director of International Programs at the University of Alabama School of Law.]

In July 2015 a historic diplomatic accord was reached among Iran, the E.U., and the P5+1 states (the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China).  The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the accord was titled, consisted of 159 total pages of agreed text, addressing all of the issues that had been in dispute among the parties concerning Iran’s nuclear program for thirteen years –a dispute which had at times appeared likely to precipitate military conflict. I summarized the JCPOA in a blog post here at Opinio Juris at the time of its adoption.

My newly published book, Iran’s Nuclear Program and International Law: From Confrontation to Accord, provides an in-depth examination of the legal and diplomatic history that form the context for the JCPOA’s agreement, and sets out to describe and to answer the most important legal questions that were in dispute among the JCPOA’s parties.  The aim of the book is to clarify how the relevant sources of international law – including primarily the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the law of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – should be properly interpreted and applied to these questions.

In this post I’ll give a very brief summary of the questions the book addresses, and of my analysis and conclusions concerning them.

The first question addressed in the book is whether Iran has at any time in the history of its pursuance of a nuclear program violated the terms of the NPT.  Iran is, of course, a non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT, and is therefore prohibited from inter alia the manufacture or other acquisition of a nuclear explosive device.

It has been long argued by Iran’s detractors in the West, and in December 2015 it was confirmed in a report by the IAEA, that through the decade of the 1990’s and essentially ending in 2003, Iran did pursue a nuclear weapon research and development program separate from its civilian nuclear program.  However, in the words of the IAEA report: “these activities did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities.” In other words, Iran did develop some understanding and technical capabilities that it would need were it to decide to build a nuclear weapon, but it did not ever actually construct a nuclear explosive device.  On the basis of these facts concerning Iran’s weaponization research program, I conclude that Iran did not at any time manufacture or otherwise acquire a nuclear explosive device, and that therefore Iran did not violate the NPT.

The second question addressed is whether Iran was in violation of its IAEA safeguards treaty obligations in 2003, when international scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program began following the revelation that Iran had clandestinely begun construction on two nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak.  After a review of Iran’s safeguards obligations pursuant to its bilateral safeguards treaty with the IAEA, as well as the subsidiary arrangements agreed between Iran and the IAEA in implementation of the treaty, I conclude that the vari­ous failures by Iran to declare the existence and location of nuclear materials prior to 2003, and Iran’s several failures to declare experiments con­ducted using those nuclear materials, did constitute a violation by Iran of its safeguards treaty obligations.

I further conclude, however, that this internationally wrongful act by Iran was remedied through effective reparation in cooperation with the IAEA between 2003 and 2008, culminating in IAEA Director General ElBaradei’s February 22, 2008, report to the IAEA Board of Governors, in which he assessed that all declared nuclear material in Iran was in peaceful use, and that all prior concerns the IAEA had registered involving nuclear materials and related facilities in Iran had been resolved through dia­logue with Iranian authorities.

The third question addressed is whether Iran was, as Western states led by the United States claimed, in continuing violation of its safeguards treaty obligations in the several years leading up to the conclusion of the JCPOA in July 2015.  And further, whether during this time period the IAEA employed correct legal standards in assessing Iran’s compliance with its safeguards obligations.

I conclude that, according to the correct legal standards, contained in Iran’s safeguards agreement, from 2008 to 2015 Iran was in fact in full compliance with its safeguards treaty obligations.  This is the case even though during this period the IAEA made numerous allegations and findings concerning the possible existence of undeclared nuclear materials within Iran.  To be clear, the IAEA did not find any undeclared nuclear materials in Iran during this time, it only asserted its inability to determine satisfactorily that such materials did not exist.

I argue that throughout this period, the IAEA applied incorrect legal standards of investigation and assessment to Iran’s case.  Standards that were derived from erroneous legal interpretations of Iran’s safeguards treaty obligations.  I argue that due to the application of these incorrect standards, the IAEA during this time reached erroneous conclusions regarding Iran’s compliance with its safeguards agreement, and improperly withheld its determination that Iran was in fact in compliance with its safeguards obligations.  The IAEA’s withholding of its determination of Iran’s compliance had a significant influence on the diplomatic and security crisis surrounding the issue during this period, as states and the U.N. Security Council relied upon the IAEA’s technical determinations of Iran’s compliance.  This third set of questions is addressed in Chapter 5 of the book, which is publicly accessible here on my SSRN page.

The fourth question addressed is whether and to what extent the decisions of the United Nations Security Council on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program should be understood to impact on the analysis of the previous three questions.  After reviewing the Security Council’s decisions on Iran from 2002 through July 2015, I conclude that those decisions neither added to Iran’s safeguards-related obligations, nor enhanced the legal authority of the IAEA to investigate and assess Iran’s compliance with its safeguards obligations.  In Resolutions 1696 and 1737, both adopted in 2006, the Security Council did command Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program.  Iran did not suspend its uranium enrichment program after the adoption of those decisions, and as such Iran can be at least prima facie considered to have been in noncompliance with those decisions of the Security Council, up until those resolutions of the Council were themselves terminated on JCPOA Implementation Day (January 16, 2016).  I do however argue that the legal validity of this specific command of the Security Council is doubtful.  I base this argument on the conflict between, on the one hand, the obligation of all U.N. member states pursuant to Article 25 of the U.N. Charter to “accept and carry out” the decisions of the Security Council, and on the other hand Iran’s “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear energy as expressed in Article IV of the NPT.

The final chapter of the book provides a detailed explanation and consideration of the JCPOA itself. Essentially, Chapter 7 of the book (also publicly accessible here on my SSRN page) is a full chapter-length review and analysis of the legal implications of the JCPOA, on issues including Iran’s safeguards obligations, and the economic sanctions levied against Iran by the U.N. Security Council and by the U.S. and E.U. acting unilaterally.

The book thus follows the Iran case study through the period of confrontation between Iran and the West from 2002 through July 2015, setting this confrontation in its historical and diplomatic context, and examining key international legal questions that were raised during this period, and which played a significant role in the diplomatic crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.  It then explains the historic diplomatic accord which was painstakingly negotiated to resolve these various legal questions, and to bring the parties together on an agreed plan of action for building confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, and for the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran.

The implementation of the JCPOA continues to the present to be controversial. Political forces within Iran opposed to the relatively moderate regime of President Rouhani are tapping into popular sentiment among Iranians, to the effect that the economic benefits of the nuclear deal have been too small and too slow in coming.  They argue that the West has not lived up to its commitments to meaningfully lift international economic sanctions on Iran.

In the U.S. as well, there are influential political forces arguing that the JCPOA gave Iran too much in the way of economic concessions, in return for relatively minor nonproliferation commitments that will mostly expire within ten years.  They are quick to jump on any perceived noncompliance by Iran with its technical commitments under the JCPOA – even though the IAEA itself has repeatedly determined that Iran has abided by its JCPOA commitments.

These domestic political movements, both in Iran and in the U.S., threaten to frustrate and ultimately to marginalize the JCPOA, and bring the world back to a state of active confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program. With the U.S. presidential election in November of this year and Iranian presidential elections in May of 2017, the question of the future of the JCPOA and the diplomatic path to resolution of the Iran nuclear dispute remain very much in question.

Weekly News Wrap: Monday, September 26, 2016

by Jessica Dorsey

Here’s your weekly selection of international law and international relations headlines from around the world:


Middle East and Northern Africa






Re-Engaging on an ISIL AUMF

by Deborah Pearlstein

In the past few weeks, Jack Goldsmith and Matt Waxman on the one hand, and Marty Lederman on the other, have restarted a discussion about the significance of Congress’ ongoing failure to enact legislation expressly authorizing the United States’ expansive use of force against ISIL in Iraq, Syria, and now in Libya. In a piece for Time Magazine, Jack and Matt faulted the Obama Administration for failing to “return to the Congress and the American People and insist on a new authorization for this new war.” They argued that the Administration “took away every political incentive that the responsibility-shy Congress might have to debate and authorize the war” by advancing the dubious notion that the existing 2001 statute (the AUMF) (authorizing force against Al Qaeda and its associates) affords the President sufficient authority to attack ISIL as well. Responding at Just Security, Marty quite agrees (as do I) it would be better if Congress had enacted (or would enact) an ISIL-specific use of force. But Marty is skeptical there was much more President Obama could have done to secure congressional action, and also questions whether Congress’ failure to enact new authority really sets as worrisome a precedent for democratic governance or executive power as Jack and Matt think.

Jack and Matt are right to point out that Obama’s legal reliance on the 2001 AUMF to justify the use of force against in Iraq, Syria and Libya is more than a little suspect. (I’ve written previously about why I think so, e.g., here.) Marty is right to doubt whether blame for Congress’ failure to act on ISIL can fairly be placed, as Jack and Matt seem to suggest, at Obama’s doorstep. But there is plenty more to the story I think both pieces miss. (more…)

Haiti Cholera Update

by Kristen Boon

Today, on the opening of the GA, and in his final such speech as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon indicated that a compensation package for victims of Cholera is forthcoming. Speaking in French (original here), he expressed regret over the recent peacekeeper sexual abuse scandals and the Cholera epidemic in Haiti, and promised a package of assistance and support for better sanitation and water systems to victims would be forthcoming.

His speech confirms a significant and welcome shift in the UN’s approach to the cholera epidemic in Haiti. Since the outbreak in 2010, the UN steadfastly denied the assertion that a causal connection existed between the cholera outbreak and a UN peacekeeper base wherein blackwater was funneled into one of the main tributaries in Haiti.  The UN also rejected claims for compensation by victims and their families stating, in a now infamous letter, that the claims were “not receivable” under the UN Convention on Privileges and Immunities. For my full assessment of the Cholera Claims and the UN’s response to this and other recent mass torts claims, see my recent article in the Chicago Journal of International Law here.

The first signs of a change in the UN’s approach came about in August, when Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq said in an email quoted in the New York Times that “over the past year, the U.N. has become convinced that it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera.” The Times reported he also stated that a “new response will be presented publicly within the next two months, once it has been fully elaborated, agreed with the Haitian authorities and discussed with member states.”

Significantly, this communication was released days before a widely anticipated appeals decision  was  handed down by the Second Circuit.  In this decision, the judges rejected the claimants appeal for compensation from the UN, relying on principles of contract interpretation to uphold the key finding that the “UN’s fulfillment of its Section 29 obligation is not a condition precedent to its Section 2 immunity” under the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the UN.

There are several factors that might explain the UN’s new response. One is a reputational concern.   The release of a very critical report by Phillip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights in August, concluded: “[that] a new approach is desperately needed.   The starting point is that there should be an apology and acceptance of responsibility in the name of the Secretary-General. Consideration should then be given to constructing a policy package to address the need for compensation to the victims.”  Alston’s report  provides an instructive and poignant account of how the UN has mishandled this claim, while also illustrating how complex mass claims are for the Organization, given shrinking budgets, the sui generis legal position of the UN, and the lack of internal precedents on providing transparent process and remedies.

Another reason for the UN’s reconsideration of its stance clearly involves the upcoming elections for a new UN Secretary General.  Later this fall, Ban Ki Moon will step down, and some believe that he wants to ensure his legacy is not tarred by the perception that the Haiti case was mishandled. Another theory is that it is better for the Organization to address this case within the current SG’s mandate, rather than saddling a new SG with such an albatross.

The key issue at present is what a compensation package for victims would look like.  Alston’s report urges the UN to make use of other precedents for lump sum settlements, such as the 9/11 trust fund, the USA-France agreement to compensate Holocaust victims, and the Canadian Reparations Programme for the Indian Residential School System. He further notes: “it is clear that the United Nations could make use of these various precedents in order to shape an approach to compensation as part of a broader package that would provide justice to the victims and be affordable.”

While full details of the package will be released in October, advocates are hard at work at the UN, attempting to ensure a victim centered approach prevails.  A letter sent to the UN Secretary General yesterday, for example, argues that there are four necessary components of an effective remedy:

“An effective remedy requires: (1) issuing a formal, public apology to the victims of cholera in Haiti, (2) ensuring full funding of the previously announced but largely unfunded cholera elimination plan, (3) committing to providing victims of the epidemic with material compensation in a timely fashion, and (4) implementing a transparent and participatory process.”

What seems clear at this stage is that the UN is not acknowledging any legal responsibility for the introduction of Cholera into Haiti for fear of setting precedent.   Nonetheless, there is an opportunity here for the UN to improve the process of claims settlement, to adhere to its obligation to provide a remedy for damages incurred, and to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law. Let’s hope the UN does the right thing. If it doesn’t, advocates in the Haiti Cholera litigation noted in a blast email today that they still have three months to appeal to the Supreme Court.


International Law Weekend 2016

by Chris Borgen

International Law Weekend, the annual conference of the American Branch of the International Law Association is fast approaching. See the following notice from ABILA:

International Law Weekend 2016

Registration is now open for International Law Weekend 2016.

International Law Weekend 2016 – the premiere international law event of the Fall season – will be held October 27-29, 2016, in New York City.  The Opening Panel will take place on Thursday evening at the New York City Bar Association.  The Friday and Saturday sessions will be held at Fordham Law School.

You can register for the conference here:

The unifying theme for ILW 2016 is International Law 5.0.

The world is changing at an accelerating rate. From technological advances to environmental transformations, international lawyers are forced to confront emerging forces and new scenarios. Even settled principles of law are no longer settled. These tectonic shifts have been felt throughout the geography of international law. Legal professionals at every level – local, national, regional, and international – must change their practice to meet a changing world. Innovation will become necessary for survival.

ILW 2016 will explore these issues through a collection of engaging and provocative panels. A broad array of both public international law and private international law topics will be offered.

We look forward to seeing you at ILW 2016.

By the way, as a Co-rapporteur for the ILA’s Committee on Recognition/Non-Recognition in International Law, I will be on the panel Recognition and Non-Recognition of States and Governments: Current Issues in U.S. Practice on Friday, October 28 at 4:45 pm, along with my Opinio Juris colleague Peggy McGuinness and Brad Roth, both of whom are committee members, and Wladyslaw Czaplinski, the committee’s chairperson. Here’s the panel description:

For over five years the International Law Association’s Committee on Recognition and Non-Recognition has studied how states do or do not recognize other regimes as states and governments. This panel will bring together members from the ILA Committee to discuss the findings of their reports, with a particular focus on emerging issues in U.S. practice, including responses to secessions and unilateral declarations of independence after Kosovo; the problem of two or more regimes claiming to be the government of a single state, and the U.S. domestic effects of non-recognition.
I hope to see you there!

Sixth Annual Junior Faculty Forum for International Law

by Kevin Jon Heller


Earlier today, Dino Kritsiotis (Univ. of Nottingham), Anne Orford (Univ. of Melbourne) and JHH Weiler (NYU) launched the Sixth Annual Junior Faculty Forum for International Law, which will be held at the University of Nottingham in May 2017. All details regarding the Forum procedure and process are available here:

Israel Shows Its Contempt for Academic Freedom

by Kevin Jon Heller

The headline is almost a generic one, applicable to dozens of Israeli actions. I’m using it now specifically in connection with Israel denying entrance to my SOAS colleague Dr. Adam Hanieh, who was scheduled to give a series of lectures at Birzeit University:

Dr. Hanieh, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, was deported back to London on the morning of September 13, 2016. He was held for questioning for 10 hours at Ben Gurion airport, and then taken overnight to a detention centre outside the airport. In addition to being refused entry, Dr. Hanieh was banned from entering the country for ten years.

Dr. Hanieh was scheduled to share his vast knowledge of global and Middle East political economy with students in the Ph.D. program as well as the university community in a series of lectures scheduled in the coming two weeks. Hanieh is an accomplished scholar, the author of Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East (Haymarket Books, 2013) and Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), as well as numerous academic articles.

This act of denial of entry and deportation by the Israeli state and its agencies is part of a systematic policy of denial of entry to international academics, professionals and activists intending to visit Palestine. This policy represents an attack on Palestinian academic freedom, and is routinely practiced at the two entry points, the airport in Tel Aviv and the Jordan valley crossing from Jordan.

Israel is truly the Donald Trump of repressive states — unable to tolerate any criticism that doesn’t stay within the bounds of what it considers “legitimate.” Confident states address critics. Israel prefers to harass and silence them.

Business as usual in the Middle East’s supposed great democracy. Keep Hanieh’s treatment in mind the next time Israel complains about mean BDS-ers “silencing” (ie, protesting) Israeli academics.